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A Cutting-Edge Welcome

Catering to travelers’ 21st-century needs, the Delaware Welcome Center houses two c-stores, free Wi-Fi, seven eateries and more

Can a rest stop be a road trip’s main attraction? Perhaps, if it is the newly opened Delaware Welcome Center, run by Bethesda, Md.-based HMSHost Corp. as the “travel plaza of the future,” featuring free Wi-Fi; seven dining options; a 21-pump Sunoco fuel campus with an APlus convenience store; a Z Market upscale convenience store; and pet rest areas. This state-of-the-art interstate travel stop also serves as Delaware’s welcome center, offering history, culture and tourism information about the “First State,” making it a likely destination stop for many of the 4.5 million annual visitors.

Comprised of a 42,657-squarefoot main building, built to LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards in partnership with a 4,200-square-foot Sunoco fuel campus/APlus convenience store, The Delaware Welcome Center sits on 28 acres of developed land just off Interstate 95, and is the realized vision of a project undertaken five years ago by HMSHost, which built it in only nine months.

“We wanted to create a sustainable place for this next generation of travelers that was very open, bright, safe and stress-free, with an easy flow of traffic inside and out,” said Michael Jones, vice president of business development. “We’re trying to change the perception of a rest stop. This is the creation of a whole new experience, blending a travel plaza with a welcome center.”

The former travel plaza that occupied the space, the Delaware House, was in need of a change. Built in 1962, it opened in 1963 after that portion of I-95 was inaugurated by President John F. Kennedy in November — right before he flew to Dallas. “It was one of the last things he did, inaugurating that stretch of the highway now called the John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway,” Jones noted.

Closed in September 2009, the former rest stop was built “as a sit-down center,” according to Jones. “The building was circular in nature, like a flying saucer,” so traffic patterns were very outdated. “It had great history and a great story, but it was out of touch with the traveling experience today.”

Not so anymore. The Delaware Welcome Center was created to be a “game-changer” in its ability to cater to the 21st-century needs of all travelers — business, family, truck and motorcoach.

Not surprisingly, a primary update comes in the form of multiple food options — with an array of fresh and gourmet selections. “We did research a few years back, and it was apparent that our travelers from Washington to New York are looking for healthier options,” said Jones. “It was across the board — and included truckers and our motorcoach customers. Bus drivers, in particular, drive for long stretches. They stop and get fast food, but we found they want to be healthier. So throughout the facility, there are fresh-made and healthy choices.”

Two of the restaurant choices, Baja Fresh and Brioche Doree Café & Bakery, offer made-to-order salads, sandwiches and Mexican meal items, so special requests and ingredient eliminations are no problem, pointed out Fred Fox, general manager of motorway operations for HMSHost. And in the centers’ upscale c-store, Z Market, “the wide variety of things we offer from a healthy standpoint are phenomenal,” Fox said, noting the fresh, hot and cold gourmet items to-go. “We also sell an incredible amount of fresh fruit — bananas, oranges, apples — sometimes, it’s just as simple as that. Travelers today just want to take fresh fruit and go.”

For customers who want to just pump gas and go, there is Sunoco’s APlus convenience store, which also was expanded beyond its regular options, including an expanded menu, a wide selection of coffee and some “healthier” fresh fruit and snacks. “As our partner in this project, [Sunoco] went to great lengths even beyond its APlus prototype,” stated Jones. “It’s one of the largest it has in the system.”

Another modern-day addition is the inclusion of open grassy areas, defined as pet rest areas, located in two spots between the main building and the gas pumps. Clean-up bags are also provided.

“We probably have as many people traveling with pets these days as they do with kids,” Jones said.

Visually, this “gateway to Delaware” was designed to be architecturally impactful and relaxing at the same time. With a 36-foot-high entrance and central dining space, as well as a curved roof form and large expanses of glass, attention is on open flow and light. Natural daylight and indigenous plant life are just a few of the inherently sustainable attributes of the center.

The light is also a focus at night. “During the day, we get a lot of natural light, and it’s very welcoming, but the neat thing too is at night — all that light inside radiates back out and when travelers drive by it’s like a beacon or a lighthouse,” Jones said. “It’s such a bright, upgraded sight. It’s a great evening experience that feels safe and secure, and it’s one of the things I’m most pleased about.”

The floor plan is arranged in a primary north/south axis with the main entrance facing the parking lot to the north. The east/west axis provides covered entrances for buses carrying commuters and pleasure travelers. This axial arrangement was designed to allow travelers to easily orient themselves inside, having a clear unobstructed view throughout the central hall. More than 600 seats are available inside and out, and there are two groupings of rest facilities.

The state welcome center is located at the main entrance, but the Delaware theme is carried into the dining hall, where large scenic photographs from local photographers are displayed, representing each county in the state.

Only open three months, the team is most proud of the customer experience. “One of the things that makes me most pleased from an operator’s perspective is the fact that we sized it for a stress-free travel experience,” said Jones. “With the flow and layout of the facility as well as the parking, we’ve accommodated for the traffic of today as well as for the traffic of tomorrow. We analyzed travel projections for that corridor, and I’m confident we right-sized it.”

HMSHost also allowed for flexibility within the space allotted. For example, 10-foot square retail kiosks were put in, which now house retail venues such as sunglasses and $10 accessory items, but “as other things become a hot trend, or if we need more space for something else, we can change kiosks out or eliminate them,” Jones explained.

Planning and strategizing was done right, according to Jones and Fox, but the proof is sometimes just in the observation of customer faces — which both admit to watching from the sidelines to gauge customer satisfaction.

“There are a ton of people out there who have considered this their regular stop for many years,” Fox said. “But now you can see something different in their eyes — it’s shock and awe.”

For comments, please contact Renée M. Covino, Contributing Editor, at [email protected].

Bottom Line

  • The Delaware Welcome Center is a blended travel plaza/state welcome center.
  • Built on 28 acres, there is room for two c-stores, a Sunoco APlus and an upscale Z Market.
  • Three months in, developers feel it is right-sized for the future.

By the Numbers

Key figures of the Delaware Welcome Center include:

  • Grand opening June 18, 2010; opened to the public the week of June 21, 2010; constructed in less than 10 months after the former site, Delaware House, closed in September 2009
  • 42,657-square-foot main building built to LEED standards
  • 4,200-square-foot, 21-pump Sunoco fuel campus with APlus convenience store
  • 28 acres of developed land
  • 36-foot-high entrance
  • 4.5 million expected visitors
  • 10,000 to 15,000 daily visitors
  • 600-plus seating available inside and out
  • 250 employees
  • 100 to 150 staffed associates on duty in a 24-hour period
  • 603 car parking spaces
  • 38 bus parking spaces
  • Seven restaurants: Baja Fresh; Brioche Doree Café & Bakery; Burger King; Cinnabon/Carvel Ice Cream; Famous Famiglia Pizzeria; Popeyes Chicken; and Starbucks Coffee
  • Four retail outlets: Z Market (upscale c-store with fresh food to go); Postcards from Delaware (Delaware novelties and gift items); Bijoux Terner (men’s and women’s accessories with a single $10 price point); IShades (fashion sunglasses)
  • 50 CabAire truck parking spaces featuring anti-idle truck electrification outlets
  • $35 million investment by HMSHost and its fuel partner, Sunoco, to finance, design and construct
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