Hotels charge a pretty penny when more people plan to visit

During big events like the Olympics, room rates reflect supply and demand

Strategies

May 30, 2004|By Jane Engle | Jane Engle,Los Angeles Times

How does an inn turn a $59-a-night room into a $219-a-night room?

Simply by booking guests during a big event in the area, such as the Super Bowl, the Olympics or the recent New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.

Price gouging, consumers say.

Prudent business, hotels say.

Whichever side you're on, the laws of supply and demand make it hard to land a bargain bed during big gatherings. As demand increases, so do room rates.

You might spend more than you'd like, but you don't have to wail the budget blues to get into the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival or sprint into bankruptcy to attend the Olympics. You can minimize the damage.

Be persistent. Be assertive. Get creative. And be willing to take a chance.

Persistence paid off for Beth Riggins. Nearly every year for 20 years, the Houston resident has attended the Big Easy's jazz festival, which draws nearly half a million music lovers on two spring weekends.

Trolling the Internet in February, she found the Rathbone Inn, part of the Rathbone Mansions on Esplanade Avenue, about two blocks from the French Quarter, and booked two connecting bedrooms, with a common sitting area, for her party of five.

The nightly rate was $200 total for the festival's final weekend, April 29 to May 2.

This may not sound like a bargain, but finding even one room, much less two, for $200 or less in or near the French Quarter during the jazz festival can be a struggle, as I've found the last few years.

Unless you book at the last minute.

I was skeptical about this last piece of advice, given by, among other experts, Michael Davidson, director of the Lester E. Kabacoff School of Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Administration at the University of New Orleans. But I tried it and became a believer.

I phoned the Rathbone Inn the afternoon of April 29, seeking a room for that night through May 2.

General manager Richard Barb said his normal jazz festival rate was $189 to $219 a night but that he would charge me $139. (I didn't identify myself as a reporter until the end of our conversation.)

"I have an empty room," he said. "People canceled a couple of days ago." The same room, he added, might go for as little as $59 a night during the slow summer months.

The inn's Web site, www.rathboneinn.com, didn't show a vacancy. It pays to call.

My luck wasn't quite as good when I phoned four of the city's Wyndham hotels that day. Three said they were sold out for all or some of the four nights from April 29 to May 2.

The fourth, the Whitney, a Wyndham Historic Hotel about five blocks from the French Quarter on Poydras Street, quoted me $195 a night. I asked whether I could get a better deal -- again, not identifying myself as a reporter -- and was offered a $155 Internet rate, a savings of $160 for four nights.

Another lesson, good for any occasion: Never accept the first rate you're quoted.

Davidson explained his contrarian advice about when to book: Hotel owners, knowing plenty of people will want rooms during a large annual gathering, are loath to discount early in the game -- even if they reward early bookers with lower rates the rest of the year.

If you have special needs or, like Riggins, are traveling with a group of friends, it can make sense to reserve well in advance to ensure the right room type.

But "if you want to lock it in and have safety," Davidson said, "I'm afraid you'll get the highest rate."

Individuals or couples willing to take a chance should consider booking a week or even a few days ahead to get deals, he suggested. That's because New Orleans' 37,000-plus hotel rooms almost never sell out entirely, and, as at the Rathbone Inn, some guests will cancel at the last minute.

Hoteliers will rent a room at a discount rather than leave it empty. Many will also make a deal with you because they may have collected a penalty fee for the late cancellation, said Bobby Bowers, a lodging industry analyst with Smith Travel Research in Hendersonville, Tenn.

During a special event, you might also consider staying at a hotel farther from the action. In the case of New Orleans, that means avoiding the touristy French Quarter.

But check out the safety of the neighborhood and your transportation options.

At $119 per night, the Wyndham Metairie-New Orleans, another Wyndham I contacted on April 29, was cheaper than its cousin, the Whitney on Poydras Street.

But it was also 9 miles, and a $14 to $20 cab ride away, from the French Quarter, by the hotel desk's count. A round trip could more than eat up the difference in room rates.

For the Summer Olympics, staying at a hotel farther out or renting a private home or apartment may be your only option to reduce lodging costs.

Hotels in host cities for the Olympics usually mark up rates three to four times above normal, said Don Williams, vice president of Cartan Tours in Manhattan Beach, Calif., an authorized vendor for the games.

In Athens, Greece, he said, the price inflation is extreme because there are fewer hotel rooms than in Sydney, Australia, where the Olympics were held in 2000; European hotel prices are higher; and the dollar is weak. Rates near the Athens venues can run $500 a night and up.

For many hoteliers, the games mean a once-in-a-lifetime windfall, lodging analyst Bowers said.

During special events, hotels may also incur expenses such as adding staff, and income from restaurants and other on-site facilities may fall because guests are gone all day attending the festivals or games, experts said.

But the bottom line on the price of a room during big events is this: "If a lot of people want it, it's worth more," Bowers said.

With some effort and luck, you can pay a little less.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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