|By Alan Wechsler, Albany Times Union,
N.Y.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Mar. 13, 2008 --SARATOGA SPRINGS -- When Michael Barnes arrived in town to help his company win the contract to manage the Gideon Putnam Hotel & Conference Center, there was one question he couldn't get an answer to.
Who, exactly, was Gideon Putnam?
"I just thought it was strange," he recalled this week. "I just couldn't get the story."
Barnes' company, Delaware North Cos. Parks & Resorts of Buffalo, won the contract, agreeing to manage the Gideon for 20 years in exchange for making nearly $20 million in improvements and paying an estimated $16 million to the state over that time.
Delaware North and co-manager Saratoga Gaming and Raceway beat out the resort's former manager, Xanterra, and Saratoga Gideon Partners, made up of the Saratoga Hotel Group and Benchmark Hospitality International of Texas.
Delaware North is known for running hotels in parks, including the The Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park, and resorts in Sequoia, Yellowstone and Grand Canyon national parks. Other holdings include the Plaza Grand Ballroom in New York City and Niagara Falls State Park, where Barnes used to be manager.
Barnes now is general manager of the 72-year-old Gideon, overseeing plans to push the hotel's history as well as its presence in the 2,300-acre Saratoga Spa State Park.
Look for the late Mr. Putnam to be featured prominently. For the record, he opened Saratoga Springs' first tourist attraction, a tavern in 1802 that also touted the benefits of drinking the "healing waters" of a nearby spring. Putnam's tavern later became the Grand Union, one of the city's biggest and most famous hotels.
"We feel that it's our responsibility to be telling the story of this special place," Barnes said.
The three-star Gideon, built in the mid-1930s, has 120 rooms and suites and an attached conference center that was built in 1978.
Delaware North has hired a Buffalo-based design firm, Thinking Outside the Square, to create interpretive panels to be installed around the hotel illustrating the region's history.
Visitors may notice more subtle differences. For instance, Barnes said he was amazed to find out that fireplaces in the hotel's expansive lobby were not being used. Today, a roaring wood fire burns, at least during the winter, which Barnes says guests tend to gravitate to.
Management also is looking at a plan to replace the windows with more energy-efficient -- and historically accurate -- double-panes. The heating/boiler system may also get an upgrade, after engineers take stock of the building's infrastructure.
"It's got an old steam boiler system, and sometimes it has issues," said Jim Thompson, director of maintenance for the hotel. "The engineers are giving it a good, hard look."
The hotel has also changed its name and logo, to Gideon Putnam Resort, in order to push the many activities available in the state park that surrounds it.
"Why not embrace the park?" Thompson said.
Delaware North also runs the Roosevelt Baths & Spa a short distance away. Barnes said he hopes to warm up the institutional-looking hallways by adding color and wall hangings. The lobby, now filled with shelves and displays of skin-care products, would also become more inviting. He's even considering adding a fountain there.
David Zunker, president of the Saratoga Convention and Tourism Bureau, said he was impressed by the Gideon's new marketing campaign, which especially plays up its presence in the park and the "resort" aspect of the property.
"How much time do you really spend in your hotel room? You want to enjoy the environment," he said. "The different perspective is reintroducing the Gideon Putnam to the community." Wechsler can be reached at 454-5469 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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