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Newport Beach markets itself as an escape from 'Carmageddon'

Travel executives, Newport hotels team up to draw in Los Angeles residents during the 405 Freeway closure.

July 11, 2011|By Mike Reicher, mike.reicher@latimes.com

Capitalizing on someone's misfortune is not usually good business. But what if a catastrophe is forecast far in advance?

Travel marketing executives in Newport Beach have seized on the looming San Diego (405) Freeway shutdown this weekend. They've created package deals and launched an advertising blitz to lure Angelenos to Newport's "tranquil" hotels and resorts. As the leisure travel market continues to rebound, hoteliers are looking to fill rooms that might otherwise be taken, especially on a summer weekend.

"It was an opportunity that was handed to us," said Gary Sherwin, president of Visit Newport Beach, the city's travel bureau that conceived the "Escape Car-mageddon" promotion. "If there has ever been a motivation to get out of L.A., this is it."

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Sherwin said he thought of the idea when he heard L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa say at a June news conference that people should "go on vacation" during the closure. His group developed a print and radio campaign that says heading south is "more than a vacation. It's a civic duty!"

Six of Newport's major hotels signed up. Each devised its own combination of discounts, free services and other incentives. From 40% off facials to complimentary breakfasts, hotels are mostly bundling perks, as opposed to strictly discounting stays.

"Gimmicks work," said Jeff Lugosi, a vice president with the L.A. branch of PKF Consulting, a national hospitality advisory firm. "It just helps offset some unoccupied rooms … Everyone can use a little bit more help."

As of May, Lugosi said Orange County hotels averaged 70% occupancy — up nearly 5% from a year ago, but still below historical averages.

This is peak season for leisure travel at Newport hotels, so executives were reluctant to give too much away, Sherwin said, especially when it came to room rates. Visitors are "willing to pay," he said, "but they have to perceive value from something."

The Fairmont Newport Beach hotel has its "Escape the LA Gridlock Package," with two free cocktails at its lounge or rooftop pool bar, complimentary valet parking, discounted spa services and 4 p.m. late checkout. Starting at $139 per night, rooms in this deal are also discounted about $20, said Fairmont General Manager Paul Ohm.

Since the promotion hit the Los Angeles airwaves and newsstands Friday, some people have called, but "it hasn't yet been overwhelming yet," Ohm said.

He is expecting more interest as people realize that the long-awaited closure is upon them this weekend.

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