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Where wine and water meet and mingle

Courtesy Lodge and Conference Center at Geneva-on-the-Lake

It’s rare for a county government to wade into the resort business, but such a move has proved wise for Ashtabula County, Ohio, owner of the Lodge at Geneva-on-the-Lake, 53 miles east of Cleveland.

The county has long depended on tourism, with the Lake Erie resort town of Geneva-on-the-Lake its main attraction.

Now, tourism has been further spurred by the assertive marketing of more than 20 area wineries and 18 covered bridges. Yet county leaders realized that an essential element was missing from their tourism picture.

“They recognized that the hospitality industry in the county was doing well because of the wineries but that it wasn’t going to be able to grow without more lodging,” said Jeannette Petrolia, general manager of the Lodge at Geneva on the Lake.

Lakefront lodge stimulates economy

Seven years ago, the 109-room lodge opened on the shores of Lake Erie adjacent to Geneva State Park and its 698 acres, 383-slip marina and 300-foot-long swimming beach. The lodge is on state park land, but it is not a state-run facility. The county hired Delaware North Cos. to manage the lodge.

Built with an 8,500-square-foot conference wing, the lodge has become a meeting venue for companies in nearby Cleveland, whose suburbs are 25 minutes away.

“We deal with many, many of the major corporations in Greater Cleveland,” said Ken Hlavek, director of sales and marketing.

Other fruitful meeting markets are Pittsburgh, about a 2.5-hour drive, and Columbus, a three-hour drive.

Meetings are mostly small, in the 25-room to 30-room range, although there are buyouts, such as in late July when the Independent College Advancement Associates booked all of the lodge’s meeting space and most of the resort’s rooms.

New features, amenities added
Unlike state park properties, which are often bootstrapped by limited state budgets, the Lodge at Geneva-on-the-Lake has made a number of major changes in its short history.

Most recently, it revitalized its restaurant, Horizons. The restaurant was redecorated, and a fireplace was added. A buffet was also installed. Used mainly for breakfasts but also for some weeknight all-you-can-eat specials, the buffet has spurred business since the restaurant reopened in May.

Petrolia did a double take when she saw the numbers from a late-July weekend.

“We had over 300 guests for dinner on Saturday night, and it’s usually just over 200. Our restaurant business is dramatically improved this year, not that it was ever bad.”

A portion of a county room tax goes back to the lodge to use for capital projects. Part of the lodge’s revenues are also set aside for improvements, said Petrolia.

Among the projects early in the lodge’s history were the addition of an outdoor pool to supplement an existing indoor pool and a terrace adjacent to Horizons that, like the octagon-shaped restaurant, looks out on Lake Erie.

As soon as the high season ends this fall, wireless Internet access will be expanded throughout the property. It is now available in public areas and the meeting rooms; free wired access is available in guest rooms.

Audiovisual equipment, such as projectors and screens in meeting rooms, will also be upgraded.

A small spa is in early discussion. Petrolia and Hlavek have proposed converting an underused game room into a spa with two treatment rooms and a reception area. A masseuse now works out of a small room on the main floor.

“I’m a big believer in never stopping,” said Petrolia. “You have to stay dynamic.”

Kent State is partner
A 5,400-square-foot ballroom dominates the hotel’s conference wing. It can be divided into three equal sections; one of those sections is used by Kent State University, which paid for the space, allowing the lodge to afford a larger meeting space than it would otherwise have.

The space is available for meetings when Kent State isn’t using it.

In addition to a 1,300-square-foot meeting room, the hotel has four small breakout rooms, including the Vintage Room, which accommodates 12 to 18. A number of small groups use the Vintage Room for meetings, including Kent State’s top executives.

The partnership with Kent State goes beyond bricks and mortar: The school’s satellite campus in Ashtabula County launched a hospitality program after the lodge opened, and the lodge is a training ground for interns. The property has also hired a number of the program’s graduates for full-time positions.

We’ll have wine with that
The Lodge at Geneva-on-the-Lake makes the best of its location in northeast Ohio’s little-known wine country, where 65 percent of the grapes produced in the state are grown.

Its gift shop sells local wines; winemakers from some of the more than 20 area wineries, all family-owned, will conduct vintners dinners for small groups and pair four to five of their wines with a meal. Wine tastings can also be arranged.

For groups and leisure guests, the lodge’s wine shuttles, two 12-passenger vans, tour four to five area wineries for a fee. The wineries visited vary but tend to be those that are a bit larger, capable of accommodating a dozen people at once.

“Every winery is different, and all are family-owned,” said Petrolia.

Among those frequented are Ferrante Winery and Ristorante, known for its live entertainment on weekends and its Italian dining, and Grand River Cellars, where steaks and seafood share top billing in a dining room with a warming fireplace and hand-painted murals.

Fishing, biking and skiing
The state park’s marina is a short walk from the lodge along a paved walking and bike path. The lodge works with several fishing charters, although those outings can be tricky to plan because of changing weather conditions on the lake.

Bikes can be rented at the lodge for rides on the 2.5-mile bike path or around the state park; snowshoes can be rented in the winter, and later this year, the lodge hopes to offer cross-country skiing as an option for its guests, according to Hlavek.

Unlike the state park lodges and privately operated resorts with which it competes, the Lodge at Geneva-on-the-Lake does not have a golf course. It does have partnerships with two area courses, one public and one private. The private course, Madison Country Club, 20 minutes from the lodge, with a course built in the 1920s, is a favorite among corporate groups.

2010 best year yet
As the lodge has grown and added facilities and amenities, its business has done likewise. Last year, 2010, was its best year to date; this past summer will be its strongest ever, said Hlavek. Even as the recession hit three years ago, the lodge’s business grew, thanks in part to a growth in leisure business. Now, corporate and other meetings are returning, and the lodge is deriving 55 percent of its business from meetings.

Location is a key in two ways: “A lot of our business comes within a two-hour drive market,” said Hlavek. And, of course, being next to Lake Erie is an enticement. Whether guests are swimming in the outdoor pool or the indoor pool, dining in Horizons, working out in the fitness facility or relaxing in their rooms, a lake view is likely.

“An advantage is that you walk out the back door and there is the lake,” said Hlavek. “We are the only lakefront property east of Cleveland.”