HOTEL CHAINS LINK TO CARTOON FOLK

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Homer Simpson, Fred Flintstone, Charlie Brown and Sonic the Hedgehog are going on vacation this summer, and hotel chains hope they bring a lot of families with them.

Hotel marketers have lined up a full cast of licensed cartoon characters to give their properties a higher profile as a family fun destination. Many of these chains hope to lure parents with special family rates that allow kids to stay free.

But if that's not enough, they're throwing in value-added extras, such as activity books, plush toys, videos and videogames in hopes kids will beg mom and dad to check into their hotels. These extras help hotels maintain their rates and get away from rampant discounting.

"Kids have a tremendous amount of influence-far more than you would think-in choosing a hotel," said Barry Parrish, VP-sales and marketing for Howard Johnson Franchise Systems.

"Parents want to go where the kids will have fun," added Scott Deaver, VP-marketing for Ramada Franchise Systems.

Hotel chains have good reason to shell out licensing fees to associate with high profile characters, who are instantly recognizable. Family vacation travel makes up about $12.7 billion, or 18.4%, of the $69 billion hotel/motel lodging industry, said D.K. Shifflet & Associates, a McLean, Va., travel consultancy and market researcher. Family vacations accounted for about 19% of all room nights in 1993, up from 15.6% in '89.

"We're historically stronger as a business travel chain, and we need to do things to promote the leisure family business," Mr. Deaver said. "We see the leisure segment being the fastest growing segment for hotels for some time to come."

Ramada late this month will break a $2 million network, cable and print campaign in family magazines to promote its association with the animated Fox TV show "The Simpsons," with advertising from Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer/Euro RSCG, New York. Kids can get Simpsons activity books, iron-on patches or temporary tattoos, while the family gets "Bart bucks" for discounts on Simpsons merchandise. Impax Marketing, Philadelphia, in charge of sales promotion.

Days Inns of America is running a new network, cable, radio and print campaign teaming Hanna-Barbera Productions' Fred Flintstone with its spokesman Willard Scott as part of a two-year promotion, with advertising from the Joey Reiman Agency, Atlanta. Days Inn is offering special rates and a Flintstones Fun Days family fun travel kit with toys, a map, games and crayons. Plush Flintstone dolls are also available for a $2.99 suggested retail price. Strottman International is the promotion agency.

Forte Hotels' Travelodge this month teams with Paramount Home Video and Charlie Brown, Snoopy and company to offer a free "Peanuts" video with five stays between May 15 and Aug. 31. Guests also get a free plush Travelodge Sleepy Bear. An estimated $2 million to $3 million in network cable and spot TV will support, as will point-of-purchase at video stores and rental outlets, via Franklin Stoorza, San Diego.

Howard Johnson is again linking up with Sega of America's Sonic the Hedgehog for a $5.5 million network cable, network radio, magazine and USA Today print campaign breaking this month from AC&R, New York.

Howard Johnson for the second year is offering its "Kids Go HoJo With Sega" promotion giving away fun kits and the opportunity to check out Sega Game Gear sets and videogames. Discounts on Sega merchandise will also be available.

The chain will also sponsor an international videogame championship at 100 of its properties. Strottman International, Irvine, Calif., is the promotion agency.

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