As a spokesman for the Automobile Club of Southern California, Jeff Spring spends a good chunk of his life studying and talking about the travel business. So when the time came to plan a family reunion over the Christmas holiday, uniting about 15 Springs, spouses and (pardon me) offspring from Montana, Arizona and California, the job of prospecting fell to him. He failed, at least to begin with.
"The original plan was to go down to Cabo," recalls Spring, whose office is in Costa Mesa. "But that was prohibitive, flight-wise. Then I offered San Diego as an alternative. We started calling condos. But we couldn't find three in one place."
Then Spring's fortunes turned. He went trolling on the Internet, and soon his cursor landed on the words Residence Inn, one of many sub-brands in Marriott's lodging empire. This particular Residence Inn was on Gilman Drive in La Jolla, its marketing aimed mostly at extended-stay visitors to the nearby UC San Diego campus or Scripps Hospital La Jolla. But it seemed perfect for the Springs' purposes. Calls were made, reservations booked, auto club discounts invoked. Soon a family reunion was raging in four neighboring Residence Inn suites.
Each suite had a kitchen and separated bedrooms and living rooms. There was a swimming pool in the complex courtyard, a basketball hoop in back, free continental breakfast and evening snacks in a small room just off the very modest lobby. The beach was about two miles west, and most of San Diego's other top attractions were within half an hour's drive.
The moral here is that lodging companies are furiously building extended-stay hotels all over the country and hoping to fill them with business travelers on long assignments--but leisure travelers should be paying attention too. Those lodgings can be an excellent option for a family or a large group on a leisure trip.
Industry analysts estimate there are about 600 extended-stay hotels nationwide, with another 100 due to open before the end of the year. About seven in every 10 guests are business travelers, most paying less than $100 nightly. (Generally, the longer you stay, the less your cost per night.) Though the lodging industry is setting records for occupancy and profits, most extended-stay properties have no mandatory minimum stay, and many offer reduced rates on weekends.
The hotels usually aim for travelers staying six consecutive days or more, contain full kitchens (with utensils), and offer studio, one-bedroom and sometimes two-bedroom layouts. What they don't have are restaurants, bars, 24-hour lobby staff, or many other amenities that push up overhead costs at traditional full-service hotels.
Many extended-stay hotels, to be sure, do not make sense for a vacationer. They may be located in business-intensive neighborhoods (Silicon Valley, for instance) or suburbs with few visitor attractions nearby.
But if you don't mind a few minutes of driving to reach prime tourism areas, there are scores of extended-stay hotels in high-demand cities, and there are a handful in city centers and resort areas.
Residence Inns by Marriott (tel.  331-3131) is the 800-pound gorilla of extended-stay hotel brands in the U.S. The chain was founded in 1974, bought by Marriott in 1987, and before this year is over, officials expect to open their 300th inn. (The chain also recently joined Marriott's frequent-guest program.)
With average nightly rates of $75 to $110, Residence Inns are viewed as the high end of the extended-stay market, competing with Hawthorn Suites ( 527-1133; 29 locations), Homewood Suites ( 225-5466; 56 locations) and Summerfield Suites ( 833-4353; 32 locations), among others. Among Residence Inns' most leisure-friendly locations: San Diego, Anaheim, Huntington Beach, Calif.; Phoenix, Scottsdale and Tucson, Ariz.; Las Vegas; Denver, Boulder and Durango, Colo.; Mystic, Conn.; Orlando, Fla.; New Orleans; Boston; Chicago; Atlanta; San Antonio and Austin, Texas; Rosarito Beach in Baja California; and Whistler, Montreal and Mont Tremblant in Canada.
Meanwhile, a staggering number of other brands have emerged to do battle for the middle and low end of the extended-stay market, which can get as cheap as $200 per week.
In 1996 alone, reports the American Hotel & Motel Assn., 18 new extended-stay hotel brand names were unveiled. Among the combatants: Candlewood Suites ( 946-6200; 21 locations), Studio Plus Hotels ( 646-8000; 73 locations), MainStay Suites ( 660-6246; 11 locations) and, with lower prices and fewer amenities (often no breakfasts or swimming pools), Extended Stay America ( 398-7829; 138 locations), Villager Lodges ( 328-7829; about 50 locations) and Suburban Lodges ( 951-7829, 58 locations). Marriott is part of the mid-range price battle, too, with its year-old TownPlace Suites brand ( 331-3131; four locations, with 25 more expected to open this year).
By some industry estimates, more than one in every four hotel rooms built this year will be extended-stay lodgings, and the overall number of extended-stay rooms nationwide, now about 105,000, is expect to double in the next two years.
Reynolds travels anonymously at the newspaper's expense, accepting no special discounts or subsidized trips. He welcomes comments and suggestions, but cannot respond individually to letters and calls. Write Travel Insider, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.