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Jackson fans flocking to L.A. for memorial service

The throngs of visitors -- some flying in from as far away as Europe -- could give the local economy a $4-million boost as area hotels, restaurants and tourist destinations report a jump in business.

July 07, 2009|Hugo Martin and Peter Pae

Today's Michael Jackson memorial service at Staples Center may put a strain on city services, but it's turning out to be a shot in the arm for Southern California's slumping tourism industry.

Hotels, restaurants, tourist destinations and airlines reported a massive jump over the weekend in business and reservations, and they foresee a continued surge that they hope will jolt the local economy -- at least for a few days.

"The magnitude of this event is 10 to 100 times of any other event we've had," said John Kelly, general manager of the Holiday Inn across the street from the arena where the public memorial is to be held. Within 48 hours of Thursday's announcement that a memorial would be held at Staples Center, all 195 rooms at the hotel were booked, he said.

The throngs of visitors -- some flying into Los Angeles from as far away as France and Switzerland -- could give the local economy a $4-million boost in the form of hotel billings, rates, restaurant tabs and souvenir sales, said Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp.

"It's definitely going to help downtown hotels who now have an average of 56% occupancy," he said. "This is going to be good news for them."

Indeed, many airline flights to Los Angeles and hotels near Staples Center were booked solid by Monday. The influx of fans of the late pop singer has had a ripple effect that has reached as far as Pasadena and Long Beach, where hotels reported an increase in bookings this weekend.

A spokeswoman for Travelocity.com, the online travel booking site, reported twice as many airline bookings to Los Angeles International Airport between Monday and Wednesday as during the same time last year.

The memorial service is scheduled to start at 10 a.m. Concert promoter AEG Live, owner of Staples Center, distributed 17,500 free tickets to the memorial via an e-mail notification process. Only people with valid tickets and unaltered wristbands will be admitted into Staples Center and the neighboring Nokia Theatre, which will simulcast the memorial.

But as many as 1 million Jackson fans -- with or without tickets -- are expected to be in Los Angeles for the memorial, according to the Los Angeles Police Department.

Those fans include Robert Weaver, who flew to Los Angeles from his home in Gary, Ind., even though he could not get a ticket to go to the memorial and could only find a hotel room in Long Beach. He plans to watch the memorial from his room.

"I'm going to cry all day tomorrow," Weaver said.

Florence Kesler, her sister, Lucie Guntert, and niece Caroline flew in from Europe in hopes of attending the memorial. They too failed to snag tickets, and the closest hotel room they could find was in Beverly Hills.

"I've come all the way from Paris and no ticket," Kesler said as she stood in line at Staples Center to sign a memorial for the Jackson family. She said she would try to get into the memorial, although she said she didn't know how.

Restaurants in downtown Los Angeles are also bracing for multitudes.

"We don't really know what to expect," said Jenny Nikoletich, a manager at the Yard House, a restaurant in L.A. Live, the entertainment complex adjacent to Staples Center. She said her eatery plans to open an hour early, at 10 a.m., and will call in extra staff to serve the crowds.

"We are preparing like we did for the Laker parade," she said, referring to last month's celebration for the Lakers' NBA Championship win that drew a crowd estimated at 250,000.

The management at Katsuya, another eatery at L.A. Live, has added staff and extended hours for the last two days to serve the throngs of visitors.

"Crowds are already making their way to L.A. Live and Staples Center, and we have been operating at full capacity," said Clint Clausen, senior vice president of operations for the sushi restaurant chain.

Virgin Atlantic said its flights from London to Los Angeles were sold out over the weekend, prompting travelers to fill up its flights to San Francisco and Las Vegas. Those were nearly sold out as well, a spokesman for the London airline said.

"Undoubtedly there are lots of people going out there," said the spokesman, Paul Charles. "There's a combination of Jackson fans and VIPs traveling. I think a lot of people are converging in the hope that they will get in to see some of the service."

British Airways, which has three daily flights from London to Los Angeles, also said there had been a "huge influx" in bookings to the U.S. since Friday, a day after details about the memorial service were announced.

In addition to direct flights to LAX from London's Heathrow airport, San Francisco and Denver flights were almost full. The airline said travelers were trying to get as close to Los Angeles as possible and then taking connecting flights.

At the Hilton Checkers in downtown Los Angeles, general manager Kathy Faulk said her hotel usually has an occupancy rate of about 60% during this time of year.

But thanks to the Jackson memorial, her occupancy rate was above 80% over the weekend.

Even Lakers games and Madonna concerts at Staples Center don't draw crowds like this, she said. "I've seen nothing on this magnitude."

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hugo.martin@latimes.com

peter.pae@latimes.com

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