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Wurzak Hotel Group Putting Finishing Touches on the $42 million Westin Mount Laurel (NJ);
First Full-service Hotel in the Mount Laurel/Cherry Hill Region in 15 Years
By Suzette Parmley, The Philadelphia InquirerMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

May 16, 2008 - Howard J. Wurzak's Mother's Day featured four weddings and two bar mitzvahs at his hotel, the Westin Mount Laurel. He tended to such details as the lighting in the ballrooms, and not the least, the quality of the food.

Although the Westin has not had its official grand opening yet -- that's next month -- Wurzak wanted to get a jump on what his hotels are known for.

While most full-service hotels have two-thirds to three-quarters of revenue coming from rooms, and the remainder coming from food and beverage, the breakdown at Wurzak's two other hotels -- the Hilton on City Avenue and the Homewood Suites next to it -- is 50-50.

"We believe we'd do the same thing here," he said of the Westin. "It's more than just building a pretty room.

"What people, fortunately, always say about us is, not only is the facility beautiful, but that the food is really good."

The Westin is the first full-service hotel (defined in the industry as a hotel with a restaurant) in the Mount Laurel/Cherry Hill region in 15 years. The last one of its genre to open was the DoubleTree Guest Suites hotel down the road in 1993, which Wurzak considers a chief competitor.

The Westin is perhaps the most ambitious of a wave of new hotels planned for the Mount Laurel area. Experts say location and demographics make it prime for hotel development.

There are currently 1,751 rooms in the active pipeline for South Jersey, meaning under construction, in final planning or the planning stage, according to Smith Travel Research, which tracks the U.S. hospitality industry.

"For Mount Laurel, compared to the rest of South Jersey, it's been pretty consistent [hotel-room] growth over the last several years, averaging about 3 percent a year," said Duane Vinson at Smith Travel Research.

The Westin, which will add 180 rooms to the market, is at 555 Fellowship Rd., just off Route 73, and at the epicenter of most of the hotel activity in South Jersey, dubbed "Hotel Row."

"In the last 10 years, that market has absolutely mushroomed" in terms of new hotels, said Pete Tyson, vice president of PKF Consulting, of Philadelphia. "There's been virtually no development -- just hotel shrinkage -- in what was orginally the prime growth area for hotels, which was Cherry Hill. It's all shifted to the Mount Laurel area."

Tyson said the closing of the Garden State racetrack in 2001 was a prime reason for Cherry Hill's not remaining a hub for new hotels in South Jersey.

Since January 1998, 11 hotels -- none with a restaurant attached to it -- sprang up in Mount Laurel, adding 1,220 rooms to the current 2,800-room supply in the township.

The Westin is next to a Marriott, which is undergoing a renovation and adding a water park. On the other side is a Laurel Inn that's being demolished and converted into an Aloft hotel, an ultra, high-end brand under Westin Hotels & Resorts, according to Mount Laurel Township Mayor John Drinkard.

Drinkard said the 20-or-so hotels and motels in Mount Laurel produced about $1.5 million in property tax revenue last year. Of that, he said $1.2 million would go toward operational services, including funding police, libraries and recreation centers in the township's 2008 fiscal year budget.

Wurzak is relying on weddings, charity balls and bar mitzvahs to sustain the Westin. He said a typical bar mitzvah or wedding could generate $25,000 to $50,000 in revenue. He already has bar mitvahs booked into 2010.

Food and beverage has always been high on Wurzak's radar, ever since he began working at age 14 as a dishwasher for a major New York City catering company that mostly did bar mitzvahs and weddings.

Wurzak said building a new $42 million hotel was the only way his company, Wurzak Hotel Group, could partner with Westin Hotels.

Westin is owned by Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc., which also owns, operates and franchises the St. Regis, The Luxury Collection, Sheraton, Four Points by Sheraton, W, and Le Meridien brands.

He said that as the only Starwood property in the immediate area, customers at the Westin could earn points on their Starwood cards and apply them toward free stays at one of Westin/Starwood's vacation properties -- similar to a frequent-flyer airline card.

Still, experts say, the Westin is debuting in a weakened economy in which corporate travel has taken a hit and, in turn, has cut significantly into Mount Laurel's hotel occupancy this year.

Room demand was down 13.7 percent in Mount Laurel for the first quarter of the year, compared with last year, according to Smith Travel Research.

By comparison, South Jersey as a whole was down 4.9 percent, while room demand overall nationally was down less than 1 percent.

"For Mount Laurel to be down 13.7 percent, that is significant," Vinson said. "It's much deeper than what we are seeing in other similar type areas."

But demographics and location are in Mount Laurel's favor, and the region should rebound faster than other areas.

Burlington County's population grew 6.4 percent between 2000 and 2006, almost double the state average. Mount Laurel is at the nexus of three major highways -- Interstate 295, Route 73 and Exit 4 of the New Jersey Turnpike -- and offers easy access to Philadelphia's Center City.

"If a [Center City] convention hits 5,000-room nights, you'll see overflow go to West Philly, City Line and South Jersey hotels, like Mount Laurel's," said Ed Grose of the Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association.

Computer Sciences Corp., Oki Data Americas Inc., NFL Films and Lockheed Martin Corp. are among the major companies with offices within a mile of the Westin.

Wurzak is aggressively going after the corporate market Monday through Thursday. He said Computer Sciences alone generated 6,000 to 8,000 hotel stays a year.

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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