March 1, 2012 at 10:03 AM ET
On a recent afternoon, construction was brisk and the excitement was palpable at 510 West 42nd Street in Manhattan, the site of THE OUT NYC, a sleek, three-story structure with a glass façade that its creators say will be the first gay hotel in New York City.
The 105-room boutique hotel, located between 10th and 11thAvenues in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, close to Chelsea, Times Square and the Theater District, opens its doors on March 1.
“I had a vision five years ago,” to create a gay hotel that would be conveniently located, said Ian Simpson Reisner, a managing partner of Parkview Developers, which owns THE OUT NYC, but would also “be a relaxing home base resort-style retreat where guests can stay, eat and play.”
Reisner said he drew much of his inspiration from both Ian Schrager and André Balazs, whose elegant hotels with cutting edge décor are very gay friendly. THE OUT NYC, Reisner said, is similar in conception and style, but is a gay hotel that is very straight friendly. By marketing it as a “straight-friendly” urban resort, it sends the clear message that the property welcomes gays as well as straights, and tourists as well as locals, he said.
THE OUT NYC is part of a global trend, said Darren Cooper, senior consultant for Out Now Consulting, an international company based in the Netherlands that specializes in marketing to the gay community.
“Traditionally gay-owned and or operated hotels and guesthouses have been located in vacation resorts, and catered almost exclusively to the gay leisure traveler,” Cooper said. But since 2003 there has been growth in larger, metropolitan, upscale, boutique hotels that are predominantly aimed at the LGBT community but also marketed as "straight friendly." The LGBT community is announcing that it is now “part of the mainstream, but that straights are welcome, too,” he said.
Cooper cited a number of reasons for the increase, including the fact that post 9/11, the LGBT travel market “showed remarkable resilience, a fact that was not lost on the global travel industry as well as gay entrepreneurs and hoteliers.”
Bjorn Hanson, divisional dean of the Preston Robert Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism and Sports Management at New York University, said the fact that up to 10 percent of the population self-reports as being gay “creates an opportunity” for hotels that appeal to a substantial demographic.
The change in marriage laws may also play a role in the increase.
THE OUT NYC “will be an attractive offering for LGBT audiences and their straight friends visiting the City on the heels of the passage of same-sex marriage,” said Kimberly Spell, chief communications officer for NYC & Company. And the hotel’s opening “is another example of how New York City continues to evolve and reinvent itself.”
Rooms at THE OUT NYC will start at $250 a night and include wireless high speed Internet, flat screen TVs, in-room MP3 docking stations, workplaces and mini-bars. Valet parking will be available. Eight “Sleep Shares,” hostel-style rooms that sleep four, will be equipped with four full-sized beds, personal TVs, a bathroom, and privacy curtains. These innovative shared accommodations, from $99 per person, were designed to “help make the property affordable to a younger demographic,” Reisner said.
THE OUT NYC, designed by Paul Dominguez, will feature multi-use function spaces to be used as a business and conference center or for intimate private diners, large events and weddings. Public spaces include a 5,000-foot wellness center, three courtyards (one will boast an ipe-wood sunbathing deck, two hot tubs, and a cascading curtain of rain; another will feature a bamboo garden), and the 11,000-square-foot XL Nightclub.
The full-service restaurant and café, KITCHIN, set to open in May, will serve upscale comfort food. Guests will be able to dine at large communal tables and enjoy picnics prepared by the restaurant’s staff. Reisner said that he hopes the hotel’s welcome-to-all philosophy and atmosphere will help make the KITCHIN “the neighborhood cafeteria.”
THE OUT NYC “is a nice-to-have, not a need-to-have,” said Henry H. Harteveldt, co-founder of the Atmosphere Research Group, a market research company. “I think it is going to be challenging” to succeed.
“The hotel is going to have to deliver,” said Harteveldt. “The hotel has to fill up its rooms; it doesn’t matter what sexual orientation its guests are.” Customers will expect the usual amenities like predictable hot water, good Wi-Fi connectivity and an on-site restaurant with good food and fair prices, Harteveldt said. He expects it to be especially challenging in New York. Unlike resort areas, where properties are frequently destinations themselves, the lure of New York City’s many attractions often means less time is spent on the premises.
In addition, in recent years a number of mainstream hotels, including Starwood, Kimpton and Marriott, have welcomed the LGBT community though marketing efforts and service. For example, when gay guests arrive to check in at a number of hotels, well-trained front desk personnel now handle questions like how many beds should be in guest's room with greater sensitivity, Harteveldt said.
Another challenge will be getting repeat guests who are members of major brand loyalty programs. “For customers, loyalty is huge,” said Harteveldt. “By staying at The OUT NYC, they will be forfeiting perks and free future stays. It will be a tough choice, especially since they are often treated just as well at mainstream properties.”
Cooper, the marketing consultant, said that Out Now’s research pointed to a possible promising outcome. In a study, LGBT2020, which collected data from 18 countries around the world in 2011, New York was the No. 1-rated city destination for LGBT travelers globally. “In my opinion, a hotel that catered to this market was bound to happen sooner or later in New York,” he said.
But Cooper agreed that when competing with the best hotels in the world, who are already training their staff and who have access to the global LGBT community through a media network, “you have to make sure that you get it right, and that isn't done overnight.” He said several properties in Barcelona, Berlin and Buenos Aires opened by Axel Hotels in recent years cater predominately to gay leisure and business travelers and have been successful in competing in a tough marketplace, with facilities and service that “raised the bar for LGBT properties globally.”
And word of mouth, too, will be important in the hotel’s ultimate success, as the global gay community “is small, and it talks,” Cooper said. “The opening of OUT NYC is big news — people will be talking, blogging, writing, tweeting, chatting and texting about this,” he said. “Good news travels fast, as does bad in this community. If OUT NYC gets it right, the hotel will flourish.”
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