WINTER OF DISCONTENT HEATS UP TRAVEL PLANS BUSINESS IS BRISK AT WARM LOCALES, SKI RESORTS

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Famous groundhog Punxsutawney Phil this month predicted six more weeks of winter, just the news hoped for by warm weather travel destinations and ski resorts.

This might also be good news for advertising as warm weather destinations, such as Miami and the Florida Keys, increase their ad budgets to lure winter weary Northerners to their more favorable climates.

As frigid temperatures have iced the nation this winter, calls to warm weather vacation escapes have hit the boiling point. Business has also been brisk at ski resorts, which got record snowfalls, but not those in the Northeast where bitter cold temperatures forced skiers off the slopes and into the lodges.

The record below-zero temperatures in the Midwest and Northeast have also kept many people indoors and out of travel offices. But as soon as temperatures rose to tolerable levels, calls and visits took off, several travel marketers reported.

"Typically, January in the colder areas is a real big month, but [volume] is unusually high because the weather has been so bad," said Barbara Hemberger, media relations manager for Carlson Travel Network, which has 1,500 offices in North America. "We've been inundated with people saying, `Just get me out of here and send me anywhere warm-Mexico, the Caribbean, Arizona, Florida.' Also, they are buying more expensive packages than they would normally because they just want to go now. One man came in on Monday and said he wanted to leave Thursday."

Because it is a heavy advertising period anyway for warm weather travel destinations, most ad budgets remain pretty much intact. But some destinations have added incremental dollars to take advantage of the extended cold spell and much of the country's early case of cabin fever.

The Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau this week will announce plans to boost spending to take advantage of the extended cold snap in Northern markets, via Turkel Advertising, Coral Gables, Fla. The Florida Keys/Monroe County Tourism Development Council in December agreed to boost spending $100,000, via Tinsley Advertising, Miami.

The New York Times has had a small surge in "opportunistic advertising" for its Sunday travel section from Caribbean hotels and Florida destinations trying to lure weather weary New Yorkers, said William Adler, director of corporate communications.

For its two Fort Lauderdale, Fla., hotels, Marriott Corp. extended its ad schedule two weeks, until Feb. 1, in the New York Times, a spokeswoman said. Harris Drury Cohen, Fort Lauderdale, handled.

But as destinations began to fill, Club Mediterranee actually cut back print and radio advertising "to ride the coattails of the bad weather" and preserve ad funds for the spring, when bookings begin to slow, said Ricky Carrick, VP-sales.Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer/Euro RSCG, New York, handles.

Club Med, the Florida Division of Tourism, Hilton Hotels Corp., Norwegian Cruise Line and Sandals Resorts in the Caribbean all report a surge in calls for information on warm weather destinations following the extended bitter cold spells.

"Last year was a mild winter, and there wasn't the sense of immediacy that we have this year," said Gary Stogner, public relations director for the Florida Division of Tourism. "Sometimes we don't see the wear-down factor after an extended cold period until late February."

"We've seen a big jump in the number of calls. We're 20% to 40% above last year for the month of January," Mr. Carrick said, adding that Club Med is close to selling out its Mexican resorts through March.

However, Cruise Holidays International, a 172-office travel agency, thinks the record January business stems more from an improved economy than the weather.

"Weather has an impact every year-psychologically it makes people think about warm weather destinations," said J. Michael London, president.

But New England ski areas were getting a bit too much of the cold.

"Our numbers are definitely not what we had hoped them to be, and this is a direct reflection of the weather," said Ken Beaulieu, news bureau director at Killington Ski Resort in Vermont.

At that resort, where wind chills of 70 degrees below zero were recorded, lift ticket prices were reduced to heat up business.

"It's been below freezing almost every day in December and January. Martin Luther King weekend we were down more than 30% from last year. But, we hope with all the snow, we'll be in for a great spring," Mr. Beaulieu said.

Also, New York hotels were hurt by West Coast residents deferring business trips to avoid winter storms and to stay home to repair damage from the earthquake, said Stan Plog, a Los Angeles travel industry consultant.

The weather, however, has been more of a positive than a negative for Snow Trails Ski Resort in Ohio and Ski Liberty in Pennsylvania, which both reported strong business in January.

"Our best advertising is snow on the ground in surrounding markets," said Jim Epperson, marketing manager for Snow Trails. "It's the most consistent business we've had in many years. But on the below zero [temperature] days, it may as well have been raining."

Jeffery D. Zbar contributed to this story.

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