Tour buses are a bonanza on wheels for Beverly Hills, which estimates they deposit tourists who spend more than $200 million in the city each year.
But business owners fear they’ll miss out on those rolling paydays if the city follows through on banning the buses from stopping in most parts of the famed Golden Triangle retail district.
In January a tour bus loading zone near Rodeo Drive and Wilshire Boulevard was shut down and tour buses diverted to two remote loading zones nearly a mile away. That’s prompted some operators to bypass the Beverly Hills shopping experience in favor of the Grove and other retail destinations, many of which are actively working to bring in more bus tourists.
Now, citing street safety concerns, the city is mulling vehicle weight limits that could bar most tour buses from Rodeo and other key streets inside the Golden Triangle, and city officials have appeared to favor additional proposed tour bus loading zones several blocks to the east.
The prospect of tour bus bans and no loading zones in the heart of the retail district has alarmed business and tourism leaders in the city, who point out that bus tourists represent big money for Beverly Hills retailers.
“We are concerned that if this situation is not resolved, the perception will spread that the city is not welcoming to tourists and is in fact exclusionary,” said Julie Wagner, chief executive of the Beverly Hills Conference & Visitors Bureau. “Our other concern is obviously the lost revenue that could result.”
The bureau issued a report in January that estimated 1.5 million people – 24 percent of all tourists – came to the city on tour buses last year, spending an average of $137 each. That’s $205 million a year in direct spending from tour bus visitors.
Already there are signs that businesses in the city are losing sales because of the bus-stop shakeup, Wagner said. She and her staff have observed that tourist traffic in the last couple of months has been lower than the same period last year, and one tour bus operator said some of his clients have requested that his buses drop off passengers at the Grove in L.A.’s Fairfax District and the Citadel Outlets in Commerce, while only driving down Rodeo.
Joseph Martinez, sales manager with Nada Bus in Commerce, said the main tour bus staging area now on Third Street east of the Civic Center – nearly a mile away from the heart of the Rodeo shopping row – is too far for tourists to walk. And a newly opened temporary bus loading zone on Santa Monica Boulevard across from City Hall is not much closer.
As a result, he said, some of the international tour groups that use his service are changing their itineraries.
“They are now driving through the city instead of stopping. Most of them are going to the Grove instead now to do their shopping, with some going to the Citadel,” he said.
Dabney Bixel, president of West Hollywood event production and destination management company Bixel & Co., agreed that the new tour bus locations will eventually dissuade her clients from shopping in Beverly Hills.
“We arrange tours for corporate clients, often getting personal shoppers to go with them,” Bixel said. “They are not going to walk eight to 10 blocks just to get to the stores on Rodeo Drive.”
And as tour operators pull out, Golden Triangle business owners are worried about lost sales.
“I’m very concerned and have spoken with each of the (five) City Council members about this,” said Thomas Blumenthal, chief executive of Geary’s Beverly Hills on Beverly Drive. “The tour bus stops need to come closer to the Triangle.”
For years, tour buses used several loading zones in the Golden Triangle. Then, in 2012, the city consolidated all the loading zones into a single one at Dayton Way and Rodeo, next to the Louis Vuitton store, in the heart of the tony retail district.
“It was great, only a block away from our store and most of the famous shops in the Golden Triangle,” Blumenthal said.
But late last year, the property owner and Louis Vuitton USA started a major remodel of the store. The construction forced the tour bus loading zone to close in January. The closure is permanent, as the property owner and Louis Vuitton informed the city that the tour bus bay would be directly in front of the new entrance to the store.
So the city shifted all tour bus loading operations to the site on Third and a new location on the north side of Santa Monica between Canon and Crescent drives. But that new location is temporary, as Santa Monica will be widened as part of major renovation starting next year, taking away the bus pullout bay.
With everyone agreed that the Third site is too far away to be practical as a drop-off point for Rodeo-bound tourists, the city is scrambling to find another suitable location. The city initially only considered two spots on Crescent: one near City Hall and the other near Wilshire. More recently, at the behest of business leaders, the city has added two potential sites, one near the Montage Beverly Hills hotel and one a block west of Rodeo on Camden Drive.
Aaron Kunz, the city’s deputy transportation director, said the city is also considering expanding its trolley service to connect the tour bus staging site on Third to shops on Rodeo.
City business leaders hope the city settles on one of the sites closest to Rodeo.
“Locations closer to the heart of the triangle would make the most sense,” said Mark Tronstein, a Rodeo property owner and president of the Rodeo Drive Committee, which promotes the famed street as a shopping destination.
It’s not clear when the City Council will make a decision, but business owners hope something is put in place before the height of the summer tourist season.
Meanwhile, businesses are also concerned about proposals to limit heavy vehicles within the Golden Triangle. The city is considering two weight thresholds: a 7,500-pound limit that would bar most tour buses and a 6,000-pound limit that would ban even some tour vans.
The reason, according to a February report from the city, is that the proliferation of tour buses creates a safety risk and increased traffic congestion, especially on narrow streets such as Rodeo.
Wagner said the tour operators could probably live with the higher weight limit on Rodeo so long as there is a nearby loading zone. The lower weight limit would probably be too stringent, since it would eliminate the midsize tourist limousines and vans.
But Tronstein said he had serious concerns about weight limits.
“Some of the buses carry aspirational shoppers who post photos on social media,” he said. “It’s a virtuous marketing cycle. Banning the buses could disrupt that cycle.”
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