Getting a bigger bite of the Big Apple

The US is back on the radar for Middle East travellers and New York is a must-see. But agents should advise their clients to book ahead to avoid disappointment because availability in the city that never sleeps is tight.

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By  Gemma Greenwood Published  December 3, 2006

|~|Skyline-large.gif|~||~|In the wake of the 9/11 terrorism attacks in 2001, outbound travel from the Middle East to the US, which had enjoyed a boom during the 1990s, plummeted to zero. Not only were many travellers reluctant to visit a country that had been a terrorism target, but the fact that the terrorists involved in the attacks allegedly hailed from the Middle East, meant the region’s travelling community felt unwelcome in the US and instead, opted for holiday and business meetings closer to home. However, the US has long been a popular destination for Arab nationals either holidaying, on government and diplomatic missions, or on business trips, and despite strict visa entry requirements to the country, they have slowly but surely returned to country. Top hotspots for the Middle East traveller are New York and Washington DC, which also provide gateways to other popular destinations, particularly Florida – a favourite with GCC families – and the West Coast. US investment in the Middle East has also picked up since 2001 and an increasing number of US ex-pats are residing in the GCC in particular, have also contributed to the rising demand for flights to the US. In response to a resurgence of interest in the US, the region’s fastest growing carriers – namely Emirates Airline, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways – are investing in this market in a big way. In October, Emirates, which already operated double dailies from Dubai to New York, added a third daily service, but via Hamburg, and Etihad introduced its first daily direct Abu Dhabi-New York service. Kirk Allbrow, regional GM, Europe & Americas for Etihad Airways, says from launch (October 26), the service achieved 60% load factors, and that forward bookings for December and early January indicated load factors of 70% or more. “We have been very well received; there are wholesalers and consolidators that are desperate for our business,” he says. And the service is not only popular with the local market – many customers from the Indian SubContinent and Pakistan are travelling to the US via Abu Dhabi, Allbrow adds. Keen to have a slice of the US action, Qatar Airways announced at World Travel Market in London last month that it too would fly to New York from its Doha hub from next summer. European carriers such as British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, Lufthansa and Air France are also promoting their frequent New York services from their respective hubs, with the former two operating their Dubai-London services at times that coincide with London-New York connecting flights. “Passengers travelling from the Middle East on BA flights and transiting Heathrow en route to New York are subject to no more than a 90-minute wait in transit, but some passengers will be in the air again in under an hour,” explains Paul Starrs, the recently appointed area commercial manager, Middle East & Pakistan, for BA. He says although the increase in competition on routes between the Middle East and New York has impacted BA’s NYC business, many customers prefer to stopover in London on their way to the city. “For these passengers, the frequency of our flights from London mean all-day options and they can really put their travel plans in their own hands by choosing the exact flight departing London and landing time in New York.” No US carriers currently fly between the Middle East and New York to date, although United Airlines recently introduced a direct three times weekly service between Kuwait and Washington DC. The good news for any traveller flying between the Middle East and New York is that many of the carriers showcase their newest aircraft featuring the latest in-flight technology and cabin upgrades, on this route. “Guests flying between Abu Dhabi and New York will experience the very best Etihad in-flight product [on the long range Airbus A340-500],” explains James Hogan, the carrier’s recently appointed CEO. “This includes our award-winning business bed in Pearl zone and the revolutionary Diamond zone seat, which rotates in a 180 degree circle, enabling guests to dine with one another.” Both Virgin Atlantic and BA have recently upgraded their premium economy and Club World (business class) cabins on aircraft serving New York. New premium economy features include a new S-shape ergonomic 21-inch wide ergonomic seat with a 38-inch seat pitch and BA’s new Club World ‘z’ bed is six feet long, fully flat and 25% wider at 25.5 inches. Qatar Airways will operate its new A340-600 aircraft on its forthcoming New York route. The four-engine aircraft is the world’s longest passenger jet and features eight first class, 42 business class, and 216 economy seats.||**||Warning: book ahead|~|Steamy-large.gif|~|The NYC & Company’s Open Book Campaign offers special hotel deals in Jan and Feb.