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Finding Room for Family and Friends

Visitors to L.A. bunk more often at private homes than at hotels. The shift supports a nationwide trend toward cocooning since Sept. 11, experts say.

November 18, 2002|Bonnie Harris | Times Staff Writer

These days, the hottest place to stay in Los Angeles also has the best room rates, the most comforts of home and plenty of perks for favorite guests.

But take note: There also may be less privacy, limited availability and strained relationships by checkout.

For the first time, more visitors are bunking with friends and relatives rather than in hotel rooms -- a trend that falls under what experts have coined the "nature-nurture movement" and is being mirrored in cities across the country.

In Los Angeles, more than half of U.S. visitors to the city -- about 10 million people -- stayed in private homes this year and spent more than in years past.

The trend appears to be helping to offset the slump in foreign tourism and business travel to Los Angeles for now, but if it continues it could be difficult to reverse and thereby keep cities' visitors spending depressed.

This year was the first time Carolyn Ferguson of Long Beach hosted her parents for their annual visit, a stay that lasted two weeks and went "better than expected," according to the 36-year-old mother of two. Ferguson, a police officer, said she wanted her parents to spend uninterrupted time getting to know her 3-month-old son, and didn't want to keep driving back and forth between her house and a hotel.

When it was over, Ferguson said she and her husband -- who gave up their bedroom for her parents because it has a private bath -- were less stressed than they thought they'd be.

"I figured it'd be a total lack-of-space type thing, where we were constantly bumping into each other and had no downtime," she said. "But it actually went OK.

"We had the usual stuff where they told us what to do all the time and I think they got a little restless in the end. They were probably ready to go home."

Ferguson's mother, Mae Boyer of Annapolis, Md., said with the exception of "a few housekeeping issues," the visit was a success.

"They stay up way too late, first of all, and I wish I could have organized their cupboards because you can't find a thing anywhere," Boyer said. "But all in all, we had a lovely time. I don't know how much money we saved, though. We were buying stuff right and left, usually for their kitchen."

Nationally, travel experts said the shift from hotels to homes climbed higher than ever in 2002, supporting the widespread theory that Sept. 11 and a slowing economy have prompted families to reconnect with loved ones and take shorter trips closer to home.

Such cocooning has shown up in other areas too: Campground reservations have been running at least 15% ahead of last year and annual RV rentals are up 35%. Attending family reunions and taking multigenerational trips account for more leisure travel than ever before, according to the U.S. Tour Operators Assn.

"People have been getting back to the basics -- visiting parks, camping, vacationing by car -- and the overall focus has been spending time with family and friends," said Skip Hull, president of CIC Research in San Diego.

"That in itself may not be very surprising, given the emotional climate of our country. But the fact that it's continuing, and that the numbers show it having a fairly dramatic impact, is definitely noteworthy."

For Los Angeles, the stay-with-family trend is helping to alleviate the severe drop-off in business travel, because spending among those staying in private homes jumped to $3 billion, or about a third of all visitor spending and up from a quarter in 2000.

"It is definitely a solid trend, and it's resulting in a larger number of dollars for us," said David Sheatsley, a researcher for the Los Angeles Convention & Visitors Bureau.

In contrast, L.A. visitor spending among those staying in hotels has dropped steadily since 2000, from $6.5 billion to $5.5 billion this year. The number of visitors who stay in L.A. hotels is expected to drop 4% in 2002, with international hotel visitor volumes falling 8% and domestic 2.9%.

To track the number of guests staying in private homes, 2,400 households in Los Angeles County are randomly polled throughout the year. Respondents are asked whether they had overnight visitors stay with them within the last two months, how long the visit lasted, what attractions or activities they took in and about how much they spent during the trip.

The challenge for L.A. and other cities in the long term will be to persuade visitors with friends or family to stay in hotels instead and not wait for foreign tourism and business travel to recover. Hotel guests account for the bulk of visitor spending, and the L.A. visitors bureau is forecasting about 20 million people will visit the region this year, about the same as 2001, and they will be spending 3% less.

"We've found that it's extremely difficult to reverse this kind of trend and convert these visits into hotel room nights," said Peter C. Yesawich, president of Orlando, Fla.-based Yesawich, Pepperdine & Brown, a marketing firm specializing in travel research.

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