Kevin Reeder may be the man in charge, but he leaves no doubt about how major decisions are made at the Belhurst Castle: It’s definitely a team approach.
"This has always been a family operation. We rely on each other," Reeder explains. "The expansion of the property and the vision to make this a destination was always a team effort."
Reeder, 42, owns the Belhurst Castle and runs the day-to-day business. His father, Duane, bought the property in 1992, and Kevin recalls that his first day on the job was New Year’s Eve. He was 23 years old and worked with his father as the general manager. His hands-on experience complemented his formal training. He was fresh out of Cornell University with a bachelor’s degree in hotel administration in 1991.
Reeder was born and raised in Geneva. Growing up, he worked one of his first jobs "in the business" at another local restaurant.
"At 13 I started washing dishes, busing tables, doing salad prep at the Chanticleer," Reeder recalls. But he has fond early memories of the Belhurst too.
"I took a date here," Reeder says.
Working at the Belhurst was like coming home again.
"I’m truly in love with this property. The Reeder family has been here for 100 years, and for me to be educated in this industry and then come work here is very rewarding," Reeder says.
The four-story mansion was built in 1888, designed to be a private residence. It overlooks the shores of Seneca Lake, offering views that almost rival the majestic grandeur of the historic castle.
The name Belhurst means "beautiful forest," and the tree-lined drive that visitors take as they wind their way to the castle lets them know they are making a transition to a peaceful place set back from the road and the outside world, even if the visit is just for a short lunch, spa treatment or visit to the winery.
When the Reeders purchased the property, they determined it was imperative to expand.
"We decided that we needed to add to the castle in order for growth to take place," Reeder explains. "To stay in the marketplace, we knew we needed to add to our offerings."
The expansions have paid off, bringing new visitors-100,000 people annually-to the Belhurst. In the 20 years that the Reeders have owned the property, they have made many additions.
The property now has three hotels: the Belhurst Castle, the Vinifera Inn and the White Springs Manor. There are two restaurants: Edgar’s and the Stonecutters Lounge. There is a winery and gift shop owned by Duane Reeder. There are two ballrooms: the Meritage and the Castle. Each can accommodate weddings, holiday parties and business meetings. And two years ago, the latest expansion brought the Isabella Spa and Salon.
"We are trying to set a pricing structure to show Belhurst is for everyone," Reeder says. "On any given day we will have guests that range from prom kids to people enjoying their 50th wedding anniversary. Most folks can afford what we have to offer."
While making gradual expansions on the property, Reeder has seen a steady increase in business, he says.
"Once people get on the property, they feel they have gone somewhere. They feel they have taken a mini vacation-the spa, salon, the winery, the restaurants. What they don’t get to see on this trip, they make a point to come back to visit next time, and they see they can afford it," Reeder points out.
Business has continued to grow throughout Reeder’s tenure at the Belhurst. He declined to provide details on the operation’s financials. There were some slowdowns during the economic crunch from 2008 to 2010, but he sees signs of a good turnaround for this summer and into 2013.
"The measure that tells me things are starting to turn is advance bookings. They mean people expect to have disposable income," Reeder explains. "We have two ballrooms and can do six weddings a weekend. All prime dates for this year and 95 percent for 2013 are already contracted."
When Reeder and his father began at the Belhurst, they spent a lot of time and money trying to determine where best to allocate their marketing dollars. They needed to identify their core customers.
"Early on we did a lot of external research; then we hired a company to do it for us, and we found the same answer," Reeder says. "Monroe County is our largest draw for customers, or one hour’s drive from here either way around us, and then it spreads out from there to Ohio, Pennsylvania, New England. But our research tells us our customers are local."
The nearby colleges provide a steady customer base as well, including Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Wells College and Cornell University. Parents and visiting students need lodging during tours and graduations.
As Reeder continues to market for expanded growth, he looks for ways to capitalize on what is already a success. Wine sales have grown steadily since the winery opened in 2004. There are 20 different varieties, and 5,000 to 6,000 cases are sold each year. Like many things at the Belhurst, the decision on the wines is a team effort.
"The majority of the wines are Finger Lakes wines. We work with three individuals here to sample them and massage the taste we want," Reeder says. "The wines are produced at a number of different wineries and then bottled for us."
The labels are small works of art. Reeder’s son, Max, a graduate of SUNY College at Purchase, designed the label on the Tower Port bottle. The labels are unique and emphasize the historical aspect of the Belhurst.
Some of the most popular wines are for sale at an online shopping site launched last month at www.belhurst.com. It’s the newest way Reeder has found to expand his business.
"Sales have been steadily increasing. The wine sales have been excellent," Reeder says.
As he looks to the future, the biggest potential for growth he sees is the offseason. He would like to bring people to the Belhurst to see how they can enjoy its beauty in the fall and winter months. The Vinifera Inn has large rooms with fireplaces, and the Isabella Spa and Salon offers relaxing treatments.
