sSAN FRANCISCO -- Energy surcharges tacked onto many hotel bills in California are under attack from a law firm here that filed suit against major hotel chains, claiming it is illegal for them to charge extra for heat and light.

Many major hotels in California have added energy surcharges between 83 cents and $3.50 per night to hotel bills.

The firm of Lieff, Cabraser, Heimannn & Bernstein filed a class-action suit in San Francisco Superior Court asking the court to stop Hilton, Hyatt, and Starwood from charging consumers the extra fees -- and to pay restitution to consumers. Another lawsuit was filed in Los Angeles Superior Court against Marriott.

The same law firm represented travel agents in a class-action lawsuit against airlines over the 1995 commission cap.

The lawsuit against the hotels alleges that it is illegal business practice under California law to quote a rate for a hotel stay and later tack on an extra charge, which the customer may find out about only at check-out.

"Our contention is that these hotels have accepted reservations for rooms at a certain price and they are obliged to charge that price," said Barry Himmelstein, an attorney with the law firm. He said some hotels disclose the surcharges at the time of check-in but called those disclosures "inadequate."

Not every hotel is charging extra: Some notable independent and resort hotels, such as San Diego's Hotel Del Coronado, have opted not to levy energy surcharges.

The hotel's managing director, Michael Hardisty, said, "A lot of major hotel chains have done it [imposed surcharges] but we haven't, because we want to get people here."

Rick Lawrance, president of the 1,000-member California Lodging Industry Association, made up of small and midsized properties, said most of the members are "trying to shy away" from surcharges.

Spokeswomen for Hilton and Hyatt said they could not comment on the lawsuits because it involved pending litigation.

Calif. tourism officials fight negative blackout coverage

A recent heat spell, meanwhile, sent a chill through California's travel officials, who are worried that the national spotlight on rolling blackouts will discourage travel here this summer.

The industry is trying to overcome the barrage of nightly news reports by emphasizing the precautions in place so that visitors will feel little impact from the energy crunch.

In Palm Springs, the desert resort community where temperatures soar in the summer and air conditioning becomes a necessity, the visitors bureau is having some fun with the crisis, handing out flashlights imprinted with "Palm Springs: We Love You" to all hotel guests.

But the bureau also is taking the power shortage seriously, assuring meeting planners and the trade that visitors won't get stuck in a sweltering hotel or meeting room if the air conditioning is shut down in a rolling blackout.

"There have been some blackouts, but all the major hotels and our convention center have back-up generators," said a bureau spokeswoman.

Lost in the media coverage, she noted, is that the power outages are infrequent and short in duration -- typically about an hour.

Moreover, some areas, including portions of Los Angeles and Anaheim, are protected from blackouts because they're within publicly owned utility districts that were unaffected by deregulation.

Officials say most Californians have not experienced a blackout, either at home or at the office.

"National media attention to the California energy crisis perhaps has given the impression that everyone, everywhere in the state is being affected. This is not the case for much of downtown Los Angeles," said Armel Santens, general manager for the Biltmore Hotel Los Angeles.

The California Travel and Tourism Commission addressed the issue with a hot link on its Web site saying "The lights are still on in California."

The commission's site, at www.visitcalifornia.com, sports a message from executive director Caroline Beteta offering reassurances about the availability of essential services, transportation and accommodations.

The impact on the travel industry has been difficult to gauge because the energy crisis has hit at the same time the economy slumped, say tourism officials.

"Indications are that business is softening and we may be down from last year," said Lawrance. "But last year and the year before were phenomenal years."

San Francisco's hotel occupancies have slipped this year, but John Marks, president of the city's visitors' bureau, speaking at a recent industry event, attributed the slide to the economy, although he conceded that the possibility of blackouts may have had an impact.

In San Diego, a CVB spokesman said "on the leisure side, we don't see any indication that people are deciding to cancel their visits."

As for conventions, he noted that most conventions are booked well in advance and blackouts are not going to cause them to cancel.

"We've gotten calls from meeting planners and we have a statement, and that is that blackouts, if they happen, will not ruin someone's visit but perhaps be a minor inconvenience."

At the San Diego Hotel Del Coronado, managing director Michael Hardisty said summer bookings appear to be "solid," although the hotel also is fielding questions from meeting planners, who seem to be the segment most concerned about the power crisis. No meetings have been canceled, he said.

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