Where the Mayans saw the end of time, marketers see dollar signs.
As ancient doomsday predictions draw near, a number of hotels and restaurants are launching tongue-in-cheek promotions to profit from the fiery apocalypse forecasts surrounding Dec. 21, one Mayan Calendar's end date. The offers range from end-of-days themed vacation packages to restaurant menus encouraging customers to live it up one last time.
Step one of apocalypse preparation is returning some of those holiday gifts to free up additional end-of-days capital because many hotel offers this doomsday require deep pockets (but what does money mean anyway when the world is ending?!).
For $79,000 per couple, the Rosewood Mayakoba in Riviera Maya offers "The Ultimate New Beginning" package, which includes a spiritual cleansing with a Mayan shaman priest along with a private helicopter ride to a tour of architectural sites led by an archaeologist. At the J.W. Marriott resort in Cancun, guests can visit the ancient ruins of Chichen Itza and indulge in Mayan-inspired spa treatments.
Stateside, hotels are also trying to cash in on the Mayan hype. For superstitious starting price of $666, The Keating in San Diego is selling the "End of the World" package complete with a last supper and fitness classes aimed at outrunning zombies. Christos Brooks, the Keating's standards and operations director, drew the idea for the promotion from Britney Spears's song "Till the World Ends."
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"That was pretty much my anthem last year, and this year we were talking about promotion ideas for the end of the world," Brooks said. "It's always a slow time of the year for San Diego, and that's where it came about."
The package has sold well so far with 15 rooms booked, making it one of the year's most popular, Brooks said.
"The one thing that people really haven't been into is going to the gym the next day," he added. "No one's really given a reason for it, but the only thing that people have asked about is if the gym is required."
The Keating is also offering a post-doomsday special for guests.
"If you pre-pay for your room after the 21st, you get a 40 percent discount so it's kind of a gamble," he said. "You can pay for your room and if the world doesn't end, you get a great bargain. But if it does, you lose your money. Based on the booking we have seen so far the world's going to continue to go on."
For $12,021, The Curtis Hotel offered a "Party Like There's No-To-Maya" special that included rental of an entire floor of the Denver hotel along with Doomsday supplies including anti-radiation tablets, freeze-dried food and gas masks. A tattoo artist was also included if guests wanted to mark the end of the world with some fresh ink.
Kate Thompson, the hotel's director of sales and marketing, said the package did not end up selling, but it did generate curiosity, which is often one of the main goals for an whimsical promotion like the Curtis'.
"It's a great coup to us to be able to get our name out there, and the more press we have the better it is and the more exposure we get, the better it is for us," Thompson said. "The exposure's worth just as much as actually selling that package."
The buzz surrounding the Mayan doomsday predictions allows marketers an opportunity to "piggyback" their offers on the highly publicized event, said Chekitan Dev, an associate professor of strategic marketing and brand management at Cornell's School of Hotel Administration.
"With the media creating a lot of hype, a lot of the market preparation is already done for product and service marketers so it's then a matter of capitalizing on this media opportunity," Dev said.
Mayan-related promotions can be a positive move for brands, even luxury ones, if the offers are well thought out, offer consumers something special and target a market that is likely to respond, Dev said.
"Luxury hotels, not wanting to go for the macabre, can use this as a way to promote cultural tourism, a fast growing segment with a higher spend than average, by showcasing Mayan culture by having special attractions, speakers, events around this event," he added.
Dev cautions companies against using what he calls "soft-sell" offers, such as merely spa packages that give "the impression that they have not put a lot of thought into this."
It makes sense that marketers would use any opportunity they can to drum up business, but what makes consumer prone to bite at these playful promotions?
Jonah Berger, an assistant professor of marketing at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, has studied why certain products get more word-of-mouth exposure than others and why online content goes viral as some Doomsday-related coverage has.
"We've done research that shows around Halloween, when you ask people to name products, they are more likely to name orange products around that time of year," Berger said.
Similar to this Halloween association, people's decision making may be affected when Mayan culture is top of mind, he added. Even with the publicity is negative, it can help boost sales.
"Just like in this case, you might find yourself at a Mexican restaurant and don't know why, we find that negative publicity can sometimes increase sales because that makes that product top of mind," Berger said.
To capitalize on the occasion, restaurants are also hosting events around the country. T.G.I.Friday's restaurants will have a "Last Friday" menu that packs a caloric heavy-weight punch and urges consumers to make their last meals great and "go out with a full stomach" (because diets won't matter in the apocalypse, right?!).
At Margaritas Mexican Restaurant's "End of the World" party, there will be a "if you were the last man on earth" pick-up line contest and "sitting here in limbo" limbo competition. The company has also created an app that enables users to create postcards to share with friends and detail how they will spend their last earthly moments.
"It seems like a natural fit; in difficult times, bars tend to do well," said Patrick Dowling, the restaurant chain's marketing coordinator. "It stands to reason that if the world is going to end, we're going to have a pretty good apocalypse eve."
So far, about 100 messages have been created so far and posted on Facebook, including "The end of the world is coming. Repent and drink more margaritas" and "Kevin Youkilis on the Yankees? What more proof do you need the world is ending?"
Breweries are also getting in on the action. California-based Stone Brewing Company has released an "enjoy by 12.21.12" IPA that is "brewed to not last." A leading Canadian craft brewery Unibroue invites drinkers to pledge to raise their glasses at midnight on Dec. 20 "for one last toast to the end of the world."
For consumers, the end-of-days prediction will offer a chance to indulge even if only a very small set of celebrants believe it is the last time to spoil themselves, Berger said.
"People want to go out to dinner," he added. "They want to take fun vacations. I don't think they really think the world's going to end, but it's a good excuse to behave like it will."
And so far, efforts to drive traffic to Mexico appear to be paying off.
In the tourism district of Riviera Maya, which contains ancient Mayan ruins, Expedia's hotel bookings are up 44 percent for the dates that include Dec. 21. Meanwhile, Cancun hotel bookings have risen 7.5 percent for the period.
Outside of Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador — two other countries with Mayan roots — have each seen hotel bookings surge more than 50 percent.
Priceline also reported a boost in sales compared to last year. During the last three months, sales have jumped 16 percent compared to the year-ago period.
Expedia added that Americans are continuing to book tickets and vacations for well after Dec. 21 so it appears that they are in fact confident that the end of times isn't imminent. But even if the Mayans do turn out to be wrong, one thing is certain — marketers will be ready to profit from the next dire prediction faster than you can say "The Fiscal Cliff Cookbook."
— Written by CNBC's Katie Little. Follow her on Twitter @Katie_Little_