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Hotels Dangle More Discounts to Lure Families : Children have suddenly become the growth market for big chains. Deals abound, but be prepared to pay up front.

June 20, 1993|EILEEN OGINTZ

This is your lucky summer, parents. Hotels across America are rolling out the red carpet for you and the kids. At bargain rates, too.

Forget being embarrassed if the kids bicker in the hotel lobby. It's no problem if the baby trashes the hotel restaurant floor. Let them splash all they like in the hotel pool. The days of apologizing for traveling with sticky, messy, noisy kids is over . . . at most places, anyway.

This year, budget and upscale hoteliers alike--from Howard Johnson to Holiday Inn, to Hilton, to Marriott, to Hyatt, to even the tony Stanhope in New York and high-ditch La Costa Resort and Spa in Carlsbad--are collectively spending millions on special packages, promotions, giveaways and programs, trying to lure you and your kids to their door.

Some tout kid-friendly services, such as Hilton's "Vacation Station," where children can find a welcome gift, there's a lending desk for toys and parents can pick up information on nearby family activities (call 800-HILTONS). Others are dollars-and-cents bargains, such as Marriott's deeply discounted, advance-purchase and/or kids-eat-free deals (tel. 800-527-7777). All are designed to make you and the kids feel more at home. Some hotels even offer special check-in desks for children. (Mine loved the bright pink check-in area at the Holiday Inn Lake Buena Vista in Florida.)

"Corporate travel is down," explained Eric Pfeffer, president of the 600-hotel Howard Johnson Franchise Systems Inc. "What does a good hotelier do? Get busy in the strong market. And nothing is stronger than the family market."

Howard Johnson is spending $3.5 million this summer pushing its Kids Go HoJo campaign which includes the lending of Sega portable video games at no charge. Summer sale rates range from $29 to $69 per room, per night at most locations (tel. 800-446-4656).

Meanwhile, Embassy Suites is pushing nearly 100 different packages for families thatinclude everything from passes to Disney World in Lake Buena Vista ($1,142 for four nights), to free disposable cameras and film processing at Embassy Suites in New York City ($249 per night), to breakfast with a costumed "Shamu the Whale" in San Diego ($129 per night). (Call 800-EMBASSY for a free brochure listing package details.)

Holiday Inn Worldwide again is offering kids-under-12 eat free and all kids stay free in rooms with their parents at properties throughout North America and the Caribbean (tel. 800-465-4329).

"Everybody is out there with some twist on the family message this year," said Julie Halpern, who directs the family programs for Hyatt Hotels. Halpern noted that last summer, 15,000 children participated in her company's Camp Hyatt activities, which include a seashell hunt at Hilton Head, horseback riding in Scottsdale, Ariz., and hula lessons in Hawaii. Last year, Hyatt sold 35,000 rooms at half price for children (an option available at all Hyatts; tel. 800- 233-1234).

"The industry is finally recognizing that there's a potentially huge opportunity here and nobody wants to be left out," Halpern said.

Indeed, U.S. Travel Data Center research, commissioned by Better Homes and Gardens magazine, reveals that the family market accounts for 70%-80% of all leisure vacation travel in this country: Nearly 50 million adults traveled with at least one child in the last 12 months. And half of those surveyed said they planned to spend more this year than in 1992.

No wonder the hotel industry is courting families so hard.

"Family is definitely a priority," said Ann Clurman, of Yankelovich Partners, the Connecticut-based research firm that tracks trends. "People are trying to spend more time with their kids. What they're beginning to ask is what will really make me happy ?"

Hyatt is taking that trend to heart. New this summer is programming for the entire family with campfires on the beach in Puerto Rico, beachside cowboy sing-a-longs in Arizona and a hay wagon breakfast in Lake Tahoe. (Prices vary depending upon location.)

Even the glitzy La Costa Resort and Spa, a place usually associated with adult travel, provides a fully-supervised camp program for 5- to 13-year-olds ($25 per day, per child) that includes lunch and a range of activities from golf to swimming, to kite flying, to trips to San Diego's Sea World. Children under 5 can participate in the camp programs if accompanied by a parent or sitter.

Holiday Inn hopes to provide the same kind of experience with SunSpree Resorts--its first resort effort--aimed at the family market, with children's programs and family-size rooms (starting at about $90), complete with mini-kitchens and VCRs.

The prototype is the Holiday Inn Lake Buena Vista, which opened in 1990. Another, in Lake Placid, N.Y., will open next month and a third in Guadalupe, Mexico, will open in the fall. "The hotel industry is listening to what families want," said Alan Beychock, marketing vice president for Holiday Inn Worldwide.

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