Travel industry analyst – and former TWA exec – Henry Harteveldt attended the ballyhooed rebirth of the former airline terminal and was at turns dazzled and disappointed – but ultimately hopeful for the MCR property’s prospects at JFK Airport.
There have been few hotel openings anticipated and hyped as much as the TWA Hotel at JFK Airport.
At a time when the hospitality industry wrestles with competition from on-demand, app-based home-sharing platforms like Airbnb, VRBO, and Home Away, established hotel brands like Marriott are looking to build their own property rentals.
A reimagined restoration of celebrated architect Eero Saarinen’s landmark 1962 former Trans World Airlines terminal, the official launch of the 512-room hotel on May 15th was packed with aviation fans and guests who couldn’t wait to check in. In many ways, the TWA Hotel, operated by MORSE Development’s hotel management company MCR, represents a marriage of Mad Men era glamour with Instagram age aesthetics.
Away from the bright, sound-proof rooms, guests and visitors can check out the 200-seat Paris Café by acclaimed restaurateur Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Then there’s The Sunken Lounge, a cocktail bar operated by Gerber Group restored to its “historic chili pepper red-carpeted” glory. Perhaps the most playful nod to the space’s aviation history can be found in the form of the Lockheed Constellation “Connie” L-1649A airplane cabin that’s been repurposed as a cocktail bar.
More contemporary touches include Departures Hall grab-and-go dining operated by Fooda, including restaurants such as Antico Noè, Empanada Republic, Fresh&Co, The Halal Guys and Playa Bowls, and an Intelligentsia coffeebar which also busses coffee carts throughout the hotel grounds, connected by tube to JetBlue’s Terminal 5.
The hotel is rounded out by 50,000 square feet of event space, including a 15,000-square-foot ballroom, a rooftop infinity pool, and an observation deck with views of the runways, and what the MCR boasts as “the world’s biggest hotel gym: a 10,000-square-foot fitness center operated by The Wright Fit.”
The TWA Hotel’s aesthetics and attention to the early history of the place is sure to impress aviation geeks for even attempting to resurrect the name of one of the Big Four brands that started U.S. commercial aviation in the 1930s. And it should also inspire airport operators, design enthusiasts, and hospitality industry observers in terms of the attention such an undertaking can capture at a time when impersonal, on-demand functionality appears to reign supreme among companies across the travel ecosystem.
Considering this is a space that had been woefully neglected since TWA was absorbed through a distressed acquisition by American Airlines in 2001 is worth pointing out when considering the feat MCR accomplished with this undertaking.
Still, the TWA Hotel does face challenges. For one thing, airport lodgings ,in contrast to other MCR properties —like the tony Highline Hotel, which is located in the ultra-cool and very walkable/easily Uber-able Chelsea section of Manhattan— are not typically considered destinations.
While every square inch of the TWA Hotel is eminently Instagramable, the flip side of social media’s demand for visual charm is a higher expectation for on demand, customized service, an aspect to hospitality offerings that consumers are quick to comment on, and merciless in assessing.
To get a sense of how TWA Hotel’s first day of operations compared to its appearance, we turned to Atmosphere Research Group’s Henry Harteveldt, who attended the opening and conducted an extensive real-time commentary of his experience on Twitter. (We reached out to TWA Hotel and a representative declined to comment.)
Harteveldt is one of the most sought-after travel industry analysts, having spent the past three decades conducting the marketing, planning, and distribution at companies such as Continental Airlines, and Fairmont Hotels Management Company. And most notably for this conversation, Harteveldt also happens to be a former TWA executive and was charged with running global advertising.
Kambr Media: What was the state of the hotel when you arrived?
Henry Harteveldt: They were still putting the actual components of the rooms together. They were still moving beds and furniture in. They were installing some furnishings and so on in some rooms. You could see it because both of the hotel towers are completely glass walled. You could see where workmen were finishing up their activity, where housekeepers were making up the beds. And you could see them bringing what appeared to be the towels into the bathrooms. What I'll say is the TWA Hotel is the coolest hotel that should not have yet opened.
How much more time do you think they needed?
They probably needed another week or two to really be ready for guests. Having worked in the hotel business and having worked on hotel openings, there are always going to be first-day hiccups.
Normally, a hotel will get key roles hired at least eight weeks in advance. They were still looking for an Executive Chef, seven or eight weeks out. They were looking for a Sous Chef. They were looking to hire housekeepers and a Revenue Manager – all sorts of roles from hourly workers on up to mid-level management positions. Prior to opening, the management roles should have been filled.
