PHOTO: Elaine Grossinger-Etess with her mother and legendary hotelier Jennie Grossinger in the 1960s.
Elaine Grossinger-Etess says it’s one of her favorite stories, and it illustrates how the former hotelier has never let the concept of hospitality slip far from her mind. “Once my husband, Dr. David Etess, and I were walking up the grand staircase of the Waldorf=Astoria and I saw an empty pack of cigarettes on the floor,” she recalls from her home in South Florida. “As I bent down instinctively to pick it up, my husband gently chided me. ‘It is Conrad Hilton’s problem, not yours,’ he said.”
Even years removed from her family’s noted resort in the Catskill Mountains of New York, the daughter of the legendary Jennie Grossinger is still practicing her trade. The octogenarian works as director of hospitality for Forest Trace Resort, a retirement community in Lauderhill, Fla. Once the first female chair of the what was then known as the American Hotel & Motel Association (now AH&LA), Grossinger-Etess and her husband moved full-time to Florida after the family sold the Grossinger Catskill Resort Hotel in 1985. But that didn’t stop her from keeping up the Grossinger tradition of hospitality.
“I’m involved with special events, booking big name entertainment,” she says of her position with Forest Trace. “So many of the residence were guests of Grossinger’s or the Catskills, so it’s like coming home to them. It’s a lot of fun. They have wonderful memories. They bring pictures they had taken at our resort while on their honeymoon. They have kids who worked there.”
She says the job is a lot like when she was executive vice president of the Catskills’ resort. “We do a lot of the same things, but bring them up to date,” she says with a slight chuckle. “Of course, you can’t do what you did 50 years ago.”
While residents of Forest Trace rent apartments, Grossinger-Etess says her hotel background has enabled her to bring a sense of hospitality to the community. “There’s a special event nearly every month,” Grossinger-Etess says. “It’s fun to be able to use your skills and not just sit in a rocking chair, because I’m not that kind of a person.”
Working into her 80s wasn’t something she imagined she’d be doing. “I thought I’d retire, maybe start to play golf again, those kinds of things,” she says. “But then I got a call from Stanley Rosenthal, the founder of Forest Trace. He heard I was living nearby and wanted me to become involved.”
Now, she’s still practicing hospitality, and couldn’t be happier. “They wanted the place run in the Grossinger tradition, so in order to do that, we had to have a Grossinger there,” she says. “It’s been a wonderful relationship.”
In many ways, she’s brought a mini-Grossinger to Forest Trace, but she’s quick to point out that the heyday of the resort can only be recaptured so much. “It’s an era that will never be recaptured because the world has changed so much,” she says. “People have become much more sophisticated. You can sit home and put on your television set and see the greatest performers. You have to really keep up with the times. But, I’ve been very fortunate to be able to get great acts to come to Forest Trace.”
Performers she’s booked include Joel Gray, Freddy Roman, Roberta Peters, and McCoo and Davis. And they’ve all performed at the “Jennie Grossinger Theater” at Forest Trace, which, of course, was named for her mother.
Grossinger-Etess says her greatest skill is “probably my ability to make people feel comfortable.” And, she credits that skill to her mother, who she says always said, “There are no strangers in this world, only people you have not met.”
“It is a good feeling to walk into a room, meet someone unfamiliar, and make them feel comfortable,” Grossinger-Etess says. “I am sure that part of my skill is inherited, but I also had incredible practice so it can be a learned art.”
Having grown up in the Grossinger family, Elaine learned the trade from the ground up. She says her favorite job at the hotel as a teenager was working the switchboard. “When all the lines would light up at once, it reminded me of the TV episode from I Love Lucy, where Lucy and Ethel were working in the chocolate factory.”
While the AH&LA has its third female chair this year, Grossinger-Etess as the first says she had a wonderful experience with the association. As a groundbreaker, she says she only hopes that people thought of her as a good chair and not a “good female chair.”
She still keeps up with the industry, and she says there have been a lot of changes over the years. “It’s so much more important an industry today than it ever was. The companies today aren’t just hospitality companies but also investment companies. And, they probably look at it in a different manner than those of us from a different era,” she says. “I’m sure it’s become much, much more competitive because there are more hotels and people travel more. It’s easier to get around.”
She says even though she doesn’t travel much now, she still does occasionally, and she sees a difference in the hotels of today and the hotels of her era. “I can usually tell if someone’s been with the company a long time or if they’re just passing through, so to speak,” she says.
Grossinger-Etess’ children have carried on the family’s hospitality tradition. Mitchell Etess served as CEO of Mohegan Sun, and Mark Etess was an up-and-comer in the industry working for the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City before tragically dying in a helicopter crash.
These days Grossinger-Etess takes a 35-minute car ride approximately eight days a month to do her work at Forest Trace where she’s continuing to work in hospitality, and continuing to put smiles on the faces of the residents of the community.