In 2018, 1.8 million hotel rooms were booked in Westchester County — enough for the entire city of Phoenix to come and stay the night. Government and private-sector veterans of the industry are charting a bold, new landscape: urbanized and vibrant. Current hotel bullishness involves efforts that are paying off after years of sweat equity. There are different fits for different venues — and Airbnb is a big player — but the ability for area hotels to host businesspersons, tourists, and events in a thriving community underpins much of today’s visions becoming reality. Of course, there are challenges, too.
Across its five years in business, the 130-room Cambria Hotel White Plains-Downtown has maintained a nearly 86% occupancy rate. Cambria general manager Sean Meade recently pointed out its sleek architecture and its status as a top-reviewed facility on TripAdvisor as advantages. (The hotel is operated by Danbury-based Meyer Jabara Hotels under license from Choice Hotels.) Its business is 60-70% corporate.
Besides managing Cambria, Meade is president of the Westchester County Hotel Association, headquartered in Port Chester, which represents 40 hotels, motels, and inns. Clearly, Meade has his finger on the pulse of the local industry. In the past, he says, hotels in Westchester, including the Cambria, benefited from New York City overflow — called “compression” in industry-speak.
Today, Meade notes, “Overdevelopment of new hotels in Manhattan is leading to decreasing compression in Westchester.” The increase of Airbnb stays is another major factor impacting the industry.
Meade, accompanied by John Ravitz, executive vice president and COO of the Business Council of Westchester and a former state Assembly member from Manhattan, has twice traveled to Albany to state the case for the association. “We’re here as a resource for the legislators,” Meade explains. “It’s nice for us to reach out and say, ‘If it affects the hospitality industry, we’re here to work with you.’ Legislation can have great intentions, but we’re able to ask our employees how these actions will affect them. We get that feedback and provide it.”
Meade’s organization charts a -2.2% current decline in revenue for 2019, with flat growth forecast for 2020. But that doesn’t mean the industry isn’t an important economic engine for Westchester.
In Yonkers, the mayor’s office cites 1,050 active hotel rooms spread across marquee names that include Marriott and Hampton Inn, both of which have two Yonkers locations; Hyatt Place (at Cross County Center); Ramada; and boutique property Royal Regency Hotel. There are proposals for four additional hotels in town and talk beyond that of two more. Says Yonkers mayor Mike Spano: “We are especially happy to see hotels with national flags, like Hyatt, Hampton Inn, and Marriott. And it seems likely that MGM’s Empire City Casino might add a hotel.”
Those flags represent vital, sought-after puzzle pieces in a diversifying economy, Spano adds.
“This tells us there is a thirst for Yonkers — that our proximity to New York City and access to the Hudson Valley make it a viable option for those looking to work or visit the area,” he notes. “We continue to see interest in the hospitality sector, so we believe the market remains strong.”
The burgeoning county hotel list includes the Hilton Garden Inn in Dobbs Ferry, which opened in 2018; in Tuckahoe, a Marriott Springhill Suites opens later this year in Peekskill, The Abbey Inn & Spa opens January 2020; and New Rochelle has new hotels in its pipeline, as well.
The Abbey Inn & Spa’s GM, Gilbert Baeriswil, believes the market is on the upswing. “In the early 2000s, we were seeing a big influx of business from the Fortune 500 companies,” says Baeriswil, who previously managed the 31-room Castle Hotel & Spa in Tarrytown. “After the big market crash, there was an obvious decline. Now, I’d say we’re bouncing back. Cautiously.”
The Abbey’s target audience includes a full spectrum of event guests, tourists, and businesspeople; the facility will actively seek business gatherings and events of up to 220 attendees in its Highlands Ballroom. “We think the Hudson Valley will continue to attract more of the international market,” Baeriswil explains. “We see cities in the Valley already attracting attention. Peekskill is really ripe.” He cites Martin Ginsburg, principal of Valhalla-based Ginsburg Development Companies and The Abbey’s developer,
as a driving force in Peekskill’s and the Hudson Valley’s resurgence.
Castle Hotel & Spa in Tarrytown is another local boutique property that is well-positioned for success. Average daily rates are holding strong at $389, and Alison Yassky, maître d’hôtel, says they expect to gain an increase of at least 30% revenue for direct bookings in 2020. “We are aiming to add more and greater amenities for our hotel guests (changing carpets and replacing some furniture) but still keep the classic and elegant charm of our 19th-century castle,” she adds. “We are also working on our new Loyalty Program, to benefit our top loyal guests.”
New Rochelle has also positioned itself for change and is reaping the rewards. According to Luiz Aragon, New Rochelle’s commissioner of development, a critical moment came in December 2015, when the City Council rezoned 300 acres of the downtown area. That decision — to make the land shovel-ready for development with the environmental reviews already in place — has led to 31 approved projects, 11 of which have already broken ground. The city is promoting a total 12 million developable square feet, “with the railroad station at the center,” says Aragon.
Downtown New Rochelle already has a Radisson Hotel and a Residence Inn by Marriott. Aragon underscored their popularity by noting rooms are often hard to book. An 80-room Holiday Inn Express is going up, and the 24-story, ultrasleek TRYP by Wyndham opens in 2021 with 225 rooms and will include restaurants, catering, conference facilities, and entertainment space. The TRYP property marks Westchester’s largest hotel project in 20 years. Also just approved is an 800,0000 sq. ft. mixed-used development at 11 Lawton Street on the corner of Main Street, which will include a 190-room hotel.
