As the annual International Hotel, Motel & Restaurant Show kicks off in New York City this weekend, lodging industry professionals and other attendees will undoubtedly spend a great deal of time in Times Square, where they’ll soak up the bright lights and energy of what is affectionately sometimes referred to as “The Crossroads of the World.” As part of the festivities, many will don their best formal wear and head to the New York Marriott Marquis on Sunday night for the inauguration of the 2011 Chair of the American Hotel & Lodging Association, John Campbell. During the week, the industry will, of course, enjoy a vastly different Times Square than 25 years ago, and the Marriott Marquis, in part, stands as an enduring catalyst of that transition.
In 1985, Times Square was, well, a sketchy kind of place to say the least. As Marriott International describes it, “Back then, the area was so notorious for crime that even cab drivers avoided it, and the hotel gave away free lunches to cab drivers–just to acquaint them with the neighborhood.”
That began to change when the city began an effort to clean up the neighborhood. At the time there weren’t any branded hotels in the area when J.W. Marriott Jr., chairman and CEO of Marriott International and then New York City Mayor Ed Koch cut the ribbon on the high-rise with the soaring atrium. And it was not without controversy as many in the city, including its financial community expressed a great deal of skepticism about the project.
“I look at Times Square today and I am amazed at the transformation since the building has gone up,” says Mike Stengel, Marriott’s market vice president and area general manager for New York, including the New York Marriott Marquis. “I stood on the roof one day and I could count 75 buildings that did not exist when we built this hotel.
Planning for the hotel actually began in 1972 when Mayor John Lindsay approached Atlanta-based architect John Portman to design a major hotel in the area. Marriott International was interested in leading the revitalization of Times Square and joined the project, and the groundbreaking was held in 1982.
And since its official opening on an October day in 1985, the Marriott Marquis, which was build along with its sister property in Atlanta at the same time, has changed along with its neighborhood.
“We thought we were building a convention hotel,” says Stengel, who was at the time was working for Marriott in building the Atlanta property. He came to the New York Marriott Marquis in 1990. “We had a hotel that had 150,000 square feet of meeting space and we were going to attract large groups. The Javits Center was just going up. In those days, you weren’t going to get tourists to come to Times Square.”
That didn’t stop the hotel from running 78 percent occupancy in its first year of existence. But it became obvious that the hotel wouldn’t be able to survive on groups alone. “We needed to get people from other segments to come to New York,” Stengel says. And so began, the hotel’s first go at innovation, something that would become synonymous with the hotel over the next 25 years.
“We had some of the first international sales managers in the company,” Stengel recalls. “We began to put some destination offices around the world. We had one in Germany, one in Japan. The vision was to go out and find customers who may not know Times Square. We also never used the word Times Square in any of our marketing tools. We always said we were in Midtown Manhattan.”
Stengel says the Marriott Marquis has a large international base of guests. Today, it does business with travelers from 52 different countries. He also says it is only a 35 percent group hotel. The bulk of the business is leisure and business travelers.
When the City of New York set out to revitalize Times Square it knew it needed to start with an anchor hotel. But that meant finding a development site and many in the city opposed the idea of tearing down some old theaters and other buildings. However, Stengel says the many people were just as much ready to turn the page to a new Times Square.
“The Broadway Association and the League of American Theaters, even though we tore down some old theaters and built a new theater, were very much in of this happening because many of the theaters were actually boarded up. There were very few Broadway shows at the time,” Stengel says. “The community thought it would be a great opportunity to bring a couple of thousand people into the neighborhood every day to potentially help the businesses around us. That was true and it actually worked very well.”
A few years later, Marriott became a leader in starting the Times Square Business Improvement District. The hotel and New York Times became founding businesses in the organization. “We all had the same idea in mind, that we to make the place cleaner, we had to make the streets safer,” Stengel says.
Now, celebrating its 25th anniversary, the hotel still stands as a central piece to what is now one of the most tourist-heavy places in the world. But over those 25 years the guests aren’t the only things that have changed.
When it was built, the New York Marriott marquis was a contemporary design that stood out among the older buildings surrounding it. But contemporary only stays contemporary for so long. “We’ve re-tooled this hotel four or five times,” Stengel says. “We have changed the names and positioning of food and beverage outlets. We’ve opened new food and beverage outlets. Today, you look at our eighth floor and there’s a Starbucks and a sushi bar. Neither was there when we opened, obviously.”
When the Broadway Lounge on the eighth floor opened it revolved, but Stengel says that the hotel needed the floor space to be bigger so the revolving floor was taken out and the footprint made bigger. The View Restaurant entrance used to be on the ninth floor, but is now on the third floor so that people could more easily access it.
And the re-tooling doesn’t stop. Stengel says the hotel is getting ready to re-do its guestrooms once again. It’ll be the fourth time the guestrooms have been redone. “Everything in the guestrooms will go, except the television since we just bought them,” he quips. “I remember in the mid-90s the big thing was to get two-way telephones in the guestrooms, but now the big thing is to get wireless Internet.”
And then there are the elevators, one of the most recognizable innovations of the hotel’s history. For the uninitiated, the hotel’s elevator system was replaced to prevent long waits for elevators. Today’s system allows guests to choose their floor before boarding the carriage and the system uses computers to funnel riders to different carriages to make the system more efficient.
“I haven’t received one letter of complaint about elevators since we put them in,” Stengel says. “Before that, I’d get one every day.”
Stengel says that over the years, the hotel has tried to stay ahead of trends and will continue to do so.
What started 25 years ago, as a chance in a questionable area has become a success. Today, the Marriott Marquis’ occupancy runs consistently at 90 percent or above, almost all year long.
And the Marquis brand has become a success for Marriott International. Last week, Marriott broke ground on its newest Marquis in Washington, D.C. In addition, the Marquis tag has been placed on JW Marriott brand hotels, such as the one that recently opened to much fanfare in Miami.
Stengel says that what started in New York in 1985 has shown a lot of staying power, and there’s no reason to believe that it won’t for many more years.