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Former Waldorf Astoria executive comes home to Westin Buffalo

For most of the last decade, a crystal buffalo sculpture, two Buffalo Bills helmets and a shelf with signed Buffalo Sabres pucks set the scene in a key office in the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City.

A poster from the first Winter Classic and an artist’s rendering of Bishop Timon High School adorned a wall.

“Everybody there knows I’m from Buffalo,” Thomas M. Long said. “I didn’t hide that.”

Long, a South Buffalo native, Timon alum and rising star in the Hilton hotel chain, has been third in command at the Waldorf for most of the last 10 years, running the 1,200-member service staff at the Manhattan landmark.

Yet he and his wife, the former Lisa Schultz of North Buffalo, longed to move back home.

The impending opening of a new Westin hotel in downtown Buffalo gave them the chance.

Tom Long was hired late last year as the new general manager of the Westin Buffalo, taking shape on the first five floors of the new Delaware North corporate headquarters at Delaware Avenue and Chippewa Street. After 21 years away from the Queen City, he is putting his stamp on a spot expected to become the envy of other lodgings when it opens mid-summer.

“At the end of the day, it wasn’t that easy to get the right job in Buffalo,” said Long, 40. “I’ve talked to a lot of people about a lot of different things. Something was just right with Delaware North. They have a vision of what they want, and I want to be a part of that vision – and we wanted to be back in Buffalo.

“The excitement helps,” he said. “What people are doing with the waterfront, Canalside, what the Pegulas are doing with HarborCenter and their future plans of a stadium possibly downtown. And now you have Delaware North building a 4-star hotel.”

Delaware North executives were thrilled to land top-level talent for what will become the first Starwood chain hotel in the city.

“Tom Long is symbolic of Buffalo’s resurgence,” said Rick Abramson, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Buffalo-based company. “He didn’t return just because he was born and bred here, but because he saw a great opportunity.”

To be sure, Long’s new work digs will be considerably different than his old ones on Park Avenue.

At the Waldorf, Long helped manage the 47-story hotel considered the jewel of the Hilton empire. It was the tallest hotel in the world when it opened in 1931 and the first to provide room service to its guests.

It has 1,413 rooms – including 250 suites, three restaurants and 60,000 square feet of meeting space – and counts international leaders, A-list celebrities and the world’s wealthiest citizens among regular guests. Hilton Hotels and Resorts sold it last year to a Chinese company but continues to manage the property.

“I’ve been able to meet a couple of presidents and a former president,” Long said. “That was awesome; the Dalai Lama, too.”

In Buffalo, he oversees a hotel inside a $110 million corporate headquarters that will have 116 rooms, including 11 suites, along with ballrooms, a boardroom, a 3,000-square-foot outdoor courtyard and a 2,400-square-foot, fourth-floor fitness center with large, curved floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking downtown Buffalo.

The hotel design and offerings are based on the “Westin Pillars,” said Russ Papia, director of sales and marketing: Eat well, sleep well, play well, work well.

Guests will drive up to an entry staffed with doormen and bellmen. They will sleep in a Starwood signature “Heavenly Bed” and wash up in a “Heavenly Bath.” They – and everyone else – will have the chance to dine in a restaurant run by Patina Restaurant Group, a Delaware North company whose properties include the Sea Bar and Brasserie 8.5 in midtown Manhattan, Patina in Los Angeles, and Morimoto Asia, Tutto Italia and a half-dozen Disney restaurants in Orlando.

Staff, starting at the top, will look to instill guests with some of the passion they feel for Buffalo.

The rooms will include photo prints of Western New York landscapes, including many taken by Margaret Jacobs, wife of Delaware North founder, owner and Buffalo native Jeremy M. Jacobs Sr.

Locally sourced foods and craft beers will be regulars on the restaurant menu.

The hotel’s Westin Well Being program will provide maps and information on routes that will take visiting walkers, runners and bikers through the city’s historic neighborhoods and past its architectural gems.

“We want to make it part of the community, where you’re not just staying at a hotel,” Long said, “but you get a feel for where you’re staying, you have friends here and you’re learning a little bit about the place.”

As is the case with the Waldorf, Westin staff will look to help visitors feel less stressed – a strong suit for Long.

He was first introduced to the hotel business at the Statler, which was owned by family friends.

Then it was off to earn a hospitality management degree at Florida International University. He worked the front desk as an intern at the famous Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami during those days.

“I was looking for the chance to get out of the cold weather, so I went,” he said. “It was great.”

Hilton, which operated the Fontainebleau, selected Long for the chain’s management development program after he graduated. He went on to hold management posts at Hilton hotels in McLean, Va.; Atlanta; Chicago; Austin, Texas; and back at the Fontainebleau before he was dispatched to the Waldorf at age 30.

Long came prepared with boyish Irish-American good looks – round cheeks, wavy hair, a bit of meat on his bones – as well as a South Buffalo charm.

As resident manager – No. 3 in a 125-member management team – he became the trouble-shooter at the Waldorf, rubbing elbows with the richest and most demanding of international travelers as well as families that saved for years to stay at the hotel.

He credits his upbringing on Yale Place, off Seneca Street, for the skills that helped him make Waldorf guests, and staff, feel special in such surroundings.

“You take it for granted when you live in Buffalo just how friendly people are,” Long said.

