Monthly Archives: August 2011

NYC’s Casablanca Hotel Is More Than Just A "Hidden Gem"…It’s #1

Casablanca Hotel New York City

I can’t imagine the angst that some travelers go through when searching for a hotel in New York City but it’s safe to assume that there are three basic steps that go into the selection process…hotel/price, location, and reviews (not particularly in that order).

When I travel to New York City I prefer to stay in Times Square.  I love the hustle and bustle of Broadway, catching a musical or play in the Theatre District, and the plethora of dining options that abound.  So for me, location is step #1.

I use for most of my domestic hotel research because I place more trust in a review as provided by a “professional” as compared to other services that allow anyone to write a review.  Reviews are step #2

Believe it or not I am not a hotel snob and I don’t have an allegiance to a particular hotel or hotel brand.  Sure there are some great corporate hotels that I have booked in the past but those decisions were primarily driven because I used rewards points or was invited to be a guest of the hotel.  Hotel/price is step #3.

Ok I know I’m heading to NYC and staying in Times Square but what hotel will I choose?  There are a couple that I am considering but one in particular that I want to zero in on is Casablanca Hotel.

Instead of just booking this hotel I’ve decided to contact Adele Gutman who is part of my LinkedIn network and just so happens to be the VP of Sales & Marketing for HKHotels.

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Adele I’m planning a trip to New York in October and I want to spend a couple of nights in the city.  Tell me about the Casablanca Hotel.

Adele Gutman

The Casablanca Hotel is a very cozy and warm boutique hotel, with a home away from home atmosphere. Similar to our other HKHotels, the center of life at the Casablanca is our clubroom lounge, Rick’s Café. There, our guests can enjoy complimentary refreshments 24/7 including a deluxe continental breakfast in the morning, 3 hour wine and cheese receptions in the evening from 5pm-8pm, and all day coffee, teas, cookies and fruit. We even have a very fancy Cimbali machine which makes self-service cappuccino, latte, and espresso in regular or decaf for our guests. We have a lot of other complimentary amenities, such as free wifi, which ordinary hotels charge extra for. Combined, these can represent a savings of up to $220 per couple per night. Our guests tell us that what’s great for them is that even though we are steps from Times Square, when you enter the hotels doors, it’s as though you have left the country and are transported to a Moroccan hideaway. It’s just 48 rooms so staying with us is a personal experience. We get to know our guests and they get to know us as well.

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During my research I saw that gave the hotel a “Hidden Gems” award and Casablanca ranked #1 out of 432 hotels on TripAdvisor.  That’s pretty remarkable considering the competition in NYC?

Adele Gutman

Don’t stop there! We also won two highly esteemed awards: Travelers’ Choice® 2011 Winner Top 25 | Best Service.  We are unspeakably proud of that!

What we are even more proud of is that all four of our HKHotels have been ranked in the top ten hotels on TripAdvisor for years. Today, 3 out of four of our hotels rank in the top four and one has temporarily slipped to #9, but we are working earnestly to get them all to the top. Years ago, in 2003 or 2004 we set a goal to deliver so much service, value, and hospitality to our guests that they would be wow’d enough to be inspired to tell their friends and write great reviews. Within a couple of years we all ranked in the top ten but it wasn’t until last year in September of 2010 that we took all four top spots. The Casablanca #1, The Library Hotel was #2, The Hotel Elysee was #3 and the Hotel Giraffe was #4. The people at TripAdvisor say there is no other hotel group who has achieved anything like that. It is an ever moving target since they update their list constantly, so being on top is a goal we have to work for every day. Over the years we have developed a way of hiring, training, listening to our guests and refining our services to their needs that has lead us to this level of consistent success.

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Speaking of which, who is your competitive set and what separates your hotel from them?

