Orbitz tries to shore up Florida hotels with beach guarantee

Orbitz' tries to shore up Florida hotels with beach guaranteeIf you're staying away from Florida this summer because you're concerned that its beaches may be sullied by oil from the massive Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Orbitz hopes you'll reconsider.

Orbitz, one of the web's top online travel sites, hopes to lure travelers back to the Sunshine State by guaranteeing that it will refund a customer's hotel costs if a government agency closes a beach -- or declares it dangerous -- within 20 miles of the property.

"We want to create a peace of mind that they don't have to give up their summer vacation," said Jeanenne Tornatore, a company spokeswoman. "If it does become the case that oil does come ashore in their affected area, they won't have to worry about being out hundreds of dollars."

To cash in on the deal, customers must have made their stand-alone hotel reservation with one of 120 Florida hotels along the Gulf Coast on Orbitz. The guarantee applies to reservations for travel from June 14 through July 31. If a government agency closes a beach near one of these hotels, Orbitz will contact customers to inquire if they wish a refund, Tornatore said.

In the coming weeks, the company hopes to extend the guarantee to customers with stand-alone reservations at beach hotels in Texas, Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi.

So far, Florida beaches haven't experienced closures because of the oil spill, although government agencies report that tar balls are washing ashore in some areas. The story is different, however, for beaches closer to the spill, such as several in Alabama, that have taken to flying double red flags when water offshore is considered too contaminated to swim in.

Summer travel bookings to beaches in states ringing the Gulf of Mexico fell after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank April 22, causing the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

In the ensuing months, as British Petroleum has tried unsuccessfully to cap the leaking well and the oil slick has spread, travel agents find that consumers perceptions' of what remains open is harming their business more than tar washing up on beaches.

"We've seen a decline in hotel bookings to destinations that touch on the Gulf of Mexico -- even destinations that haven't been effected by the oil spill," said Orbitz' Tornatore. "There's a psychological factor, people are worried where it might go."

Even so, companies that track areas that are most popular with travelers report that searches for flights to destinations along the Gulf of Mexico are up, in many cases, when compared with last month.

Flight searches in the U.S. for trips to Fort Meyers and Orlando, Fla. were up in June when compared with May, found skyscanner.com in a recent survey of travel to major cities affected by the oil spill.

"Overall, it looks like the area is recovering and seeing an uptake in the interest in travel," said Scot Carlson, U.S. & Canada country manager for Skyscanner Ltd.

But searches for flights to some areas already affected by the spill remains down markedly, the agency's survey found. For example, U.S. searches for flights to Baton Rouge, La. were down 33% in June when compared with May, and searches for flights to Mobile, Ala. plunged 75% this month when compared to last.

For its part, Orbitz said it will revisit its offer to reimburse customers for hotel costs if government agencies close beaches near their hotel because of oil-related concerns as the July 31 deadline nears.

"It's such an uncertain situation," Tornatore said. "The deadline is July 31 for now, but that's not to say that we would not necessarily extend it."
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