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Revvvvenue : Foreign Tourist Dollars Fuel Motor-Coach Industry

May 21, 1997|NANCY RIVERA BROOKS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If you're an international tourist and riding on a bus around the United States, chances are it belongs to Noel Irwin-Hentschel.

Irwin-Hentschel is chief executive of AmericanTours International, a Los Angeles company that is the nation's largest operator of motor-coach tours for foreign visitors to the United States.

This might sound like some esoteric niche, but it's not.

More international travelers visit the U.S. every year. They take longer trips than domestic travelers, and they spend more per trip.

And for AmericanTours International, that translated into $150 million worth of business last year from more than 800,000 foreign visitors.

The experience of AmericanTours International alone underscores the massive size of the tourism industry and its huge, primarily undiscovered potential for economic development, Irwin-Hentschel said.

"Tourism is the best industry for economic development and job creation that I can think of," Irwin-Hentschel said. "When the international visitor comes to Los Angeles or California, they're bringing new money in. And they spend quite a lot."

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A foreign couple touring the United States on a 14-day ATI vacation contributes about $17,500 to the U.S. economy, Irwin-Hentschel said, by spending $3,000 for the tour and $4,330 for meals, entertainment, souvenirs, gifts and tips.

ATI research has found that every $1 spent by a foreign visitor has a trickle-down effect, eventually adding $2.39 to the U.S. economy. That brings the total to $17,519, about the average price of a Ford Taurus.

"So last year we sold the equivalent of 400,000 cars overseas," Irwin-Hentschel quipped.

International visitors spend nearly $80 billion a year in the U.S., while American travelers spend a little more than $60 billion outside the United States, according to the Tourism Works for America Council, a Washington-based tourism-industry coalition that sponsored National Tourism Week earlier this month.

Irwin-Hentschel founded ATI in 1977 at the age of 24 with partner Michael Fitzpatrick, who is president of the company. In the early days, the two entrepreneurs met each tour group as it arrived at Los Angeles International Airport. They let others do that now: ATI has grown to about 500 employees and maintains regional offices in nine U.S. cities. During the peak summer season, ATI operates between 100 and 150 motor coaches each day.

(From time to time, those employees include some of Irwin-Hentschel's children. Married to developer Gordon Hentschel, she has seven children ages 5 to 19.)

ATI operates 35 motor-coach tours around the U.S and also sets up "fly-drive" tours for visitors who want to travel outside of a tour group but still want all the arrangements made for them.

Less Room at the Inn

Hotel occupancy rose 6.9% in Los Angeles during the first three months of the year but leaped nearly 14% at downtown hotels because of booming convention business.

An average 75.07% of Los Angeles hotel rooms were occupied in the first quarter, up from 70.21% in the same period last year, according to PKF Consulting, a Los Angeles firm that tracks trends in the hospitality industry. Average room rate was $97.95, up 8.8%.

At downtown hotels, occupancy averaged about 13.5%. The average room rate was $99.93, up 7.1%, at hotels with meeting space. Average room rate was $72.17, up 9%, at hotels without meeting space.

"The convention business has begun to come back in Los Angeles," said Michael C.R. Collins, executive vice president at the Los Angeles Convention & Visitors Bureau. The Los Angeles Convention Center is averaging two big conventions a month, compared with two a year before the expanded center opened in 1993.

But a shortage of hotel rooms will eventually cap the growth of business downtown, he said, unless a new hotel is built near the convention center--a shortage bemoaned for years by tourism officials.

"We have the space at the center, but no space at the inn," Collins said.

Come and Getty It

Planning to visit the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu some weekend this month? Forget it. In anticipation of the temporary closure of the museum--it will reopen in 2001--visitors have booked the required reservations for weekend visits in May. Reservations are still available for weekday and weekend visits in June, a museum spokesman said.

Nancy Rivera Brooks can be reached by e-mail at nancy.rivera.brooks@latimes.com or by fax at (213) 237-7837.

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