|By Tim Mekee, Lancaster New Era,
Pa.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
January 28, 2009 - The Willow Valley Resort & Conference Center always has operated on its own, rather than as part of a chain.
While other major motels here became a Best Western or Sheraton or some other franchise, Willow Valley refrained.
And that thinking made it prosperous.
From its start in 1966 as a modest 30-room property, the motel has grown into the county's largest, with 342 rooms plus immense restaurant and banquet facilities.
But now it's thinking differently.
Willow Valley officials announced today that the Route 222 landmark will be separated into two motels, both operated by Willow Valley.
The conference-center side of the property, opened in 1987 and featuring the Palm Court atrium, will become a DoubleTree franchise, a Hilton Hotels brand that's popular with business travelers.
It will be named the DoubleTree Resort & Conference Center at Willow Valley. Meanwhile, the original side of the resort will be renamed the Willow Valley Family Inn & Restaurant.
As part of the new alignment, Willow Valley will undergo extensive renovations costing more than $7 million. The property will stay open during the work.
The property will begin operating as two separate facilities with their new names in June 2010.
"We're making this move to reinvigorate our product, to protect jobs and to enhance the local economy," said Sheryl Holzbauer, executive vice president of community relations at Willow Valley Associates, which owns and runs the property.
As part of creating the 184-room DoubleTree motel, that side of Willow Valley will get a new restaurant featuring a 2,000-square-foot outdoor dining area, an outdoor pool, a fitness center and refurbished rooms.
Willow Valley, in the "dry" municipality of West Lampeter Township, wants the new restaurant to have a liquor license. So it intends to ask the voters' permission this spring via a ballot referendum.
The family inn side of the current property will feature 160 rooms and get a new front desk and lobby, gift shop, fitness center, banquet rooms and meeting rooms.
Holzbauer said today's announcement is the result of a year of study by the Willow Valley management team.
She pointed out that franchised properties carrying a brand name (or "flag") are becoming more common -- and getting a greater share of the market.
More than 90 percent of all full-service hotels today are branded, she said. At the same time, 85 percent of business travelers and 76 percent of leisure travelers prefer to stay at a branded property, she said.
"We've seen the landscape change over the last five or 10 years...," said Holzbauer. "It's really compelling."
As a branded property, the DoubleTree at Willow Valley will be connected to the franchise's worldwide reservation system, a key tool for booking guests.
Holzbauer noted that Willow Valley Associates has experience operating branded properties, having successfully run two in Harrisburg for several years.
Willow Valley was scheduled to formally unveil its new strategy at a press conference this afternoon.
Industry sources hailed the changes as a savvy strategy aimed at capturing the best of both worlds, appealing to guests who like either the internationally known DoubleTree brand or the local Willow Valley name.
"This will really expand its image," one source said.
DoubleTree, with more than 200 locations, is one of nine brands owned by Hilton Hotels Corp. DoubleTree motels are known for presenting guests with a warm chocolate-chip cookie when they check in.
Besides Hilton and DoubleTree, Hilton Hotels' other brands are Conrad, Embassy Suites, Hampton, Hilton Garden Inn, Hilton Grand Vacations, Homewood Suites and Waldorf Astoria. Willow Valley Associates has run "flagged" properties, especially those carrying Hilton Hotels flags, for decades.
It opened Hampton Inns in Manheim and Valley Forge in 1997, a Homewood Suites in Harrisburg in 2005 and a Hilton Garden Inn in Harrisburg in 2007.
Willow Valley Associates sold the pair of Hampton Inns two years ago.
Besides the resort here and the two motels, 550-employee Willow Valley Associates owns, develops and manages residential and commercial real estate, such as Willow Valley Square shopping center, Willow Woods apartments and medical office buildings.
Finally, it also provides property services to buildings and grounds.
Willow Valley Associates does not own or manage the Willow Valley retirement communities. A nonprofit corporation owns them and another company, led by Holzbauer's father, Marlin Thomas, runs them.
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