By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 16, 2010; F08
Relax at the Homestead? Not on my watch. I had too much riding on this trip: The $110 extra I had paid for the Unlimited Activities package.
The regal resort in the Virginia wilds unveiled the special last summer to draw people through its columned portico. From $295 a night, guests receive a room plus unconditional access to a selection of diversions that, when priced separately, cost plenty more. The small print: You must take advantage of these activities -- several of them, in fact -- if you want your investment to pay off.
"With this package, people go wild trying to fit it all in," said George, who led my archery session and later drove the tractor for my hayride.
Since the economic downturn, packages have become more prolific and popular as travel suppliers look for value-added ways to cajole us out of the house. The strategy is pretty simple: Tack extra amenities, such as spa treatments or two meals a day, onto the basic vacation and charge below the list price. If it's a good, honest package, the whole should cost less than the individual parts.
"The concept of packaging is very much in vogue today because of the recent financial problems," said Peter Yesawich, chairman of Ypartnership, a marketing service that specializes in travel. "Bundling is in; unbundling is out."
Not surprisingly, consumers gravitate to trips that are rich in experience yet light on the wallet and easy to plan. A study by Ypartnership found that, in the first quarter of this year, six out of 10 travelers considered packages a "very desirable attribute." Additionally, Yesawich said, packages have really mushroomed in the past two years. "The supplier can give away stuff that's low-margin, like a couple of drinks or a round of golf, and hold on to the stuff that has a higher margin, like the hotel room," he said. "For the consumer, it's a wonderful way of managing down the cost of a vacation."
A cynic might question the suppliers' motives. Why, an incredulous person might ask, are the companies giving away extras for free or for a fraction of the cost? Were these items worthless to begin with, or are the operators really that generous, willing to sacrifice revenues for our pleasure?
"You don't have to be skeptical, but should you be savvy?" asked Donna Quadri-Felitti, a clinical assistant professor at New York University's Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism, and Sports Management. "Yes."
Packages are the cookies that suppliers wag before our faces, hoping we'll bite. Once we're hooked, they hope we'll spend beyond the package, in the bar, the gift shop, the restaurant or the spa. "The hotel is betting on you opening your wallet when you are there," said Scott Berman, hospitality and leisure practice leader at PricewaterhouseCoopers. "When you have a chardonnay in your hand, you'll feel the urge to splurge."
Yet before you plunk down money for a package, it's important to perform some self-analysis and elementary math.
First, consider whether those additional amenities are to your taste. If you typically eat a muffin for your morning meal, then the breakfast plan is a waste. But if you're an avid golfer, the greens fee deal is a perfect match, especially if it includes multiple rounds and a cart. "If two or three items don't meet your needs, don't get it," said Quadri-Felitti. "But if you're someone who takes advantage of everything, then you've won."
To test the numbers, break down the package into its components, checking the figures online or by phone. Then add them up and decide: package or a la carte. "The consumer has such an advantage today with all of the available tools online," said Berman. "It's a pretty easy math assignment."
My research for the Homestead package started with the prices listed on the resort's Web site. (Room rates typically start at $185.) I must admit, the dollar sign was as much a determinant as the sport itself. I could play a round of golf on the Lower Cascades Course ($125), for instance, or, for greater variety, string together a chain of lesser-priced activities.
What I thought would be an easy exercise (pick, book and go) turned into a brain-twisting puzzle. The problem was that many of the start times overlapped or were outside my time parameters of a 1:30 p.m. arrival to noon the next day. (Once the season picks up, the schedule for activities will loosen up, with more available times.)
After much back and forth with the reservationist, including multiple phone calls spread over many days, we cobbled together an Olympic itinerary of a group horseback trail ride ($42.50 for the half-hour), an hour of archery ($35), a 60-minute hayride ($20) and bowling ($12). The next day, I was down for the cascades gorge hike ($31), which started at 9:30 a.m. and threatened to run beyond my noon deadline.
I hit the ground running as soon as I arrived at the Homestead, not even allowing myself a minute to sniff the toiletries. While waiting for the shuttle to the stable, I asked a bellhop named Michael whether he could help me squeeze in the famed Jefferson Pools, a resort tradition. It'd be tough: The shuttle to the hot springs leaves at the bottom half-hour of the hour, and since my equine ride was at 1:45 and archery was at 3 and the pools closed at 5, plus my hayride had been rescheduled for an hour earlier (from 6 to 5), I was going to have to give up an activity -- or miss the 98-degree soak. "It's hard to jam it all in," he said with empathy. "That was like me last month at Disney World."
But I would not admit defeat. With a bit of refiguring, we rescheduled archery to 4 and slipped the centuries-old hot springs into the 2:30 slot. And with that, I hopped on the bus for my amble atop a 13-year-old mare named Ruthie.
One of the included activities is a three-hour scenic driving tour ($35), which, considering my four-hour drive to the pastoral resort, seemed superfluous. Yet on the shuttle from the pools to the archery targets, my driver sneaked in an impromptu tour. Noodling through the towns of Warm Springs and Hot Springs, Hugh pointed out famous residents' homes (Dave "Wendy's" Thomas, Pat Robertson), civic structures (the august courthouse, the former jail) and the hilltop high school where a current Dallas Cowboy matriculated.
Hugh personalized the ride with his own gossipy tales as Masseuse to the Stars. For 22 years, he worked on some of the most famous knotted muscles to visit the Homestead: Richard Gere (then-husband of Cindy Crawford), Henry Kissinger, Alexander Haig ("a talker"), Gerald Ford (out of office). And if you've ever wondered about that rumor concerning George Shultz and a Princeton Tiger tattoo, Hugh knows the truth -- and he's telling: Yes, Shultz, a former secretary of state, labor and Treasury, has one.
By the time my post-archery hayride had sputtered to a close, it was nearly 6. But I wasn't done yet. I sprinted over to the golf pro's shop to see if I could manage a few strokes before bowling. Unfortunately, one of the major hazards here is getting lost. The resort sprawls like a university campus, and as a freshman, I spent an exasperating amount of time walking around in circles and squares. Due to this extra jaunt, I arrived too late; the shop was dark. Shut out.
Wise to the bowling lane's hours, I arrived almost an hour before closing time, enough to eke out a game with myself. At that late hour, the only other bowlers were a Baltimore-area couple who were engagingly tipsy after an alcohol-infused dinner. Gina was resplendent in a canary yellow cocktail dress paired with a black bolero jacket and green bowling shoes; Dennis was dapper in a light-hued suit, crisp white shirt and loosened tie. I was adorned in a mash of equestrian-swimming-archery-hayride attire, now with shoes to mismatch.
Gina and Dennis, avid golfers, had signed up for the meal plan and activities package, which allowed them to play the hallowed Cascades Course for $85 (normally $250) and the Old Course for $45 (vs. $160). "We just go, go, go," said Gina as Dennis bowled a strike behind her. "We had breakfast, played golf, had an hour to change for dinner, then we thought we'd try some bowling."
I asked Dennis if they'd try to stick in one more activity before their departure the next day. "We just did too much," he said, while Gina guttered a ball. "I need a rest after this vacation."
As for myself, after the morning waterfall hike, I finally allowed myself a much-needed break. I sat down on a bench in the manicured garden and dipped my feet in the 104-degree hot spring. The foot bath was complimentary, but after participating in $140.50 worth of activities, I could afford it.