Originally created 07/04/05

Free gas used to lure summer tourists

PORTLAND, Maine - Resort towns worried that high gas prices will keep visitors away are offering an incentive from Maine to California: a free tank of gas.

The towns are tapping into motorists' angst over high gas prices during the summer tourism season to offer encouragement to drive a little farther. For some, the promotions have been so successful that they're becoming a summer tradition.

California's Big Bear Lake recently extended its spring promotion - a $25 gas voucher - for the entire summer because it was so successful.

"It's a good incentive, especially considering gas prices in southern California," said Dan Dunning, who lives in Irvine, Calif., 90 miles away. He used the voucher to help fill the tank of his SUV while visiting Big Bear Lake with his parents.

Such gas giveaways have become an increasingly popular marketing tool as gas prices continue to rise, said Justin McNaull from American Automobile Association.

Gas prices surged an average of 8 cents a gallon over the past two weeks, with the average for all three grades hitting $2.24 a gallon on Friday. The price was 8 cents from the all-time average high of $2.32 set in April, said Trilby Lundberg, who publishes the Lundberg Survey of 7,000 gas stations across the nation.

"Gas prices are certainly something that people talk about. Even if high gas prices play a comparatively small part of your overall travel costs, some people perceive them as a much larger factor than they actually are," McNaull said.

Gas giveaways are an effective outreach tool because they show that the tourism industry empathizes with cost-conscious travelers, said Cathy Keefe, spokeswoman for the Travel Industry Association of America in Washington, D.C.

"It's one of those things that's a small gesture that makes for a huge goodwill effort. Travelers appreciate it. We're all watching our pennies, but we're all continuing to travel," said Keefe.

In spite of the gas expense, the AAA has forecast the July 4th weekend will be the most highly traveled holiday weekend ever, with 40.3 million people traveling more than 50 miles away from home, 84 percent of them by car.

The Travel Industry Association first identified the trend toward free gas cards in 2001, when gas prices were high and the economy was stagnant. Some resorts kept the promotions in place, while others bring them back whenever gas prices spike.

In Maine, Bethel's "Tanks for the Memories" promotion gives travelers $20 cash for gas for staying with participating innkeepers. In Colorado, Aspen is giving visitors $50 in gas vouchers. In West Virginia, people who booked a visit to Snowshoe Mountain by June 22 were rewarded with $25 in their "Fill Up Your Summer With Fun" promotion.

Bethel, Snowshoe, Aspen and Big Bear Lake are all home to ski resorts, but they'd like to get people to visit in the summer, as well.

Robin Zinchuk of the Bethel Chamber of Commerce said there's more to the town than Maine's Sunday River ski resort. There's also golfing, canoeing, kayaking, fishing and plenty of hiking in the mountains of western Maine.

The gas promotion was designed to grab the attention of travelers headed to Maine's rocky coast and give them a nudge to drive inland, she said. The money provides for enough gas for a round trip from New England's population centers.

"It's a gimmick. It really is," said Zinchuk. "But it's the truth: We'll give people 20 dollars for their gas."

Resorts aren't the only ones getting into the act. Some auto rental chains are offering gas vouchers to get people to use their services, Hotels.com is offering up to a $30 rebate and AAA had its own gas giveaway through hotels. Also, about 100 participating BedandBreakfast.com properties are offering gas rebates in a "Tanks A Lot" promotion nationwide.

Keefe doesn't see such pocketbook promotions going away.

"We have found time and time again, people do whatever it takes to go on a vacation. But they'll economize in small ways in order to do so," she said.

On the Net:

Travel Industry Association of America http://www.tia.org/

Automobile Association of America http://www.aaa.com

Aspen Chamber Resort Association http://www.aspenchamber.org/

Big Bear Resort http://www.bigbear.com/

Snowshoe Mountain http://www.snowshoemtn.com/

Bethel Chamber of Commerce http://www.bethelmaine.com/


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