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 The Brancatelli File

joe BEGGING FOR SOFAS
IN SOLD-OUT NEW YORK


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

November 12, 1998 -- In New York, in November, it has come to this: Business travelers are begging hotel general managers for a sofa to sleep on.

"Some of my best customers call for a room and I can't help them," says one New York hotelier. "I give them five other hotels to call but, twenty minutes later, they call back telling me those places are sold out, too. That's when they ask for my couch."

On most nights, this hotelier can't spare his couch because he's using it himself. He moved out of his personal suite of rooms in June and now he beds down on a sleeper sofa in his office.

"If I give a customer my sofa, where would I sleep?" the GM says with a laugh. "I can't get a room, either."

The New York lodging situation is far beyond the point of crisis. It has gone on so long that it is a part of the landscape of business travel. Frequent flyers who come to Gotham these days know two things: Rooms in Manhattan are going to be hard to find and they are going to be prohibitively expensive to rent.

"The hotels here are filled to capacity. It's out of control," says Wendy Galfund, director of marketing at Quikbook, a New York hotel consolidator well known for offering good deals even during times of high occupancy.

"There's just nothing available," she adds. "We get blocks of rooms and they sell out immediately. It's unbelievable."

How bad is it? Business travelers expecting to pay as much as $300 a night are often unable to find a room in their price range. And when The Peninsula on Fifth Avenue reopened November 1 after a renovation, it posted a minimum weekday room rate of $535. Nobody blinked an eye, especially since three or four other New York hotels already charge an average rate of $500 a night.

Why are rooms so scarce? New York's traditional commercial engine, the stock market, has been running on overdrive for so many years that the city has become a more or less permanent boom town. Tourists from around the world believe New York is cool again, so they come to walk and gawk. Chic foreigners think New York is cheap compared to other world capitals, so they come to shop and sup. New York is a hot convention destination, too.

New York is a pricey hotel town because Manhattan real estate is pricey. Besides, there are no budget motels in Manhattan and virtually no limited-service or extended-stay chains. There are no Embassy Suites or Hampton Inns, no Motel 6s or Super 8s--and no room to build any.

Worst of all, at least five of the city's old reliables have closed, some forever and some for renovation. The Westbury and the Mayfair Regent are being recycled into posh private residences. The Doral Court, the Doral Tuscany and The Beverly are shuttered and won't reopen until next spring.

Still, there are a few glimmers of hope. The stylish Avalon (888-HI-AVALON) opened in April and carved 20 rooms and 80 suites from a downtown office building; rates start at $195. The 155-room Fitzpatrick Grand Central (800-367-7701) opened in August; rates start at $265 a night. And now Manhattan has two Courtyard by Marriott properties.

One of the Courtyards, the 308-room Midtown East on Third Avenue (212-644-9600), is the former headquarters of Macmillian Publishing. It's already accepting guests at $229 a night, scandalously high for a Courtyard by Marriott, but a steal by New York standards. The other Courtyard, the 244-room Times Square South, should be open by the end of the month. It is the rarest of New York hotels: new construction, not a conversion of a loft or warehouse or office building. Call now (212-391-0088) to beat the booking rush.

Otherwise, delay your business trip to New York until after December 15 or even January or February of 1999. That's when the hotels have some rooms and prices ease a bit. If you can't wait, be prepared to beg a couch from a friend or a friendly general manager who has somewhere else to sleep.

This column originally appeared at biztravel.com.

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.