Walkingaround the Institution grounds before the beginning of the season, sounds of construction echoed up and down the streets. The sound of power saws, beams of wood and trailers coming in and out before the season begins are a normal occurrence, but this year there was a larger project underway.
The historic Athenaeum Hotel is undergoing changes, not only physically but also in its leadership.
Operating continuously since its completion in 1881, the hotel has seen thousands of guests and staff, but not many like Leland Lewis who, as of November 2018 and following the departure of longtime manager Bruce Stanton, is the new general manager of its halls.
Lewis floats through the hotel, walking earnestly with purpose and an air of concern, always wondering what could be done or where he might be needed. Before discussing his plans for the hotel, he offered refreshments and asked a question.
“Do you want me to get the dog?” Lewis asked, referring to his Pembroke Welsh Corgi, Roscoe.
The pair are inseparable — Roscoe followed his owner throughout the winter as Lewis fixed things up around the hotel in the quiet, snowy months. Lewis noted the specifics of the small changes and their overall impact on the hotel.
Lewis has been working in hospitality throughout his life. After studying abroad in Moscow and St. Petersburg, he began working in restaurants, bringing him into the world of hospitality.
He has had a career in hospitality for over 30 years, traveling the United States with InterContinental Hotels & Resorts to help manage hotels in New Orleans, Chicago and Cleveland, and assist in opening a hotel in Montreal. His most recent endeavors include being the executive director of patient support services at the Cleveland Clinic where he was hired to translate his skills in hospitality and guest services. Lewis also was manager of the Teddy Roosevelt Hotel and the historic Downtown Association of New York City.
Now Chautauqua feels like home to him. After leaving New York City, a friend called him to talk about a possible job opportunity. After hearing the name Chautauqua, he knew exactly what he was in for. Lewis, after moving to Cleveland in 2002, had met and began vacationing with a family who regularly stayed at the Institution during the summers. He wandered the grounds and was naturally drawn to the Athenaeum. Noticing small things at first, he loved the hotel, but wanted to add his own touch. Once the opportunity to work at the Athenaeum came, there was no way he could pass it up.
But it would take time, and a lot of work for his vision to be realized.
“You see that little tissue box?” he asked. “It’s a tissue box, but it’s also a stack of books; an athenaeum is a place where you store books.”
These small, laser-focused changes, Lewis said, are what will begin to set the hotel apart and attract more guests. Other changes are underway as well, with a longer plan set up to follow in the upcoming years.
The usage of apps like OpenTable for restaurant reservations to bring in outside community members has been an important aspect of hospitality to Lewis. Apps like OpenTable grant people who could otherwise not afford a gate pass three hours to eat, drink and experience a Chautauquan landmark.
“During the season we want to give them an opportunity to come in here and sit on this porch, have a glass of wine, eat dinner and not be prohibited because of the gate pass,” Lewis said.
As he began to detail the staff changes and other restaurant facelifts, Head Chef Edward Work, almost on cue, walked by and gave a happy wave across the field. Lewis said his idea of kitchen support, a plan of hiring new workers to manage the kitchen, work payroll and taking pressure off the head chef will uncomplicate the inner workings of a high-pressure area of the Athenaeum.
Even as Lewis talked, floorboards were laid, beams were repainted, and Chautauquans wandered around, admiring the work. With a gargantuan amount of work before Saturday’s deadline contractors hummed through with speed.
He has left no stone unturned in terms of renovations and does not plan to stop in the next two to three years. He has proposed the addition of mobile bars, making for easier services during evenings, parties and weddings as well as other events such as Amphitheater entertainment, and easing the stress on the current bar staff. Other plans include replacing porch furniture, cleaning out areas below the porch, extending it to the side of the restaurant and stripping and fixing support beams for the overhanging roof.