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A HOTEL BEACON ON THE UPPER WEST SIDE
By Martin B. Deutsch
March 13, 2014 -- How does a moderately priced Manhattan hotel that has no chain affiliation, few business-travel guests and a location that is far from the mainstream Midtown visitor flow not only survive, but also manage to end up near the top of the TripAdvisor heap?

That's the question I took to Thomas J. Travers, general manager of the Hotel Beacon on Manhattan's residential Upper West Side.

"I've been fighting this fight since the day I got here," says Travers, who's run the 278-room property for 24 years.

It's okay if you've never heard of The Beacon. Most corporate customers haven't and Travers says only about 20 percent of the property's guests could be considered business travelers. But you should know that the Beacon garners a stunning 94 percent positive rating on TripAdvisor and ranks 25 out of 448 hotels reviewed by the site's commentators.

"Although we know that corporate travelers often prefer to stay closer to their offices, we do have a great location," Travers insists. "We are three blocks from Central Park, just a few blocks from the Museum of Natural History, walking distance to Lincoln Center and a short commute to the theater district."

As a long-time resident of the Upper West Side, I've often wondered about The Beacon. So when a residential renovation required me to domicile elsewhere, I checked into this intriguing independent, which Travers says boast an average occupancy in the mid-80-percent range.

On some levels, I do understand why the hotel manages to attract a never-ending flow of guests even though it doesn't have the backing of a chain's reservation system and can't lure business travelers with loyalty points or a Midtown location. The Upper West Side does have a long list of visitor attractions and is also a foodie destination given its concentration of good restaurants and legendary markets such as Fairway, Zabar's and Citarella.

There's another advantage that Travers has long promoted: a manageable nightly rate. As New York City revived in the 1990s and trade-show attendees flowed into the Jacob Javits Center, midtown hotel rates became not only expensive, but often outrageous. "This combination of factors gave us a boost among business travelers, some of whom were turned off by escalating room rates elsewhere in town," Travers explains.

By New York standards, the Beacon remains reasonably priced. During the slowest months, such as January-February and July-August, a standard room runs about $195 a night and suites average $250. During the busiest period, September through December, nightly rates generally increase by about $50.

How does Travers compensate for the Beacon's lack of a booking support system and a major chain name such as Marriott or Hilton?

"We go to trade shows, both in this country and abroad, where we have an opportunity to tell our special story to travel agents. These agents book clients into the United States," Travers explains.

As we were speaking, the Beacon's sales manager was in Berlin at the International Tourism Bourse (ITB), a huge yearly event for both the public and the travel trade that is rivaled in scope only by The World Travel Market in London. The Beacon goes to London, too. Travers himself recently returned from several weeks in Australia, attending a trade campaign in cities such as Brisbane, Melbourne, Sidney, Perth and Adelaide.

Why spend so much time Down Under? Travers says the hotel's single largest source of clients has been and remains Australia and Aussies stay an average of five nights. Next on the list is Scandinavia with an average stay of three nights. Overall, the average stay at the Beacon is 2.5 nights.

Not to forget the century we're in, the Beacon caters to corporate guests with a modest business center that offers complimentary computer and printer access. Free WiFi is also available in the guestrooms.

The Beacon also "keeps its name out there" on social media via Facebook, Twitter and other outlets, all of which provide direct access to both clients and potential customers. Travers also cites the ongoing importance of working with online travel agencies such as Expedia.com and Booking.com. "We're on there because people check and compare rates and that's why we need to be integrated into all of these technologies," Travers says.

The Beacon also has several other unusual assets. The hotel's owners--six families that bought the property in 1963--lease the adjacent Beacon Theatre to Madison Square Garden. It books rock acts, comedians and the occasional straight play into the 2,800-seat space. Currently on the schedule is Ringo Starr, Eddie Izzard and the annual appearance of the Allman Brothers. In the past, the venue has hosted Michael Jackson, the Dalai Lama and former President Bill Clinton's 60th birthday party. I've seen a concert and several plays at the Beacon, including a show with the late George C. Scott.

The Hotel Beacon has its own (and relatively new) bar, but the owners also lease space to the Viand Cafe, one of the Upper West Side's top coffee shops. (I mention here that the Viand has some of the best soups in the city.) Being just an elevator ride away, the Viand will deliver to your room within minutes of calling in an order. And as with room rates at the Hotel Beacon, dining at the Viand Cafe and/or attending a performance at the Beacon Theatre is far less costly than doing so in midtown.

Guestrooms at the hotel are spacious, especially for Manhattan. The beds are comfortable and those old-fashioned telephones still work. If I have a caveat, it's that the bathrooms are a bit cramped with very little room to navigate. But I have no such reservations about the hotel staff. Whether it's at the front desk, housekeeping personnel or maintenance employees, they are outstanding in terms of service and attitude. They are obviously trained to be gracious without being intrusive and to be responsive and personable.

Even after more than two decades on the job, Travers remains an enthusiastic booster for the Beacon, for its neighborhood and for New York City as a whole. A Long Island native, he earned a degree in hospitality and eventually went to work for Loews Hotels in Manhattan. He also worked at the Warwick hotels in New York and Seattle and was eventually headhunted and persuaded to take the Beacon gig.

Travers' vision doesn't end at the water's edge of Manhattan, however. His international travel to promote the Beacon has convinced him that the United States needs a Cabinet-level secretary of tourism.

"We're practically the only country in the world without a Cabinet minister for tourism," he explains.

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ABOUT MARTIN B. DEUTSCH Martin B. Deutsch created Frequent Flyer magazine in 1980 and was editor-in-chief and publisher for 15 years. He also wrote a column called "Up Front" for Frequent Flyer during those years. In a 50-year career, he created, published and edited dozens of other travel publications. Deutsch is based in New York.

THE FINE PRINT Joe Brancatelli makes this space available to Martin B. Deutsch in the spirit of free speech and to encourage editorial diversity and the wider discussion of important travel issues. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property of Mr. Deutsch. This column may not be reproduced in any form without the permission of Mr. Deutsch.

This column is Copyright 2014 by Martin B. Deutsch. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2014 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.