Adele Gutman

Most of our guests are leisure travelers so they really have the option of staying anywhere in the city that captures their imagination. Our guests might have stayed at big chain hotels before, but because of TripAdvisor, they felt secure about trying an independent hotel. They tend to be travelers who wish to be in the heart of exciting Times Square and the Theater district, but when they get back to the hotel they want a serene oasis, where people know their name and care about them and their experience in NYC. Because of the “HKHotels Signature Style of Hospitality” which includes all day complimentary refreshments, a deluxe continental breakfast each morning, wine and cheese receptions each evening from 5-8pm, free wifi, free bottled water, free passes to the local fitness center and more, no other hotel group is offering the same value that we do. Also, there is so much that is distinctive about the way we run the hotels, starting with the way we select staff and the how we coach them in customer service, we feel we offer a very unique guest experience. We are always on the lookout for new ideas, but we don’t really worry about what any other hotels do. We like to march to the beat of our own drummer.

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So then service, service, service is your mantra?

Adele Gutman

Absolutely! We hire people that naturally enjoy making other people happy, we show them how, empower them to make decisions, and then we stand back and watch with amazement how much creativity, talent, and pride they bring to every guests interaction. The guests respond by sharing their stories with their communities both on and off line. Word of mouth was always the best advertising but that is far truer now thanks to Social Media.

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48 guest rooms in the hotel.  Blessing or curse?

Adele Gutman

Naturally, we would love to have some more rooms because we certainly have the demand to fill them, and it brakes our hearts to say no to travelers who have their heart set on staying with us. But the joy of having 48 rooms is that we have the time to pay attention to each guest, get to know them, understand their needs and provide them with all the support we can to ensure they make the most of their visit to NYC. If that’s the kind of experience you are looking for, I believe you can only find that at a small boutique hotel.

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Describe your “typical” guest?

Adele Gutman

Our typical guests are couples from around the country and around the world who are coming to New York to experience the “excitement Capital of the World”, take in a few Broadway shows, shopping, and all of New York City’s cultural attractions. They want to be located in the thick of all the action, but when they come “home” at night they want a serene oasis with the comforts and conveniences of home. A tremendous number of our guests choose the Casablanca to celebrate their honeymoon, wedding anniversary, or landmark birthday. We always remind our staff that every traveler has chosen us with great care and they have been looking forward to this trip for a long time, perhaps all their lives, and we owe it to them to do all that we can to give each of them an experience that exceeds their expectations. They are unpretentious travelers who are not seeking hipness or opulence; they want quality, value, comfort, and kindness, and that’s where we feel we excel.

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How does the size of your standard guest room stack up against other boutique hotels?

Adele Gutman

Our smallest room is about 225 square feet and our largest is about 275 square feet. I think this is pretty typical for New York City and other large cities where space is at a premium. Our mini suites are about 375 square feet and we take care to call them mini suites because many suites can be larger elsewhere, and we always want to be very transparent about what we are and what we are not. On our website we show photos, floor plans, 360 virtual tours and everything a traveler would need to know in advance exactly what they are booking.

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So my dining options are Rick’s Cafe for breakfast then it’s up to me to find a spot for lunch or dinner correct?  No bar?

Adele Gutman

There is a bar in the hotel, in Tony’s Di Napoli Restaurant which is one floor below Rick’s Cafe. There is a not so “secret doorway” into the bar at Tony’s in the lobby so you don’t need to go out and you can sign the bill to your room. They also provide our room service. Tony’s is a lively, very family friendly place, and when I go out with a big group, particularly with family, we always go to Tony’s because they serve delicious, flavorful food, perfectly prepared, in large platters for sharing and the prices are very modest. But what impresses me the most is how great the staff is. They make you feel happy to be there. A big Italian meal like that is also a classic New York experience and should not be missed.

In Rick’s Café, we actually offer 24-hour a day complimentary refreshments including a 3-hour wine and cheese reception from 5-8pm. Our deluxe continental breakfast buffet includes a lot more than most people expect, including hot oatmeal, hard-boiled eggs, whole wheat toast, assorted croissants, mini-muffins, Danish and scones, bagels with cream cheese, peanut butter, preserves and butter, fresh whole fruit and fruit salad with melon and berries, fresh orange, apple and cranberry juice, assorted cereals, assorted yogurts, and a selection of international coffees and teas. Soy milk and gluten free toast and cereal are available upon request.

Some people may want a hot breakfast during their stay, and they can get an amazing section of options at the Brooklyn Diner next door, or they can order it delivered to be delivered for in room dining if they prefer.

