King holiday mini-vacation gaining favor

Travel agents report increase in brief getaways

Cold weather is motivator

Fewer crowds, eased restrictions at resorts

January 20, 2004|By Paul Adams and Bill Atkinson | Paul Adams and Bill Atkinson,SUN STAFF

Though it still lags far behind Labor Day or even Presidents Day, the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday is gradually giving the nation's tourism industry another reason to celebrate as travelers take advantage of the long weekend to book mini-vacations.

With winter weather gripping the region, many of those lucky enough to have had the day off yesterday headed for nearby ski slopes or packed their swimming suits and flew to someplace warm, travel experts said.

A three-day weekend in the middle of the customary January travel slump represents a needed boost for an industry that was suffering a year ago as a result of uncertainty over the war with Iraq.

Lee Rosenbluth, president and chief executive of Rosenbluth Vacations in Philadelphia, said the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday is growing in importance with vacationers.

"I think people cherish their holidays," he said. "It can grow year after year as more people enjoy the longer weekends and plan for them further in advance."

Rosenbluth said business is up 9 percent this year compared with 2003, when war jitters and a sputtering economy slammed many tourist destinations.

"We've noticed an influx of travel due to the weather," he said. "It has been so bitterly cold we have had people just come in and say, `I just want to get away, I don't care where you send me.'"

Kevin Abell, president of Roland Park Travel in Baltimore, said many of his clients take advantage of a three-day weekend to book a week in the Caribbean or Mexico. Of the 500 clients he had traveling over the holiday, 200 were heading for warm international destinations.

Many find it easier to travel on the King holiday than on more widely observed holidays because crowds are lighter and there are fewer travel hassles. Many resorts also loosen restrictions on length of stay and offer cheaper rates after the Christmas and New Year's holidays, Abell said.

"It's coming more into vogue," he said, referring the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

For airlines, the holiday represents a mixed bag.

While many see a slight uptick in leisure travel over the three-day weekend, the benefits are balanced by a general decline in business travel. Fewer people working adds up to fewer business trips, said Jason Schechter, a spokesman for United Airlines. The carrier saw no increase in bookings as a result of the holiday.

A spokeswoman for US Airways in Arlington, Va., said the airline experienced a 10 percent increase in leisure bookings last weekend compared with the prior weekend. But the airline has not noticed any long-term trend toward increased travel over the King holiday.

That could change as more businesses and local governments start giving employees the holiday off from work, said Christine Turneabe-Connelly, a spokeswoman for Southwest Airlines of Dallas. Southwest, which saw its bookings increase slightly over the weekend, is the dominant carrier at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

"As more people become aware of it and it becomes more accepted as a holiday, it will continue to grow," she said. "But it is not yet at the same level as Memorial Day or Labor Day."

That assessment was echoed by Erika Yowell, a spokeswoman for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

"It is not one of our biggest weekends," she said. "Not everybody has the holiday off. It is not like Memorial Day or Presidents Day. MLK hasn't quite achieved the prominence of those [holidays]."

But Maryland ski resorts and hotels noticed a definite bump in bookings for the weekend.

Sarah Duck, marketing coordinator at Wisp at Deep Creek Mountain Resort in Garrett County, said the Martin Luther King holiday is big for the resort and other regional ski areas. She said Wisp more than tripled the number of openings for its children's ski program in anticipation of the holiday, to 420 from 120.

"All of those slots were taken this weekend," Duck said.

Michael Walsh, general manager at the Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay in Cambridge, said the holiday was one of the hotel's busiest all winter. The 400-room hotel was more than 75 percent occupied, compared with a normal winter weekend of 50 percent.

He estimated that about 600 to 700 people came in for the King holiday.

"There were a lot of people just out and about," Walsh said. "People using the indoor pool, the game rooms, people just getting out and getting away. We see a lot more people getting out because schools are closed."

He said the hotel's 15,000-square-foot spa was jammed. "You couldn't get in there on Friday, Saturday and Sunday," Walsh said. "Even today it was packed."

A few bundled up guests braved the cold to play golf. "Crazy, crazy," he said.

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