Industries Hotels/Tourism

Tourism expected to be up as economy improves

High-end resorts cater to summer travelers looking for luxury

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Print this page by Elizabeth Cooper

Forget the staycation, where people spend vacation time at home, exploring local sights and relaxing around the backyard pool. As the economy rebounds, consumers are not only planning summer vacations; many are booking rooms at upscale resorts where they can indulge in a little luxury.

Cautiously optimistic about the summer travel season, managers at Virginia’s high-end resorts are offering packages that resonate with people weary of scaling back in the midst of a down economy. It all comes down to a desire to get away from the humdrum of daily life to escape in style — if only for few days.

“Rest and relaxation is far and away what people are looking for,” says Bonnie Campagnuolo, director of resorts and product marketing for Hilton Hotels & Resorts. “They’re looking for sandals on, sun and sand and the no-cell-phone feel.”  With 530 hotels and resorts in 76 countries, Hilton is a dominant player in the luxury hospitality market. “With high-end resorts, we don’t see as much frugality,” Campagnuolo says. “Vacation is a time when you treat yourself to nicer dinners and spa treatments and all those things that complete the vacation experience.”

Even the possibility of gas prices topping $5 per gallon isn’t expected to have a big impact on Hilton’s occupancy rates.  “If people have spent a year or two saving up and planning to take a big vacation, they are still going on those trips unless there is some catastrophic event,” notes Campagnuolo.

Hilton, which moved its global headquarters from Beverly Hills, Calif., to Fairfax County in 2009, has one upscale resort in Virginia, the 290-room Hilton Virginia Beach Oceanfront. Amenities at the 21-story property include Virginia’s only AAA four-diamond steakhouse and a rooftop bar and pool with ocean views.

The company also is upgrading the Hilton McLean at Tysons Corner, near its headquarters building. It has become a test center of sorts. For instance, a $40 million renovation brought an open floor plan design to the lobby, where the front desk, bar area and a technology lounge are all easily accessible. The property also has a new restaurant, Harth — which puts local foods on the menu — and work has begun on upgrades to the property’s 458 rooms. 

Farther afield, other popular Hilton resorts include the Hilton Hawaiian Village Beach Resort & Spa in Honolulu.  In terms of top international Hilton destinations, the Hilton Whistler Resort & Spa, host of the 2010 Winter Olympics in British Columbia, is popular along with the Hilton Los Cabos Beach & Golf Resort in Los Cabos, Mexico, and the Hilton Moorea Lagoon Resort & Spa in French Polynesia.

Hilton Worldwide continues to grow its presence in Asia. It recently signed management agreements with New Huadu Industrial Group for a Waldorf Astoria resort and Hilton Hotels and Resorts properties in China.

Besides plush accommodations, Hilton also is banking on a new global spa concept to distinguish itself from competitors. The eforea spa at Hilton debuted last fall at the Hilton Short Hills in Short Hills, N.J., and offers three signature spa treatment plans that allow guests to customize their experience. “It is the key differentiator for resorts to have a spa,” Campagnuolo says.

As the economy improves, vacationers are becoming more willing to splurge on spa treatments and other luxury items. The U.S. Travel Association’s Traveler Sentiment Index (TSI) climbed to 95.2 in February 2011, up seven percentage points from the previous October. The TSI — a quarterly measurement of consumer attitudes about leisure travel — is now at its highest point since April 2007. Specifically, the survey showed that consumers are more confident of their ability to afford a vacation. The challenge now, according to Campagnuolo, is bringing back meetings and convention business, which dropped during the economic downturn. “We’re beginning to see that business come back.”

Special packages for summer guests

Traveler optimism has been duly noted at The Tides Inn in Irvington where individual travel took an upswing last fall. “It’s been a difficult two or three years,” says Gordon Slatford, general manager of the 65-year-old inn. “But there are definitely signs of recovery happening in four-diamond, upper-end resorts and hotels.”