Overall, they should have managed guest expectations better. They held this out as if the hotel would be ready when instead of managing our expectations to say, look we're going to do everything but hand you a hard hat and drill, ask you to help build this thing out. If they had done a better job with expectation management, that would have helped them enormously.
What else should TWA Hotel have done to be better prepared for the launch?
Typically, on a hotel soft opening you don't make 100 percent of your available rooms open for sale on your first night. In many cases, you won't have things as ready as you would like as a hotel operator, so you book only to a certain level of occupancy. Some hotels run limited to 50 percent, some less than that.
How was the dining experience?
The good news is that there was a wonderful, enormous response from people who wanted to be a part of this unique mix of hotel, aviation and architectural history.
But the hotel simply didn't deliver on what people expected. The restaurant operator, Jean-Georges, who runs the Paris Café, has a well-deserved reputation for running very fine restaurants. A very well-deserved reputation. You can argue the merits of having such a high-end restaurateur operate a primary restaurant at an airport hotel. Based on my experience, that kind of restaurant offering is overkill. I just don't know that travelers are going to want grand cuisine and pay the prices associated with that at an airport hotel.
Here, too, the restaurant staff and management were clearly, not only not ready for guests, but they weren't aligned with [TWA Hotel parent company] MCR. The hotel told guests that the restaurants would accommodate guests on a walk-in basis. But the restaurant staff were telling guests – rudely, I'll add – that if you didn't have a reservation, they wouldn’t help you. They told guests to go somewhere else to eat.
It was chaotic and frustrating. The servers were wonderful. But that couldn't overcome the disorganization. There were six people working behind the bar at Paris Cafe. It still took 25 minutes to get our first round of drinks. The drinks were so bad, several of us sent them back. Later, the bar ran out of garnishes for the drinks. And the kitchen was completely overwhelmed.
I don't know how many people were on duty that day. It seemed like a lot , and they were all working very hard, we could tell, but it took more than 40 minutes to get our starters served and more than 40 minutes to get our main courses served after they cleared the starters away. The servers kept apologizing, and they were sincere in their apologies. But there wasn’t anything they could do.
Could better use of restaurant management technology have helped?
Part of the problem is that at some point during the dinner service, the restaurant's point of sale software system crashed.
Look, technology can be great and technology can not be great. This was a case where technology failed the people who needed to use it. That's not the restaurant's fault. But, it just speaks to the fact that nobody appears to have done any dry-runs for anything. Or at least, not an adequate number of dry runs.
How would you have advised TWA Hotel on managing the launch?
As part of a hotel soft opening, you do invitation-only dry-runs to a select number of people. It could be a certain number of hand-picked guests or staff. It could be family and friends of employees. It could be people that stayed at other MCR properties. You invite them and say, “This is a learning experience for us both. By the way, your stay or your meal will be complimentary. But we're going to need honest feedback so we can strength-test our operations.”
This is a case where Day One really was Day One. I will say, I've never been in a hotel room where the bed has never been slept in. It's like the line from the movie Titanic: "The sheets have never been slept in." And fortunately, the hotel didn't sink. But it did hit an iceberg.
There were just plenty of fits and starts and it was frustrating for everybody. You could tell the staff was embarrassed and frustrated, guests were frustrated. It was not the experience anybody wanted to have.
Still, MCR deserves accolades for one of the most creative, adaptive reuses of a piece of historical architecture.
As a former Global Advertising Manager for TWA – the airline – how did it feel personally to experience the reincarnation of the brand as a hotel property?
I worked for TWA for three years in the mid-1980s. I don't ever remember the TWA terminal looking that good when I worked there.
I do remember going out there when I was a little boy when my dad would fly out of TWA’s terminal to travel somewhere on business. As a kid, I remember the terminal being this gleaming, Taj Mahal-like structure, if you will, sparkling and lively.
Everything has been brought back. The Sunken Lounge, the lounge in the central part of the building, has its trademark bright-red carpeting and cushions. The Paris Café, once they get the kinks worked out, will be a lovely place to eat. The Ambassador Club looks magnificent. Better than anything, I think, I've seen in many, many decades. Restored truly to its glory. They've got a great display of historical TWA flight attendant and pilot uniforms.
MCR really did bring a moribund, abandoned, iconic piece of architecture back to life. Once they work through the kinks over the next month or so, such as getting more of its restaurants filled out, it's going to be fine. If you're an architectural buff, if you love mid-century modern architecture, if you like airline history and especially TWA, you're going to have a great time at the TWA hotel.
I really, I was so happy to be there. I was so happy to see this building alive again. Having a bar in a Lockheed Constellation, is very, very clever. But again, they've got a lot of work to do.
Were there any other issues you experienced?
