|By Steve Snyder, Lebanon Daily News,
Pa.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
May 23, 2009--HERSHEY -- As a visitor winds his way up the hill overlooking Hersheypark and catches a first glimpse of The Hotel Hershey, not much seems different about the Mediterranean-style crown jewel of this town.
But walk or drive around the back of the 230-room structure, celebrating the 76th anniversary of its opening this weekend, and -- whoa -- there's the confirmation of "The Grand Expansion."
So this is what a $70 million project looks like.
On what once was an executive golf course is now a playground for the well-to-do, many of whom travel here from the suburbs of New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., for some relaxation.
For those who want a different experience than staying in the hotel, there are now 10 Woodside Cottages built in a circle just beyond two sparkling pools (a family pool and an adult pool, surrounded by 14 cabanas), a year-round polymer-surface outdoor ice rink (almost as large as the ice rink at New York's Rockefeller Center), and the soon-to-be-opened Harvest restaurant.
A hiking trail leads into adjoining woods. Guests can test themselves on a ropes course or play paintball, basketball, tennis or volleyball.
And, of course, the entire "back campus," as general manger Brian O'Day calls it, is wireless. Guests can watch wide-screen TVs and work or play on their laptops while relaxing in the poolside cabanas.
There's so much to do here that it would be tough for anyone to try everything in just a couple days.
And that's the point, O'Day said as he took on the role of tour guide after cutting a ceremonial ribbon on The Grand Expansion on Thursday afternoon, 16 months after work began.
An average stay at the hotel has been a little more than two days, O'Day noted.
"A good goal would be to raise that to 2 1/2 ," he said. "The idea is perhaps the guests will be inclined to stay longer. You can't do the park and this in a day or two."
The four- and six-room cottages, with a total of 48 rooms, are the hotel's premium accommodations at $539 a room per day, compared to summer-season room rates starting at $369 for a traditional hotel room.
"We have over 1,000 bookings for the new cottages," O'Day said. "We wanted to keep the product current. You can do fun things in the luxury market. ... I don't think 'upscale' is a bad word."
Although the massive project started just after the nation officially entered a recession, O'Day said, management decided to stick with its original plans.
"We put this all together," he said, "and we decided, let's see it through. The economy is going to come back."
Harvest restaurant is on track to open June 29, featuring what O'Day described as "all-American cuisine" from locally grown produce, with entrees priced in the $18 to $26 range. Harvest will be open for dinner seven days a week. Including its bar area, Harvest seats 140. Meeting rooms will be available on the upper level.
Inside the hotel, the lobby has been renovated, complete with a stained-glass ceiling and new front desk, which guests see facing them as they enter. On the wall behind the desk are photos of the hotel's founder, chocolate magnate Milton S. Hershey and his wife, Catherine. Seven boutiques are located just off the lobby, although some will not open until late this year.
Every effort was made to keep the overall project environmentally friendly, O'Day said. Geothermal heating and cooling is used for the back-campus buildings, all of the ground moved for the project was kept on site, and sensitivity was given to light pollution. Trees uprooted from the front of the hotel were transplanted to the back.
More than 500 employees work at the hotel during the peak summer season.
There's still room for much more expansion, if Hershey Entertainment & Resorts Co. is ever inclined to do so. O'Day said about 100 of the property's 300 acres are now in use.
For more information, call 533-2171 or visit the Web site at http://www.thehotelhershey.com.
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