Lancaster County hotel room demand sets first-quarter record 

Demand for Lancaster County hotel rooms set a first-quarter record this year, as visitors flocked to the Garden Spot. 

The county is a hot destination these days with its smaller urban areas, access to open spaces and wide variety of attractions. 

Ed Harris, CEO of Discover Lancaster, said hotel room demand is up 33% from the first three months of 2021. 

“Typically, the first quarter is the softest for hotels in Lancaster County,” so this number has hoteliers optimistic about the rest of the year, he said. 

2022 “is setting up to be a flagship year,” Harris said. 

With high demand the catalyst, hotel room revenue totaled $40.7 million in the first quarter, significantly more than the $24.9 million from a year ago. “Hotels feel really good about that,” he said. 

Sight & Sound Theatres’ “David” is a major draw bringing visitors to Lancaster County. When that venue debuts a new show, Harris said, that typically creates a positive ripple effect in the local economy. 

One persistent negative is a workforce shortage in the hospitality sector, he said. Becoming fully staffed is a challenge. 

But Harris said there are signs that the situation might be improving. 

During the worst of COVID-19, Lancaster County became a popular retreat. Its geographic proximity to big cities on the East Coast makes it a drivable destination, he said. 

A broad range of lodging is available, including unique places like the Cartoon Network Hotel, with price points to match nearly any budget, Harris said. 

The perception is that it’s more affordable than metro areas and beach towns. “Your dollar goes a little further,” he said. 

The Lancaster County Commissioners and Pennsylvania Department of Community & Economic Development also gave Discover Lancaster more than $3 million during the pandemic to use toward marketing and advertising, which was a tremendous help, Harris said. 

The county rebounded a little faster than many other areas, he said, with momentum picking up in the fourth quarter of 2021. 

Then, in February and March, with all this pent-up demand, “things really started to take off,” Harris said. 

“At the end of the day, people want to travel somewhere.” 

‘Great destinations don’t have to be Disney’ 

For the trailing 12-month period ending April 20, the Lancaster submarket was at 98.5% revenue per available room, or RevPAR, compared with the 2019 pre-pandemic baseline, according to data from Kalibri Labs. 

David Aungst, president of High Hotels Ltd., which owns and operates 14 hotels, seven of which are in central Pennsylvania, said one reason the county’s hotel industry has bounced back is the COVID-weary public’s yearning for open spaces and small towns. “Clearly, Lancaster has it in spades,” he said. 

Like Harris, Aungst emphasized Lancaster County’s location. “It’s a very, very drivable market, an easy place to get in and out of.” 

He, too, spoke about the range of hotel offerings, from upper upscale to economy. “The leisure traveler is really flooding into reasonably priced hotels,” Aungst said. 

The market came out of the gate in the first quarter very strong, he said. 

York is in good shape, too, with 103% revenue per available room compared with 2019. Aungst said York has a lot of wedding venues and is “doing a good job on economic development.” 

The Harrisburg submarket and its government-dependent hotels, however, are taking longer to recover, with a RevPAR of 90% compared with the pre-pandemic baseline. 

Overall, the hotel sector has revived quicker than many expected, said Aungst, noting that those in the hotel industry see a direct link from hospitality to economic development. 

“There is a deep desire among people to spend time with other people and go out and have experiences,” he said. 

“The great thing about central Pennsylvania is we have all these things to offer,” Aungst said. “Great destinations don’t have be Disney.” 

Dutch Wonderland to go cashless 

Lancaster County’s Dutch Wonderland is the latest amusement park to go cashless, announcing that it will accept only electronic payments when it opens to the public this season April 16. 

“By transitioning to only accepting electronic payments such as debit cards, credit cards, and mobile methods like Apple Pay, Dutch Wonderland will provide a faster, safer and more guest-friendly experience,” its website said. “Staff will spend less time handling cash and more time serving guests, reducing our reliance on this less secure method of payment.” 

Visitors who arrive with cash can convert that to a prepaid card worth up to $500 at one of the East Lampeter Township venue’s cash-to-card kiosks. 

The electronic payments accepted include all major credit and debit card providers (Visa, MasterCard, AMEX, Discover) and secure mobile payment systems (Apple Pay, Google/Android Pay, Samsung Pay). 

Old Mill Stream campground and Cartoon Network Hotel, also owned by Dutch Wonderland’s parent company, Palace Entertainment, will become cashless as well.

Last month, Hersheypark made a similar announcement as the iconic theme park prepared for its 116th operating season. 

Hershey employers join for third annual career expo this month

Hershey area employers, including Hershey Entertainment & Resorts and Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, will participate in the annual Hershey Career Expo being held from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 31, at the Purcell Friendship Hall on 109 McCorkle Road, Hershey.

