Millennium countdown: Desperate price cuts to lure reluctant partygoers

WITH ONE day to go to the big millennium night, the entertainment and hotel industry is desperately cutting prices in the hope of encouraging revellers to venture out.

Fears of the millennium computer bug, inflated prices and traffic jams have prompted many Britons to celebrate at home. Hotels, restaurants, travel agents and party organisers are fighting to beat the backlash by reducing the cost of their New Year's Eve packages right up to the 11th hour.

Tickets for a champagne bash on board HMS Belfast on the river Thames, which offers the perfect vantage point for viewing London's firework display, have dropped from pounds 500 to pounds 295 after only 20 of the 250 places were taken up.

The Balmoral Hotel, in Edinburgh, is offering an overnight package including a millennium gala for pounds 750 per person. Originally it was insisting anyone wanting to come for New Year's Eve had to spend pounds 7,000 each on a three- night stay. "We have introduced lots of different packages. Like everyone in Edinburgh, we were slightly over-zealous initially," a spokeswoman said.

The Grosvenor Hotel, in London, also had the idea of hooking people in for three days, to discover that no couple wanted to pay pounds 2,000. It has slashed pounds 750 off the price and said people need only stay one night. It is not too late to book at the Dorchester, which is charging pounds 5,000 for a two-night stay plus two tickets to the "Global Circus" evening on New Year's Eve and a "recovery brunch". And the Savoy, which is charging pounds 3,000 a head for a seven-course dinner, has only sold 150 of its 200 places. But neither hotel is dropping its prices. Even the Oxo Tower, on the Thames, still has a table for six available.

The planners of London's Big Time Millennium Eve Thames spectacular tried to quell fears about crowded public transport and disrupted travel. Partygoers should have faith and join the street party, a spokeswoman urged. "This is going to be London's greatest-ever party and, after months of precision planning with all the organisations involved, we are confident that the capital will deliver the ultimate millennium event."

Jonathan Seaward has soldiered on, selling tickets for his New Millennium Ball at the Cafe Royal in London, despite a disappointing response. He has kept his nerve with the ticket prices - pounds 250 for premier and pounds 400 for VIP - feeling that it would be unfair on foreigners who bought tickets months ago if he reduced them now.

"The millennium has failed to take off in the way we thought it would," Mr Seaward said. "Practically every event has been cancelled but we decided to press ahead. I felt it was a bad show to pull the plug just because it's not as profitable as I thought it would be. Hopefully, we will have between 500 and 600 people if tickets continue to sell at the rate they are now."

British hotels will not be enjoying the bonanza they had expected. Unlike foreign destinations, which have experienced a sudden surge in bookings at the last minute, destinations around Britain have not been so lucky. Mark Harris, group marketing manager of First Option Hotel Reservations, reckons that between 10 and 15 per cent of hotels in this country will be shut at the weekend, and another 15 per cent will stay open but not host any special celebrations.

"The... millennium is a major disappointment for the British hotel industry," said Mr Harris. "There are a lot of very unhappy hoteliers, because this should have been a great opportunity. The great British public is incredibly mistrustful of hype and the hotel industry has fallen victim to the millennium backlash."

The Balmoral, Edinburgh: Was pounds 7,000 a head for three-day package.Now pounds 750 per person for one night. plus gala.

HMS `Belfast', on Thames, London: pounds 500 ticket for champagne, dinner, plus view of fireworks now cut to pounds 295.

The Grosvenor, London: Was pounds 2,000 a couple for three nights; now pounds 1,250 per couple for one night and dinner.

New Millennium Ball at Cafe Royal, London: pounds 250 for premier, pounds 400 for VIP.Tickets still available; no reduction.

The Dorchester, London: pounds 5,000 a couple for two nights with entertainment. Tickets available; no reduction.

The Savoy, London: Dinner with views of the Thames for pounds 3,000 a head. 50 seats still available; no reduction.