New Zealand is cashing in on Cup fever

Sailing: Boatloads of money have descended on Auckland for the America's Cup races, and the hotels are rising to the occasion.

February 07, 2000|By Bruce Stannard | Bruce Stannard,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

AUCKLAND, New Zealand -- New Zealanders are generally no more or less rapacious than anyone else, but right now they do seem to be intent on wringing every last dollar out of the America's Cup being contested here.

With the regatta's final series, between Italy's Prada and defender Team New Zealand, set to get under way here Feb. 19, prices in top-end hotels have shot up. In some cases they have almost doubled in the past week. At the 272-room Hyatt Regency, the standard room rate has gone up from $118 to $180.

A standard room at the 218-room Heritage Grand starts at $163. A two-bedroom suite goes for $338 a night. A standard room at the Stamford Plaza costs $146 a night, while the two-bedroom Stamford Suite will set you back $984 a night.

Lance Bickford, CEO of industry group Tourism Auckland, calls this "situation normal."

"I don't see any evidence of gouging going on," he said.

"Given the strength of the U.S. dollar, which is worth just over two New Zealand dollars, the prices are not unreasonable. The situation in Auckland is no different from anywhere else in the world. It's simply a matter of supply and demand."

One way around the spiraling price of accommodation is to bring your own. That is exactly what many of America's wealthiest yacht owners have done.

The Auckland waterfront is crammed with the world's biggest, most luxurious water-born pleasure domes; super-yachts with names such as "Liberty," "Freedom," "Independence" and "Enterprise."

Moored side by side, they provide a mind-boggling diversion for the tourist hordes who shuffle around the waterfront. The so-called dot.com millionaires are here in force.

Netscape boss Jim Clark's 48-meter Hyperion arrived in mid-October. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen's 60-meter "Meduse" arrived in January with Compaq chairman Tom Perkins' magnificent "Andromeda la Dea." The 48-meter "Itasca," owned by former Treasury Secretary William Simon, is moored not far from the 53-meter "Liberty."

All this conspicuous consumption dovetails neatly with the essentially elitist nature of the America's Cup.

Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy, the world's biggest luxury goods manufacturer with $2 billion in annual sales, wants to keep it that way. Vuitton sponsors the challenger elimination series, a marketing exercise that has cost it $12 million during the past four months.

"The Cup is for the elite," Louis Vuitton spokesman Bruno Trouble says. "But that is precisely why we are interested in it. We would be very unhappy if some down-market sponsors sought to muscle in on the action.

"If a pet food manufacturer or a fast-food chain became involved, that would be the end for us," he said.

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