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Chautauqua Conversations: Departing Athenaeum manager Stanton reflects on guest base, growth of hotel

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The Athenaeum Hotel General Manager Bruce Stanton is leaving his position after this season. This will be his 25th year at the hotel, first as de facto assistant general manager and since 2003 as the general manager. A Chautauqua County native, Stanton spent several years in the restaurant and hospitality business in Jamestown before his boss at the time, Tom Ferri, was appointed general manager at the Athenaeum Hotel. Ferri brought Stanton with him, and the two men began a process that has transformed the hotel both physically and as a business.

After this season, Stanton will take up a hospitality management position at Moonbrook Country Club in Jamestown. As Stanton reflected on his quarter century at the venerable old hotel, we sat in one of his favorite places. We took comfortable, adjoining wicker chairs at the north end of the hotel’s signature lakeside porch, pausing occasionally to enjoy the fresh air after a late evening thunderstorm had swept away the heat and humidity overnight. A few early sailboats dotted the serene vista of sunny Chautauqua Lake in the distance. The setting felt perfect.

Tell me about your life before the hotel.

I was born in Jamestown. I’ve been here my whole life. I grew up in Frewsburg. Once I graduated from high school, I attended Jamestown Community College. I was originally thinking of going into forestry studies. I was also interested in biology. I put myself through school, working full-time in the restaurant business. I worked mostly in a small white-tablecloth restaurant in Jamestown called the Grist Mill. I actually wound up spending most of 12 years there, and my success there changed my mind about career possibilities.

By my early 20s, both my parents were deceased, and I was essentially on my own. I really learned a lot about the restaurant business, not just in the kitchen but also how to manage the business side of a restaurant. The ownerof the Grist Mill was Tom Ferri. He sold the restaurant to become GM at the Athenaeum Hotel, and I was about the first person he hired to come on board here. I saw a move to Chautauqua as an exciting, stimulating change for me. I saw this as a career move. I was almost 30 when I came on board here.

I arrived on the grounds in 1994 as a full-time employee dedicated to the hotel, as was Ferri. The previous GM also had the title of operations manager, so this was new for the hotel, having dedicated year-round employees. It signified a changed, larger vision for the hotel. The idea at first was that I would do several jobs, adding up to my year-round position. I worked a lot of 80-hour weeks in those off-seasons, trying to get some momentum around our growth.

I began here in May 1994. I was the executive chef and director of food and beverage service during the season, and in the off-season doing conference and marketing business. Four or five people do that work now, of course on a much larger scale. By 1996, we had a full-scale schedule of conference activity. We managed to attract a lot of state association conference activity, and got some business from the University of Buffalo. We were building a good relationship with Elderhostel, now called Road Scholar, and that business continues. We now do a program with them every week of the season and five more in the off-season.

Bellinger Hall is under your oversight. How has its role changed?

When I got here, Bellinger Hall was around 20 years old. It was the major venue for conferences. As we made the hotel more accessible, people began to prefer to stay in the Athenaeum. But organizations such as Road Scholar are now starting to introduce more retreat-style programming, and they want us to participate. Bellinger Hall is good for that type of activity and enables us to offer more moderate pricing.

Describe your hotel program’s growth.

We had Bellinger as part of our original package, but we added the Afterwords Café after Sadie J’s became an office/residential building. We operated the restaurant now called La Familia in the basement of the St. Elmo for a while. We added the Plaza Market and the Gallery Café behind Fowler-Kellogg. And we took over the Refectory, investing heavily in its modernization and renaming it the Brick Walk Cafe. We have taken over management and operation of the Shaw Laundry across Route 394. And the hotel itself has experienced major improvements via our ongoing room renovation program, fire safety and utility upgrades. Especially over the last 15 years, we have had a lot of growth.

We also relaxed what we knew as the old guard dress code in the hotel. We began to serve beer and wine. Now we have a bar in our lobby. I would say the most strategic advance has been going away from the American Plan five years ago and leaving behind its requirement that guests eat all three meals here each day. Now guests can create their own price point in terms of food. At the time, we didn’t know how much resistance we would encounter, but we got broad acceptance. More than any other factor, I think getting off the American Plan enabled us to move from roughly 65 percent occupancy to where we have been for several years, which is around 80 percent occupancy at the hotel.

Has the Institution’s support for the hotel been steady?

It has ebbed and flowed, sometimes depending on the Institution’s overall financial health. But I would say that we began to really see support starting about 12 years ago. As part of its strategic thinking, the Institution committed to an annual investment. That has enabled us to get caught up on projects essential to our survival. I mentioned several of these, but there were also major roof projects and the renovation of the hotel tower.

Your guest base has changed.

Absolutely. In 1994, we had 40 to 60 people who would check in at the beginning of the season and stay deep into Weeks Eight and Nine. After five or six years, we began to see that number slowly but steadily decline. There was attrition that we had to learn how to replace. Road Scholar was part of that replacement. During the season, the road scholars stay at the hotel. Symphony, alumni and family groups can spend as much as a week with us.

When I started here, we had one discounted rate, for stays seven nights or longer. Now we have numerous discounted and package rates. Many bring us a lot of new business. Also, I think it is important to note that without the Institution and its programming, there would be no Athenaeum Hotel. That’s how dependent we are on the Institution’s success in attracting visitors to the grounds. And we are a major gateway to Chautauqua.

What’s the status of the room renovation project?