For one, I don't know how they're going to air condition Connie [the hotel’s cocktail lounge housed inside a 1958 Lockheed Constellation plane]. It was already getting a little toasty on day one in the afternoon sun and it was not the heat of summer. Maybe they have plans for some air conditioning, or maybe it just wasn't working as well as it needed to. Also, the bar itself was not set up. They were serving complimentary Prosecco or sparkling water, which was nice. People certainly enjoyed it.
Beyond Day One, what’s your outlook for the TWA Hotel’s dining operation?
Airport hotels are basically about comfort food. The TWA Hotel is not going to have room service – that’s going to be a challenge for a hotel at the U.S.’s largest international gateway airport and that wants to charge the rates it does and be viewed as a four-star hotel.
The hotel salesperson I spoke with. justified it by telling me hotels are doing away with room service in New York City and other places. I responded that when you're in New York City, you can go downstairs and have access to food options within a few steps of the hotel door. You don't have that option at an airport. Culturally, there are a lot of international guests who expect to have room service.
Is there anything else the hotel’s operators should be cognizant of from your initial impressions?
They have to think through a number of things. They're not going to sell the hotel through travel agencies. They're not going to pay travel agent commissions. I think that's going to bite them financially in the rear end.
They don't plan to have a call center. I've been working in digital commerce since the advent of digital commerce, since 1994. The first transactional website I ever worked on was in 1995. As digital as we are, as web- and mobile-centric as we are, there are times where you want to talk to somebody or need to talk to somebody – a human being.
I don't fault them for not wanting to distribute through the online travel agencies right now. I don't think that there's a business need for them to do so. But we'll see long-term if that is a sustainable business decision.
They want to charge you $10 to cancel or modify a reservation, even if your rate is flexible. That’s a terrible business practice.
In addition, TWA Hotel buries a $10 “facility fee” – the urban hotel equivalent of the dreaded “resort fee” – in the “taxes and fees” line. That’s wrong. The major hotel brands advise travelers upfront if a resort fee, or something similar, is charged. The TWA Hotel needs to be honest about this. Better yet, they should stop with the nickel-and-diming.
What do you think of the TWA Hotel as a concept? Does it say anything about a yearning for something truly stylized at a time where the emphasis on the travel/hospitality experience is online and frictionless, on-demand and lacking a tactile sensibility?
The TWA Hotel is definitely unique. Again, as a former TWA employee, I think it's great! But as an industry analyst, as a marketeer, I look at that and say there's an element of risk to it.
The terminal may be well known as the “TWA terminal” by architectural buffs, airline industry employees, and aviation fans. But TWA disappeared 18 years ago as a brand. So you've got a generation that doesn't know TWA – unless they recall seeing it in a movie, perhaps.
To a lot of people, “TWA” is abstract. They don't really know what it stands for. Morse and MCR has worked very closely with the TWA Museum and other groups to be very respectful about the history. They have exhibits throughout the whole complex that help you understand what TWA was, why it became a legend of an airline despite the fact it was never the largest U.S. carrier and struggled mightily. I think they did a terrific job to provide some context as to what TWA was and why this building matters and why the airline brand still matters.
Ultimately, I think it showcases the difference between what travel was and where we are today. It's connected to an airline that was begun at the beginning of the 21st century: JetBlue.
The hotel is linked directly to JetBlue’s terminal at JFK, so the contrast is great.
The hotel will be able to attract guests for multiple reasons. Perhaps they’ll have a long connection and want a room to sleep and shower. Or, it could be travelers whose flights arrive very late and they don't want to drive home. Or they have a very early morning departure and don't want to get up any earlier to drive to JFK. They may be attending a business meeting or a social event at the hotel. But it's not the type of hotel, given its location, that a lot of people are going to go and stay at many times.
Most airport hotels are serviceable and functional. They're not designed as real destinations. That's where the TWA Hotel stands out. MCR has designed it as a destination unto itself. And there are a lot of people who're going to have weddings, bar mitzvahs and other social functions at the TWA Hotel because it is so distinctive.
The rooftop will be very popular during the spring, summer and early fall with aviation fans who want to use that to take pictures, as well as hotel guests who want to sunbathe. I understand they're going to sell day passes so that you can go up to the rooftop pool if you're not a hotel guest. Which I think is smart. And they're going to have day rooms available so if you have a longer-than-average connection during the daytime and want to get some quality sleep you can do that.
But, they need to overcome the “one and done” syndrome. After the first year has passed, perhaps maybe even the first five or six months, I don't think they'll see too many people saying, “We have nothing to do this weekend, let's go to New York and stay at the TWA Hotel.”
MCR has a lot of smart business strategies attached to the hotel. But as I’ve said: They just shouldn't have opened it when they did.