Review: The Hotel: A Week in the Life of the Plaza

By | October 29, 2014
An at one point travel and tourism blog with a look at a hospitality book. What is this world coming to? In truth, this book is equal parts tourism/hospitality and NYC history. The opening of the Plaza in October 1907 at a cost of $12.5m was AN EVENT with the likes of Mark Twain was a spectator. While the idea of hospitality had changed a lot from the hotel’s opening to the writing of this book, it has, it has changed even moreso in the last 25 years. With it, the Plaza has evolved, but this is an interesting look at the hotel that was in the late 80s.

The landscape around the Plaza, however, has changed a great deal over the years. When it was built, the hotel stood prominently along “Millionaire’s Mile,” that famous stretch of Fifth Avenue dotted with the huge baroque mansions of the richest families in New York, the very clientele the Plaza hoped to attract. From an upper floor of the hotel, a guest looking southward could get a good view of the spires of St. Patrick’s over the rooftops of these ostentatious homes, with their cramped attic cubicles for the servants and their far roomier basement spaces for horses. In its original setting, the Plaza sounded a rather restrained note amid such a lavish display of wealth. Today, the private mansions have been razed or adapted to other purposes. The Plaza alone survives, dwarfed by encroaching walls of steel and glass. The horse-drawn carriages at curbside, for hire to take tourists for a spin around the park, are sad reminders of the smart transportation of the past. The Plaza has lived long enough to become something of an anachronism, a proud old dowager, seemingly oblivious to change.
The author spent time with representatives of each department that makes a hotel go.From housekeeping to the managing director and everyone in between. Even as someone who is familiar with the industry, there is so much to learn.  Among those that stuck with me are:
  • the garage math: in an urban location, what is the ratio of cars needed to checkouts
  • that the hotel had more than 1600 chandeliers, enough work to employ two men full time
  • In 1988 the Plaza had a staff of just over thirteen hundred people! Among the most interesting titles—chicken boners, furniture cleaners, porters. A total of thirty-five languages were spoken by the employees collectively

It was these people-many of whom had been with the Plaza for years if not decades before the Trump takeover-and their stories that contributed to making this such an interesting and readable narrative. It was great that Kleinfeld further used these stories as a base for the building’s history. And, to be honest, some of its future when he spoke of the potential future in condo conversion.

Though it has slipped somewhat from its early grandeur, the Plaza is still in many ways the quintessential luxury hotel. The place doesn’t make you think of conventioneers with straw boaters and budget tourists in blue jeans but of chauffeured limousines, titles of nobility, and guests with eighteen pieces of luggage.

Yet despite the image, the backbone of the hotel’s business are the businessmen: from CEOs to salesmen. And it has to diversify because as of 1988 the prices increased to $175 for an economy single, $390 for a deluxe single with a view of Central Park; and a one-bedroom Plaza suite was $1,100. At opening,rooms cost $2.50 a day without a bath and $4 with a bath. The most expensive suite in the place was $25. Although the perception is that the Plaza attracts moneyed guests, there is a concern among the tipped staff that weekend guests are not as good of tippers. As one bellman said,  “These are the people who can’t really afford this place but they want to tell their friends they stayed at the Plaza. That’s fine, but I want to tell my family got some tips today at the Plaza. They’re the schmuck class, you know.”

As of 2014, that suite’s cost started at $1450.

In his meetings with the senior management, the author was made aware of a Sunday-night problem”, which intrigued me as that remains an issue nearly 30 years later. 

Speaking of thirty years later, a lot has changed with the Plaza since Trump bought it. He sold it subsequent to his divorce from Ivana Trump in 1995 to Troy Richard Campbell, from New Hampshire, who then sold it in 2004 to Israeli-owned Manhattan-based developer, El Ad. It was under El Ad’s watch that the much-discussed plans of residential and commercial additions came true under the direction of Tishman Constructions and the hotel was closed for a nearly three year period. The renovation cost $400m, staggering when compared to what it cost to build.

From 808 rooms when this book was written, as of it’s May 2008 reopening, the Plaza featured 282 hotel rooms and 152 private condo hotel units. In November 2008 the Plaza Hotel added its retail collection, an underground, luxury mall that was accompanied by the Plaza Food Hall, operated by Todd English. Subsequently, in 2012, Sahara India Pariwar purchased a 75% controlling stake which included 100 of the hotel’s 150 condo units as well as the Oak Room, which has ince closed. Amusing timing while reading this, Vanishing New York’s tribute to the old Oak Room.

A lot of change after 75+ years of initial stability. There is a fabulous podcast and pictorial history of the hotel on Bowery Boys and more on the hotel’s own site.

If nothing else, I have learned that it would be sheer foolishness to try to formulate any hasty predictions about the Plaza. It has developed such a resilient personality and is so often capable of the improbable. Instead of paying too much attention to the fortune-telling going around, I prefer to imagine that there will always be the maids making up the beds and peeking underneath for forgotten shoes, the concierges chasing down whole fresh chickens, the bellmen working on ways to cadge an extra dollar from a guest, all of them refusing to be overly disturbed by the changing world around them and betting that the Plaza’s luck will never run out.

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