Best Western changes hands

Jay Patel, the new owner of the Best Western hotel and McKenzie’s Grille said hotel work is enjoyable and he likes being a part of people’s vacation. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

SARANAC LAKE — Jim Murnane has been unemployed for six days.

The longtime owner of the Best Western hotel and McKenzie’s Grille on Lake Flower Avenue finalized the sale of the property last Tuesday.

There were three requirements Murnane had to sell his hotel: a strong economy, strong income numbers and recent aesthetic improvements to the property. With the economy pulling strong, his past two years being his best two years “far and away,” and a five-year property improvement plan implemented last spring, Murnane said it was a “perfect storm.”

He’s owned the Best Western for 26 years and was ready for a change. Now he’s running for the Franklin County Legislature.

Murnane was reluctant to take ownership of the property 26 years ago, as he was working as a guest service manager at a Hilton in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and was working with a dining room manager named Susan, his future wife.

Murnane’s father, who owned a construction company in Plattsburgh, called to tell him he was working on a hotel in Saranac Lake and wondered if his son wanted to run it. The project was initially developing a conference center, but after a couple hundred thousand dollars, the property owner ran out of money. It was a huge opportunity for Murnane.

“Gee, dad, I don’t know,” Murnane said he told his father. “I’ve got this new girlfriend I’m really enamored with, and my job’s going well here. I don’t know; let me think about it.”

“OK, call me back in an hour,” his dad responded.

Murnane said he jumped in with both feet and was extremely glad Susan made the leap with him.

The hotel was originally a Comfort Inn franchise, but after 10 years Murnane said the franchise fees were getting high and he didn’t like the direction the corporation was heading, so he changed to being part of the Best Western association. As an association, Best Western is the only hotel chain that is nonprofit corporation, where the stockholders are owners themselves.

McKenzie’s Grille also used to be separate from the hotel when the restaurant had a liquor license. The restaurant sits on the property where the Cranberry Meadow Pancake House once was. When the grille wasn’t selling enough alcohol to pay its extra insurance fees, Murnane decided to merge the two businesses 15 years ago.

He put the property, which includes McKenzie’s Grille, on the market in January, receiving a flurry of offers in 10 days before Jay Patel offered more than asking price.

Patel said he saw a hotel with a good income in a town surrounded by mountains and, like Murnane did 26 years ago, had to take the opportunity. He is bringing a new family himself, with a 1-year old and his wife several months pregnant with their second child. Calling on a Saturday, he arrived in Saranac Lake the next Monday and made the sale official several weeks later.

Patel has run an Econo Lodge in Richmond, Virginia, with his family for around a decade. An accountant by education, he was coaxed into the hotel businesses when his cousin bought the Econo Lodge in 2008 and hired him to run the books.

He said he grew to love working in the hotel business and being a part of people’s vacations.

“It’s not like working; it’s like you are actually on vacation,” Patel said.

There will be a bit of a difference for Patel between working the hotel in Virginia and the Best Western here. The Econo Lodge was a “transit” hotel, sitting right off on the state’s main interstates, and Best Western is a “destination” hotel. Instead of a place to crash for the night, he said the hotel is sort of a home base for visitors’ hikes, paddles and museum visits.

Patel came up around a month ago to shadow Murnane for a week and to learn how everything at the Best Western works. This is uncommon — usually the seller just lets the buyer look around — but Patel lived on the property and worked behind the scenes for a week, learning the ins and outs of the location and association.

“Everybody has their own strategy, their own secrets, how they run their hotel,” Patel said. “But Jim was a very open book; he showed me everything.”

Patel has plans to eventually add a gym, something he said many guests want, as well as a hot tub and sauna for the chilly winters.

Murnane is a bit melancholy leaving the business but said he is excited to move on to run for Franklin County Legislature. He said he will miss his employees the most, having worked with well over 1,000 people in his 26 years.

“I’ve been blessed with a lot of wonderful people over the years,” Murnane said.