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Travel industry woos those with plenty of leisure time: furloughed and laid-off workers

Victims of the economy are being offered discounts on airfare, lodging, cruises and ski-lift tickets. Tourism merchants say the bargains won't end their industry's skid, 'but it's a very nice step.'

April 03, 2009|Hugo Martin

Pink slip travelers? Furlough tourists? Jobless vacationers?

Call them what you may, they are a surprising new target for travel bargains aimed at the unemployed, the furloughed and jittery workers fearful of being laid off.

Discounts are nothing new during tough economic times, but airlines, hotels, resorts and other tourism merchants are going a step further, exploring a market long considered a tough one to crack.

The deals began to surface in February with offers by JetBlue Airways and a British airline to refund fares for travelers who had recently been laid off. Since then, other businesses have jumped in with discounted ski lift tickets for furloughed California state employees, free hotel stays for recently laid-off workers and "job loss" insurance for cruise passengers.

Several businesses are reporting a positive response to the travel deals. More than 810 state employees have taken advantage of $30 lift tickets offered at the Squaw Valley ski resort for workers who have been furloughed for one or two days a month under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's budget cuts.

To get the discount, which is 62% off the regular lift ticket price of $79, visitors to the Lake Tahoe-area resort simply need to show a state employee identification or a pay stub.

"We hope it will bring people to Squaw Valley who would not otherwise come," said Savannah Cowley, a spokeswoman for the ski resort.

Don Wilcox, a middle-management state employee from Sacramento, took advantage of the discounted lift tickets twice in the last few months. On both ski trips, he brought along fellow state employees.

"In a time when there is a lot of bad news, it's a nice thing to do," Wilcox said of Squaw Valley's discount program.

Analysts and travel industry officials say the special discounts and other super-low travel deals may not generate a big enough uptick in revenue needed to pull the struggling travel industry out of the recession-fueled funk of the last year or so.

But the deals, they say, may help ease the pain for travelers who would otherwise stay close to home and help travel merchants who are struggling to fill empty hotel rooms, cruise ships and jetliners.

"Everyone wins," said Roger Dow, president and chief executive of the U.S. Travel Assn., a national nonprofit umbrella group for the industry. "Is it the magic bullet that will turn things around for the industry? Maybe not, but it's a very nice step."

America's travel industry employs more than 7.7 million workers and generates more than $740 billion in spending annually, according to the association.

Although discounted travel deals have made this a great time to score ultra-low fares for airline tickets, hotel rooms and cruise packages, the worsening economy continues to keep potential travelers at home, clinging tightly to every extra vacation dollar.

A travel industry forecast projected a drop in overall travel expenditures in the U.S. of nearly 3% this year over last year and an even steeper decrease of 5.6% in business travel.

Taking their cue from Squaw Valley, a handful of hotels in the Reno-Tahoe area launched a similar campaign in February for furloughed California state employees, who could get a free night's stay when they booked a room at a participating hotel.

The furlough deal remains in place at Squaw Valley and at the Reno-Tahoe hotels. State workers are no longer required to take furlough days without pay on the first and third Friday of each month, but most still must take one floating furlough day per month.

Although the deals sound clear-cut, many come with restrictions.

Deals for laid-off workers got underway after Hyundai Motor America began its assurance program in January. Under the Hyundai deal, car buyers who lose their jobs within 12 months after taking delivery can return the vehicles to the dealerships without damaging their credit rating.

CruiseOne and Cruises Inc., a leading network of cruise retailers, borrowed the idea from Hyundai and in February unveiled the CruiseAssurance plan. The plan lets customers who book a cruise the option of canceling at any time, even during the cruise, if they are laid off.

Steven Hattem, vice president of marketing for the sister companies, said he believed that the deal would give travelers peace of mind when they consider whether to take a cruise vacation.

"With this, consumers can truly make a decision without the concern, 'Will I have a job or not,' " Hattem said.

Companies that offer special hotel deals for laid-off workers say the idea is not as crazy as it may seem. After all, a worker who has been laid off suddenly has the free time to take a longer vacation, they note. Plus a vacation may be just what a worker needs before hitting the streets to find a new job.

"Lots of people get laid off with severance packages, so they have money," said Will Candis, a spokesman for Recreo Costa Rica, a luxury villa resort in Costa Rica that is offering a free night's stay for recently laid-off workers who book four or more nights. "It may seem self-indulgent, but vacations are very rejuvenating."

Such discounts and deals sound like a bargain for travelers, but they don't always work as planned for the companies that offer them.

When the U.S. military led a coalition of nations to invade Iraq in March 2003, Squaw Valley tried to do its part for the war effort by giving free lift tickets to all active members of the military as long as the war continued. Six years later, American troops remain in Iraq and, to date, the ski resort has given out more than $4 million in free lift tickets.

"It was an act of good faith," Cowley said. "And it's been worth it."

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hugo.martin@latimes.com

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