Area employers with recruiters at the event include: Milton Hershey School (MHS), Catherine Hershey Schools for Early Learning (CHS), Hershey’s Chocolate World, Hershey Entertainment & Resorts, the medical center and the Hershey Company.

MHS and CHS are looking for full-time, year-round; full-time school year; and part-time positions for a variety of departments.

MHS is seeking health care and transportation professionals, houseparents and educators. CHS, which plans to open its first location on the MHS campus by spring 2023, is seeking an operations director, human resources manager and finance manager.

Spooky Nook signs first tenant to its million-square-foot complex in Ohio

Spooky Nook Sports inked its first tenant in the 1 million-plus-square-foot sports complex it’s building in Hamilton, Ohio.

Municipal Brew Works will open a tap room and small batch brewing facility with just over 5,000 square feet, according to a release, with seating for more than 100 patrons offering a view of the brewing area, the Great Miami River and access to the riverside patio.

Spooky Nook Sports Champion Mill broke ground in 2018 and will be the largest indoor sports complex in North America, the release said. For tenants, about 60,000 square feet in the former Champion Mill paper mill building are available for rent.

As more of the old structure is repaired, remodeled and rebuilt, Spooky Nook Sports, based in Manheim, has begun identifying restaurants and retail tenants.

“We are still seeking a few restaurant, experiential retail and/or a salon partners for leasing opportunities at Champion Mill,” Dave McLain, general counsel/director of real estate development at The Nook, said in the release.

The Nook “couldn’t be more excited about our partnership with Municipal Brew Works,” he added. “Their ownership group shares our vision of creating incredible places for people to gather in Hamilton.”

Pandemic forces Hershey Entertainment & Resorts to lay off 603 employees

Hershey Entertainment & Resorts Co. furloughed 603 employees, part of two rounds of layoffs at the company following the closure of non-life sustaining businesses by Gov. Tom Wolf in March.

The layoffs affected union employees on March 19, and non-union workers on April 13. Initially the layoffs were expected to last into summer, but now officials say it could be fall. The company announced the furloughs In a Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act notice to the Department of Labor and Industry on June 30.

Hershey Entertainment & Resorts operates The Hotel Hershey, Hershey Lodge, Hersheypark, MeltSpa by Hershey, Hersheypark Camping Resort, The Giant Center and Houlihan’s Restaurant and Bar.

“Unfortunately, government COVID-19 directives have repeatedly been expanded and extended, requiring people to remain in place, which has in turn restricted our business since large gatherings and travel, in general, have been prohibited,” said Andrew Helmer, vice president of Human Resources at Hershey Entertainment & Resorts wrote in a letter to the department.

Because of the continued effects of the pandemic on the entertainment industry, Helmer wrote that Hershey expects the layoffs will last beyond Sep. 19 for unionized workers and beyond Oct. 13 for non-unionized workers.

Hershey has already begun calling back some of its employees thanks to Hersheypark’s recent reopening, said Garrett Gallia, vice president of communications and corporate relations at Hershey Entertainment and Resorts.

Gallia said the company will continue to do so depending on how its businesses do in the coming weeks.

“Ultimately, business levels, which we monitor closely, will be the driving influence behind that determination,” he said. “In fact, with the opening of Hersheypark to the general public on July 3rd, we have recently started to implement phased call-backs for some of our team members and have available seasonal positions throughout our company.”

Helmer added that because of the nature of the pandemic, the company won’t be able to make an accurate assessment of how many employees will be returning and which will be subject to permanent layoffs. Some of the employees affected by the layoffs are represented by Chocolate Workers’ Local Union No. 464 of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union.

Michael Saylor, a business agent for the local branch of the union, said many of his members have already returned to work at Hershey.

“I would say they are doing the best they can in getting people back to work,” Saylor said. “They have contractual guidelines they have to follow to bring people back and we haven’t had serious issues.”

Discover Lancaster’s new chief ready to promote ‘experience’

Edward Harris is set to take the role of  president and CEO of Discover Lancaster on June 22.

Edward Harris wants to tell “the awesome story that is Lancaster.”

That’s how he describes his responsibilities when he takes on the role of president and CEO of Discover Lancaster, the official destination marketing organization of Lancaster County, on June 22.

Harris, 41, comes to the area after working six years at Valley Forge Tourism & Convention Board, most recently as chief marketing officer.

Working at Valley Forge was a great experience, Harris said, and “I’m really excited to go to Lancaster.”

Originally from Philadelphia’s Roxborough section, he graduated from Germantown Academy, where he was captain of the basketball team in 1997. The 6-2 Harris played off guard.

He matriculated to Saint Joseph’s University, and was a big fan of the Hawks’ hoops teams under former head coach Phil Martelli. Harris had a campus job in Martelli’s office.