Aragon says the hotels are part of an equation that is working for New Rochelle: First, attract centralized density in the form of residential and restaurant development. The allure is built-in, according to Aragon. “We’re 25 minutes from New York City,” he explains. “And, of course, we have all that Westchester has to offer.”
Though playing in a smaller arena, the Village of Port Chester is on the hunt for hotel development, too.
“The Village controls the zoning, but the property and the property’s control remain on the private side,” notes Eric Zamft, director of Port Chester’s Planning and Economic Development Department. “What we can do is persuade and pursue.” Zamft addressed a longstanding issue first: The plans to remake the United Hospital site — at the high-traffic Post Road/I-287 juncture — do include a hotel but remain only conceptual. In the meantime, gears are turning.
“When I began here in 2016, the talk was of the big chains, and the big chains were all about the room numbers, the number of keys,” Zamft explains. “I think then they were seeing the Courtyard by Marriott [in nearby Rye] was there and that the local market was saturated. Now, all the research shows boutique hotels are good development and that big hotels, with lots of rooms, are not necessarily a good thing. Since 2016, we’ve been hearing from boutique-hotel developers seeking location, location, location.”
Transportation, too, is very much in play.
“What you’re seeing is the result of 15 to 20 years of transit-oriented-development thinking bearing fruit,” he says. Those transit-oriented plans seek to get people “living, working, and playing” in neighborhoods dominated by public transportation, he notes.
The scale of any new hotel in Port Chester, Zamft says, would be “relatable” and in keeping with the current walk-up nature of the buildings on Main Street. “We’re different from New Rochelle,” he says, noting New Rochelle is a city of 80,000 residents. Even within its eagerness to attract hotels, Port Chester will maintain its feel of, in Zamft’s words, “the quintessential maritime village.”
To spur the process, Port Chester is remaking its code. The new code, according to Zamft, will be form-based and streamlined for quickness. “We’re doing everything on our end. It’s Port Chester’s time to attract boutique-hotel development.”
But let’s not forget about Airbnb, which has altered the equation throughout Westchester.
The Hotel Association’s Meade says “leveling the playing field” with Airbnb is a legislative priority. Issues include security and safety compliance. “[Member hotels] have a steady flow of inspections — fire inspections, Board of Health inspections — to make sure we’re living up to the policies and procedures we’re supposed to,” he explains, noting that Airbnb hosts do not have the same level of regulations. “If you’re going to act as a hotel, you should be held to the same standards as a hotel.”
Meade also points to Airbnb as a major disruptor to the future success of area hotels. He notes that the increase of Airbnb usage is what is causing Westchester hotels to see lower revenue.
Airbnb sees itself as a popular and now fixed-in-the-mindset participant in the industry, augmenting more than disrupting economies in more than 100,000 municipalities globally.
According to Liz DeBold Fusco, senior communications manager for the U.S. East for Airbnb, “There’s a place for everyone in the hospitality sector.”
In 2018, Westchester County Airbnb hosts booked 28,500 guest stays, producing income of $6.6 million for the hosts. The hotel-room-occupancy tax rate is 3%, and it applies to Airbnb.
Since 2016, Airbnb has collected more than $3.5 million in taxes statewide, says Fusco. Westchester is now among more than half the counties in the state to have forged a tax-collection agreement with the company.
“We can step in now and collect the taxes,” explains Fusco. “It’s simple for the hosts, and they don’t have to worry about being in tax compliance. They don’t have to become specialty accountants, and the county gets the tax revenue.”
Since 2008, when it was founded, according to Fusco, Airbnb has offered benefits that may be overlooked by those in the hotel industry. “A variety of people use Airbnb,” she says. “From a business perspective, small-business owners benefit because they are often outside traditional business centers, and now they have rooms nearby to rent.” She says those who see the benefits of Airbnb include government officials and those doing business with small businesses. Addtionally, “The Hudson Valley is one of the top trending areas in the world,” she notes. “We’re reaching a new population of guests.”
Fusco underscores a key component driving Airbnb: income — and not just for homeowners. “We want to raise up all kinds of accommodations,” she says. “Many boutique hotels and bed-and-breakfasts use our platform,” adding that Airbnb host families benefit financially, too.
Regarding recent countywide hotel activity, Natasha Caputo, director of Westchester County Tourism & Film, says, “The newness continues to make the county more vibrant and appealing. We’re meeting expectations and going beyond that.”
According to Caputo, travel and tourism combined represent a $2 billion industry for Westchester County (as measured by visitor spending). That figure represents 45% of all visitor spending in the Hudson Valley region. County records show the industry has contributed $17.1 billion into the county economy since 2009. (New York State and Smith Travel Research contributed data to the county figures.)
“We continue on the upswing,” Caputo says. She cites expansions, renovations, and new construction among the county’s draws, complemented by new spas and new culinary opportunities. “Authentic farm-to-table food, craft beverages [and the like] add up to a travel-and-tourism ecosystem that is thriving.”
And that ecosystem means business. Hotel activity in the county grew in 2018, with room demand (measured by hotel room nights filled) up 8%, to 1.8 million, amid a stable 74% hotel-occupancy rate. The hotel average daily rate increased 1%, to $145.96.
If there are challenges, there also appear to be more successes, as gauged by now-hotel-centric municipalities that had previously flashed “No Vacancy” signs. Says New Rochelle’s Aragon, “We’re not looking for something specific. We’re creating an environment and an opportunity for people to invest in.”
Bill Fallon is a freelance reporter and editor. His writing credits include three e-books and one paperback.