When the mercury tops 100 degrees, bargains are bountiful at East Valley hotels and resorts. In June, July and August, vacationers check in to luxury inns with water playgrounds and sumptuous spas. And they pay only a third or a quarter of the tab that March visitors ante up for the same rooms and service. Unlike the big spenders who fly to the Valley from cold climes like Chicago and Seattle during winter months, summer visitors usually drive to the destination, said Robert Brinton, executive director of the Mesa Convention & Visitors Bureau.
The biggest single source of the East Valley’s sizzling-season vacationers are Arizonans, some from just the other side of the metro area, local hoteliers say.
Southern California also sends lots of vacationers to the Valley for weekend escapes, while vacationers bound for the beach from Texas or Colorado often pass through the Valley en route to the coast, Brinton said.
After a few dismal years of stunted travel growth, last summer was a good one for East Valley hotels. Top that off with an outstanding winter season this year that filled hotels even though innkeepers boosted room rates significantly for the first time in the millennium.
Local tourism leaders hope the trend will continue throughout summer. So far, they say the outlook is positive.
“We’re on pace for a really strong summer even with increased room rates,” said Kristen Jarnagin, spokeswoman for the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort. “Last summer we got a couple of big groups in the summer. Now we’re seeing a pick-up in leisure travel.”
At the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess Resort, leisure travel business bookings are solid for June and ahead of last year for July and August, said Jennifer Franklin, resort spokeswoman.
The pricey north Scottsdale hotel expects to achieve occupancy rates — the percentage of available rooms actually booked — “in the mid-70s” this summer, Franklin said. That’s a goal many hotels at beach destinations would cheer.
The story is the same from other East Valley hoteliers.
And they are tentatively raising summer room rates in anticipation. But not enough to chase the crowds away.
Cheap room rates are the big draw in summer, said Rachel Sacco, president of the Scottsdale Convention & Visitors Bureau.
“This destination is a great experience and a great deal (in summer),” Sacco said. “If somebody can stay in a fourstar or five-star resort and have a luxury experience that doesn’t bite into the pocketbook, it’s a great motivator.”
But if bargains are the driver for Valley summer tourism, will soaring gas prices quell enthusiasm for the trip?
It’s a concern, Brinton said.
So far, in several nationwide polls, U.S. consumers said they plan to hit the road this summer regardless of pump prices. But many of those polls were taken weeks — and numerous oil price increases — ago.
“The most recent research was conducted when gas prices were $2.30 a gallon,” Brinton said. “At some point, when you are filling up for $60, you have to wonder, what will be the cut-off?”
AAA Arizona predicts gas prices will be a factor this summer.
“People seem to be looking closely at their (vacation) budget this year,” said Linda Gorman, AAA Arizona spokeswoman. “Single travelers may decide to fly, but for families, driving will still be the best option.”
For example, a Las Vegas-Valley round-trip by SUV would cost an estimated $106 at current gas prices, Gorman said, while a round-trip plane ticket would cost $118. Multiply that by a family of four and the transportation choice becomes obvious, she said.
Similarly a San Diego-Valley round trip by SUV would cost about $125 in gas and $180 per person to fly, she said.
Still, gas is much pricier than last summer, Gorman said. And while people won’t stay home, they are likely to scrimp on vacation amenities to make up for the gas squeeze, she said. That might include choosing a cheaper hotel, lopping a day off the trip, picking a closer destination or opting for picnic lunches instead of restaurant meals, she said.
But it could be a bonanza rather than a bust for local hotels if people opt to drive across town to swim at a resort pool instead of across California to swim in the ocean, Jarnagin said.
“We think gas prices will help us,” she said. “We think people will stay closer to home, and our No. 1 customer in summer is Arizonans.”