Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Boutique hotels in New York

A new breed is standing out from the masses with designer details and special perks

(NEW YORK) A new breed of hotels is trying to stand out from the masses with designer details and memorable perks and prices around US$250 a night.

Finding a decent place to sleep in New York City has never been easy. Traditionally, you either had to spend a tonne of money (the Ty Warner Penthouse at the Four Seasons for US$35,000 a night, anyone?) or scrimp and hope for the best (warning: a recent search for 'bed bugs' on TripAdvisor found 877 mentions for city hotels).

What is a budget and style-conscious traveller to do? Go for the new middle. In a city that still boasts one of the nation's highest room rates (US$238 on average in Manhattan, according to Smith Travel, which tracks the industry), hotels aiming for the midrange are reaching new heights.

The trend began about three years ago, with a trickle of boutiquey places like the Pod, the Ace and the Jane - which offered a patina of style without the premium prices. It has accelerated in recent months, with a raft of new hotels promising cool design, nods to local flavour and wallet-friendly rates of about US$200 to US$250.

Call them budget boutiques. But instead of coming from daring young hoteliers, many are being rolled out by chains like InterContinental and Wyndham in a bid to attract a hipper clientele.

'There's a huge wave of consumer demand, especially with the younger Gen Y or millennials, for properties that have some level of style to them,' said Sean Hennessey, founder of Lodging Advisors, a hospitality consultant firm.

In May, I slept in some of these new hotels. Despite their novelty, some were already victims of their own cliches. Rooftop bars, rainfall showers and iPhone docks were everywhere. Still, rooms were large by the city's pint-size standards, service was sharp, and for the moment, they offer some of the best values around.

Distrikt Hotel

Why book? On an exhaust-choked block next to the Port Authority bus station, three new cookie-cutter hotels are stacked together like cereal boxes in a configuration that hotel bloggers have started calling a 'tri-pack'. Distrikt, next door, is different: It has a simulacrum of soul. This is impressive, not only because of its unseemly location - within shouting distance of a homeless shelter and a parole office - but also a kitschy design conceit: Every floor takes its cue from a New York City neighbourhood.

Room: My standard room was on the 28th floor: Central Park. Don't expect a wax statue of Frederick Law Olmsted. The only nods to the famous park were photo collages that hung in the room and hallways.

Needless to say, the actual park wasn't visible from the window, though tantalising glimpses of the Hudson River were. The room itself was a beige rectangle furnished with the type of inoffensive contemporary furniture one might find in a West Elm catalogue.

Vibe: Blame the sketchy neighbours, but parts of the hotel feel as though they're under lockdown. Key cards are needed to operate the elevators, and the marble-and-steel lobby is a tad cold, despite a 12-foot vertical garden. An adjacent lounge, called Collage, looks like a modern airport bistro. It serves breakfast by day, and drinks and bar food by night. On a recent Friday evening, it was empty. 'This is New York City,' said the young bartender. 'Who wants to stay inside their hotel?'

Mints: An organic fudge brownie awaits you in the room, along with a personalised welcome letter - nice touches for a hotel of this class. There's no fitness centre, but free passes are available to the nearby Mid City Gym. You can check your e-mail on one of three large Mac screens in the lobby, but be prepared to wait.

342 West 40th Street, between Eighth and Ninth avenues; (888) 444-5610; distrikthotel.com; free Wi-Fi; breakfast for US$14.95; 155 rooms from US$209.

Eventi Hotel

Why book? Straddling the higher end is the Eventi, a 292-room hotel that opened last month in northern Chelsea. Operated by Kimpton - a San Francisco-based chain that helped pioneer the budget boutique niche - it offers doses of luxury that are unusual at this price range. There's clever design, 24-hour room service, a large terrace, a sunny gym, a spa that offers something called spirulina body wraps, and even dog and cat massages.

Room: The standard queen was sleek and handsome, with custom-made furnishings (dark woods, cloud-gray upholstery, heavy drapes) that felt rich. It had a risque side: a huge mirror faced the bed, Frette robes were trimmed with zebra prints, the honour bar was stocked with an Intimacy Kit (US$6). Other high-end perks await in the marble-tiled bathroom. There was an elongated tub, a magnifying makeup mirror and bottles of musk-scented Italian hair products.

