As if paying homage to legendary showman P. T. Barnum—America’s first show-business millionaire—over three decades, entrepreneur Tom Struzzieri, president and CEO of Horse Shows in the Sun Inc. (HITS), has radically commercialized the once-staid world of hunter/jumper horse shows and made himself a wealthy man.
Today, HITS events break attendance records by offering the richest cash prize jackpots in the sport’s history. They’ve broadened the contests’ bystander appeal by adding circus-like sideshows such as horseback gymnastics and dog beauty contests. Headquartered in Saugerties, where Struzzieri and his wife Jane own a riverfront home, HITS owns and operates five first-class equestrian arenas in four states.
Struzzieri’s passion for horses and the adrenaline-charged social aspect of planning events segued naturally into a career combining both loves. He initially came to the Hudson Valley from his native Long Island because upstate real estate offered better value than downstate sites.
The Struzzieris relocated to Saugerties from Rhinebeck 13 years ago because they felt it was the best place to raise their family and from which to grow HITS. Plus, the Struzzieris wanted their children to attend Woodstock Day School.
This month, the Diamond Mills Hotel & Tavern, a $12 million boutique luxury hotel with a restaurant and conference center, will open. Struzzieri is the principal investor. Featuring 30 carefully-appointed rooms designed by Gillian Viola—the Struzzieris’ personal decorator—pricey Diamond Mills will lure a few wealthy horse show clients who simply won’t stay in Saugerties currently.
December also marks the debut of the new HITS Triathlon Series, a year’s slate of monthly races to be held all over the country. Triathlon is the fastest-growing social sport in the world. In 2010, about 1.2 million people competed in some sort of race combining running, cycling, and swimming, as compared with only 30,000 riders in hunter-jumper competitions.
Struzzieri says he won’t make money on either the hotel or the triathlon venture right away, but that long-term prospects for both enterprises look solid. Known for his hands-on, can-do attitude and intense work ethic, the Vassar dropout likes to be at his desk before dawn, already having worked out.
Why did you decide to build a luxury hotel with a restaurant in Saugerties?
Without this property, we rarely have enough lodging to satisfy the clients we are bringing in now. I knew it wouldn’t disappoint our local hospitality business partners because they are maxed out to full capacity already.
We’re bringing thousands of people to the community and Ulster County struggles to serve their needs. There are some good restaurants here but they simply cannot handle the influx of visitors we bring in 12 weeks a year who are willing to spend a lot for a nice meal.
Diamond Mills is the only listed Small Luxury Hotel of the World from Westchester to Lake Placid. How did you make that happen?
When I take my family traveling, that’s the website I use. All the properties which are part of the brand meet a certain high standard. Our goal was to build a place which would meet their criteria. Once you pass the test from them, you agree to keep that standard and you get voted in and approved. The designation is recognized worldwide and says a lot about the project. We’re not counting on the international customer as a big part of the customer base, but I’m sure the SLH designation will attract some international people to Saugerties who are not horse show clients and would not otherwise come here.
How many people are you hiring to work at Diamond Mills?
In the 30s range full-time, from managers to laborers, plus as many as 35 part-time—people we can bring on for a big event. Over a hundred people came to the job fair we held [in November] and filled out applications; I think that really speaks to the state of affairs. There are a lot of people in the Hudson Valley looking for work right now.
Are you going to build additional hotels in your horse show venues in the model of Diamond Mills?
No. This is it. There was a very specific need here. I did it because I live here and I wanted to be able to service a certain clientele who are also my friends. I’ve thrown my anchor into the river; I believe a high tide floats all boats.
Do you plan on owning and operating Diamond Mills for the foreseeable future, or will you sell the hotel to a major hospitality concern?
Anything is possible. Right now my plan is to own and operate Diamond Mills. We had some delays with the opening, but we’re on budget. I believe its success is going to roll off onto all the other local businesses.
How do you plan to attract investment to the southern part of Partition Street between the retail area and Diamond Mills?
That’s a really good question. We own some of those buildings now but we would like that to happen on its own. That whole beach area is underutilized. I don’t really see it as more retail. I think it’s going to become office space.
How were you able to make the hotel project financially feasible in a sluggish economy?
The Ulster County Development Corp. offers certain tax incentives and you’d be foolish not to take advantage of them. They’re available to anyone willing to go through the process. The documents for the closing of Diamond Mills, which was held in Albany with several teams of lawyers attending, stood over two feet high. The Inn will be paying full property taxes in 10 years.
What’s your personal workout regime like?
I started doing triathlons about three years ago. During the horse shows things get a bit off schedule but most of the year I’m running or on my bike about 12 hours a week, first thing in the morning. I like to get it over with. If I work out in the evening, it interferes with family time. We try to eat dinner as a family as much as possible and I also coach Little League. I go to bed early, 10pm—and I’m at my desk by 5am at least half the year.
Who are some of your personal heroes and why?
My father Peter, who passed away three years ago at 91. I was so fortunate to have him as a father; he taught me his sense of family and he was terribly driven as a worker. He’s really my only hero and much missed. Anything I do will pale in comparison.