A bar rated as the area’s top dive bar by Chronogram magazine for the past two years and a boutique hotel may seem like an odd pairing. But that’s the case at the Exchange Hotel.
Perhaps best-known to locals as a longtime bar at the corner of Partition and Main Streets in Saugerties, the Exchange also houses three hotel rooms on the third floor that the bar’s longtime owners, the Buonos, rent out. Manager Nicole Buono, who lives above the Exchange in one of the apartments on the second floor and represents the third generation of the family to run the hotel owned by her parents, Anthony and Donna Buono, said that the rooms have been a big hit, selling out almost every spring, summer and fall weekend.
Nicole Buono studied at Johnson and Wales University in Rhode Island, earning both her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Hospitality Management in four years. Now she splits her time between managing the Exchange and a full-time, work-at-home events planning job.
She said that the present-day hotel operation plays homage to the building’s roots as a hotel dating back to the 1840s. Back then, it served as a stop for travelers on a stagecoach line that followed today’s Route 9W.
Buono’s family purchased the Exchange 90 years ago. In more recent decades, the hotel operation came to an end as guest lists grew smaller and smaller each year. After that, the second-floor rooms were turned into apartments, while the third floor just sat vacant for many years. That was until the HorseShows in the Sun, better-known as HITS, came to the area about 15 years ago and participants in the popular equestrian events visiting the bar started to inquire if there were any rooms to rent or the night. “We started getting people asking if we had hotel rooms,” Buono said. “Before that, there wasn’t as much interest in the Catskills as a destination as now.”
But trying to adapt a small 19th-century hotel to the tastes and expectations of modern-day travelers was no small feat. “Back in the past, people shared bathrooms,” she said, adding that ensuring that guests all had their own bathroom was part of the reason to renovate and rent out only three rooms in the hotel, which once had nearly two-dozen guest rooms spread across the second and third floor. Room 16, which in recent years has been rented out on AirBnB, features an in-room bathroom that dates to the Exchange’s first stint as a hotel, albeit now updated with modern fixtures. As her mother tidied the room for the next guests, Buono noted that, back in the day, that would’ve been a luxury akin to a modern-day hotel suite having additional amenities like a private hot tub.
Buono is proud of earning Super Host status on AirBnB. And, living downstairs from the hotel, she’s ready to address any issues that may arise nearly instantly. The family mostly sticks to renting out just one of the rooms on AirBnB because she finds that’s reasonable to manage.
The remaining two rooms, rented strictly by word-of-mouth, each feature private bathrooms just across the hall. Buono said that these two rooms are often rented to the same guests year after year, during big events like the Sawyer Motors Car Show and the Hudson Valley Garlic Festival. Buono added that one guest rents out one of the rooms out for three weeks during a big HITS horse show.
She encourages guests to book early, as the rooms go quickly during busy event weekends. “I’ve had people say, ‘You rented our room’ on multiple occasions,” Buono said.
“I’d honestly like to renovate more rooms, but running plumbing to the rooms remains the issue.” It’s a job made only more complex by the building’s age, she added.
Perhaps the best candidate is a large room that offers a commanding view of Main Street and the corner of Main and Partition. “This room already has plumbing,” she said, pointing to a sink in the corner of the room. They could perhaps make it a large suite by knocking down a wall dividing it from another room next door, but, according to Buono, that would be a long-term plan. She admitted that at times the family has also considered just converting the whole thing to apartments at a time when housing, especially affordable, is in short supply in Ulster County and the mid-Hudson Valley.
Along with guests the family has seen year after year, she enjoys meeting guests from many different places. She recalled how a woman from the West Village in New York City booked a stay in Room 17 last year as an AirBnB, after Room 16 had already been booked during the pandemic. “She originally moved to Beacon, but she didn’t really like it,” Buono said. “Then she came here, saying she was going to stay in Saugerties only for a short time before moving somewhere else.”
The woman ended up staying for 11 months, sometimes coming down to the frequent the bar and getting to know the regulars. For much of her stay the woman did not have a car, and only recently got her license, but she enjoyed being able to walk to many of the places she needed to go. “She only recently moved into an apartment down the street,” Buono said.
Like this woman, many guests are attracted to the Exchange because they can walk to many things in the Village, owing to its central location. Buono contrasted this with larger chain hotels out by the Thruway interchanges, where guests have to drive to everything. And that makes it popular with visitors like people going to weddings at the Diamond Mills and perhaps looking for a little cheaper rate, but still within walking distance, so they can enjoy a few drinks and not have to worry about getting a DWI.
They’re also attracted to the Exchange because it has offered a favorite local bar for decades, just down the stairs. “They want to stay where they’re in a local atmosphere,” Buono said. “We’re a hometown bar.”
The bar has been through a lot during its long history, surviving Prohibition and more recently the COVID-19 pandemic. “It wasn’t easy. We were closed for a time, but we pulled through.”
But once things opened back up a bit, the pandemic has also offered opportunities to the Exchange, as travelers from New York City have looked closer to home for travel. “Instead of flying to places, people are driving, and we’re only two hours away,” Buono said.
While not everyone has welcomed the slew of newcomers, Buono sees all the new attention to the area as a positive development and wants to create a space where locals and newcomers feel equally at home. “It’s great that people are coming and staying and spending money and getting outside, instead of just staying inside.”