By Kitty Bean Yancey, USA TODAY
A weeknight stay at the white-pillared Clifton Inn, a member of the chichi Relais & Chateaux consortium in Virginia fox-hunting country, used to run $295 in fall and gallop upward.
This month and next, guests at the Charlottesville-area retreat can tuck into homemade pastries and sip Earl Grey, sink into a four-poster and savor a sumptuous breakfast (maybe gingerbread pancakes) for a bargain $129 rate, on slow Sundays through Thursdays.
And that's far from the only steal on the luxury lodging landscape.
PHOTO GALLERY: Hotels on sale
A fire sale is on in Vegas: The top-tier Bellagio, which commands $300 and up nightly in busy times, just announced rooms for an amazing $149 this fall, even at Thanksgiving. The Fairmont chain has slashed rates, to $155 in pricey D.C. and Chicago — nearly $40 off the same time last year. Some luxe London hotels are price-cutting. (The May Fair's rooms now start at about $250, down from $290 last year.)
As the stock market slumps, luxury hotel revenue — holding strong until recently as hoteliers fought to hang onto profitability and exclusivity — is falling as fast as autumn leaves. Every day brings news of a new deal.
Luxury for less means hoteliers "clearly are getting nervous," says Peter J. Frank, editor in chief of the upscale Concierge.com travel planning website. Even those refusing to lower prices are adding "more packages, more freebies," he says. "Or they might (offer specials) through a third-party website," such as Luxury Link, Expedia or Travelocity. Such sites also are running hard-to-beat airfare/hotel deals.
Add-ons are big news: Today, Kimpton Hotels starts a promotion with continental breakfasts for two for $1. It's hard to beat the $555 in complimentary spa services that come with a room for two nights ($555) at The Inn at Bay Harbor, a Renaissance Golf Resort, on Lake Michigan. Breakfast for two is included, too.
The just-renovated Camelback Inn, a JW Marriott Resort & Spa outside Phoenix, has an introductory package through Dec. 31 that includes two spa treatments and dinner for two — $309 a night, less than a room alone cost before the $50 million face lift.
Even Four Seasons and Ritz-Carltons — which usually don't slash rates — are being more generous with add-ons such as free extra nights. "What's new is we are offering (promotions) for longer periods," says Four Seasons marketing senior vice president Susan Helstab. "There's very good value out there."
Ritz-Carlton resorts are bringing back a "Reconnect" package this winter, this time with resort credits that lower the cost. The Ritz-Carlton Golf & Spa Resort, Rose Hall, Jamaica, has a rate of $465 with $120 resort credit. Hot breakfasts are included, too.
Other chain and independent lodgings are tossing in meals, parking and spa services.
Across the board, the lodging business is suffering along with other industries.
"Oh, we got Trouble, right here in River City, with a capital 'T' that rhymes with 'E,' that stands for Economy!" Richard Hendrie of Hospitality Performance consulting firm wrote in his newsletter, grimly parodying a song from The Music Man. "Hospitality businesses are being slammed."
Occupancy is down
September hotel occupancy and revenue in the USA were down across the board, Smith Travel Research reports. Occupancy dropped 5.9% from September 2007; revenue per available room was 3.1% lower. The luxury segment, doing better than the rest of the industry earlier this year, now is suffering the worst revenue drop.
Even super-wealthy travelers and ultra-chic getaways are feeling pain as portfolios plummet.
Melissa Biggs Bradley, the former editor of Town & Country Travel who started a membership luxury travel planning website called Indagare (Latin for "explore"), tells of a pal who's trying to sell her non-refundable Christmas stay at the $1,000-plus-daily Guanahani Hotel & Spa on the Caribbean island of St. Barts.
Wayne Hudson, who helps rent neighbors' villas in the exclusive community of Costa Careyes, Mexico, south of Puerto Vallarta, says the international jet set still will fly in on private planes to celebrate Christmas and New Year's with fabulous house parties. (Last year, one villa renter from L.A. brought in a band and chef from Morocco for a Casablanca-themed bash.) Heidi Klum and Seal are among VIPs with villas there.
But Americans are booking fewer rentals, which can run to six figures, Hudson says. "Some very wealthy people who in the past have entertained lavishly for the holidays have decided to pass this year, playing it cautious."
Richard David Story, editor in chief of Departures magazine, whose 1 million-plus readers hold American Express Platinum and Centurion cards and include lots of millionaires, is being sensitive to the tenor of the times.
While readers probably still can afford lavish trips, "you just don't want to raise a red velvet flag in front of people now," he says. "It just seems irresponsible." So he has promoted stories such as "Stretching the Euro" that might normally not rate a place on a Departures cover.
Meanwhile, hotels and chains have publicists spreading the word on just-cooked-up bargains. Among them:
•Fairmont Hotels & Resorts' spokeswoman last week announced low fall and winter rates at most of its properties, plus a free-night option at many. You can get into the Fairmont San Jose in once highflying Silicon Valley for $119 a night.
•Stowe Mountain Lodge in Vermont decided to give away a free massage with every room booked in November to draw attention to the brand-new resort.
•The Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay Golf Resort, Spa and Marina in Cambridge, Md., just announced a "Luxury on Sale" escape starting at $99 Sundays through Fridays, including, for whatever reason, a s'mores kit.
•Triple Creek Ranch in Montana is offering 20% off last year's prices on all-inclusive, meals, drinks, horseback riding and massages packages (such as $3,320 a couple for a four-night ski vacation on select dates this winter, down from $4,000).
Family time is priceless
Amid financial uncertainty and fears of what the future may hold, the luxury crowd still is planning getaways. "We've had a few cancellations or postponements of trips, but we have actually noticed a surprising surge in people planning family trips," Indagare's Bradley says.
"The week that Lehman went bankrupt, we had a number of people decide to book ski trips with their extended families. It's almost as if the economic situation is so agonizing that it puts in perspective for people that what they want most is to spend time with their loved ones — and that multi-generational trips are one of the luxuries (or investments) worth committing to.
"We had one individual who was laid off and decided to take his family on a once-in-a-lifetime safari in Africa. He had been working so hard … and never had time to spend weeks away. So he decided to make something positive out of a bad situation."
Another positive, say industry observers: Travelers who couldn't previously afford a multi-star lodging now can. Two can stay at The Homestead, a historic grande-dame property in Hot Springs, Va., for $175 between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Price-chopping isn't a trend in Manhattan, where daily rates average about $300 and rise during the holidays. New York's luxury hotels aren't on sale because of strong occupancy, says George Fertitta of NYC & Company, the city's tourism and marketing arm. "But we're not saying it's not going to happen" if the economy keeps tanking, he adds. Watch for lower rates in January.
Rates definitely are dipping in winter vacation meccas. The Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort on Florida's Gulf Coast has rooms as low as $99 till March 5, down from $112 last year. Plus, breakfast and a round of golf are free.
Some top Caribbean properties are holding firm on rates. Still, look for deals as hoteliers assess bookings, Frank says. Already, prestigious Rosewood Little Dix Bay resort on Virgin Gorda has added all meals to an $850-a-day winter room rate. The upscale El San Juan Hotel & Casino in Puerto Rico has been enticing vacationers with a $149 rate.
And look for luxury travelers to rethink vacation patterns.
"The buzzwords were 'extravagant' and 'over the top,' " says Concierge.com's Frank. "Now the buzzwords are 'meaningful value.' It's not about spending money just to spend money or 'Let's jet off to Aspen.' "
Whether learning, connecting with loved ones or getting a good price, he says, "it's 'spend it well.' There has to be some value."
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