For more than a century, parents and children have dined together, played together and reconnected at Pennellwood Resort in a wooded setting alongside Lake Chapin in Berrien Springs, Mich., about 70 miles east of Chicago.
But Pennellwood, an American Plan resort, is getting ready to raze its 40 rustic cabins at the end of this season. They'll be replaced by 38 cottages that will be sold individually for $325,000-$475,000.
American Plan resorts traditionally offered accommodations, three meals a day and family-oriented leisure activities for one price. At their peak, around 1960, more than half of U.S. resorts were American Plan-style, with 120 American Plan resorts near Pennellwood in Berrien County alone.
Now the percentage is probably fewer than one in 10, estimates Joe Goldblatt, who teaches at the School of Tourism and Hospitality Management at Temple University in Philadelphia.
You can still find American Plan resorts in Michigan, Maine, Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and other states, as well as in Ontario, Canada. But today they are more popular in Asia and Europe than they are here. The resorts are fading because American travelers are getting older, they are taking shorter vacations, and the resorts often can't compete with glitzier attractions, according to Goldblatt.
"In travel, brief, bright and brilliant equals better," he said.
Pennellwood will still offer six guest rooms in its lodge, and the new cottage owners will be able to rent out their homes. But the old cabins will be missed by families like Jim Watson's, whose grandparents started coming to Pennellwood in the 1920s.
"It's like home," said Watson, 56, a jeweler from Chicago who has vacationed at Pennellwood almost every year of his life. "It's a part of our lives, a part of our families."
Watson brought his wife and nine other relatives to Pennellwood for a season-opening Memorial Day weekend event exclusively for regulars. They played tennis, went fishing, threw a Frisbee, sang karaoke and went square-dancing.
"It's just an overall, great family time where the parents can spend more time with their kids and the kids aren't locked into their computers," Watson said.
Emily Senk, who grew up in the northern Michigan community of Glen Arbor and worked for two summers in the late 1990s as a food server at the Glen Eden resort, said many people were regular guests of the resort, which the owners closed shortly after she left.
"It was just a great environment," said Senk, who now works at a public relations firm in New York City. "A lot of the families, even if they originally didn't know each other, they would see each other on vacation year after year and become good friends."
Nina Smiley's family for 138 years has owned and operated Mohonk Mountain House, an upscale American Plan resort that boasts a 265-room Victorian castle in the Hudson Valley region of New York. But Mohonk has changed with the times. In addition to old-fashioned fun like campfires, there is also a yoga room. Two years ago, it opened a full-service 30,000-foot spa wing. This year, it added a rock-climbing program.
Yet the American Plan style remains part of the Mohonk experience. "We see many families who value the more relaxed time they have together at an American Plan resort where meals are included in the daily rate, along with a variety of activities," said Smiley, the resort's marketing director. "This active, but not harried, environment leads to found moments where family members can relate in a way that's not possible when a travel itinerary keeps families on the run."
Back at Pennellwood, owners David and Jamie Stacey hope the changes they plan next year will make the resort more profitable. The resort will receive a management fee for handling rentals of the new cottages, and the Staceys will also continue operating the lodge and planning family activities.
"We're trying to preserve the past but prepare for the future to keep this concept alive and well," said David Stacey.