EVENTS & PROMOTIONS;HOTELS USE PROMOTIONAL TIE-INS TO BOOST HOLIDAY OCCUPANCY

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When Craig Hunt ran a small hotel in Georgia 20 years ago, he let his best customers know they could have rooms for $10 a night during December.

The discounted rate brought in enough money to cover basic costs, filled otherwise empty rooms and bred good will among the clientele.

"That was probably the original Christmas hotel promotion," joked Mr. Hunt, now senior VP-worldwide franchising for Holiday Inn Worldwide.

Since then, hotel operators have figured out that giving consumers incentives to stay overnight during the holidays is smart business, boosting occupancy rates significantly during what was once a slowdown time for hotels.

Major marketers such as MasterCard International, American Express Co. and Hertz Corp. put heavy emphasis on holiday travel-related promotions involving hotels, and such efforts seem to be proliferating each year.

"Without our holiday promotions, we would probably be under 50% occupancy," said a spokeswoman for the Peabody in Memphis, Tenn. The Peabody's holiday packages include three different New Year's Eve deals, each tied to room rate bargains.

Nashville's Opryland Hotel draws 90% occupancy throughout the holiday season with its "Country Christmas" promotion, initiated in 1984. Nearby Opryland Park also has a major tie-in to Charlotte, N.C.-based NationsBank for a credit card promotion offering discounts for cardholders visiting the theme park.

Opryland Park VP-Marketing Mike Dimand said his facility also has "the world's largest nativity scene," which helps lure as many as 500 tour buses a day to the area, many bringing visitors who stay at local hotels.

Millions of people.... and lights

"We deal in millions here," Mr. Dimand said. "Our Christmas light show has 1.8 million lights and millions come to see the nativity scene."

ITT Sheraton Corp. and MasterCard have a holiday offer with selected Sheraton hotels and Four Points hotels when stays are paid for with a MasterCard. The promotion is unique in that it slices an average of 25% off the already SureSaver Weekend rates and extends availability for the rates from Friday and Saturday to a four-day stay.

In step with Joffrey

The ANA Hotel, Washington, is drawing hundreds of guests this year for its holiday celebration of the Joffrey Ballet's version of "The Nutcracker." Its holiday promotional package includes tickets to the ballet and other perks.

Marriott International offers a variety of competitive lodging promotions, said Ralph Giannola, VP-marketing. Among them is a tie-in between Marriott's Residence Inns and AmEx offering incentives and discounts.

Marriott also has a "Two for Breakfast" promotion with Hertz allowing a rental car upgrade for users; it also includes discounts on meals and late checkout privileges.

Increasingly, these promotions are helping far-flung families cope with holiday budgets as well as other problems of the season, Mr. Giannola said.

Lower "rates are an alternative to staying with relatives," he said.

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