Well, the annex has 48 rooms. It was built in the 1920s. It got a complete renovation in 1998. In the main hotel, there are 102 rooms, of which around 60 percent have been totally renovated; several others have been partially renovated. I understand that an additional 10 will be overhauled this coming off-season.

In this connection, I really want to acknowledge our hotel board and also the Institution board of trustees, who have worked hard to provide us with consistent levels of support, especially in more recent years.

What’s your off-season rhythm in terms of work?

After the season, we go until the November board of trustees meeting with a lot of activity, much of it around group visits and weddings. Then we have a somewhat quieter time until the end of the year, typically. Once Jan. 2 rolls around, we are full bore in anticipation of and support for the new summer season. After New Year’s, the recruitment and hiring process ramps up. Reservations start to come in at a much faster rate. And also after New Year’s, you begin to seriously plan for weddings that will take place 18 months later. There is a lot of lead time with weddings.

Our reservations rates often tell us which of the summer theme weeks is going to be successful. I suppose you could say we are a bellwether on that.

Are most of your hundreds of seasonal employees from this local area?

Yes, and for a good reason. We don’t have the possibility of housing most of them on the grounds. So we need people who can commute to work from home.

Do you notice that many young people now will actually not want a full-time job? They want to work for six months, get some savings and then move around for the other six months traveling, visiting friends, accumulating experience. They may not really expect a retirement supported by Social Security.

Yes, we have certainly observed that at the hotel. On numerous occasions, I have admired the work of some of our seasonal employees. Usually they are in their 20s. They leave, and sometime before the next season, they reappear out of the woodwork, ready to sign up again. It actually has worked pretty well for us.

This is such a historic place. You have been here for a distinct period of that history.

There was no playbook when I got here. The path for Tom Ferri and me, and then just for me and my team, was what we laid out. In those early years, we managed largely by the seat of our pants. We had a few scary moments, but things worked out pretty well.

I’ve probably had more than a dozen direct supervisors in my time here. That has required a lot of flexibility and adaptation. It did help that Tom Becker’s arrival as president of Chautauqua coincided almost exactly with my own assumption of the GM job. That continuity and his support were certainly helpful.

What advice would you give to your successor?

You need a lot of patience in this job. This hotel demands a lot from people who work here. And my own personal outlook probably intensifies that pressure. I have always been one who tends to say yes to any suggestion, even when my brain tells me it might be best to say no. Why not try? Saying yes meant fulfilling an opportunity to serve a guest, whether at the hotel or for a special event or one of our other Institution departments.

Because of the inherent seasonality, there can be some strong pressure. I always tell new additions to our staff that they will test their own perceived limitations. This hotel is an operational taskmaster. It’s exactly like the Institution’s program: There is a lot of preparation for what is just a short period in any year. Then, bang! It’s on you. And you are not always surrounded by seasonal employees who share your passion and commitment. That can be challenging and disappointing at times.

I know my successor will have his or her own thoughts about how to do this job. One of the things I learned early on was that as much good experience as you might have had elsewhere, this job at the hotel is so different in so many ways that it is very hard to be very well prepared for it.

Our first job is to serve the Institution’s program. We still exist because of that program. And there is an inherent conflict: On one hand, you want to bring the building and its service up to the highest quality. But you cannot discount the history of this place and this building either. You need to embrace that history. The guests have some level of appreciation for the hotel’s history. Most can tolerate its idiosyncrasies.

I sometimes think about what some of the conversations might have been like in this old hotel. The early days. During the Depression and World War II. During the 1960s. And during the tech boom of the 1990s. The Great Recession. I lived through that latter part of the history of this place.

The guest demographic is still pretty much the same, trending to the older clientele, those that have achieved a point in their life where they can come and enjoy what Chautauqua has to offer. We have been working to get a younger set to come in here. That’s a work in progress. But I do think the platform that has been built here will support any change.

We are the gateway to the Institution. If we can be a piece of newcomers’ experience here that makes them want to urge friends and family to come and share that experience, then we have done our job.

I can well imagine that many of the general managers here over the long course of the Athenaeum Hotel must have wondered if this place could last. Consider the fate of all the other old hotels that once were around this lake and area. I think that only the Athenaeum and the Hotel Lenhart in Bemus Point remain.

I do believe that most of our guests have indulged us to some extent in our staff. As I mentioned, we cannot house too many on-campus any more. We need staff who can commute to work here. When I began here, we were able to house 60 staff members here. It’s much less now. Our guests know we are doing our best, and we have found a lot of gems among our locally hired seasonal employees.

I well recall some of our longer-term guests telling me that their ability to afford to come here for a lengthy stay at the Athenaeum to enjoy the arts and education on the grounds was a measure of their successes in life, and they were proud of that. Maybe now there is more of a sense of entitlement, in the sense that staying here is more the expected nature of things. I don’t mean entitlement as a dirty word, not at all. But changing attitudes from the guests means we need to serve the guests differently. If you are genuine, kind, flexible and most of all, willing to listen, you will be OK.

Tags : ChautauquaChautauqua ConversationsGeneral Manager Bruce Stanton
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The author John Ford

John Ford is in his ninth year with the Daily. He reports on general news, does feature reporting and writes the weekly Chautauqua Conversations column. A wire service reporter for United Press International prior to embarking on a career as a foreign service officer with the Department of State, he currently writes a regular column on American politics and foreign relations for one of the two principal daily newspapers in Nassau, Bahamas.

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