During Thanksgiving week in 2013, the Saudi royal family wanted a suite at the Waldorf revamped in five days for a coming visit – new walls, several more flat-screen TVs, three doorways instead of one. Long practically lived at the hotel that holiday week, called contractors across the tri-state region, and got the job done.

He has been a key organizer for Waldorf ballroom weddings that can cost $1 million – for flowers alone.

And he helped management dispose of some union rules, including one that required different workers to clean walls, baseboards, window shades and carpets in the same room. It was one of more than two dozen labor initiatives he handled and negotiated with the union in New York City to consolidate positions and responsibilities.

Long met his wife in 1994 at Memorial Auditorium, where he worked on the events staff. They kept a long-distance relationship for a decade while he moved up the Hilton hotel ladder. She got her law degree at the University at Buffalo and landed her first federal job in Miami, where they were able to reunite in 2005, when he transferred to the Fontainebleau.

But Hilton soon shed the hotel as part of its business. Long and his wife got their next opportunities in midtown Manhattan and Newark, N.J., respectively.

They married Nov. 18, 2006, in Blessed Trinity Catholic Church in Buffalo, had their wedding reception at the Buffalo History Museum and headed back to their jobs in New York City. They lived in Hoboken, N.J., 4½ miles from the Waldorf, and had three children during the Waldorf years, Thomas A., 7, Adelinde, 3, and 18-month-old Conrad, named after Hilton chain founder Conrad Hilton.

Broadway shows, first-class museums and Manhattan restaurants added to the big-city allure. But family logistics, holidays away from loved ones and commutes that sometime stretched past an hour also were part of the mix.

“Being in the epicenter of excitement is great when you have dual income and no kids,” said Lisa Long, 38, an assistant chief counsel with Homeland Security who has transferred from the Newark to Buffalo office. “But once you start having children, challenges arise, and you want to come back to Buffalo. Now is the perfect time.”

“The quality of life has improved greatly,” Tom Long added. “I text my friends in New York and say, ‘Oh man, it was brutal today. I had a 17-minute commute.’ I wish I could use my phone when I’m driving. The sign on the Thruway today said 8 minutes to downtown. I’d like to send that to these guys.”

The couple’s oldest son used to kick a soccer ball through the Waldorf hallways and in the ballroom. All of his kids enjoyed cookies in the pastry shop. Long met an incredible list of world leaders, and even convinced a small contingent of his staff that their allegiance to New York called upon them to align with the state’s only true football team: the Buffalo Bills.

Still, the Longs wanted “home” to be more than a trip to Buffalo a few times a year. But when you work in a place like the Waldorf?

“I had team members coming up to me every day and wanting to talk about things when they found out I was leaving,” Tom Long said. “I miss them all. There’s an incredible family at the Waldorf. My kids were pretty much raised there. They spent every Christmas there. Everybody knew their names when they came through the hotel on the weekends with me. It’s a tough conversation to have, saying good-bye.”

Anyone who has left Buffalo and knows the tug of the place understands the choice he and his wife have made, even if some on his former staff might not.

“People leave Buffalo, but they leave their hearts here,” said Thomas Dee, president of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. and a Long family friend who was Tom Long’s roller hockey coach in the 1980s.

And they often leave their families.

Long’s father, Thomas P., died while his son was in New York. Mother, Barbara; two sisters, Katie Roth and Molly Long; and dozens of nieces, nephews and cousins have always called Buffalo home.

Lisa Long’s parents, stepmom and one of two brothers all live in Western New York, too, as well as most of her extended family.

That’s a lot of baby-sitters.

“We wanted to be close to family and give our kids the quality of life that we had growing up in Buffalo,” Tom Long said. “We won’t have 40 different leaders staying in the Westin at the same time, which will be a bit of a change.” I don’t know quite what to expect.”

The family ate La Nova pizza and chicken wings their first night back, and have had plenty of the requisite meals at Mighty Taco and Ted’s Hot Dogs since. On weekends, Tom Long likes to put his kids in the minivan and drive from their rented townhouse in Snyder back to the old neighborhood. Long marvels at the changes that have taken place on the downtown waterfront and the Old First Ward – the restaurants, the bike paths and park improvements.

“I haven’t lived in Buffalo since I’ve been 19. It’s like coming to a brand new city,” he said. “It’s going to be great having family around but experiencing Buffalo is something Lisa and I haven’t done in a very long time, so it’s great to be back and explore and see everything that’s going on.”

He looks forward to exploring the bounty of new restaurants and craft breweries that have cropped up in recent years, but professes to an affinity for the Blackthorn Pub and the Texas hots places in his old neighborhood.

Dee, who has helped shaped Canalside, wasn’t surprised at the charm his old friend has discovered upon his move home.

“People say to us when they come downtown that they never thought they’d see it like this in their lifetime,” he said, “or they say, ‘I feel like a tourist in my own town.’ And then, when people come back who haven’t been here for a while, they just don’t feel like they’re in Buffalo. It’s an amazing transformation.”

Long did bring one thing from the Waldorf to his office: one of several signs that read, “The difficult immediately. The impossible takes a few minutes longer.”

“It’s a mindset, it’s a culture,” Long said. “That’s going to be a mantra for our building.”

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The Hassett family’s whirlwind move of August 2013

email: sscanlon@buffnews.com