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Do you have any favorite spots for lunch or dinner in the immediate area?

Adele Gutman

For a leisurely lunch if the weather is fine, I love to eat outside at Bryant Park Grill. Most of the time I am just grabbing a quick salad at Chopt or a Falafel at Maoz. You absolutely must try Maoz. It is soooo good, it may convert you into a vegetarian.

For dinner, I love Toloache for Mexican food and  Kellari Taverna for Greek. Garret, our VP of Operations also recommends Becco which is owned by Lidia Bastianich. They are famous for their amazing $25 wine list and “symphony of Pasta”.  If you are a steak lover, however, John, the General Manager at the Casablanca, loves Benjamin Steakhouse.  What I am very excited about is that the Copacabana just re-opened in a new location here in the Times Square area. In my opinion, we just don’t have as many options for dinner and dancing as I would like so this is a welcome addition to the neighborhood.

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I’m flying into La Guardia which is the closest airport to the hotel.  I assume Newark is the farthest then JFK.  What’s the transfer time and approximate cab fare from each?

Adele Gutman

LaGuardia Airport, which is in Queens, is about 8 miles or approximately a 25 -35 minute drive to Manhattan. Taxi fare is $35 – $45 plus tolls and tips.

John F. Kennedy (JFK) airport, which is in Queens, is approximately 15 miles or 45 -60 minutes driving time to Midtown Manhattan. The new flat taxi fare is $45 plus tolls and tips.

Newark International Airport in New Jersey, which is the furthest airport from NYC, is 16 miles or 50-60 minutes –driving time. The fare is approximately $45 – $50 plus tolls. Since it is a trip across state lines, the fare in a yellow cab is the amount on the meter, plus $10. Keep in mind, of course, that unusual levels of traffic can seriously extend these driving time estimates.

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Are there any particular times of the year that a traveler can find a great deal at your hotel?

Adele Gutman

Without a doubt, the most affordable time to come to New York is January, then February, then July and August.  Peak time in NYC is from the day after Labor Day – December 20th. Christmas week and most holidays will have special rates so if you look at our Hot Dates Calendar on the website, it will point you towards the special dates with exceptionally good pricing.

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Anything that I’ve missed that you’d like to mention?

Adele Gutman

Just that we hope to welcome you and your readers to New York soon, whether it’s at the Casablanca, the Library, Hotel Giraffe or Hotel Elysee. Anyone is welcome to contact me at and I would be happy to help them with their arrangements personally.

Tom Costello is the CEO, Partner & Co-Founder of Groups International, a company that provides marketing, consultative services, and technology solutions to the group and leisure travel markets.  Connect with him on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter or contact him by email.

Hotels Delivering Customers To TripAdvisor

Did you ever visit a hotel’s website and see something on their homepage that led you to say to yourself “Self, what the h.ll were they thinking about when they made that decision?”

That’s what happened today while conducting a search for a particular hotel, landed on their homepage, and noticed that little TripAdvisor owl icon displayed prominently between two of the hotel’s calls-to-action.

I clicked on the icon and guess what happened.  Your right, I was immediately transferred from the hotel’s website and delivered to the TripAdvisor page that displayed the hotel’s reviews.  Advantage TripAdvisor.

OK so your saying what’s the big deal!

One, this and every hotel that battles and pays to get prospective customers to their site lost this prospective customer in a matter of less than 10 seconds.  If the hotel spent hard-earned money and their e-Commerce team achieved their goal to get the hotel to rank in the top third of the search return then why risk this sort of “marketing strategy” that sends prospective customers to a competitor’s site?  Advantage TripAdvisor

Two, and this is even more confusing, guess what caught my attention while on the TripAdvisor site?  Your answer doesn’t count because you’ve done this before.  For those of you that haven’t I had the option to book that very same hotel, after I read their stellar reviews, with seven different OTAs.  Yes, Expedia,,, Venere, Priceline, Travelocity, and Orbitz.  Advantage TripAdvisor and OTAs

Now, why would a hotel spend time and money to get me to their site then turn around and send me to a competitor’s site that could potentially cost that very same hotel eight times the transaction cost as compared to a direct booking on the hotel’s website?