Vibe: It's a work in progress. Planned for October are a Basque restaurant by Jeffery Chodorow, a plaza with a movie screen and whiskey bar. Meanwhile, the lobby - with cave-red marble and quirky seating nooks - fills up during the free wine hour that begins at 5pm. For breathing room, take your glass to the wraparound terrace on the fifth floor, furnished with terra-cotta planters and oversize wicker love seats.

Mints: No Pringles here. The minibar was stocked with goodies like blueberry acai Gummy Pandas (US$4), Late July organic crackers (US$3), and Alba Botanica shave cream (US$5). There's even a 375-millilitre bottle of Absolut vodka, big enough for an impromptu party. Service was polished. A free toothbrush and hair straightener were delivered in less than five minutes.

851 Avenue of the Americas, between 29th and 30th streets; (212) 564-4567; eventihotel.com; Wi-Fi is US$10 per day (free for Kimpton rewards members); a breakfast buffet is US$22; 292 rooms starting at US$249 (at US$399 once introductory rates finish in fall)

Fashion 26

Why book? A quick step from the Fashion Institute of Technology, this shiny new hotel by Wyndham tries hard to live up to its name.

There's a Best Dressed Guest contest held occasionally (winners get room upgrades), the Mondrian-like mural above the front desk is made from thread spools, and the concierge keeps tabs on sample sales. No, you won't see a gaggle of models during check-in, but the hotel does have fun playing dress-up.

Room: A standard room was maybe a size medium, with plenty of nods to fashion: buttons on the door numbers, a merino herringbone throw on the bed and mint-green polka dots on the walls. Housekeeping staff members wear custom dresses that hint, naughtily, at French maid. A big window offered postcard views of the Empire State Building, as well as peeks inside garment showrooms across the street.

Vibe: Despite all the sartorial trappings, guests dressed like any in your typical off-the-rack hotel. On a recent Monday, there were FIT parents in the slate-gray lobby, and suits trading airport stories in the elevator. There's a chatty cocktail scene at the lobby bar, but Rare, the fiery orange dining room, was desolate. Maybe the ho-hum menu - part burger joint, part formal steakhouse - was to blame. A rooftop bar is expected to open this month.

Mints: Service was elegant and unobtrusive. Arriving two hours before check-in was no problem; the attendant had a room ready. Come back from dinner and the bed is turned down: the pillows stacked upright, the comforter removed, a note left on the sheets with tomorrow's weather, and a mint. There's also a decent gym in the basement and a single-cup Keurig coffee maker in the room.

152 West 26th Street, between Avenue of the Americas and Seventh avenues; (212) 858-5888; f26nyc.com; free Wi-Fi and a US$15 cold and US$19.70 hot breakfast buffet, along with à la carte; 280 rooms from US$229.

Hotel Indigo

Why book? Hotel Indigo may be the prototype of this new hotel class. Started by the InterContinental Hotels Group, which owns Holiday Inn and other chains, the Indigo brand aims to be affordable yet stylish, though its first property in New York City doesn't quite hit the mark. It opened last October in the heart of the flower district, so it is hemmed on all sides with orchids and pussy willow.

There are flowers inside the hotel, too, though mostly of the printed variety. Hallway carpets with comically giant indigos and carrot-orange walls conspire to create a visual jungle. Too bad the floral theme didn't extend to the scent. The lobby smelled more like cleaning fluid than roses.

Room: The oversaturated colour scheme continued inside the room, with a headboard stitched together from swatches of reds, oranges and yellows. Still, the room was bright and airy, with hardwood floors, a small desk and a floor-to-ceiling print of sewing needles. The view was quintessentially New York: fire escapes and the back of old factory buildings. As in many of these budget boutiques, the bathroom was sleekly appointed. In this case, however, the shower lacked water pressure, and a puddle from the previous night was still on the shower floor in the morning.

Vibe: An oddball mix. Foreign tourists in I (HEART) New York T-shirts sat in the lobby. Office workers crowded the smoky rooftop Glass Bar. And at Blu, its street-level Italian restaurant, there was, well, no one. The soupy risotto I was served one night may have something to do with it.

Mints: Service was unexpectedly attentive; the front desk called shortly after check-in to make sure everything was in order. In the basement, there's a basic business centre (two desktop computers) and a well-equipped, if petite, fitness studio with free weights and treadmills.

127 West 28th Street, between Avenue of the Americas and Seventh Avenue; (212) 973-9000; indigochelsea.com; 122 rooms from US$269; US$15.99 breakfast buffet, and à la carte brunch served on weekends. -- NYT

Source: Business Times, 22 Jun 2010

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