After you read this post, you could find my conclusion surprising , so I’m putting it right up front: I recommend you book the Helmsley Park Lane hotel for a stay in New York City.
My November plan to visit NYC for a long weekend combining business, museum visits, and food, was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. The south end of Manhattan was dark. Subway tunnels were flooded. I had reservations at restaurants that were recovering from water or extended electrical failure. I wanted to go anyhow. I wanted to support them as they struggled to recover. But I cancelled.
Typical of Helmsley when they chose to excel, a supervisor at their reservations number, while herself dealing with living in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, kindly rescheduled my prepaid (and non-refundable) reservation into January. First (+)
Second (+) The Helmsley Park Lane is located on Central Park South (59th street) between the Plaza Hotel and the Ritz Carlton Hotel. Location, location, location.
First (-) We arrived by cab in a drizzle. My wife thought she saw the Helmsley doorman come up to the cab and make a “just 1 minute” signal at the window. I was chatting with the cabbie and paying and didn’t see it. Our taxi driver lifted the luggage out. Hoping the doorman hadn’t been a hallucination, we waited a minute, but no one from the hotel came out or even acknowledged us; so we rolled ourselves inside. My darling, young wife and her suitcase were tangled in the revolving door long enough for someone to notice her and assist her, but no such luck.
A powerful NYC Hotel Doorman controls all he surveys. His kingdom includes both generous and demanding guests. His success is the measure of his skill at turning the latter into the former. Through his strong presence, he manages unruly cabbies and cops, hookers and pimps, thieves and vandals. He rules by intimidation, using force only as required, but able to escalate from the whistle he wields when summoning taxis to “whatever it takes.” He is a show of bravado, the ringmaster of the New York City tourist circus. By contrast, our Helmsley doorman was barely visible.
I booked through Preferred Hotels to take advantage of a special rate called “50% OFF BAR [Best Available Rate] Continental Breakfast for 2.” It worked out to $280 per night plus $44.80 in NYC taxes.
At reception, we were told we could have our breakfast either “on the second floor or in the room.” We decided to try room service the first morning, because “breakfast in the room” being included in a New York hotel is unbelievable! Third (+) Breakfast was excellent — including a choice of juice; plenty of good coffee and hot chocolate; top brand yogurt; choice of toasted bagel with cream cheese or artfully wrapped, euro-bakery-style muffins or pastries; and fresh fruit. We opted for room service daily and were not disappointed.
Second (-) The original reception clerk had failed to properly code our Continental breakfast as free, so we got to see the $71.85 [$27 each plus $4 room service each, plus 18% gratuity] charge on our folio before it was removed later that day by Marissa Fourth (+), who was not only helpful and informative but also charming.
We were asked if we needed help to our room. Sure, that’s nice. Reception clerk called “Front,” rang his bell, and promptly vanished from his window. Third (-) Nothing happened. A brief wait and then, no patience by now, we rolled our own suitcases into the elevator. On the elevator, a fellow rider commiserated, “Yes, I understand. We checked in. They said they would send our luggage up right away. We waited a half-hour and then called. They had put our luggage in the storage room.”
I guess it’s no big thing for him, but our reception clerk also didn’t even mention we had been upgraded from “deluxe city view queen 7-24” to “city view Executive King 43.” A “when available at check-in” room upgrade is part of my free “I Prefer” membership, but what sort of non-service-oriented dope would miss the chance to charm us with the magic phrase all travelers long to hear, “I’ve upgraded you”?
Fourth (-) Where registration really lost it was in failing to tell me that the “Executive” in my “city view Executive King 43[rd floor]” upgrade entitled me to a blue plastic room key, which not only opened the door to room 4315, but was also good for a free drink (anything!) during happy hour each evening in Harry’s Bar. Retail value of that free treat: Dewars @ $13; Bellini @ $19; very good, nightly bar snacks, including mighty-tasty-cheese-puff-ruffle-things @ $priceless. What reception clerk wouldn’t mention every possible benefit of staying at his fine hotel?!?
“I Prefer” membership gives me enough status for a high-floor, less obstructed NYC view with a peek at the southeast corner of the park, but not quite enough status to get moved around the corner for a full “Central Park view.” It was January and often so foggy we couldn’t see even nearby buildings, so we could forgo the park view. Room 4315 was a good-sized, old but very clean, typical NYC hotel room, but with giant, east-facing windows.
“I Prefer” membership also entitles me to free internet access, but when I try to sign on from the room, I am asked to approve $12.95 for 24 hours access. Later I’m going through the lobby and ask n-s-o guy how to get free access. (You would think I’d have learned my lesson by now.) “Only a manager can approve that. And the manager isn’t here right now. I’ll have him call you.” Fifth (-) I don’t need to tell you that I’m still waiting for that call. Fifth (+) Peggy T, another charming and helpful front desk employee later explained that I should go ahead and sign on. The charge would be removed later. The connection is fast and stable.
Sixth (-) The “Do Not Disturb” sign was repeatedly ignored. The room had a doorbell. It rang pretty late one night to announce the delivery of a room service menu — slid under the door. It rang another time; I can’t explain why.
Sixth (+) Housekeepers tried to be invisible, but when you met them in the hallways, they were some of the friendliest of the hotel’s employees. These older hotels must be tough. Our room was spotless. I respect their work.
Seventh (-) Would you expect that after taking time to write comments on a hotel’s feedback form, placing it in their pre-addressed (to the General Manager) envelope, paying the postage, and waiting two weeks, I would have received an acknowledgement? Not from the Helmsley Park Lane. I found the form in the desk drawer. It wasn’t shoved in my face at check-out with “Thanks!!” and a smiley face added. It looked like hotel stationery, as classy as a feedback survey can be; and I suspect it will never be acknowledged.
The Helmsley Park Lane Hotel can excel. It’s not a new, boutique hotel. It’s an old, NYC hotel. Stay there. Just like the city itself, if you can ignore the things that don’t work and can connect with the talented people you find working there, it can be wonderful.
Just four nights spent in New York City in January and I once again feel connected to the crazy city. I had expected to rekindle a fondness for the place where I’d spent four years in the 70s. But I’m really loving it more than ever. I’m crazy about the remodeled American Wing at the Met. I’m walking the lower East side ignoring the undulating sidewalks that make walking nearly impossible, just like in the 70s when NYC was falling apart. It’s not exactly like the old days for me. It’s cloudy. I get north and south confused in Soho and walk a couple blocks east when I meant to go west. The city is under construction more than I remember. I don’t recall ever ducking under so much scaffolding. Some things are cleaned up. There’s almost none of the plywood I remember on buildings in Soho. Glass storefronts are back, neatly painted other than black, with new doors and polished handles.
When I return home, I’m reading about taxis and fashion week. I’m interested. I’m looking at photos, trying to identify street corners. I’m reading restaurant reviews, comparing reactions to mine or, if I don’t know them, planning a visit, just like I really lived there.
We ought to be amazed that the city manages to work at all. We read headlines when things go wrong — blackouts, hurricanes, blizzards. Things are constantly going wrong. I have some sympathy for New York’s almost daily traumas. Certainly, Montana or Colorado have blizzards all the time. California has worse floods and mudslides. New Orleans and Florida suffer hurricanes. New York City, however, seems to get disasters, plagues and pestilences randomly thrown at it. New York City gets all these, plus suicidal terrorist airplanes, blackouts, and more. On any given day, anything can happen, and it does. Like the Helmsley, NYC is for the strong.