Boutique hotel in Manhattan: Run away!

That’s not fair, of course: There are doubtless wonderful hotels in Manhattan that carry the “boutique” label. But I thought a quick post might not be out of order after returning from a quick speaking trip.

I’m not naming the organization I was speaking to, because they’re not really to blame for the hotel problem and absolutely not to blame for the other problem (see below). They offered three possible hotels that were reasonably priced and not too far away from the conference venue and suggested reserving very early. I failed to reserve very early, and the other two hotels were unavailable.

First, the other situation: Be wary of SuperShuttle in Manhattan. I use it in other cities, almost always with very good success. This time, with a prepaid voucher (thanks to Orbitz’ recommendation), I arrived at the pickup point at 4:35 p.m. (SuperShuttle doesn’t actually have airport stations, at least not in JFK Terminal 9). I arrived at my hotel at…7:25 p.m. Yes, part of that was Manhattan’s grotesque rush hour; a lot more, though, was loading up the van with people going to six different places–and, as I didn’t realize until my return to the airport, almost perversely bad choices as to routing. (Going by the same buildings in the same direction two or three times didn’t give me a lot of confidence either.) When I asked at the hotel how early I should book a SuperShuttle return on Saturday (I had a prepaid voucher for that as well), in order to be sure of reaching the airport by 7. a.m., they said “4 a.m.–if they show up.” I booked a sedan, which took 25 minutes to get to JFK from the hotel. Sure, it was $50 instead of $17–but my time’s worth something.

Now, as to the hotel (and I use the term loosely): That one I will name–the Union Square Inn.

Here’s the description on their website:

Welcome to Union Square Inn, the finest affordable boutique hotel in Manhattan, New York City. Great rates, great location and great service make us the best New York boutique hotel choice.

Not merely a boutique hotel, but the “finest” and “best” New York boutique hotel!

I suppose “European-style” and “cozy” elsewhere on the site might be warning signs. Despite the claim of rooms as low as $99, the rate wasn’t that wonderful: $357 for two nights (including tax), for a room with one double bed. The rest of the site talks about first-class amenities, “modern, comfortable rooms” with private bathrooms, and even has a menu for their hip Cafe Samantha.

Here’s the reality. Cafe Samantha doesn’t exist–well, the teeny-tiny space does, but it’s only used for a “continental breakfast” (apparently coffee and one variety of sweet roll, maybe two). Maybe the Cafe did exist as a breakfast-lunch place at some point, but it doesn’t now. No big deal. There was a decent 24-hour restaurant two blocks away.
My room was on the fifth floor. There is no elevator. Not a broken elevator–no elevator. Funny how the website doesn’t mention anything that might suggest that. (Maybe “European-style”?) The room was large enough for the double bed, two nightstands, a dresser, and a chair–“cozy” is probably the right term. Modern? Well, the paint was in good shape and there were electric lights.

No closet. Only a short hanging rod (half of it over one of the bedside lamps). Yes, there was a bathroom–but if I’d been two inches taller, it would have been very difficult to use the toilet without banging my knees on the opposite wall.

As for first-class amenities–those did not include either a radio or an alarm clock (or room service, or anything indicating phone charges, or…). So, down those five flights of stairs again, ask at the front desk, they say they’ll be happy to program in a wakeup call. Which I asked for. And, the next morning, called to cancel since it hadn’t happened, at least by five or ten minutes after the hour. It was critical that I get the 5 a.m. wakeup call on Saturday, so I’d get my transportation to the airport, but they assured me that I’d get that wakeup call. Fortunately, my sleep was sufficiently affect by premonitions that I woke up before…there was no wakeup call. (Are alarm clocks that expensive, that at $180 a night they can’t afford to have them? The TV, such as it was, was hospital-style, locked to a wall mount up in the corner, so maybe that’s the case.)

I suppose the first-class amenities meant that there was soap and shampoo in the bathroom. That’s true. (No handtowels the first night, but that’s being picky.)

Again, I don’t blame the conference organizers. They probably checked the same first-level reviews that I did. Only one of those reviews mentioned the lack of elevator (and even then didn’t mention five stories). Since I know from reading user-submitted reviews elsewhere that some very negative reviews have to be discounted. (I remember sailing on Crystal Cruises once, a magnificent line with superb service, and hearing one couple starting to complain about this and that even before the ship had left the dock–I think that mostly boiled down to their Not Being Recognized as Very Important People and being treated as well as the rest of us…) If I’d read more assiduously, I would then have had a problem: there were no other available choices that suited the group’s apparently tight budget, or at least none they’d suggested.