In 2001, he graduated with a marketing degree and was hired full time at AND1, a basketball startup company that makes footwear and apparel.

He stayed in that industry but moved on to Converse (Nike) in Boston; Timberland in Stratham, New Hampshire; and Under Armour in Baltimore. While in New England, Harris earned his MBA from Boston College.

His prior job before coming to Valley Forge was at eBay Enterprise in King of Prussia. Harris said he and his wife, Kristin, wanted to move back to Pennsylvania when they started a family.

They’re the parents of a son, Will, 9, and a daughter, Ruby, 3. Harris said the plan is to relocate from King of Prussia to Lancaster. “We’re looking at schools.”

Blending passions

Valley Forge Tourism & Convention Board was his first experience working for a nonprofit, he said.

“There are a lot of parallels” with the footwear and apparel industry, Harris said. “Every season is about something new.”

“You’re promoting an experience now instead of products.”

Harris traced his interest in marketing to an advanced visual arts class he took in high school.“In college, I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” he said. But Harris fell in love with marketing because it involved business, analytics and strategy – and was “super creative.”

“It’s really the creative business major,” he said. “It kind of blended my passions.”

When he arrived at the Valley Forge tourism bureau, which covers Montgomery County, it was very focused on history. After all, Montco is the home of Valley Forge National Historical Park. However, the focus “gradually expanded way beyond what everyone is familiar with,” Harris said. “There are a lot of small towns and things to do,” he said.

During Harris’ tenure, there was a major expansion of the King of Prussia Mall; construction of the LEGOLAND Discovery Center in Plymouth Meeting; and transformation of the Elmwood Park Zoo.

The tourism bureau also enhanced its website in 2019 to make it compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and launched accessmontco.com, which is geared to travelers with disabilities.

Named to the Philadelphia Business Journal’s “40 Under 40” list in 2017, Harris is chairman of the marketing advisory board at the Erivan K. Haub School of Business at Saint Joseph’s, where he’s taught marketing strategies.

As for Lancaster County, Harris said he’s been coming here since he was a boy. “I remember Dutch Wonderland, Sight & Sound, the Strasburg Rail Road, Shady Maple. The drive is so beautiful.”

Now his own kids love Dutch Wonderland, he said.

Hit the ground running

Harris is familiar with the county from an attraction standpoint, so he looks forward to meeting Lancaster city leaders and other officials from the county.

His priority is to “hit the ground running,” he said, and meet with as many government, business and community leaders as possible in the first 30-60 days. Harris said he’s very fortunate to join a team at Discover Lancaster that’s already quite strong.

The aim is to build a COVID-19 recovery plan for when tourists begin to feel comfortable taking trips again, he said. We want to “partner with a lot of great businesses throughout the county.”

“As the coronavirus impact has continued, we know how important it is to have a new president and CEO in place,” Discover Lancaster Board Chair Rebecca Gallagher said in an emailed statement. “And Ed’s proven capabilities make him the right person at the right time to ensure Discover Lancaster will be a driving force revitalizing our industry.”

People are going to seek an escape, and Lancaster County should be well-positioned coming out of the coronavirus as a great destination for families, Harris said.

At the same time, there has to be a sensitivity to county residents who may not want to be inundated with tourists so soon after a pandemic, he said.

What does he see as the county’s assets?

“Amish culture will always be a key component of the DNA,” he said. Plus, there’s a growing restaurant scene, breweries, live entertainment. And the City of Lancaster is vibrant, with so much creativity, Harris said. “It’s a cool place to spend time.”

An estimated 8.85 million people visited Lancaster County in 2018 adding $2.9 billion to the county’s economy, according to a study published last year.

“Lancaster County has so much to discover,” Harris said. “There’s an incredible variety of things to do.”

HU to launch live entertainment course

Harrisburg University’s latest undergraduate course will give students an introduction to live entertainment production when it launches in January.

The university announced on Monday that it will be launching Live Entertainment 101, a class designed to teach students what goes into producing live shows for theaters, parks, stadiums, clubs and other venues.

The class is expected to cover topics like booking, advancing, sales, marketing, negotiation and budgeting as well as general skills like management, planning and coordination.

“We’re thrilled to offer our students experiences and opportunities available in the live entertainment industry,” said Frank Schofield, the university’s director of live entertainment and media services. “The course is a natural extension of what we are doing to build the university brand and live entertainment offerings in Harrisburg.”

The midstate has seen its share of growth into the live entertainment market with the proliferation of concert production companies like Atomic, Clair and Tait in Lititz.

Harrisburg’s concert scene has also grown in recent years with the university’s own concert series, the opening of XL Live last year and renovations underway for the Harrisburg Midtown Arts Center to expand its Stage on Herr venue.