By David Sokol
Same as it ever was. For some hospitality destinations in New York, that has been the guiding mantra for phased reopenings during the COVID-19 era. Peek into the Dream Downtown and you may glimpse a digital display dedicated to the hotel’s hygiene standards. During a dining cruise on the Mark Sailboat with chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, only social distancing and hotel-branded face masks, hand sanitizer, and disinfecting wipes differentiate these two hours from previous years’ outings. At the citizenM New York Bowery Hotel, downloading a contactless app will empower your smartphone to check in, open doors, and order meals. And while market data provider STR forecasts that RevPAR for hotels in the city (down 66.7 percent in 2020) will increase by nearly 54 percent in 2021, the changes feel like inevitable—or at the very least, innovative, discreet, and visually consistent accommodations to the pandemic.
Not everybody is taking on reopening with such subtlety. Instead, some entrepreneurs and designers are stressing the new in “new normal” with dramatic revisions in appearance and service. Creative responses to COVID-19 began to percolate across the city’s hospitality landscape in July, when restaurants were allowed to set up outdoor dining areas in parking spaces and along sidewalks. Befitting its Michelin star, the Italian seafood restaurant Marea, for instance, commissioned local studios Floratorium and Nusla Design to transform a stretch of Central Park South into an immersive under-the-sea scene, where blue hydrangeas weave in and out of a willow canopy. Made even more opaque by vines and leaves, the installation also conveniently blocked patrons’ views of construction scaffolding overhead.
Likewise, Eataly went to work on the first-ever street-level outdoor dining experience at its Flatiron location almost immediately after New York announced its regulatory changes. The 2,300-square-foot Il Patio di Eataly – La Costa mixed umbrellas, palm fronds, and raw shiplap planters for summer, and is currently being overhauled for autumn.
Impact From Above
In addition to operating the patio, Eataly welcomed guests to the location’s rooftop restaurant, which is made over seasonally, and for this past summer’s version—the partition-lined Serra Fiorita—Brooklyn-based Milky Way Studios crafted a canopy of paper flowers. This fall the designers turned it into Serra d’Autunno, a beehive-inspired space with a menu based around local ingredients including honey.
Other hoteliers and restaurateurs are also paying extra attention to breezy rooftops during the pandemic. Times Square’s Sanctuary Hotel moved its omakase restaurant Sushi Lab from a lobby space that reviewers had compared to a coat check to its rooftop lounge. And in the Financial District at Ampia Rooftop & Restaurant, the owners of Gnoccheria designed and installed miniature greenhouses to demarcate socially distanced dining parties.
Perhaps the most spectacular rooftop transformation occurred at the South Street Seaport on Manhattan’s southernmost tip. In recent years, the Rooftop at Pier 17 has hosted summer concerts, with as many as 3,400 visitors taking in performances framed by the skyline. While property owner Howard Hughes Corporation had more shows planned prior to COVID-19’s emergence, “programming quickly shifted while still embracing the unique rooftop venue, infrastructure, and views,” says Claire Annas Keaveney, whose local design studio Relevent was tapped for the pivot.
Relevent had partnered with Pier 17 previously on a Royal Caribbean event, but this project required making “an entirely new identity from scratch,” Keaveney explains. For the Greens, Relevent turned a side of the summer stage into a wall of hedges and covered the performance area in grass. It then parceled the lawn into 32 mini backyards at 14 square feet apiece, containing cabana-style lounge chairs for eight pod members, as well as an umbrella, beverage cooler, and charging stations. Guests scan a unique QR code at their individual setups to access an online menu from the restaurant R17. “The old saying that constraints breed creativity has certainly proven to be true in this pandemic,” Keaveney says.
Hotel as Workplace
Some hospitality venues may also follow the lead of the Wythe Hotel in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, which teamed up with the New York–based office-space provider Industrious to convert a floor of its loft-style rooms into 14 workspaces.
The hotel stayed busy during shutdown, because between April and late June it donated approximately 2,000 room nights to doctors and nurses working on the COVID-19 frontlines. “They were amazing guests, but they also really helped us to know the pain points for operating safely and responsibly,” says Wythe co-owner Peter Lawrence. Faced with minimal bookings, “we made a list of things we thought could get people to stay with us, and Industrious came along in July just as we were talking about conversions of hotel rooms into offices [like those] that were taking place in Hong Kong and Australia.”
Jamie Hodari, CEO of Industrious, says the collaboration with the Wythe Hotel points out two workplace trends that have only become more crystallized during the pandemic: a decreasing emphasis on convening employees in a central headquarters and an increasing frustration with open-plan offices. “Having people work in individual hotel rooms, set up as productive offices, [represents] the workspace we’re trying to deliver,” Hodari says. And it turns out that local workers, tired of WFH, want what Industrious is offering. “We have a couple of regulars who are here multiple days a week,” Lawrence says; “we’ve also had people who come one day a week for a big Zoom call or a mental-health workday.” He adds that users have largely come from the TV and film-production industries and, perhaps more importantly, “September [should] be the first month since March that we’re not losing a significant amount of money.”
The Future is Creative
Look just beyond the city limits to envision how the local hospitality industry will transition into wintertime. At Cedar Lakes Estate in Port Jervis, New York, for example, guests reserve stations at the hotel’s barn facility, which is now a socially distanced coworking space. The Great Wolf Lodge indoor water park in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains has even reinvented a conference space as a schoolhouse where kids can log into virtual classrooms while parents work back in their rooms (or maybe enjoy some much-needed solitude).
Whether hospitality players rush to coworking or embrace another approach to generating business, change will be a constant as New York continues operating during the pandemic. The NYC Hospitality Alliance, the membership organization that spearheaded DineOut NYC modular outdoor initiative in cooperation with with Rockwell Group, is one place owners and designers will certainly be looking for hints and inspirations. Another platform for innovation is Design Corps. This program from NYCxDESIGN, the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects, and multiple municipal entities, is matching designers’ pro bono services for restaurants attempting reopening. Participants promise to share lessons learned and best practices from their collaborations with the wider Design Corps community, because even in a city where there is no shortage of ideas, we’re all in this together.