There are many amenities to enjoy indoors and great business partnerships to bring deals for customers.
"Travelzoo and Living Social help drive business in the offseason," Reeder says. "I think this could be the next area of growth."
With growth comes a challenge: labor, Reeder says.
"As this area expands, growing tourism, outstanding wineries, I love it, it’s better for all of us. We complement one another," Reeder explains. "But the labor pool is challenging. There is a huge need for skilled hospitality. I have been extremely lucky."
At the height of his busy season, late May through the holidays, Reeder employs 125 to 150 people. Most work part time, as is the nature of the hospitality business. But of his full-time staff, many are long-time employees.
"I have some employees who have been here for 30 years. Some of the management team have worked up through the property," Reeder says.
Building a team
Just as Reeder sees it as a family business, so does his team.
Kelly Towers, lodging and dining manager, says Reeder helped nurture her career and she is fiercely loyal. She has grown up through the ranks, beginning as a front desk clerk 12 years ago. She has moved up in promotions as Reeder has recognized her potential each step of the way. Today she is in charge of both restaurants.
"He has nurtured my advancement. He saw in me that I was hungry and capable of more," Towers says. "But each time he offered me a promotion, he also told me not to bite off more than I could chew. He wanted me to make sure I had enough time to be with my husband, to make a good work-life balance."
Events Coordinator Carmen Brennan-Bain has been a Belhurst employee for 24 years. Having the ability to make her own decisions while knowing she also has a support system makes her feel confident in her role as a manager on Reeder’s team.
"He provides us with the tools, but it’s up to us to run the store," Brennan-Bain says. "He does things with a true team approach, and I can say he is 100 percent my mentor in everything I have done."
Reeder’s insistence on sharing the Belhurst’s success stands out in a recent example, when the Geneva Area Chamber of Commerce presented the Business of the Year Award, Brennan-Bain recalls. Typically, one plaque is given to the recipient.
"But when Kevin stepped on stage that night, we learned he had a plaque made for each of us. He made sure we all shared in the award," Brennan-Bain says.
Sharing is important to Reeder, adds another longtime employee, Executive Chef Casey Belile. He started as a sous chef there in 1986 and became executive chef two years later.
Belile has seen how much Reeder has donated to "almost every cause there is in Geneva."
"I can’t remember a month over the past 20 years Belhurst hasn’t donated to something," Belile says. "Nobody is left out."
Belile oversees many meals prepared in the castle’s kitchen. He estimates 1,200 and 1,500 meals are created in that kitchen each weekend in the summer when there are weddings.
Community work is important to Reeder. He has served on the boards of directors of the Chamber of Commerce, the Salvation Army and the Finger Lakes United Cerebral Palsy Association.
But the cause that is most dear to him is Happiness House. He is the immediate past chairman. Happiness House is a non-profit educational, therapeutic and residential center for children and adults with disabilities in the Finger Lakes region. Mary Walsh-Boatfield is the CEO of Happiness House. She has been friends with Reeder for 12 years.
"His generosity is unsurpassed. And the perspective he brings to Happiness House as a parent is very important," Walsh-Boatfield says. "One of his greatest gifts is his empathy."
For the past nine years Reeder has donated to the organization’s fundraiser with food, space and gifts for the live auction. He has contributed more than $150,000, Walsh-Boatfield says.
"He has also been very involved with his time by lending his expansion expertise on our development project in Canandaigua," Walsh-Boatfield says. "A new transition home there will help eight young adults learn how to live on their own. Kevin was instrumental in that."
Off the job
Reeder and his wife, Ellen, live along Seneca Lake in Geneva. They are raising six children: Max, 25; Gio, 23; Nic, 21; Adi, 19; Jake, 15; and Emily, 13. Ellen is a teacher at Hillside Children’s Center and also teaches aerobics.
Kevin teaches indoor cycling. When the couple have free time, they enjoy exercising together and watching a movie.
For now, Reeder is happy to watch his family business grow. He has enjoyed the benefit of his father’s input on major decisions and knows he can still rely on that. He sees his children and now second-generation employees working on the property. Through that he finds one of his greatest joys.
"I enjoy seeing the potential in an individual in an hourly position and watching them grow to ultimately become a very successful manager, an advocate for the Belhurst, a longtime member of my management team."
Lori Gable is a Rochester-area freelance writer.
Title: Owner, the Belhurst Castle
Education: B.S. in hotel administration, Cornell University, Ithaca, 1991
Family: Wife Ellen; sons Max, 25, Gio, 23, Nic, 21, and Jake, 15; daughters Adi, 19, and Emily 13
Home: Geneva, Ontario County
Activities: Teaches indoor cycling; exercising and watching movies with wife
Quote: "Success to me is loving what you do and being able to do it with friends and family."
4/6/12 (c) 2012 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email email@example.com.