Slatford believes people are tired of pinching pennies.  “I detect a general desire to start enjoying oneself,” he says. “Frugality has been enforced upon us over the last several years.”  Most of The Inn’s clientele live within 100 miles and drive or boat to the resort on the Northern Neck.  A substantial increase in gasoline prices several years ago led to a decline in boat traffic for that season. However, it returned a year later. “The increase in the price of gas adds on about $20 to a weekend, and the clientele that comes to see us probably has savings,” says Slatford.

Or tax refunds. A recent consumer survey by Travel Leaders showed that more than 57 percent of those polled planned to use part of this year’s tax refund for leisure travel, while 83 percent reported that they would spend the same or more on leisure travel as compared with 2010. However, travelers are still looking for deals. The Tides Inn offers a Taste of Northern Neck, giving guests a two-night stay for $169 per person, per night, full breakfast, picnic basket lunch, guided tour of nearby wineries and a three-course dinner in the resort’s Chesapeake Club. The inn, the only East Coast resort with an onsite sailing school, also features a learn-to-sail package at $299 per person per day.

As business improved last fall, The Tides Inn invested in improvements, including new carpeting, a floating dock system and 300-thread-count Egyptian linen. The inn also added a Frisbee golf course and new watercraft and expanded its bicycle fleet.

Other upscale Virginia resorts have spruced up and are relying on special packages to attract summer guests. “People respond well to value packages,” says Carol Stratford, director of marketing at The Homestead. Through October, the Hot Springs resort offers a couple’s golf school package on select dates. Starting at $375, the two-day package includes professional instruction and a computerized analysis of guests’ golf swings. 

Set amid 3,000 acres in the Allegheny Mountains, the 245-year-old resort draws an equal mix of couples and families, most of whom live within a four-hour drive. Summer is one of The Homestead’s busiest seasons. Stratford says the resort is forecasting a better year than 2010, which was better than 2009. “We finished the first quarter of the year ahead of last year, and people are planning their summer vacations a little earlier than last year.”

Wintergreen, a four-season resort atop the Blue Ridge Mountains, also is rolling out special deals. The summer passport program gives lodging guests coupons for various activities, while a music festival package includes an overnight stay combined with concert tickets to the Wintergreen Summer Music Festival. The resort also offers golf and extended-stay packages. “The economy has made people more cost conscious,” says Dana Quillen, Wintergreen’s vice president of sales and marketing. “Guests are looking for value, but they’re also looking for great guest services.” Emphasizing family activities, the resort’s main markets include Northern Virginia, Richmond, Hampton Roads and Charlottesville.

As the only luxury hotel in the McLean/Tysons Corner area, the Ritz-Carlton Tysons Corner strives to create “wow stories” for its guests. “We go above and beyond so that each guest feels special when they walk in the hotel,” says Scott Robison, director of sales and marketing. The effort has apparently paid off. Travel & Leisure’s 2011 World’s Best Hotels ranked the Ritz-Carlton Tysons Corner as the number one hotel in Virginia and among the top 50 in the United States.

Nonetheless, the hotel offers special deals. They include a shopping package to the adjoining Tysons Galleria, a wine experience package including maps of Virginia wineries and a complimentary bottle of wine from Paradise Springs Winery, along with a $159 summer rate for guest rooms on weekends. “Not being a beach destination, we have to be a little bit creative to create that sense of experience with spa, dining and luxury shopping,” Robison says.

Like other regional resorts, the Ritz-Carlton draws most of its guests from within a three-hour drive, with 50 percent coming from Washington, D.C., and the Northern Virginia suburbs. Despite the proximity, Robison is concerned that gas prices could derail summer travel. “We anticipate this year that people will do longer vacations, but as gas prices fluctuate so drastically, that could change.”

Tade Allen, director of sales and marketing at The Founders Inn & Spa in Virginia Beach, shares that concern. “We were optimistic that this would be a better summer,” she says.  “Now with the prices of gas, we’re feeling a little less certain.”

Still, Slatford asserts that frugality can go only so far. “Staycations are okay, but you need variety and spice in your life,” he says. “Staying home and sitting on a deck chair in your backyard is not really relaxing at the end of the day.”

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