Originally from Corfu, Greece, Ellie Rizo, 58, president of the 94-year-old landmark Jones Beach Hotel and its Per Un’ Angelo restaurant in Wantagh, could be called a phoenix for the way she has overcome adversity.
Two months before she bought the businesses in 2000, her 21-year-old daughter died in a car accident. Then she was hit by a divorce and battered by the recession and two storms — Irene and Sandy — without flood insurance. She has spent more than $300,000 to evict long-term tenants who hadn’t paid their bills, and more than $1.2 million to gut and remodel the rooms and restaurant. Rizo said she is still working to renovate the property’s exterior.
Another challenge she had to overcome was past tax penalties in the six figures, dating to the previous owner.
Yet, when she rebuilt the restaurant, she hung it with angels and named it “For an Angel” in Italian, in memory of her daughter. She took classes from Drake College of Business for two years. Her son, Terry, 35, joined her and boosted business through the Internet, and many of her clients have become close friends. She now hosts corporate holiday parties, bridal showers and family dinners in the transformed 140-seat restaurant and 37-room hotel. She speaks four languages to the array of international guests who come to see shows at the Jones Beach Theater. Also a singer and poet, she has recorded three albums, and her book of poetry has been translated into two languages.
What’s your advice on hosting holiday parties?
We give reasonable prices for Christmas parties because people spend big money on the gifts. It’s good for the business, it’s good for me and you make your guests and new customers very happy.
Have any celebrities stayed at the hotel?
Clive Davis, Jimmy Buffet’s relatives, Ellen DeGeneres’ producer and others.
What did you do to get your business on the Web?
Initially we put in an in-house reservation system, so we could actually track our reservations. Then we started bringing in different accounts. So the first one was Booking.com, then Expedia, which was the best; we got onto Hotels.com and Orbitz. Each one of these websites has proxies internationally. So for example, Expedia, which really owns about 85 percent of the hotel market in the United States, owns something like 30 different websites that are specialized, let’s say, in the German market, in China, in India, that feed into the Expedia system. Since that happened, we’re getting guests from all over the world.
How else do you increase business?
We registered with New York State Board of Tourism. So now we get emails from groups, like a lacrosse team that’s coming from the Midwest and needs 15 rooms. We would put in a quote, and they pick from different hotels.
What have you changed about the hotel?
We gut-renovated the rooms. People used to sleep on the floor here. And there were four main beams that held up the building that were replaced from wood to metal. That was a major structural issue, because the beams had about rotted away and the building had shifted down about 7 inches. So we reinforced those. A few years later we expanded, and we added a party room in the back. And then a few years after that we expanded the party room again. We also replaced all the equipment, the plumbing and the electric wiring and added air-conditioning.
How are you different from other hotels?
People say it feels like you’re staying with family. We even drop people off at the concert and pick them up at the end of the night, so they don’t have to drive and drink. We bring them to the beach if they don’t have a car. We pick them up from the train station