My “speaking page” on my website includes among my requirements “lodging at the conference hotel (if there is one) or a business-class [or better] hotel,” After this trip, I may do a little rewriting to clarify what I mean by business-class (think Hilton, Marriott, Embassy Suites, Westin, Sheraton…). It’s fair to say that I assume a business-class hotel will have elevators if it’s more than two or three stories tall and will have radios or alarm clocks, maybe even closets. Heck, it’s fair to say I’d assume the same of a Motel 6. But, of course, there are no Motel 6s in Manhattan.

Would I go back to Manhattan? For the right arrangements, sure–but those arrangements would absolutely include a name-brand business-class (or better) hotel. And taxi, not shuttle, fare to and from the airport. (Which the inviting group’s paying: Again, this isn’t aimed at them.)

9 Responses to “Boutique hotel in Manhattan: Run away!”

  1. Jill Hurst-Wahl Says:

    This reminds me a bit of the hotel I stayed at in Toronto for the 2005 SLA conference. It was a European style hotel, although I don’t know if they used that phrasing (www.thestrathconahotel.com). Small room, tiny-tiny closet, small bathroom, but decent amenities. Although I had reserved a “big” bed for my husband and I, we got a small room with twin beds! Thankfully it was 2 blocks from the convention center, clean, etc. So we survived and had stories to tell.

    I’ll have to check to see how you now describe what accommodations you want. I’m sure I’ll learn from them for my own travel.

  2. walt Says:

    Ah, but you had a closet and two beds!

    I doubt that I’ll get around to updating the website very soon; I’d like to get some real writing done first, and it’s been more than a week. When I do, it will basically say “conference hotel or at least a full-service business-class hotel, e.g., Hilton, Embassy Suites, Marriott, Hyatt, Westin, or equivalent.”

    I hate updating that page, frankly: It seems so demanding. But as I’m getting less young, and flying keeps getting less pleasant (now there’s a euphemism), and I get to liking time at home more (particularly since that’s where I do all my writing, and where my wife is)…well, I’m dealing with a dropoff in speaking invitations by thinking that this is a good thing. I’m almost at the point where, if it’s not part of my job or it’s not a state library conference or similar occasion where I stand to learn a lot, I’ll “start from no” instead of “starting from yes.” But I’m not quite there yet, and won’t do anything drastic until after the holiday/SAD season is over.

  3. Meredith Says:

    Wow! I just was asked to speak at a conference in Manhattan in the Spring, so I will definitely keep this in mind when we get to talking about accommodations. I’ve stayed in a lot of fleabags in NYC while in college and I just don’t think it’s right to be putting a speaker in a place like that.

  4. Liz Says:

    Uh, I know the website says “boutique style”, but isn’t Union Square Inn a Hostel/hotel? I’m pretty sure that is why it has no frill accoms.
    To bad you didn’t know that before booking.

  5. walt Says:

    Well, there’s nothing at all on the website or in hotel ratings that would indicate hostel. And it strikes me that $178 a day (including tax) is pretty pricey for a hostel.

  6. Chioggia Says:

    Uhh…try tripadvisor.com.

  7. walt Says:

    Chioggia: Yes, if I’d made the reservation after October 6; yes, if I’d read all of the first few reviews in full; yes, if I’d had other options, I’d be aware of the fifth-floor-with-no-elevator and narrow-bathroom problems (but not the “no alarm clock or radio for you, bucko!”) If, that is, I’d gone to every trip advice site; TripAdvisor’s neither the only one nor necessarily the one I’d go to first.

    But I didn’t make the reservation after October 6, so that review wasn’t even there. (As it happens, TripAdvisor *was* one place I looked.) Nor did I really have such a large set of choices, or so much time, that I could do comprehensive reading of user reviews. This was a real-world situation, and I found–and still find–the most prominent set of “facts” to be at best misleading.

  8. jackson Says:

    Their website (easy to Google) says boutique for the budget-minded. The key word is budget. Yes, $178 is a lot for a room, but a city where rates usually start at $400, you get what you pay for. Same is true for Supershuttle. Any well seasoned NY traveler knows to steer clear of the glorified carpool.

  9. walt Says:

    OK, I see now. If you’re not a well-seasoned NY traveler or hip to the code words, you’re ripe for the shafting and ought not to complain. Or, maybe better yet, us rubes should just stay away from the Big City.

    Might make an interesting set of messages for the chamber of commerce and/or visitor’s bureau: “If you don’t know our code words and you haven’t already been here often enough to know all the legal cons, don’t come.”


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