ON THE SCENE: Growing up in Lake Placid’s hotel business

Jack and Gretel Wikoff, with the sons Gerret (near Ski), Naj raised arm, and Chris on the bottom (Photo provided)

There are several families in Lake Placid who’ve been in the lodging business for multiple generations. They include the Devlins, Holderieds, Lussis, Rolands and Wikoffs.

In our extended family, my father, his brothers and a cousin, was the Alford Inn, The Chalet, Maple Leaf, Mirror Lake Inn, Sun & Ski Lodge (Happy Jack’s) and Topnotch. The Devlins had The Northway and Art Devlin’s Olympic Motor Inn. The Holdereids had Wildwood and the Golden Arrow. The Lussi’s had the Holiday Inn/Crowne Plaza. And the Rolands had the Hilton, Homestead and Lakeside.

While the histories of all these properties could be the basis of a fun panel presentation or the base for a book or exhibition, the question I put to several individuals from a few of the families was “What it was like to grow up in the business?” During their lifetimes, the character of the lodging business has changed significantly. And because of COVID-19, it will change again. Thus, I was curious to learn about life lessons they’ve learned along the way.

“It’s not just growing up in the hotel business. It’s also growing up in a family business,” said Art Devlin Jr. “I like to describe it as a three-ring circus. You get used to people going in and out of your house, your kitchen, your living room. Your house is their house. It’s a different way of life. I also like to compare it to being a farmer; there is always something to do, and no matter how much you give, it wants you to keep on giving. You’ve got to learn how to pace yourself.”

Another aspect of growing up in the business is you are put to work early in life. Child labor laws were blithely ignored by all our parents. Devlin rented his first room when he was 12. His parents were busy. He recalls that his dad was in the shower and his mom had her hands full in the kitchen, so he was sent out to deal with the customer. By then, he was already helping out in a myriad of ways.

“You do everything, from chambermaiding rooms to grouting bathroom tubs and showers,” said Devlin. “You name it, and you do it. When you’re a small motel, that’s the name of the game.”

Jenn Holderied, around 7 or 8, started by folding washcloths and towels in the Golden Arrow’s laundry along with helping to strip rooms under the watchful eye of Marie Peck. By by age 9, Peter Roland Jr. was collecting and counting the coins in the Homestead and Lakeside’s soda machines.

“In the hotel business, you are 24/7, 365 before it was cool,” said Roland. “We worked all day, every day. You are always on call. My three sisters and I were responsible for filling the Coke machines, taking the money out of them, counting and rolling the coins, and taking them to the bank. That was my first introduction to when on hot days, all my friends were going to the beach, and I had work filling the Coke machines. That was a lesson, right; sometimes, you just had to work.”

By 12, Roland was washing pots, pans and dishes in the kitchen before moving on to bussing tables in the dining room at age 14, and, while in high school, opening and serving breakfast in the Lakeside coffee shop before school.

As for myself, by 8 or 9 I had two jobs: pushing the dinner-roll trolley around to the guests in the Mirror Lake Inn dining room and, with my brother Gerret, straightening nails for my father. He had taken down the Stevens’ Annex (located across from St. Agnes) and was re-using the lumber to add guest rooms and a game room to our motel on Wilmington Road — a former funeral parlor owned by Arthur “Chip” Adams. Our job was to pull nails out of the old boards and straighten them so they could be re-used.

“The smaller mom and pops are going by the wayside,” said Devlin. “It’s not just price. Your prices can be a hundred dollars cheaper than a chain-named. People either want to go there because of the prestige or what they think they’re getting. Back when my father was running the place, 80 to 90% of your business came off the road. Nowadays, 80 to 90% of your customers make a reservation in advance. That’s a huge difference.”

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, relationships mattered. When Art Devlin’s filled up, he sent business to us on Wilmington Road, which included not just his cousins who had The Northway, but to us at the Sun & Ski.

Another was the short season. My father always said we had 90 days to make the majority of our money. We had July and August, fall weekend bus tours of leaf peepers, Memorial Day, Columbus Day and winter weekends for skiing.

“By Oct. 15, we had to have enough money in the bank to cover the mortgage until June because you didn’t earn enough during the rest of the year to make the payments,” said Devlin.

We also had hunting season, which for us was significant. My father, Jack Wikoff, was a licensed guide and recruited Trader Al Conway, Andy Rosman and others to help him guide parties out into the woods. We also opened a game room for our customers in Happy Jack’s bar, which provided a year-round income stream, though modest in the off-season.

“Along with helping in the laundry, I picked up garbage so much that when I see garbage on the street while walking around the lake, I can’t not pick it up,” said Holderied. “I’m still constantly picking up garbage. Growing up in the hotel shaped my personality. I’m pretty outgoing. I’ve never been afraid to meet or talk to new people or go into a situation that bothered me. I’ve found it easy to talk to and relate to people. I think that’s in part from growing up in that environment.”

Like Devlin and Roland, Holderied said every job is your job, and you learn that every job is essential. If you see garbage, you pick it up. If a towel needs folding, you fold it. If someone needs checking in, you check them in.

“None of those jobs is more or less important than any other,” Holderied said. “If the housekeeper doesn’t do their job right, then when the guest checks in, they’re unhappy. If the desk person doesn’t do a good job, then the guest will be unhappy. If the waitress isn’t helpful and gracious, the guest isn’t happy. Every person needs to do their job and do it well. Housekeeping can do a great job, but if the waitress mistreats them, the guest is unhappy.”

As we are learning during COVID-19, the people who stock the shelves, clean the floors and bathrooms and check out our groceries at Hannaford’s and Price Chopper are vital members of our community. They make our village work no less than the members of the highway department, the people who volunteer for the ambulance service, coach hockey in the arena, teach our kids, work at Stewarts, or serve on the town and village boards.