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Telecommunication Hits the Vacation Trail

Accommodations: Today's travelers are telling hotels that getting away from it all doesn't mean leaving TVs and phones behind.

October 04, 1998|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

Once upon a time, when we travelers went off to escape from the outside world, we really meant it. We wanted no television, no telephone, and certainly no daily fax at the breakfast table, and we were willing to pay handsomely for the privilege. Plenty of resorts, atmospheric bed-and-breakfasts and historic hotels were happy to make that possible.

Nowadays, many of us still say we want to escape. But the truth, say resort hoteliers and bed-and-breakfast veterans, is that we're so driven to keep abreast of business or family or even sports developments that we really can't do without a phone, TV and maybe a laptop plug and fax machine too.

This leaves innkeepers and resort operators with a choice: Stand firm against telecommunication, or yield to it. Most are yielding, industry veterans say, which means that before travelers leave on their great getaways, they need to A) decide whether they really want to be incommunicado; and B) do some homework on just how sequestered they will or won't be.

At the California Assn. of Bed & Breakfast Inns, where membership rolls include 316 lodgings with two to 22 rooms, co-executive director Connie Friel reports that in years past, bed-and-breakfast customers took for granted that guest rooms would be free of telephones and televisions. Now, she says, consulting the office computer, 229 of the association's 316 members have televisions in guest rooms or a common room. About 180 have private telephones in guest rooms.

"I think the number of inns that have [private phones and TVs] has probably doubled in the last five years," Friel says. "We're always hearing that travelers are asking for rooms with phones and TVs."

The same demand from guests has brought changes to Club Med, the global chain famous for disdaining televisions, private telephones and other reminders of the outside world (such as cash). A few weeks ago, Club Med officials announced they will add telephones and televisions to rooms in its villages at Cancun (by mid-December), Paradise Island and Copper Mountain, Colo. Renovators are also adding telephones in St. Lucia village (which reopens Dec. 19) and televisions at Caravelle in Guadeloupe.

In Arizona, at the luxury hideaway L'Auberge de Sedona, management decided upon opening in 1987 to give every room a telephone, but to take escapists at their word and leave televisions out. Last year, however, the pressure grew too great.

"We got so many complaints from customers about not having them," confides a reservations agent. "We just listened to the comment cards--especially during football season."

The result in each of the resort's 100 rooms and cabins: a new television set, discreetly concealed behind armoire doors.

Andrew Harper, editor of the upscale Hideaway Report Newsletter, says even the most far-flung lodgings lately are under pressure to keep communications accessible and up-to-date. Clarence Garlough, who oversees accommodations ratings for the Auto Club of Southern California, says the same thing.

In fact, the auto club is an active player in this trend. Garlough notes that these days, a "destination resort" hotel can't earn even a meager one-diamond rating (on a five-diamond scale) without providing in-room televisions and telephones. (Country inns and bed-and-breakfasts are exempted from that requirement, and televisions are not mandated in either case.)

This doesn't mean, however, that every lodging has been won over by escalating communication. On the Caribbean isle of St. John, the luxury Rosewood hotel chain in 1996 laid out millions to upgrade and update the Caneel Bay Plantation (where brochure rates run $250 to $700 per night)--but Rosewood stuck with the philosophy of the hotel's builder, Laurence Rockefeller, and added neither telephones nor televisions to its 166 guest rooms.

And on the Big Island of Hawaii, the thatch-roofed Kona Village Resort (with 1998 rates starting at $425, including three meals daily, for two people) has been known since 1965 for its high-priced, low-tech, phoneless, TV-free setting.

Even through a $9-million renovation in 1996, management has stuck to its anti-telecommunication policy. During my stay at Kona Village last year, in fact, management had even posted a notice. It said:

Many of our guests come here to escape phones and cellular phones or even the thought of them. If you must use a cellular phone, please do so in the privacy of your hale [bungalow] so that other guests will not be disturbed.

"Steve Jobs from Apple comes out a couple of times a year just to escape and spend time with his children, and just divorce himself from his daily routine," says Laurence Mountcastle, Kona Village's director of sales.

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 chris.reynolds@latimes.com.

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