The summertime blues won’t be getting Ventura County down anytime soon, according to industry representatives who say the tourist trade here is still thriving during a season defined by poor economics and the high cost of travel.
Hoteliers and business ambassadors in Ventura are in accord that “staycations” from Los Angeles-area travelers remaining local have helped maintain a healthy tourist atmosphere this summer, but visitor services proxies hope that extra funding denied by city officials won’t affect countywide travel in the upcoming off-season.
California motorists in 2008 have been mindful of their gas expenditures, but such frugality is a good thing, according to Oscar Pena, president of the Ventura Port District, who believes people are abiding by the “one tank rule.”
“I firmly believe people are measuring their trip on how many tanks of gas they’re going to spend,” Pena said. “People can still come to Ventura from the L.A. area, perhaps with one tank of gas. I think people are thinking that way these days.”
“People are trading down, not out,” said Jim Luttjohann, executive director of the Ventura Convention and Visitors Bureau. “They’re opting to stay a little closer to home, maybe in that one-tank range.”
Tourists here, he added, are “still treating themselves; they’re just watching it to a degree.”
“I do think tourism is challenged,” Lisa Stevens, director of sales and marketing for the Oxnard Marriott, said. “People are more discerning in what they do with their dollars.”
That discernment has done well for the Harbor Village, where, according to Pena, sales at restaurants, and boating diving rentals there, have held up this summer.
“Our retail sales have held up to what we had last year, and some of them are even up slightly,” Pena said. “The economy hasn’t stopped that. We’re glad.”
That factor, combined with the aforementioned impediment that fuel has on placed long car trips, could be one reason why Ventura’s neighbors to the south opt for vacations requiring shorter travel.
“As gas prices have gone up, has that kept people home, or are people choosing Ventura over, say, Big Sur?” asked Rick Cole, Ventura city manager.
For the most part, Luttjohann noted, Ventura County has benefited through June and July from those very same people who make that climb from L.A. over the Conejo Grade on Highway 101, opting for day- or weekend-long excursions rather than cross-country or international travel. It’s worth noting that the visitors bureau has done well this summer from overseas travelers.
“We always see a lot of international visitors along the coast,” he said. “I think the very favorable exchange rate they’re seeing has increased that volume.”
It’s also helped to stabilize local hospitality resources, where area hotels are experiencing high occupancy rates.
The numbers speak for themselves, and last weekend, according to Luttjohann, there were three vacancies at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, three at the Pierpont Inn, and a mere one room available at Best Western.
“Those are indications we’ve had a very strong summer beach weekend,” he said.
Two months ago, that was not perceived to be the case, after the Ventura City Council in May opted out of paying the visitors center a near-$60,000 bonus. The decision by officials — a means of saving finances on a tight municipal budget — emphasized practicality and prioritized public safety. Precedence to police training and increased foot patrols was given.
“It’s not an adversarial thing,” Cole explained. “The question is, part of having a great environment for visitors is not just the advertising or the events we put on, part of it is having clean streets, safe streets and a natural attractive environment.”
Cole said that without the bonus, the visitors bureau ends up earning no less than it did last year. But with the city’s 2008 fiscal calendar having begun on July 1, Luttjohann and staff won’t be feeling ill effects of the lost bonus anytime soon; budgeting for this summer had already been mapped out through last year’s planning cycle. It’s in the upcoming fall/winter off-season, however, when some creative marketing to draw snowbirds to the area may be necessary.
“You have to make seasonal adjustments,” Luttjohann said, “to reach a consumer who might not otherwise look at Ventura that time of year.”
Area hotels have kept that in mind. According to Stevens of the Marriott in Oxnard, promotional events for the coastal resort have included distribution of gas cards and area shopping packages.
Other attractions, like the Rubicon Theatre Festival or an upcoming training camp in Oxnard for the Dallas Cowboys, have helped to create tourists out of the reluctant — those sensory-based experiences that ensure people will travel over the county line.
Luttjohann cited the success of Ventura County wineries as an example, partly because of both the hands-on and taste bud appeal, yet mainly from the inaccessibility to the Santa Ynez Valley resulting from the Gap Fire.
“If it’s experiential,” Luttjohann said, “it is prime in consumers’ trip-making decisions right now.”
Prime for Luttjohann right now is hoping the economy will improve, and local tourism won’t falter.
“So far,” he said, “whether it’s the gas or the economy or other concerns, summer will be OK. How much our normal downturn in the fall is worsened, we will see.”