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High-End Resorts Hit Low Ebb, Float Deals

Soft economy, terror attacks have struck state's posh new hotels hard. Though still not cheap, their rates are falling.

November 11, 2001|JAMES GILDEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The gray clouds dappling the darkening sky on a recent visit to Bacara, the posh resort 10 miles north of Santa Barbara, could be a metaphor for the troubles brewing in the high-end travel market. But the sun setting behind the Channel Islands on the horizon also suggested that things might not be quite as dark as they seem.

Three major California coastal resorts catering to upper-income travelers opened in the last 18 months, just as a new day was dawning in the travel industry. Besides Bacara, the St. Regis Monarch Beach Resort and Spa in Dana Point and the Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay near San Francisco joined the ranks of places that offer the kind of vacations many of us only dream about.

Each of these properties is perched on or near prime California oceanfront real estate offering commanding views of the Pacific Ocean. The development rights alone took decades of negotiations with local environmentalists. Spas at these resorts form the nexus from which all activity swirls, and ocean-side golf courses, if not attached by ownership, are at least adjacent. The resorts combine impeccable service with manicured grounds, plush surroundings and pampering--for a price, of course. Rooms at these hotels begin at more than $300 per night and go up--way up--from there.

With more than a half-billion dollars invested, or about $568,000 for each of 1,021 rooms in the three resorts combined, these lodgings opened after decades of planning just as the economy was souring. Before they could attract a regular clientele, the second whammy hit: the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that slowed travel everywhere. The Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay had more than 2,000 cancellations in the days after Sept. 11; the St. Regis Monarch Beach suffered about 3,000 canceled reservations.

After Sept. 11, occupancy rates nationwide at upper high end hotels and resorts plunged, just as they did in all sectors of the lodging industry, but this category has been the slowest to recover. As of Oct. 31, occupancy at "upper upscale chains" was down 16.4% from the same period last year versus 10.6% for the industry as a whole, according to data from Smith Travel Research, based in Hendersonville, Tenn.

For consumers, this translates into good news. The high end of the lodging industry leads the pack in lowering rates: They're down 12.2% compared with 7.6% for other sectors. That decrease could put such posh properties within reach of more vacationers as the resorts promote packages, rolling together rooms and the generally pricey amenities, such as spa treatments or rounds of golf, to try to fill those empty spots. (If you're looking for bargains, check the Internet for last-minute deals, even on high-end properties.)

Resorts also are looking to attract the vacationer who is sticking closer to home.

"We saw a lot of cancellations from people from out of state," says Michelle Apodaca, executive assistant at Bacara. "But we've seen drive-in guests from Los Angeles replace a lot of those cancellations."

That follows a trend seen by Peter Yesawich of Yesawich, Pepperdine & Brown, a marketing services company for the travel industry based in Orlando, Fla.: "There will be a significant decline in the percent of travelers who will take international trips in addition to a decline in the number of passengers who will cruise."

With proximity and high-income demographics on its side, Southern California provides a built-in audience for those resorts looking to attract visitors with deals that appeal to travelers within driving distance, Yesawich says.

Here's a rundown on the resorts and a sample of what they are offering. (Restrictions apply, and availability is limited. Be sure to check with the resorts.)

* Bacara Resort and Spa opened in September 2000. Within the first month, it played host to the wedding reception of Debra Messing, star of NBC's "Will & Grace," and actor-screenwriter Daniel Zelman.

The Presidential Suite, where Messing and Zelman stayed, goes for $5,000 a night.

For those of us who are several tax brackets down from the celebrity A-list, nicely appointed garden-view rooms start at $395; an ocean-view room is $820.

Bacara is offering a Midweek Spa and Golf package. From $565 per night, double occupancy, two-night minimum, you can get a garden-view room and two 50-minute spa treatments or unlimited golf for two at the Sandpiper golf course next door. It's a deal valued up to $695, depending on the spa treatment you choose, a savings of about 20%. For information, 8301 Hollister Ave., Santa Barbara, CA 93117 ; (805) 968-0100, http://www.bacararesort.com.

* Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay. The resort, opened in March, is designed to resemble the grand seaside lodges of the 19th century. Besides its 261 rooms, it has two championship golf courses and a 16,000-square-foot spa. Room rates start at $305 per night; standard rate for a deluxe room is $450.

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