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La Jolla hoteliers increasing roles in North County convention group

Two local hoteliers with a keen interest in boosting tourism in La Jolla have joined the board of the San Diego North, the branch of the Convention & Visitors Bureau responsible for the region from La Jolla to Fallbrook.

Terry Underwood, general manager of the Grande Colonial Hotel, and his counterpart David Friederich, who manages the La Valencia Hotel and its sister property, the Rancho Valencia Resort in Ranch Santa Fe, say they see opportunities in their new roles.

Friederich said that “coming off one of the worst years in 70 years, we need to grow our numbers.”

Underwood, who left the Promote La Jolla board when his term expired last year to take a seat on the North group’s board, said he joined the group “for more leverage” than this hotel got from PLJ.

San Diego North brings them a dedicated sales team, including a new vice president of sales in Larry Kaufman, public relations campaigns and e-commerce booking engines that drive traffic and also generate referral revenues, he noted.

“I think there’s a unique opportunity for the La Jolla destination to get marketing and sales support that we’ve never had before,” Underwood added.

For Friederich, one of the draws to being involved with the group normally considered a “North County” organization is that it has a different focus than the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau. That group’s primary mission is to fill downtown and Hotel Circle establishments and attract large conventions, he said.

While the greater La Jolla area, particularly the University Towne Center hotels have enough rooms for larger groups, ConVis’s approach is “complicated for smaller hotels.”

San Diego North aims to help hotels in La Jolla and other areas outside the city’s core —historic properties, coastal and golf resorts — develop a different relationship, he said, adding that reaching tourists who want to visit these locations requires “a different intimacy in sales.”

San Diego North Executive Director Cami Mattson said she thinks the relationship is a good one because La Jolla’s “sophisticated feel, its buffered location, ocean preserve and properties doing slow food and organic dining” match up well with how her organization is trying to position the region.

Because the goal is not “to sell local” but rather to bring in overnight visitors from outside the region, the effort is attractive to La Jolla’s hotel operators.

But another reason is that 10 percent of the city of San Diego’s Tourism Marketing District collections to to San Diego North, Underwood said. “That amounts to about $2.2 million or nearly 85 percent of the total budget” for the northern convention group.

(TMD revenues come from a 2 percent assessment that hotel owners agreed to assess themselves.)

From a practical standpoint, Underwood added, much of San Diego North’s efforts “must be focused on generating income” for hotel’s within the San Diego city limits — La Jolla, Rancho Bernardo, part of what is called Del Mar but is really in San Diego, and the Interstate-56 corridor, an area with about 6,000 hotel rooms.

“What this means for La Jolla is access to tremendous resources (through San Diego North) unavailable before to drive business and leisure travelers to our destination,"Underwood note. “This should benefit the restaurants and retail outlets in the community.”

Friederich said he believes that it doesn’t do any good “sitting on the sidelines. Being critical is one thing. It’s another to get involved and help with the decision process.”

San Diego North recently launched several new initiatives including a “Tourism Ambassadors Program” aimed at business and trade groups who can help bring conventions and meetings to the area.” It is tied to a charitable effort, so that for each group an ambassador brings in a donation will be made to Outdoor Outreach, a group that runs an outdoor program for at risk you.

There’s also “Tell Us Your San Diego North Story,” encouraging people to tell why they like the region. The sweepstakes winner gets a three-night stay at the Grande Colonial, surfing lessons from Surf Diva and tickets to Birch Aquarium at Scripps good for up to a family of four.

The San Diego North board also includes representatives from the Marriott Del Mar, the Grande Del Mar, the Birch Aquarium and the Rancho Bernardo Inn.

Signs pointing upward

A report by the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau, or ConVis, released in January showed that visitor spending last year was down 11.2 percent and hotel occupancy dropped 5.6 percent.

ConVis Executive Director Joe Terzi said then that the numbers were due in part to a 23 percent drop in group meetings and predicted that this year should show a modest improvement and 2011 a return to peak levels.

Grande Colonial’s Terry Underwood said last week he was seeing “a little bit of pulse” that backed Terzi’s forecast.

“We had a good February and we’re seeing spring breakers,” he said. “Seeing those discretionary, leisure dollars can be an indication that people are willing to spend on travel again. ... People want to feel like travel is a value. If they pay $300 and it’s a $475 room, they see a good deal.”

He’s looking ahead to the Memorial Day weekend, which he called “the next big landmark.”