Tourists Need Not Worry, Disaster-Hit L.A. Says

TO preserve the state's $53 billion tourism industry, post-quake California is launching an image offensive to lure and reassure travelers from Indiana to Italy. But in a bizarre twist of politics and police paychecks, the effort is being threatened by the Los Angeles Police Department.

To counter vivid media images of mudslides, fires, and collapsed buildings in recent months, tourism officials are finding ways to put those images in perspective. Locally, ideas include holding industry briefings, peppering national morning shows with respected travel authorities, and distributing videotapes to travel associations and international trade conferences.

``The idea is to show a city in which every major tourist destination is back to normal, hotels are fine, and noncommuter mobility is excellent,'' says Michael Collins, senior vice president of the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors' Bureau (LACVB).

Noted travel authority Arthur Frommer has appeared on such programs as NBC's Today Show and several nationally syndicated radio programs. He informs prospective vacationers as well as conventioneers that the world's largest concentration of hotel beds (91,000) have not collapsed into the streets, and that parks from Disneyland to Universal Studios are open for business.

``People from other states still call me, all-aghast, to find that I am working safely on the 60th floor of a downtown building,'' Mr. Collins says. ``Perception is our business, and, unfortunately, the power of the broadcast media is such that it can define a reality that is inconsistent with what has really happened here.''

In a survey taken right after the earthquake, hoteliers estimated a $300 million dropoff in February-May business. But such business has not dropped off, Collins says, admittedly due, in part, to the large numbers of disaster and insurance officials taking up residence for long periods.

At the state tourism level, marketing ideas have expanded to the first-ever, toll-free fax line, in which callers can instantly receive hosts of material over phone lines. In conjunction with television and magazine ads showing types of activities instead of just destinations - family, nature, romance, and sports - consumers are prompted to call a toll-free 800 number to receive information on the type of vacation that interests them.

``We have found that when a potential vacationer has to wait four to five weeks to receive information in the mail, he frequently has chosen to do something else instead,'' says Richard Jarc, Los Angeles director for the advertising firm J. Walter Thompson, which has been hired by the state to direct the new campaign. ``This gives them something in minutes, so they can convert their plans into action.''

Both the LACVB and the state tourism board have applied for federal grants to aid in their marketing ploys. Fred Sater, spokesman for the state board, says the grants should keep state tourism on the 3 percent to 4 percent growth it has achieved in recent years. Figures had been inching up after major dropoffs following the L.A. riots of 1992.

One possible hurdle for the new state and city efforts is a standing threat by the Police Protective League (PPL) to distribute videotapes ``emphasizing the rampant crime and poor work environment in the [L.A.] Police Department.'' The union, which represents 7,800 rank-and-file members of the LAPD, has been in contract negotiations with City Hall for 20 months with no resolution. Because police cannot strike, have no binding-arbitration agreements, and have been handed a court injunction against ``blue flu'' (abusing sick leave), the League says the police have no other bargaining tool.

``We have helped this city through riots, civil unrest, earthquakes, fires - but when it comes time to give us a cost of living increase, the city won't budge,'' laments Jeffrey Garfield, chief spokesman for the PPL. ``We have no other option except to try to hit them in the pocketbook by trying to impact the tourist trade.''

Contract negotiations continued this week. Police are asking for a 9 percent raise over three years. Mr. Garfield says if no contract is finalized within 30 days, about 1,000 videos of as-yet-determined length will be distributed to convention planners, travel trade publications, and foreign countries. Footage will show the harsh realities of the police beat - from gang violence, to drug-related crime, to prostitution, and domestic violence,'' Garfield says.

``We expect to get more coverage on TV and print that will do more than this mailing,'' adds Garfield.

Collins says the threat has had a great effect on City Council members. But he notes a recent Federal Bureau of Investigation study that showed L.A. 34th out of 40 major American cities in incidence of crime per thousand.

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