Now I’m totally confused!

Tom Costello is the CEO, Partner & Co-Founder of Groups International, a company that provides marketing, consultative services, and technology solutions to the group and leisure travel markets.  Connect with him on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter or contact him by email.

"Fitted Sheet Police" Could Help Raise California's $26 Billion Debt

Ok this is political protectionism to the enth degree.

As if the citizens of California are not already over taxed, the California legislature will be facing a bill that will mandate that hotels eliminate flat sheets and require all hotels to have fitted sheets on hotel beds.

Section 1 of the legislation requires: “The use of a fitted sheet, instead of a flat sheet, as the bottom sheet on all beds within the lodging establishment. For the purpose of this section, a “fitted sheet” means a bed sheet containing elastic or similar material sewn into each of the four corners that allows the sheet to stay in place over the mattress.”

So where does that leave California?  The purpose of the law, according to the bill, is to “adopt an occupational safety and health standard for lodging establishment housekeeping.” The bill explains, “The standard shall apply to all hotels, motels, and other lodging establishments in California.”

While California faces a $26 billion debt, the legislature somehow believes that it is in the best interest of Californians to burden the hotel industry, which is already struggling. The bill is estimated to add anywhere from $15 to $30 million in costs to the hotel industry, as hotels will have to purchase new fitted sheets for the 550,000 hotel beds in the state.

The bill was introduced by (D) State Senator Kevin De Leon. De Leon, whose mother suffered back problems as a hotel maid, said that the bill addresses an issue that is “close to my heart,” as the bill has been prompted by a growing number of housekeeping-related back injuries.

A number of bloggers have mocked the legislation, including those at the Constitution Club, which wrote, “Assuming the bill passes … who is going to enforce it? Mattress police? Fitted-sheet police? Undercover officers posing as hotel maids?”

Perhaps the Constitution Club is on to something. This legislation may give California an opportunity to expand the size of its government a bit further, perhaps creating a department or agency to ensure that the law is enforced. Stranger things have happened in California.

Tom Costello is the CEO, Partner & Co-Founder of Groups International, a company that provides marketing, consultative services, and technology solutions to the group and leisure travel markets.  Connect with him on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook or contact him by email.

Map Of Countries That Currently Have Travel Warnings

Thanks to the Orange County Register for providing this comprehensive map that overviews areas of the world that the US State Department has issued travel warnings.

Mexico still leads the way for countries in North America where it is still extremely dangerous when traveling in and around northern border states.

This is the link to the full report.

Tom Costello is the CEO, Partner & Co-Founder of Groups International, a company that provides marketing, consultative services, and technology solutions to the group and leisure travel markets.  Connect with him on TwitterLinkedIn, and Facebook or contact him by email.

Where Oh Where Are These Hotel Brands In The Top US Sites?

In today’s Tnooz release “Expedia and Priceline stretch lead – Top US travel sites – August 6, 2011” these two brands were sited as to have extended their dominance of US travel websites by securing almost a quarter of all traffic from agency sites.

If I were an agency site I’d be rolling my eyes, again, because this isn’t the first time that these two OTAs have dominated their one/two rankings and won’t be the last.

Now I don’t belittle these giants for what they have achieved but I wonder what it feels like when a Director of e-Commerce or Revenue Manager has to meet with their owners and explain why some of their distribution channels are achieving strategic dominance over the hotel?

That said, in the category of “Destinations and Accommodations” (kind of a confusing combination) only three of 10 were major hotel brands namely Marriott, InterCon and Hilton.  So where were Choice, Wyndham, Best Western, Starwood, Hyatt, and Carlson?

If you click on the link that I’ve provide above, scroll down a bit until you get to the Airlines category.  Do you see any OTAs included as distributors in the list of top sites?

Well then how can these OTAs dominate travel sites and “destinations and accommodations” sites and have no influence in airline distribution?

Tom Costello is the CEO, Partner & Co-Founder of Groups International, a company that provides marketing, consultative services, and technology solutions to the group and leisure travel markets.  Connect with him on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook or contact him by email.