Busted Markets Mean Boffo Hotel Rates in NYC

By K.C. Summers
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 3, 2009

Took the Bolt Bus to New York last weekend. Given the spirit of the times, this was going to be a low-budget trip. So: Bus ($50 round-trip) instead of train, and instead of a big-name play, something fun off-Broadway. My friend and I bought theater tickets in advance. Non-exchangeable and nonrefundable, of course.

You guessed it: The bus got stuck in traffic and arrived at Penn Station 2 1/2 hours late. Even then, we might have been able to get to the East Village in time for the curtain, had we been able to commandeer a cab, which, it being Manhattan at rush hour, wasn't happening. Seeing our distress, a helpful local offered us a sip from his CamelBak, which he said was filled with cabernet. From the looks of him, he wasn't kidding.

Bottom line: We missed the play, a net loss of $120. (We passed on the wine.)

But! We'd managed to snag a room at the very cool Hudson Hotel near Columbus Circle at 15 percent off the already reduced rate, and our comfy, cosseted stay there went a long way toward salvaging the trip. The moral here, besides never take the bus to New York on a Friday afternoon if you have theater tickets for that night, is that if you're at all contemplating a trip to Manhattan, now's the time to go. Thanks to the recession, New York hotels are offering some of the best deals the city has seen in years. And industry analysts say the bargains are likely to continue throughout the summer and fall.

The Hudson, which doesn't have its name or address posted outside, because, you know, that would be boring, isn't the sort of place I usually stay at. Not because it's way too cool for the likes of me (although it is), but because I'm too cheap. I refuse to pay more than $200 a night for a hotel room, even in a pricey city like New York, and Manhattan rates at the boutique hotels I like are usually north of $250. But scrolling through booking sites last week, I was stunned at the number of bargains. On Quikbook.com alone, I found scores of special offers. "Book Now and Receive 20% Off!" (the SoHo Grand, a hipster's dream). "Stay 2 or More Nights, Receive 15% Off!" (the Time Hotel). "Stay 5 or More Nights, Get 20% Off!" (the Marrakech).

Overall, the average hotel rate in the city is nearly $50 less than it was last year, $216.35 this February compared with $262.54 in 2008 (the latest figures available), according to PKF, a consulting firm that tracks occupancy levels. "It's a buyer's market," spokesman John Fox said. "I looked online today for a September date and found a $156 rate that at the same time last year would've been closer to double that. That was not me as an insider, that was me going on Expedia and checking rates." He predicts that occupancy will be down about 12 percent through 2009 and that the industry won't fully recover until 2010.

Hotels at all price points have become inventive in their marketing.

"There's a lot of supply right now in the marketplace, and the only way hotels can score some demand is by offering creative deals," said Hari Nair, who oversees the New York market for the hotel booking site Hotels.com. "I don't think it's unreasonable for customers to expect to see 20 to 30 percent off for a four-night stay." In addition to individual hotel packages, aggregator sites have their own deals, such as Hotels.com's weekly 24-hour sales and its "book 10 nights, get one night free" program (800-246-8357). Another promotion, sponsored by the city's tourism office, has a "buy one, get the second night 50 percent off" deal at 26 hotels, plus discounts on theater, museums and other attractions. (Book through May 30, travel by June 30; details at http://www.nycgo.com/realdeal.)

So that's how we ended up at the Hudson, with its neon-lined escalators and dramatic, ivy-covered lobby. (It's hard to pinpoint the design theme -- sort of a cross between the Arabian Nights, Mr. McGregor's Garden and the Rainforest Cafe -- but it works.) At the trendy outdoor bar, we watched pretty young things knock back designer cocktails while arranging themselves strategically on the artfully faded wicker sofas. New York as theater -- who needs Broadway?

It turned out to be a magical weekend. Continuing our theme of frugality, we dined at hole-in-the-wall joints and enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. Lunch was carryout, which we ate on a bench in Central Park. We were amused to see, according to a little brass plaque, that the seat had been donated by the Madoff family -- pre-scandal, judging from the tarnish. It was a reminder that although the economic bubble has burst, simple pleasures still abound -- and that despite the clogged streets, wacky inmates and impossible-to-find taxis, New York endures.

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