The secrets behind a succesfull luxury hotel opening – a unique insight with Joel Freyberg

When you set out to open a new luxury hotel in Manhattan, what were the pillars of your strategic approach? – Positioning, target audience, architecture and interior design etc.

When I was given the task to open The Chatwal as the very first luxury property in the Theater District, I knew that I needed to create a unique and amazing hotel to bring guests to this part of town. To ensure that, the hotel had to be very special with no detail overlooked. I personally reached out to the leading luxury travel professionals to determine what their client’s needs and requirements are in a new luxury hotel. Their responses included the need for two full bathrooms in our One Bedroom Suites, bathrooms with great lighting and for the room also to be functional with complimentary internet and lux with Butler service for all guestroom classifications– all suggestions were acted on and implemented.

The Chatwal is a landmark Stanford White Building, once home to The Lambs Club, the first American private theater club for the likes of John Wayne, the Barrymore’s, Charlie Chaplin and Fred Astaire. We wanted to pay homage to the rich history of the building and called upon Master Architect and designer Thierry Despont to create a hotel with a retro 1930’s Art Deco style. Thierry is known for this work in luxury residential homes and standalone hotel suites and public areas, but this was his first entire hotel. The design exudes the return to the age of the art and glamour of travel.

The final key component was collaborating with a well-known celebrity Chef for the hotel’s restaurant and room service – providing our hotel guests with the high quality and fine service that they are accustomed to, but to also create excitement and buzz within the city from our local New York movers and shakers. I am also very proud that our Chef Geoffrey Zakarian has also gone on to win the title of Iron Chef, which is another major achievement for himself as well as the hotel.

Which are the biggest challenges you have been facing for such a new development in New York, one of the world’s most competitive luxury hospitality markets?

One of the major challenges that I faced was opening the first Luxury hotel in the heart of Theater District of New York City – an area not known for luxury hotels at all. Educating the luxury travel industry on the benefits of this area has been a priority for us.
There is a long history of luxury hotels on the Upper Eastside or along Fifth Avenue. Our challenge is to attract the clientele who would typically stay on the Eastside of Manhattan and have them experience the convenience and luxury in the center of Manhattans west side. This has been a goal and a personal priority of mine – I am determined to bring the East to the West.

What has been your approach to recruitment? Which were the key criteria you were seeking for your team?

My approach was simple. I had to find candidates that expressed the same passion and desire for achieving excellence that I have. I always look for those people with luxury experience, but more importantly the desire and passion to deliver the best service and attention to detail that our guests demand.

In terms of rooms and suites, you have successfully implemented a timeless contemporary yet classic approach – with most of décor pieces reviving the art of travel. Tell us more.

Master Architect Thierry Despont created rooms that remind me of a luxury ocean liner stateroom from the 1930s –a return to glamour, but with modern day conveniences. Our leather wrapped custom furniture – closets with compartments, desks, nightstands are fashioned after the vintage steamer trunks from yesteryear and each room has a backgammon set, custom made playing cards and a copy of the “Great Gatsby” to invoke conversation.

We have heard from guests that they feel “at home” at The Chatwal – that is the best compliment a Hotelier can ever hear . As for technology, it had to be state of the art and user friendly.

As you progressed with your project, what were the biggest challenges in terms of dealing with the owner?

Actually, I was quite blessed with the opening of The Chatwal as it was the first luxury hotel for the ownership. My ownership hired me for my luxury experience from The Mayfair Regent, Carlyle, Waldorf Towers as well as the very chic Gansevoort which kept me well rounded. Mr. Chatwal was very supportive of my ideas and suggestions and never once questioned my judgment.

The larger challenge were the numerous delays in opening the property due to getting the final approvals from the New York Landmark Commission. Once that was completed it was smooth sailing.

Exquisite interior design details, state-of-the-art technology and comfort have been an inherent part of your success, in establishing the position of your hotel among the top luxury hotels in Manhattan. In the long term, which are the key innovative marketing as well as service and facilities, which you consider as essential?

Quality is the key factor. Our guest rooms and public areas are of top quality and we need to maintain them. Customer service is the heart of our industry – and continuing our internal service training with staff will be paramount.
In terms of key innovative marketing/branding services, I chose to select partnerships that are unique and bespoke – such as our current relationship with Asprey (our in-room amenities), T. Anthony, the luxury luggage brand collaboration, fine lines from Frette and Cristina Azario.

And of course a main component – partnerships with the leaders in the industry such as Starwood Hotels Luxury Collection, Virtuoso and American Express Fine Hotels and Resorts.

If you were to consider opening a similar luxury hotel, which city would it be in?

Personally, I would love to open a similar property in London, Paris or Rome. The Middle East excites me as well; Doha or Dubai would be wonderful locations. I know ownership would be very proud to have a Chatwal in either Mumbai or Delhi.

Your hotel is affiliated through marketing chain to a major hospitality group. How has this improved performance and what would you recommend GMs of such new openings?

Yes, the Chatwal is affiliated with Starwood’s Luxury Collection. The outreach and marketing tools available through Starwood and the loyal Starwood Preferred Guest Program (SPG) is by far the best hotel support system I feel that is available.

Joel Freyberg has been General Manager of The Chatwal the only Luxury Collection Hotel in New York City, since 2008.