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A New York State of Hospitality

I've been sleeping around in local hotels, so you don't have to.

October 26, 2005, 12:00 AM EDT

I like the library in the Hotel Elysee for a business chat.

I alternate back and forth between loving and hating hotels. For years I used to do events for both Travel & Leisure and Condé Nast Traveler, so I’d like to think I learned a thing or two: How to deal with hotels. How to avoid making a hotel event feel like, well, a hotel event. How to get a place hopping with service without spending a million dollars.

In fact, spending a million dollars often doesn’t help. I learned this at a Las Vegas hotel when I was doing an event for IBM that cost about that, and I had to wait at least half an hour for a fax to get from the machine to the ballroom. Every. Single. Time. No amount of tipping or tense talks with management (I tried both repeatedly) could make them move any faster.

I became an expert in Los Angeles hotels, particularly in Beverly Hills, where I used to spend 50 to 100 hotel nights per year, despite the fact that I maintained an apartment there (don’t ask). It took a long time to learn which hotels were event-friendly, and which were not.

That info is not for today, but I’ll summarize: The two biggest pains in the ass were the Chateau Marmont and L’Ermitage, and the two best were the Four Seasons and the Peninsula.

Recently I have been renovating my apartment, and as a result, trying out a bunch of different New York hotels. So I decided to make the most of it by doing some reporting for you people.

What I tried to do was to look at a few local hotels from both the guest and event perspective. Many hotels that are great for events are less so for guests, and vice versa.

For example, the Four Seasons Hotel is a sublime, if pricey place to stay. But events in their carpeted basement are the worst. The restaurant Fifty Seven Fifty Seven is good enough for breakfast and lunch, but at night is overrun by a dubious crowd. They moved here from the Oak Room at the Plaza. That hotel, despite the gaudy decor, ran a nice party in the terrace room or ballroom, or in a number of interesting smaller event spaces, but was a disaster for guests to stay in. All pomp and no circumstance.

I am pleased to report a find. HK Hotels is a city chain, though you would never know it. They have four properties that deserve more attention, although they are booked all the time, so you must plan ahead: the Elysee Hotel, the Giraffe Hotel, the Library Hotel, and the Casablanca Hotel.

Let’s take them from the top. When I was a young pup at USA Today at 535 Madison Avenue, the Monkey Bar across the street was a place where older married guys got in trouble with their secretaries. I avoided it like the plague. I never even noticed it was in the Elysee.

Well, in the mid-90’s, both came under new management, and the joints are swinging. The Elysee was bought in 1994 by Henry Kallan, a first-generation immigrant who learned and worked his way up through the hotel business. His vision was to create European-style hotels—you know, where you go downstairs for breakfast and have really good coffee while deciding if you want to go to La Scala or to Missoni.

All his hotels serve a good breakfast, and they’re not skimpy. You get free newspapers, a real benefit for me. Every room has interesting books, not just those tacky magazines with watch ads. And the staff is uniformly polite and intelligent. The whole deal is just pleasant.

The Elysee is decorated in what I call Olde Grande style, so don’t come here looking for hipsters. One of the fanciest suites was the home of Tennessee Williams for the last seven years of his life. It had a piano in the living room, though untuned. My other quibble was that the zillions of books did not include any Williams efforts.

But it was still fabulous. A friend of mine said it seemed the kind of suite where a European opera singer would host interviews, and that seemed just right to me. It seemed like a magnificent place to host a cocktail party for 20, but I got varying answers when I asked about the space for party rentals, so I’ll leave that negotiation up to you.

All the other suites come with a pantry. They don’t call them kitchenettes, because there is no hotplate, but there is a microwave. My favorite thing of all is that they give you an extra refrigerator on top of the minibar. (You know how all the minibars are electronic now, so if you try and store your own bottle of wine or a ham sandwich, it charges you?)

Room service is provided of course by the now tony Monkey Bar (now run by the Glazier Group), which was packed five deep on a rainy Saturday night when I dropped by, a Midtown anomaly. I can say the poached foie gras was nifty. The conference room was fine, but I preferred the library for a daylong business chat.

I’ve walked by the Giraffe a number of times, and always wondered, “Why ‘Giraffe’?” Turns out it is Mr. Kann’s favorite animal. The magnificent lobby is done in the Moderne style, but often staffers just say “Art Deco,” to be simpler, which is not technically correct although from the same period. (Moderne has less circles and discs. Does that help?)

It was designed by the same team that did the Library Hotel (Andi Pepper and Stephen B. Jacobs) and the attention to detail, inlaid woods, and recessed ceilings give the place what I call the clipper feel, like you’re on a tony boat that can keep a good pace.

The entertaining space is on the rooftop, which I had never seen or even heard of. When I ask who has already thrown parties here, Good Housekeeping and Sharon Osbourne are the names mentioned, so I think it is safe to say this place is still undiscovered. What is great about this aerie is that it has a little bit of everything. There’s a lobby off the elevators that is graciously sized, then there is a grand square terrace with high brick walls (HK Hotels built this building from the ground up in 1996) that abuts a set of sliding glass doors that leads to a huge double-height suite with a fireplace and entertaining space. If you use all the areas, about 100 people is the max, but what is nifty is that you can lease the areas as you need them. There’s even a sleeping room, which I didn’t get to see since a wedding was about to begin when I took my tour. The nervous groom had already eyed me suspiciously as I sniffed around his setup, and I can only imagine what might have transpired had I marched into the bridal suite.

I did not try the food, which comes from Barna restaurant downstairs, and was surprised to hear that you are not allowed to bring in your own caterer, so once again, you’re on your own there.

You may have already read about the Library Hotel in this space; I
wrote about their new 14th-floor lounge
awhile back. This is HK Hotels’ outpost on Madison and 43rd.

The downstairs lobby looks like a private library from the street, and the floors are organized like the Dewey decimal system. I once had a stack pass to the Library of Congress, and still don’t really know how the whole thing works, but I believe the floors are numbered by category. Either way, my small but handsome room was impeccably furnished.

The second-floor library needs to be seen, and I regretted only spending one abbreviated night. Just looking at book spines makes me feel more educated.

Finally, HK Hotels’ Times Square offering, the Casablanca, is themed after, guess what, the Bogie movie. Their library has all sorts of themed books: HK’s Adele Gutman lent me a bio of Mr. Bogart, and I also pursued a book that provides recipes of all the foods served in the movies. Love that.

This hotel has a yet-unfinished rooftop, but they know what they got. They are already selling New Year’s Eve ball drop party tickets, and when the place is done it will hold about 200 folks. They also have a tiny but tempting smoking lounge on the second floor, for 20 people max.

I’ve scoped other hotels recently, namely the Millenium Hilton at Ground Zero (better than I expected), the Park Central (don't stay there) and the Inn on 23rd Street (affordable but classy). My apartment is a ways from being done, so stay tuned.

Posted 10.26.05

Columnist Ted Kruckel is an experienced and opinionated former event and PR pro who ran events for 20 years for high-profile clients like Vanity Fair, Elle Decor, Christian Dior, and Carolina Herrera. He shuttered his firm, Ted Inc., in 2003. You can email him at ted@bizbash.com.

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