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Changes in South Korea Mean New Opportunities for Lodge

Donna Miles, Office of the Secretary of Defense Public Affairs

The Dragon Hill Lodge at U.S. Army Garrison Yongsan, South Korea, offers a gateway to Seoul, with the conveniences of an Armed Forces Recreation Center.

SEOUL, South Korea - 03.16.2010 Most hotel managers would lose sleep over the prospect of losing almost half of their guaranteed hotel guests.

But Ed Fagan, general manager of the Dragon Hill Lodge at U.S. Army Garrison Yongsan here, sees the upcoming move of most U.S. forces from Seoul as an opportunity for the lodge to claim its rightful place within the military's Armed Forces Recreation Center network.

In a few short years, most of the U.S. service members and their families based at Yongsan and other posts north toward the demilitarized zone will relocate south of Seoul, most to U.S. Army Garrison Humphreys. As a result, troops reporting for duty or wrapping up their tours in Korea no longer will in- and out-process through the centralized center at Yongsan. They'll also no longer automatically spend their first and last nights in South Korea just across the parking lot at the Dragon Hill Lodge.

Gone will be the regular customer base that constitutes 44 percent of the hotel's annual room nights. Also gone will be most of about 17,000 military identification card holders based at Yongsan who frequent its restaurants, fitness center and other services.

But Fagan isn't worried about keeping his 394 rooms filled. In fact, he said, he sees the changes ahead as an opportunity to transform the Dragon Hill Lodge into a vacation destination for servicemembers, Defense Department employees and their families.

"We then become truly an AFRC," he said. "And I would maintain that we are going to become the most exciting AFRC."

Located in the heart of Seoul, the world's second-largest metropolitan city, the Dragon Hill Lodge offers easy access to a wealth of attractions and entertainment. Guests can tour historic and cultural sites, take in professional sporting events, visit museums, galleries and amusement and nature parks, and enjoy world-class shopping.

Fagan recent launched a "Discover Seoul" campaign to get the word out about these opportunities, and others beyond the city limits in the Land of the Morning Calm.

"We are not going to focus on selling the Dragon Hill Lodge. Our focus is on selling Seoul," Fagan said. "Our marketing materials are going to be such that people say, 'I want to take a vacation in Seoul. I want to discover this wonderful city with all it has to offer."

He's confident that when they do so, they'll choose the Dragon Hill Lodge as their base, smack in the middle of land the South Korean government plans to transform into a huge intercity park.

The Dragon Hill Lodge opened in 1990 as the crown jewel of the U.S. Army Garrison Yongsan compound that's home to the U.S. Forces Korea and Combined Forces Korea headquarters. Fagan described it as "the most elegant AFRC," an upscale contrast to the Quonset huts that surrounded it 20 years ago.

With stately dragons flanking the entrance, an elegant lobby, well-appointed rooms and top-quality food and beverage services, the Dragon Hill Lodge sets the tone for service members and their families moving into South Korea, Fagan said.

"The Dragon Hill Lodge makes a statement that we value you, that we care about our service members," he said. And for anyone arriving with apprehensions about living far from home in unfamiliar surroundings, Fagan said, the lodge provides reassurance that "life in Korea is not going to be too bad."

The lodge set the example for the transformation of the greater Yongsan garrison over the past two decades.

"It kind of set the standard for a lot of the follow-on construction that the U.S. forces did in Korea to really demonstrate that Korea is no longer a one-year hardship tour," Fagan said. "The soldiers who serve in Korea work just as hard as all the other soldiers and perform just as important a mission; and they deserve the same quality of life that exists in other parts of the world."

The Dragon Hill Lodge was modeled after other successful armed forces recreation centers the Army operates. But unlike the Edelweiss Lodge and Resort in Garmisch, Germany, and Hale Koa Hotel in Honolulu -- Shades of Green opened the following year at the Disney World complex in Orlando, Fla. -- the Dragon Hill Lodge has predominantly served troops pulling one-year tours in South Korea, most without their families.

That, too, is expected to change as normalized, three-year tours are introduced in South Korea and more troops arrive with their families in tow. When they're ready for some rest and recuperation and a base for exploring their new surroundings, the Dragon Hill Lodge is ready for them, Fagan said.

At first glance, the lodge is much like any other luxury hotel, with comfortable rooms, four full-service restaurants, lounges, game rooms and a top-of-the-line fitness center. What's different, Fagan said, is that the lodge's top priority is serving troops and their families -- not making money.

"If one of our service members was to check into the Marriott or the Hyatt to visit Seoul, they would just be another guest," he said. "When they come to the Dragon Hill Lodge, we are here because of them, and to support them."

Room rates are based on a sliding scale according to rank, with the most-junior soldiers on leave or pass paying $59 a night for a single room. For higher-ranking guests, the same room goes for up to $139 a night, with larger rooms available at higher prices to accommodate families.

"We need to make money at the Dragon Hill Lodge to sustain ourselves, but our purpose is not to make money," Fagan said. "Our purpose is to provide quality of life for the service members and their family members. ... We will be geared specifically to support them with programs that are designed for servicemembers, around service members' budgets, and around service members' lifestyles and family sizes."

Although the Dragon Hill Lodge is a bargain for military travelers, Fagan said, its guests are equally attracted to the gateway it provides to Seoul, as well as the familiarity and convenience of familiar surroundings.

While incorporating Asian architectural design and furnishings, the Dragon Hill Lodge represents a piece of Americana -- along with military conveniences -- to its guests. Its restaurants serve up everything from homestyle barbeque cooked all night so it falls off the bone to high-end steak-and-lobster cuisine. A Tex-Mex restaurant on the premises features its own microbrewery; with "Amber" the house brew; and a tortilla machine that ensures authentic flavors.

The secret, Fagan confided, is that the Dragon Hill Lodge flies all its ingredients in from the United States rather than buying them locally.

But familiarity for guests and their families goes beyond their palates. Dragon Hill Lodge also houses a small post exchange, a U.S. bank, a variety of concessions sanctioned by the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, and a desk where guests can ask directions to sites around town, book tours, and buy discounted tickets to local venues.

Guests call these features a winning combination.

"This is great, and it's all strategically based," said Army Sgt. Travon Graves as he and fellow 2nd Infantry Division soldier Sgt. Kiarra Sutton studied the Discover Seoul display in the Dragon Hill Inn's lobby.

They came to Seoul for medical appointments, but hoped to check out some of Seoul's attractions; the Lotte World amusement park, the zoo, the Korean War memorial and local museums; before returning to their base at Camp Casey.

"There's a lot here. We just have to figure out what we want to do," Sutton said.

Army Staff Sgt. Antonio Jefferson, who had just arrived in South Korea for his assignment at Camp Casey, said he already was impressed with the Korean culture and was looking forward to learning more about it.

But before traveling north to his new assignment, Jefferson said he planned to use the Dragon Hill Lodge as a base for another priority. "I'm definitely going shopping," he said. "From what I hear, this is a great place to do it."

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