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I’ve been here for about 2½ weeks so far,” Cliff Ehrlich explained in his office at the Villa Roma Resort and Conference Center, where he has begun his tenure as general manager. But he’s no stranger to the Sullivan County resort or the hotel business.
Ehrlich’s grandparents Phil and May Schweid started The Pines Resort and Hotel in Fallsburg. Their daughter Harriet met his father, Jerry Ehrlich, when he was a bellhop at the resort.
Ehrlich not only grew up at The Pines but, after attending University of Colorado at Boulder and receiving a Bachelor’s in Business Management and Marketing, he joined the family business. In 1994, he left to pursue a career in gaming and casinos.
That year, Ehrlich and a group of investors got an option to buy Monticello Raceway. When the purchase went through in 1996, Ehrlich became president and general manager at the harness racing track and formed a development group to get commercial gaming into the Catskills area. Success followed when New York State approved slot machines at raceways and the Racino officially opened on June 30, 2004.
“I was president of the raceway and later the casino from 1996 to 2013,” Ehrlich said. “I left Monticello Casino and Raceway and I ended up working trying to bring in a Mohegan Sun Casino to Sullivan County with the hope of getting two casinos in the county.”
Ehrlich became a consultant to Mohegan Sun Casino CEO Mitchell Etess, part of the famed Grossinger family in Liberty, as that Connecticut-based company vied for a casino license.
Last year, New York State awarded one of the full casino bids to the Montreign Casino at Adelaar, on the site of the former Concord Hotel.
“Although I would have liked two casinos in Sullivan County, I was elated to hear that at least there would be one and our argument was heard that an Orange County casino would prevent a Sullivan County casino from being successful,” said Ehrlich. “I spent my whole career trying to get these large commercial casinos… I have many friends who work for (Montreign developer) Empire Resorts and I can’t wait until the casino, water park, and entertainment village will open.”
Ehrlich found himself thinking about his next career move. The solution came during a conversation with Craig Passante of the Villa Roma, who asked Ehrlich what he was doing.
The best way to describe how things turned out: serendipity. The conversation led to a visit to the Villa Roma and a conversation not only with Craig Passante, but his father Marty, the founder and owner of the Villa Roma, and Paul Carlucci, the vice president.
“When I got to talking to them I thought ‘Wow. This is quite a place, the Villa Roma,’” Ehrlich explained, “And when they showed me around, I couldn’t believe how many amenities and facilities they had and how family-friendly they are. It was a real eye opener to me. I was walking around the hotel before I met with Craig and Paul, and I heard all the guests talking. They seemed so happy to be here. I mean, you come over that mountain and it’s like Shangri-La. It really is. It’s like this place has got it all, and the guests seem so happy.”
It was the perfect fit. Ehrlich now presides over a weekly meeting where all the department heads read over a memo filled with diverse requests for birthday parties, weddings and groups just coming to visit.
Ehrlich says the Villa Roma staff will do whatever it takes to make the stay special.
“Our employees go to the highest degree to make sure that every guest is happy. Whether you’re a group of six people or 300 people,” Ehrlich said.
And future short-term plans for the Villa are actually focused on helping construction workers who will eventually come to the area to build Adelaar and the Montreign Casino.
As for long-term plans, the goal is to really make people understand what the Villa Roma is and how many different ways there are to really experience it.
“They have time sharing, and they also have condos, which is totally separate,” Ehrlich explained. “So you can have your own house, or you can take a week in a time share. This place is a jewel of the Catskills that a lot of people need to see and visit. We have the most beautiful venues for weddings and special dinners.”
Ehrlich is also looking to the future and the opportunity to take concepts he’s learned over the years from both the hotel and casino business together.
“If I knew what I know now when I had The Pines, I would have done things differently,” Ehrlich said. “Now I have the opportunity to take some of the concepts I’ve learned over the last 18 years and meld the two cultures.”
And the experience of working at the Villa Roma, even for a short time, has already shown all sorts of connections to Ehrlich’s tenure at a traditional Catskill hotel. From meeting a maintenance worker whose grandfather used to work at The Pines to seeing old customers bringing groups to Villa Roma,
Ehrlich is constantly seeing connections to not only his early hotel career but also his time in the casino business. And Ehrlich feels he’s in a good place.
“At this point and stage in my career, it’s really important that the people I work with and work for are genuine and that they’re sincere,” Ehrlich said. “And they treat people well; that above all is important to me. And the people here are really special. I don’t know if Marty Passante gets his just due, but if people could just come and see what he’s built here at the Villa Roma, I’m sure they would be as impressed as I am.”