New Year's happiness at a price

As high as $100,000 for luxury package at some hotels

A Jaguar Y2K, anyone?

June 06, 1999|By Kristine Henry | Kristine Henry,SUN STAFF

While some fear that the stroke of midnight on Dec. 31 will bring the end of civilization as we know it, some businesses see it as the perfect time to cash in on those revelers who have no fear of power outages, stock market crashes or rampant madness.

Many hotels and resorts are charging exorbitant prices, believing that people will pay any amount for what is being heavily hyped as a can't-miss, once-in-a-lifetime event.

The Harbor Court Hotel in the Inner Harbor, for instance, is selling a two-night deluxe package -- including gourmet meals and entertainment -- for $6,550. A scaled-down version goes for $2,400.

And that's a bargain compared with what some others are offering -- and charging.

Baltimore's Renaissance Harborplace Hotel is featuring a "$100,000-plus" package. Although the exact price has not been fixed, the hotel is promising: five nights in the presidential suite, private maid and butler service, a dinner with Dom Perignon champagne in the harbor-view restaurant, daily massages, a private cruise to view fireworks, his and her Rolex watches and a new Jaguar, valued at more than $42,000.

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and we like to think of ourselves as leaders in the hotel community," said John Davis, the hotel's director of marketing. "It's something that lets guests know we will provide them the ultimate experience."

The Ritz-Carlton is also offering a $100,000 package at each of its 36 hotels around the globe.

While many hotels are going all out in an effort to make this New Year's memorable, albeit expensive, others have simply jacked up prices without offering any extras.

"Oh, absolutely, it's ridiculous," said Chip Wanek, owner of Towson Travel. "But it's like going to the Super Bowl; you're paying for the experience and people are willing to cough up the dough. I can't say people are being taken advantage of, but companies are taking advantage of the situation."

William Tomicki, a syndicated columnist and editor of Entree, a monthly luxury travel newsletter, thinks that businesses are indeed trying to take advantage.

"This is an opportunity for hotels to gouge," he said. "It's also proven to be a field day for public relations people who have jumped on the bandwagon and send three or four [news] releases a week talking about their millennium deals.

"It's a rip-off and it's not worth it," he added.

Tomicki said many established hotels will be cautious in their approach to the end of the year because they want to retain customers, even if it means giving up a jackpot on one night.

The Four Seasons hotel in Washington is offering rooms at its regular holiday rate, although it may require a two-night minimum or put together dinner-and-room packages. Stan Bromley, regional vice president and general manager, said the bulk of his customers will be regulars.

"The Four Seasons has said it does not want to be perceived as gouging," he said. "It's the style and manner in which we do business. There are opportunistic business people and long-term business people."

Mary Sipes, senior sales manager of the Hyatt Regency Baltimore at the harbor, said some people may consider New Year's Eve prices unfair, but "we looked at what we had done in the past and we feel it is well worth the money."

The Hyatt will feature an exclusive party -- closed to the public, unlike in past years -- with a five-course meal, unlimited champagne, live bands and a two-night stay in the hotel. The price ranges from $1,350 for a room that doesn't overlook the harbor to $5,200 for the presidential suite that has a harbor view and includes eight tickets to the party.

A typical room at the hotel with a harbor view generally goes for just under $250, and rooms for last year's New Year's celebration -- which did not include a dinner -- started at $350 per night and went up to $975 for the deluxe suite.

"It is a supply-and-demand issue," Sipes said. "It's going to be a very exclusive night and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and we're making it a lot more special."

Renee Lane, assistant general manager of Harbor Court, said the profit margin on New Year's events "is not that great."

"Every venue is open only to those people that are participating in the weekend," she said. "There's entertainment throughout the weekend, and then you figure in the wines we're serving, and the crystal champagne glasses, the twice-daily maid service and the upgraded turn-down amenities."

So far, the demand for luxury packages hasn't matched the supply. "The secret within the industry is that very little of this stuff is selling," Tomicki said. "The industry is not yet on the verge of panic, but they're talking about, `When is this stuff going to sell?' "

Baltimore's Hyatt is about 15 percent booked, and Harbor Court has sold 20 of its 180 packages. Lane said the hotel just started selling the packages and that Baltimoreans typically wait until late in the year to book New Year's reservations.

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