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Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, Long in Philadelphia's Shadow as a
 Business-Meeting Spot, Leaping Ahead as a Hotel
 and Convention Venue
By Suzette Parmley, The Philadelphia InquirerMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Jun. 1, 2008 - Valley Forge, known for historic attractions but long in Center City's shadow as a business-meeting spot, is about to leap ahead as a hotel and convention venue.

Dolce Valley Forge, a four-star hotel that will include a full-service restaurant, spa, and 26,000 square feet of meeting space, is under construction with the goal of cashing in on Valley Forge as a destination for business travelers and meeting-goers. The new Dolce will emerge from a $17 million restoration of the former Inn at Valley Forge.

"It was a significant opportunity for us to take a building with good bones, but one that needed a lot of work," said Andy Dolce, chairman and managing director of Dolce International Holdings Inc., which has offices in Montvale, N.J., and headquarters in Paris.

The swanky, 327-room hotel will have a high-end look and feel with earth tones and fabrics, rich, dark woods, high-quality carpeting and marble flooring in the lobby, similar to a Four Seasons, said Dolce.

The renovation is expected to be completed in the fall and underscores just how far the area has come. The hospitality industry in Montgomery County has become a $1.72 billion business, county officials say.

Several millions of dollars are being invested by hotel owners to upgrade their properties.

Valley Forge's hotel boom began about 2004, when the economy, including business travel, was improving. Then pharmaceutical companies, such as Shire P.L.C., AmerisourceBergen Corp., and biotech firms began establishing themselves in the locale.

Britain-based Shire, which employs about 900 people at its North American headquarters and opened in Chesterbrook in 2005, generates a demand of 7,000 to 8,000 rooms per year, according to spokesman Matt Cabrey.

Pete Tyson, vice president of PKF Consulting, of Philadelphia, who focuses on the hospitality industry, said hotels there did well for a number of reasons, including:

The universities along the Main Line and their weekend events draw families and visitors; the Valley Forge National Historical Park attracts visitors; a good network of highways, including the Blue Route, provides easy access to the airport; and low price points compared with Center City make it an economical alternative.

"It's always been a strong area with an extremely strong commercial base of demand in that 202 corridor that bolsters hotel occupancy Monday through Thursday night," Tyson said, "and secondly, it has a very strong leisure market due to the King of Prussia mall."

Tyson said the Desmond Hotel in Malvern, formerly a Hilton, about five miles south of King Prussia on Route 202, opened in 1994 and proved that a high-quality facility and good service would be readily received.

"It's become a shopping mecca, obviously," said Ed Grose, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association. "You have the Limerick outlet mall there; Valley Forge Park is very attractive; a number of businesses, like the Malvern business park, that are doing well; and you have a lot of biotech companies out there. You put all those things together, it makes for a great hotel market."

The two hotels at the Valley Forge Convention Center -- the Radisson Valley Forge Hotel and the Scanticon Hotel -- are currently being renovated, part of a $100 million project by a new owner, Valley Forge Convention Center Partners L.P.

Since 2004, at least three other hotels have been upgraded: the Holiday Inn was remade into a Crowne Plaza with a conference center and 24,000 square feet of meeting space for $20 million; Valley Forge Suites, formerly a Wyndham, is undergoing a $14 million renovation to become an Embassy Suites; and the Fairfield Inn of King of Prussia (a Marriott product) is being redone and will reopen in September with 80 renovated rooms and public space area.

Rick Odorisio, chief operating officer of Valley Forge Hotel Management Co. L.L.C., which operates all three renovated properties, said he started looking at the economic indicators in 2002.

"We looked at three-year and five-year forecasts, and they were all robust," he said. His company had to make a decision: Either sell the tired, run down Holiday Inn in Valley Forge that was built in 1964, or reinvest in it big time to be competitive.

"We were losing market share, and to be competitive, we made a major commitment to refurbish it to take advantage of a turning-around economy and the travel industry. It was the perfect timing."

The Holiday Inn closed in March 2003, and reopened as a 225-room Crowne Plaza on Sept. 28, 2004.

For Dolce International, which has 26 properties worldwide -- 20 in North America and six in Europe -- Dolce Valley Forge will enable it to expand its niche, which is providing convention and meeting space. The company generated revenue of more than $350 milion last year, and it is expecting to top $380 million this year.

"Valley Forge-King of Prussia is a hot area," Dolce said of his company's plans for the hotel on 301 DeKalb Pike, also known as the Route 202 corridor. The Dolce Valley Forge is his company's first Pennsylvania property.

Paul Decker, president of Valley Forge Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the 13 Valley Forge and King of Prussia properties provide 2,176 hotel rooms and generate about $62.1 million in revenue for rooms sold last year.

Five years ago, they generated $48.2 million in revenue, Decker said.

According to a recent economic-impact report by Global Insight Inc. and D.K. Shifflet & Associates Ltd., the hospitality industry in Montgomery County generates $1.72 billion in annual spending by visitors, who include tourists, convention attendees and business travelers. It has created 25,500 jobs, $665.5 million in wages, and $168.4 million in state and local taxes.

Last year, the hotels in the western suburbs, which includes those along Route 202, had an approximate occupancy rate of 68 percent. The Valley Forge hotels were a little above that, according to Smith Travel Research Inc., which tracks the U.S. hospitality industry.

Dolce Valley Forge Hotel owner, Capital Hospitality Group L.L.C., of Herndon, Va., acquired the 36-year-old hotel last July from Martin Field, of Field Hotel Associates L.P., of King of Prussia, for an undisclosed amount.

"It's a terrific market . . . one of the strongest markets in Philadelphia," said Michael Moriarty, one of two managing partners of Capital Hospitality Group, which is providing the $17 million. "We saw the opportunity. We feel the area deserves it and will support it."

More development is on the way.

Grose, at the hotel association, said the planned American Revolution Center museum was proposing to add a conference center with a hotel that will be run by a nonprofit organization.

And construction has begun on the old Valley Forge Golf Course into the Village at Valley Forge, a mega-lifestyle center, that includes two new hotels, high-end retail, signature restaurants, entertainment, residential housing and office space on 125 acres.

Contact staff writer Suzette Parmley at 215-854-2594 or sparmley@phillynews.com.

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Copyright (c) 2008, The Philadelphia Inquirer

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