Hotel whisperer Bjorn Hanson, 61, is the dean of the Preston Robert Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism and Sports Management at NYU. He lives on the Upper East Side, with his wife, Catherine.
What would you most like to see changed or accomplished in NYC?
We really need to improve the international visitor welcome experience at our airports. It’s pretty easy to make a list of what an international traveler needs when they arrive: Clean bathrooms, a currency exchange, luggage carts – at most airports around the world, they’re free – good signage, transportation, translation services and telephones, because their cell phones often don’t work in the United States. Too, as a result of the security, visa control and passport inspections that followed 9/11, the welcome is often inhospitable. A lot has to do with attitude, and being willing to apologize for delays and problems. These are our guests! Our out of date technology could be forgiven if we recruited service-oriented people, train them well and monitor their performance.
What is the status of bed bug infestation in NYC hotels?
It’s under control. Every hotel I know has frequent inspections, which these days means bringing in dogs to detect bed bugs. The public relations risk of any sort of allegation makes inspections more important than many other issues. But sadly, the challenge is that a hotel can do an inspection and make sure every room is uninfested and then one guest arrives who puts a suitcase on a bed and two weeks later you have bed bugs contaminating a hotel.
It seems like a lot of housing in NYC is being destroyed to make way for high-priced hotels. Is hatred of the current hotel building boom by NYC residents justified?
We have a responsibility to our citizenry, but if you own real estate in a location that is not a candidate for affordable housing, you’re going to sell it for the highest and best use, and that usually means what can earn the most money. A balance is required. There should be parts of New York zoned for affordable housing at a variety of price points. But the area where a lot of the hotels are – from 42nd to 57th Sts., between Third and Seventh Aves. – is not an area that would be targeted for a lot of affordable housing, anyway. Hotels don’t need support services such as schools, for example, which housing needs.
A recent PKF Survey showed that the average hotel room in NYC is now a whopping $248 a night. Is it simply hopeless for non-wealthy visitors to come to NYC anymore?
Many people cannot find a room in their first, second or third choice accommodation on the nights they want. We have an 85% occupancy rate while the rest of the country is at 62%. That shows you how busy the hotels are in NYC. There is a very small number of nights when the city isn’t close to being fully occupied.
So how can someone get by staying in NYC who does not have $250 a night to spend?
What might be a great deal one night is not a great deal on another night. All hotels have revenue managers who recommend different rates based on occupancy expectations. Your best bet is to go to a transparent web site such as Travelocity – Priceline has a transparent section, too – and find the best deal possible at three or four different hotels. Then call the hotel and ask if there are any options to get a better price. One-third of the time, there is. The high price may be because one of the nights you want to stay is their busiest night of the year, and by moving your trip by a day or two, you can get a much better rate. By having my family come one day later to NYC than they originally planned, we saved $150 a night and wound up with a phenomenal deal. When you call the hotel, directly, make a reservation that can be cancelled – and then keep calling them. If you get a better deal, cancel your original reservation and keep the one with the better price. Start early, but keep calling!
Are there times when it’s pretty much impossible to get a good deal?
The few days before Thanksgiving through Jan. 1 is the busiest time for NY hotels. Late September through November is also the busiest time for conventions. And the busiest nights of the week are Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and all holiday weekends, so if you’re trying to save money and have flexibility, try to avoid booking at those times.
The Hotel Association has really gone after sites such as Airbnb and VRBO, which allow locals to rent out their spaces to visitors. Why are the hotels so threatened by these services, if the services are offering low priced rooms they’re not willing to provide and they’re already full themselves?
They’re only a threat if someone has a bad experience and it affects how they view NYC. Their concerns are probably more about sanitation and safety (regulations). And there probably are some small independent operators who say, "hey! You can stay at our place for $99 a night."
What will be the new trends in hotels in NYC?
The challenge for NY hotels now, which are very well represented at all price points except the very high and very low, is to create something new and exciting. Swimming pools and bars on roofs are old now. The new thing will be specialty bars – wine bars, martini bars and bars serving other exotic drinks: An amenity that is an image enhancer with revenue implications that fits into an existing, underutilized space. We’re also seeing a lot of reinvestment in fitness facilities – trainers, new equipment, AV/TV screens with a lot of creative design and marketing, even though research shows that only 15% of guests tend to use the fitness facility in a hotel. Hotels are offering special services – an after hour tour of Barneys or a tour of FAO Schwartz in the morning before it opens to show “we’ll treat you like an insider. You can get something with us that others cannot.” Also, expect virtual concierges: You may wind up talking to someone on a screen who is not on site instead of someone behind a desk. Too, software can replace a lot of what that nice grey haired man in the lobby used to provide.
What do you think about what Elad Properties did to The Plaza Hotel, turning a portion of the hotel rooms in what was once an icon in NYC into super expensive condos?
I haven’t been back since the conversion. It’s not the same. The lobby for hotel guests looks like a lobby would look like during construction. I proposed to my wife in that hotel after dinner one night in November 1976. That tells you how important hotels are: They not only create great career opportunities and the chance for people to have upward mobility, but they are the locations for so many our important life experiences – weddings, promotion parties, bar mitzvahs. Travel is now so difficult after 9/11, the hotel stay is now often the best part of one’s travel experience.
Is it true you should always take off bed spreads in any hotel room because they often contain, umm, fluids?
I don’t want to get too graphic here, but you don’t want to see what a black light reveals. Better hotels no longer use a bottom sheet, top sheet, blanket and some sort of cover. Instead, they use the duvet style of bedding that gets laundered every day. I appreciate that when I travel and tend to stay in hotels that have it. Hotel rooms are also not vacuumed every day: Sometimes only once a month. So if I’m exercising in a room, I always put a towel down. Again, the better hotels often provide slippers so you don’t need to walk on the carpeting in your bare feet.
What’s your favorite hotel bargain in NYC?
I like them all! I just like hotels! I’ve spent my whole career thinking about hotels and how revenue decisions are made in the use of space. Do you know why the front desk is where it is? It’s because in the old days, hoteliers wanted to create a high barrier to prevent someone from jumping over and stealing their money.