by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | October 14, 2010

The Four Seasons New York's new Garden eateryIt's no small thing for a luxury hotel in New York City, and an iconic one at that, to admit that competition for group business in this economic climate is downright brutal. That's because corporate speak usually has hotel officials bound, gagged and tightly leashed. Well, the Four Seasons Hotel New York is not afraid to call it like it is. What's more, management even is willing to admit that they are stepping outside of some long-defined in-house rules in order to step up their competitive game for a larger slice of the group market.
   "We are competing not only with our existing competitive set, but also with a variety of hotels we don't generally come up against," said Barbara Paru, the property's sales manager, over a casual small-plate dinner last Friday at the hotel's new lobby eatery, The Garden. With the venue's 20-foot tall petrified African Acacia trees, it was like dining under a lush forest canopy, only this one came with a choice of 160 wines by the glass and a charcuterie selection so tasty that it sorely tested my professional dining etiquette. In a city that has added more than 12 new hotels, (including luxury newcomers such as the 607-room InterContinental Times Square, the 217-room W New York Downtown and the 114-room The James New York) in just the first nine months of this year, "We realized that in order to capture much-need group business, we needed to reinvent ourselves in the marketplace and redefine our products and services," Paru said.
L'Atelier du Joel Robuchon at the Four Seasons Hotel New York   That reinvention includes opening up this I. M. Pei-designed property's four dining and entertaining venues, including its one-star Michelin-rated L'Atelier du Joël Robuchon, to private group functions -- something management never would have considered before, because of a strong-held belief that doing so would encroach on the transient guest experience and ultimately have a negative impact on the brand's image. And was there pushback to this novel selling idea? Absolutely, says Paru, but "economic realities call for new strategies and selling practices."
   Other first-time initiatives for groups include a new Meetings Made Yours package, which allows planners to choose up to four elements from a lineup of value-added options such as complimentary Internet access in guest rooms, a 15 percent room attrition allowance up to one week prior to arrival, and the choice between a hotel-hosted welcome reception or complimentary daily breakfast. The package is available at a starting price point of $495 per room for business booked and executed by March 31, 2011.
   By all accounts, the upswing that began in the first quarter of this year is expected to continue, even gain momentum, in 2011. According to Hendersonville, Tenn.-based Smith Travel Research, luxury demand in 2011 will grow by 3.1 percent, and that sector's average daily rate will increase by 3.9 percent. That bodes well for the Big Apple, which experienced one of the steepest RevPAR declines in 2009. Joni-Rose Jankie, sales manager for the hotel, says that while she is as optimistic as the next hotel executive about the industry's increasing recovery, she also embraces the realities of the immediate marketplace. The hotel, she insists, will never follow the competition down the path of rate discounting simply to push occupancy. It won't, however, shy away from redefining its products and services to gain leverage in the group segment. "Our commitment to holding firm on rates with the transient market remains," says Jankie. "But, this new approach to selling to the meetings segment and attracting the group customer is here to stay."