Millennials’ last-minute staycations keep this boutique NYC hotel alive

New York is back, but the tourists are gone. See what one hotel in the heart of Little Italy is doing to stay afloat

By ELENA POPINA / Pic BLOOMBERG

It may seem hopeless, but the area is going to go back up, Humphries says

IN THE lobby of the NobleDEN, a family-owned inn in the heart of Manhattan’s Little Italy, one will find the standard Covid-era decor: The blue social-distancing circles, the plexiglass, the hand-sanitiser dispensers.

But there are also mandatory temperature scans for guests at check-in — several have been turned away — and for employees every time they enter the building, and there’s a station for people to clean the soles and the uppers of their shoes with a fancy disinfectant that smells like a Cosmo, the cranberry and lime juice-based cocktail.

Some of these more aggressive measures perhaps speak to the attention to detail and passion that the GM, Morgan Humphries, brings to the job. At some level, though, they also reflect how deeply New York City (NYC) was devastated by the coronavirus, how scarring the pandemic has been for many of its residents and how high the anxiety still runs here. With almost 211,000 cases and more than 20,000 confirmed and probable deaths, no city has suffered more.

“I can’t take the risk,” Humphries says. “My employees are already shaken.”

Since NobleDEN reopened on June 1 following a two-and-a-half-month hiatus, the hotel has refused entry to guests at least three times, including a mother and child, because of mild fevers. (Its Celsius thermometers flash yellow when anyone’s temperature is above 37.4oC, and the staff cross-references with a Fahrenheit scale to double-check.)

And as cases have surged in places such as Texas, Florida and Arizona recently, and Governor Andrew Cuomo has ordered 14-day quarantines for visitors arriving from those states, Humphries has become even more vigilant. Guests from hot spots will be informed that they’ll receive refunds for their reservations and an apology from the hotel for turning them away.

As for the rooms, they’re aired out for at least 24 hours. Cleaning is a multi-step process that involves soap, Lysol, rubbing alcohol and an electrostatic disinfectant sprayer. Toilet paper in the bathroom and a box of Kleenex tissues in the bedroom are left unopened. The hotel’s symbol, a brown-and-white stuffed monkey, sits atop each bed, wrapped in cellophane — a customary touch since NobleDEN’s early days.

In the common area, only one person is allowed at a time. Pastries from Ferrara across the street are individually wrapped. Elevators are limited to one guest or group. For those who prefer the stairs, there’s one set for going up, another for going down.

“That’s how the guests know it’s clean,” Humphries says. He wears a blue-and-white mask that says “Made in NYC” and “Junny” — the name of a friend who made it.

The city is finally getting back on its feet. But it’s been slow going for NobleDEN. Roughly three-quarters of its 54 rooms have remained empty. The make-up of the few overnight visitors to this once bustling tourist district has changed, too.

A stuffed monkey wrapped in cellophane, a bag of masks for guests, tape-blocked benches and signs reminding customers to wear masks are put in place at NobleDEN

Gone are the couples and the business travellers. Now, it’s largely groups of millennials who come for staycations and often book just a few hours in advance.

Humphries admits they’re a bit messier than his usual guests. Of course, there’s a logistical reason behind that: Before outdoor dining started, they couldn’t go out for dinner and had to bring back all their takeout. But the bigger reason, he suspects, is psychological. After months of being cooped up under the same roof with family, they’re desperate to get away and let loose with friends.

NobleDEN’s plight reflects the struggles of the hospitality industry across NYC, where hotels have been among the hardest hit. Occupancy rates plunged to 15% in late March, according to hotel data provider STR. While they’ve recovered to mid-40% levels since early May, occupancy rates have inched lower every week this month.

This time last year, the city’s hotels were about 90% full.

“I don’t know if anyone is going to say, ‘Honey, let’s go to New York for Labour Day,’” Humphries says. “I don’t know if, and when, people are going to come back.”

When a guest asks him for the closest mini-mart, he answers right away: Taasha Deli, the bodega on Broom Street that he’s been recommending for years. “Go around

the corner, turn right, go one block, turn left and go one more block. It should be on the other side…Wait, Google says they’ve permanently closed.” The bodega was still open in early March.

Turns out, that’s a mistake. Humphries calls later only to find the bodega has reopened, just with slightly limited hours.

“It may seem hopeless, but the area is going to go back up,” Humphries says. “Nobody said it will be an easy process, but you do your best and focus on one step at a time.” — Bloomberg