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Over 2,000 Australians take part in the Clipsal party on the Santa Monica Pier on Friday night. The group took over local hotels before heading on a cruise to the Mexican Riviera. The Santa Monica Convention and Visitors Bureau convinced Clipsal to stop off in Santa Monica before setting sail. (photo by Brandon Wise)

SM PIER — Illuminated by Pacific Park’s solar-powered Ferris wheel with a pulled pork sandwich in one hand and a light beer in the other, Australian TV personality Troy Gray stood on the Santa Monica Pier last Friday night and watched as roughly 2,200 of his fellow countrymen drank and danced to pop music.

The crowd was comprised primarily of customers of Clipsal, a multi-billion-dollar energy company from the land down under that organized the party and a cruise to the Mexican Riviera, a show of appreciation for their customers’ loyalty. Clipsal, which also celebrated its 90th anniversary, rented out a large portion of the pier as well as the amusement park for the bash and the revelers helped fill nine local hotels, pumping much-needed cash into the local economy.

“This place blows me away,” Gray said of Santa Monica. “We claim to have the best beaches in the world in Australia, and we have beautiful beaches, but the sand here, the people, the atmosphere is just awesome. We don’t have the diversity, the characters that you do. And everybody’s been really friendly.”

In three days, Gray had the opportunity to check out a Dodgers game, attend the opening of a new night club in Hollywood and cruise along the Third Street Promenade for some shopping.

“If you are coming to L.A., Santa Monica is the perfect place to stay,” Gray said. “You are out of the hustle and bustle of Hollywood and have a chance to relax and take in the sea breeze.”

Gray and his fellow Aussies represent the ideal tourist for Santa Monica and roughly five years of work by the Santa Monica Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB), a nonprofit that promotes the city by the sea abroad in an effort to maintain its status as a premier tourist destination.

The 2,200 Australians are the largest group of travelers the CVB has attracted at one time, said Misti Kerns, president and CEO of the CVB, which is focused on bringing guests who occupy hotel rooms for several days, take public transit, and love to shop and dine out. Clipsal’s group took chartered buses and limos to Santa Monica from LAX. Smaller groups took chartered buses to tourist destinations like Universal Studios, cutting down on the number of additional cars making trips through Santa Monica.

Also, by linking up with Clipsal, an international company, the CVB extends its reach into the Southern Hemisphere, hopefully establishing long-lasting relationships that will bring more travelers in the future. The Australians are known as “incentive travelers” because a portion of their trip was being paid for by Clipsal as a reward for staying with them over the years. Attractive incentive travelers along with the businessman and his family will help diversify the travel base, helping Santa Monica whether downturns in particular markets, Kerns said.

“This is the perfect type of business for us,” Kerns said. “This will open a whole new region for us. There’s so much potential.”

Damien Cummins, executive general manager for Clipsal, said Santa Monica has added 2,000-plus new ambassadors — his loyal customers. He said many he spoke with were spending on average $500 a day on alcohol, food and shopping.

“People are raving about Santa Monica,” Cummins said. “I’ve been out talking with our folks … and the ladies are loving the shopping on the promenade, while the fellows can pop into the pup for a cold beer. If they can afford it, they will definitely be back.”

On her trips to Australia, Lauren Rogers, CVB’s director of sales and services who set the wheels in motion with Clipsal, emphasized Santa Monica’s location in relation to major attractions throughout Southern California, including Universal Studios, Disneyland and Dodger Stadium. The pitch is to base yourself in Santa Monica, enjoy the laid back beach vibe and then travel into the heart of Los Angeles.

Santa Monica is also walkable, safe, clean and boasts some of the region’s best restaurants and hotels, Rogers said. The active beach lifestyle is also appealing to Australians.

And with the dollar as weak at it is, Australians are getting more bang for their buck, which is a major factor when deciding to travel, said Phil Hoffman of Phil Hoffman Travel, one of the largest travel agencies in Australia. Clipsal hired Hoffman to plan the cruise and other accommodations.

But that’s not all. Headlines also play a major role, Hoffman said. If a destination is getting a lot of negative press coverage because of violence, travelers will go elsewhere. Santa Monica’s reputation as a safe destination, coupled with City Hall’s environmentally-friendly policies make it a draw.

“It’s really the ultimate way to kick off your vacation,” Hoffman said.

Kerns said it is the goal of the CVB to attract more groups like Clipsal to help create “that balance,” where residents get the tax revenue generated by visitors without all of the headaches.

To do that takes time, hence the five years of work that went into familiarizing travel agents in Australia with Santa Monica, which has to compete with hot spots like Bali, South Africa or Europe. Like any business, it is all about relationships, Hoffman said. With the CVB’s help, Hoffman and his crew was able to problem solve, something critical when moving more than 2,000 people halfway across the globe.

But just as the momentum is starting to build, the bureau may have to pull back. Kerns said she must seriously consider cutting her budget by at least 3 percent. City Hall, which funds the CVB to a tune of $2.5 million annually, is looking for the CVB and other departments to present three budgets, one with a 3 percent cut, one with a 5 percent cut and a third with a 7 percent cut.

Cutting back could mean less revenue for City Hall in the long run, Hoffman said.

“It’s out of sight, out of mind,” he said. “I’ve seen other destinations seriously suffer by cutting back or eliminating [their tourism bureaus]. You have to get people excited about coming here.”

Daniel VanGasteren of Raycon Electric in Adelaide, Australia is one of those people. A loyal customer of Clipsal, Daniel booked his trip years in advance as a member of the company’s customer rewards club. He wasn’t too familiar with Santa Monica but knew Clipsal could throw a great party.

“This is massive. I love it,” he said of the Clipsal party at the pier. During his three days in Santa Monica he visited Universal Studios and Hollywood.

“Santa Monica is located near many of the sights and you all are just so friendly,” VanGasteren said. “I’ll definitely be back.”

kevinh@smdp.com

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