Just a day like, yawn, any other

Millennium: Despite the hype, some people plan to stay at home this New Year's, avoiding overpriced vacations and problems from Y2K bugs.

October 09, 1999|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN STAFF

Steve and Linda Rivelis started planning Millennium Eve 14 years ago, dreaming of Jerusalem or the Pyramids, crossing the international dateline at midnight or sailing the Caribbean.

But when the Charles Village couple and their 10 friends began researching their trip, they came to the same conclusion:

Never mind.

"The markup was outrageous," said Steve Rivelis. "Even if I had that kind of money, I wouldn't spend it that way."

For years, people around the world have heard the hype: It's the hottest New Year's Eve in a thousand years, so you better do something extravagant or you'll feel like the drip of the century.

But as marketers cook up indulgent fetes with prices to match, consumers are generally viewing this fin de siecle as anything but a life-altering event.

"It's going to be just another day," said David Huang, a law student at Cornell University in New York, who has "no clue" where he'll be on the big eve. "It'll be fun to do something memorable, but I have no plans for flying to Fiji."

The Rivelis group, too, decided that a millennium celebration wasn't worth the cost of a car -- for example, $20,000 to rent a sailboat that would usually rent for $5,000.

So the group dissolved the fund, which it started 14 years ago and had contributed to yearly since. Some families planned vacations; others decided to stay home.

The Rivelises took their New Year's trip to Europe in August, at normal prices. On New Year's Eve, they plan to cook for family and friends.

Plenty of other Americans have apparently made similar decisions. Travel marketers, anticipating a bonanza, have raised prices from 30 percent to 300 percent for the millennium holiday, say travel agents and people who study consumer trends. And consumers everywhere are balking.

To a small degree, fears of the Y2K bug are keeping people close to home. But mostly, Americans seem to be looking at Dec. 31 as just another New Year's Eve.

More than 80 percent of consumers won't travel over the New Year's weekend, according to a recent survey taken for the trade publication Travel Weekly. Of those who hadn't made plans, 43 percent said, "The millennium means nothing to me."

"It's not much different than any other New Year's," said Avia Hamilton of Carroll County, whose family goes to Martin's West every year for dinner and dancing with friends. "As long as the prices at Martin's don't go up, we'll do that. If they do, we'll probably stay home."

Jeff Homer, who supervises a computer system at the Johns Hopkins University, turned down a trip to Scotland with his parents, partly because he fears other countries won't ward off the Y2K computer bug and flights might be stranded.

Otherwise, he said, just like every year, "my desire to go out and celebrate is overridden by my desire to avoid traffic. I usually sit at home and watch everybody else go crazy. I haven't even thought about it."

Laurie Berger, editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letter, said marketers were out of sync with consumer logic.

"The millennium was a sexy topic, and everyone jumped on it as a way to sell travel at an inflated price," she said. "The marketers might not have thought the consumers were smart travelers. They were underestimating the consumer."

The disconnect is particularly glaring in the cruise industry. A year ago, cruise lines announced that millennium cruises were booked up. But when the prices and itineraries came out -- many lines offered two-week cruises instead of the standard one -- a flurry of cancellations followed. With plenty of space left, some cruise lines are shortening and discounting trips and offering free airfare.

"They really got egg on their face," said Peggy Marc Kaz, a travel counselor with Beale Travel Service in Chicago. "People are saying, `We don't have that kind of time and money, and we're not going to spend it.' "

Add the millennium apathy and price gouging to Y2K fears, and you have airlines reducing schedules on the most hyperbolic holiday in centuries. Virgin Atlantic will ground its 25-plane fleet New Year's Eve because of low passenger loads, and other airlines have cut back flights.

With no precedent (in anyone's lifetime) to draw lessons from, businesses and consumers alike are unsure of how to behave. "I think there's pressure to do something -- not necessarily elaborate -- but something unique," said Grace Shih, 22, a medical student in Gainesville, Fla. She hasn't made plans "because of the feeling that people are going to ask you, `What were you doing for the 2000 New Year?' You want to be able to say, `I was in Alaska or Hawaii, not that I was at home.' "

Restaurants are adopting various strategies to deal with the holiday. Some, like Union Square Cafe and other award-winning restaurants in New York, are closing that weekend because they don't think they can meet the inflated expectations. Others are jacking up prices and hoping for a jackpot.

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