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TRAVEL

For many, visit to L.A. is a 'reality' trip

Stores and restaurants featured in unscripted TV shows make tourists' must-see lists.

July 13, 2009|Hugo Martin

Move over, Grauman's Chinese Theatre. The hot new Southern California tourist attractions are the restaurants, boutiques and tattoo parlors where some of reality television's most popular shows are filmed.

Tourists from as far away as Germany fly in to visit the West Hollywood tattoo shop featured in the Learning Chanel's "LA Ink." Fans of the E! Entertainment Television hit "Keeping Up With the Kardashians" stream into the Calabasas clothing stores run by the show's stars. And sightseers and diners alike jam the pricey West Hollywood eatery frequented by personalities on MTV's "The Hills."

For decades, visitors have jumped on tour buses to see Los Angeles' conventional attractions, including the former homes of Judy Garland and Madonna and the concrete footprints of Marilyn Monroe in front of Grauman's Chinese Theatre. But the rise of reality television has created new must-see locations.

Among the more popular places is High Voltage Tattoo on North La Brea Avenue, where the weekly show "LA Ink" is filmed with real tattoo artists and real customers.

On a recent afternoon, Jade Davidson and Bryce Elliot, 19-year-old college buddies from British Columbia, watched an artist use a buzzing tattoo machine to create a flowery design on a woman's back as a camera recorded it all. Meanwhile, a director urged a crowd at the shop to be quiet.

Davidson and Elliot had driven all the way from Canada to get a permanent souvenir from the artists they see on the show every Thursday night. And they couldn't wait to go under the needle.

"We wanted to get tattoos and we like the show, so here we are," Davidson said.

What sets such tourist attractions apart from the more traditional spots is that the worldwide appeal of reality TV draws hordes of visitors -- and that is a big plus, particularly during today's tough economic climate.

Los Angeles County's tourism industry can use all the help it can get. The county's hotel occupancy rate for the first four months of 2009 was down 14% from the same period last year, according to a report for LA Inc., the city's convention and visitors bureau. Airline passenger numbers at Los Angeles International Airport, Bob Hope Airport in Burbank and John Wayne Airport in Orange County have seen double-digit drops compared with last year.

"It's a new element that we are seeing that we are able to tap into to promote the city," said Robin McCain, a spokeswoman for the visitors bureau.

In a reflection of the popularity of reality TV, the visitors bureau added Lauren Conrad, a star of "The Hills," to its new $2-million tourism campaign, dubbed "That's So LA." Since calling itself LA Inc., the visitors bureau also has been getting requests for tattoo information from tourists who mistake it for the "LA Ink" series.

Reality show directors say they obscure home addresses and street names on television to discourage stalkers. But restaurants and shops frequented by the reality show characters are clearly identified for fans to visit.

The manager of High Voltage Tattoo estimates that 90% of its customers are fans of the TV show.

At Katsuya Hollywood, a pricey restaurant and bar on Hollywood Boulevard where scenes for "The Hills" were filmed, up to 40% of the weekend customers are curious tourists, according to a spokesman. Looky-loos at the eatery may get a glimpse of Speidi, the nickname for Spencer and Heidi Pratt, the recently married stars of "The Hills" and "I'm a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here!"

"It definitely helps our business to have the built-in revenue generated by tourists," said Clint Clausen, senior vice president of operations for Katsuya Hollywood.

Several tour bus companies also have added reality show hot spots to the conventional sightseeing routes.

"Basically, if it comes up in the tabloids, we show it," said J.C. Spender, a tour operator for Hollywoodland Tours, whose drivers point out High Voltage Tattoo and Katsuya on tours. "We keep up with the times."

But perhaps because of the abysmal economic conditions, the fans who stop at the new tourist attractions have been tight with their spending, buying only inexpensive souvenirs.

At Dash and Smooch, the Calabasas boutique shops featured in "Keeping Up With the Kardashians," tourists routinely stop by to get a glimpse at the stars of the show, Kris Kardashian and her daughters, Khloe, Kourtney and Kim. The family members run the two boutiques on and off the air.

But tourists usually just buy candy or T-shirts, while regular customers tend to buy the big-ticket items, such as dresses or pants, said Sheiva Ghasemzadeh, a cashier at Smooch.

The same is true at Kitson, the North Robertson Avenue boutique in West Hollywood where Paris Hilton filmed scenes from her MTV reality show "Paris Hilton's My New BFF." The boutique's website proclaims that the store "has already become the favorite stop for many celebrities and the who's who in Hollywood."

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