New frontier

The New York Times recently reported some remarkable facts about New York City hotels:

  • New York City received more than 50 million visitors for the first time last year.
  • New York City recently began marketing to potential visitors, which it had not done previously.
  • New York City reached a record 90,000 hotel rooms at the end of 2011.

What was not mentioned in the article, entitled “The New Frontier for Tourists: Your Home,” was that this milestone — a 24% increase since 2006 — represents the largest hotel expansion of any city in U.S. history.

Most remarkable for industry insiders, but also not mentioned in the article, is that occupancy levels and room rates have experienced the largest increase of all time over the past year.

Is this an example of build it and they will come? 

Simple math says that 90,000 rooms are 33 million room nights — a lot of nights, but less than one per visitor!

Many hospitality analysts had forecast that this hotel boom would become a hotel bust due to overbuilding. Numbers have proven these naysayers to be the “Chicken Little” contingent. Even the economic downturn, which stalled many projects, did not kill this expansion. It merely created a long break in what became a two-phase expansion, with the larger one taking place during these more recent bad economic times than in the flush years before 2008.

But the Times article brushed all this aside to concentrate on something totally extraneous to this epic event: the idea of luxury hosted home stays in the Big Apple. 

New York has most hotels and rooms ever, and yet the world’s leading newspaper is looking for alternatives. This effectively means that the market is even larger than the expansion, and bodes well for the next wave of hotels already in the making.

It also suggests a certain ennui with the plethora of hotel product, or as the Times writes, “Paradoxically, the rise in tourism has been accompanied by a growing global aversion to identify as a tourist.” The article focuses then on “immersion” travel — staying at private homes and passing the time in non-touristic activities like taking classes and achieving the vicarious pleasure of occupying someone else’s life, presumably more upscale and more interesting than one’s own. The article states that this kind of home stay allows visitors “to simultaneously covet and judge, to lust after the 12-foot ceilings and denounce the granite. If only it provided you with the owner’s tax returns.”

It seems that several useful observations are embedded in this apparent rebuke to the hospitality industry. First, hospitality must be doing really well to post the numbers it has in New York City while also filling the homes of willing New Yorkers. Second, the impulse for a “real” experience suggests that hotels may evolve yet again to provide not only lifestyle, but life experiences. And third, the quarters sought by travelers, despite the high costs, are expected to exceed their own domicile, so that the experience is “worth paying for.”