|~|With more flights opening up from the Middle East to New York and many of the airlines offering holiday packages to the city, the surging demand has placed extra pressure on New York’s hotels and serviced apartments, which are already jam-packed almost year-round. Tour operators are therefore advised to secure allocations as far in advance as possible, and the challenge for travel agents is to persuade their clients to book early to avoid disappointment. They should also be warned that hotel rooms are far from cheap. “A lot of people get the shock of their life when they hear about room rates in New York,” says Marco Heinrich, destination development manager, Europe and North America, for Emirates Holidays. “The problem with New York is availability. Of the 35 million visitors to New York annually, 30 million are domestic, so the international market is relatively small. It can be difficult to grow this business, because there is no point in taking more bookings if you can’t secure more rooms.” Lisa Mortman, vice president communications, NYC & Company, New York’s convention and visitors’ bureau, says the city is keen to “welcome more visitors from around the world”. “We want our partners to sell our destination and we are doing what we can to deal with the availability issue.” She has put her money where her mouth is by launching the NYC Open Book Campaign (OBC) at last month’s World Travel Market (WTM). “The OBC is a series of dates when hotel availability is a little bit more plentiful,” she explains. “Dates which are a relative rest period for our hotels are January, February and July.” OBC features hotel deals and discounts on admission to many of New York’s main attractions. Travel agents requiring further information should visit www.nycvisit.com. Deals include buy two nights, get one night free, at selected luxury hotels, throughout January and February. Mortman also urges agents to visit the web site to view itinerary ideas and general information on what the city has to offer. “There are sections for first-time visitors and special itineraries for people travelling with kids, covering the full range of accommodation, from budget to luxury,” she says.||**||Hot hotels|~|Cabs.gif|~||~|Although New York, particularly Manhattan is jam-packed with back-to-back high rises making it difficult to build new properties to keep pace with demand, the city is expecting to add approximately 13,000 new or renovated hotel rooms to its inventory by 2010. New York’s first aloft hotel property is scheduled for a mid-2008 opening in downtown Brooklyn. The full service hotel will be paired with a new Sheraton Hotel and the properties combined will offer 500 rooms, meeting space and a host of upscale amenities. Another Brooklyn property, the 93-room Smith Hotel will open in April adding 50 luxury residential condomuniums to the market. Other new-builds on the horizon include The Duane Street Hotel, part of the Luxe Hotels Group, set to open in TriBeCa, while InterContinental recently revealed it would introduce its Indigo brand to Manhattan’s Chelsea neighbourhood. Also scheduled to open next year are the Hotel Mela in Times Square, 6 Columbus Circle on the Upper West Side, The Standard in the trendy Meatpacking District and The Plaza Hotel, located in Midtown East. But for now, firm favourites with the Middle East market include The Ritz-Carlton New York Central Park, The Westin New York at Times Square and the St Regis New York. Good mid-price options include The Roosevelt Hotel and Wellington Hotel. But perhaps the most famous New York property in the minds of Arab nationals ‘in the know’ is The Waldorf Astoria, on Park Avenue, operated by Hilton International. “The main component of our Middle East business is associated with diplomatic circles,” says Matt Zolbe, the landmark property’s director of marketing. “All the hotels in the luxury market do well with the entertainment business, but on the diplomatic front, we get more than our fare share.” The Waldorf Astoria, which has long been deemed one of New York’s prime Art Deco icons, prides itself on its “ability to provide total discretion privacy” for high-profile guests, says Zolbe. This principle is also strictly adhered to at the hotel’s sister property, Waldorf Towers, a luxury boutique hotel offering spacious guest rooms and suites with a residential ambiance. “Some hotels are ok with the paparazzi outside their properties; they like the publicity, but we try to avoid that. We have an underground drive-through to provide a totally secure and private entrance,” he explains. Additional features include key card access elevator for extra security. The Waldorf properties have employed an Arabic speaking sales manager of Middle East descent who understands the market and ensures the needs of Middle East guests are well catered too, providing everything from prayer mats and Arabic newspapers to chauffeur-driven services. The Waldorf properties are just two of the Hilton International group’s 12 New York City properties. Others include Doubletree Guest Suites Times Square, Embassy Suites Hotel, Hilton Times Square and the Millennium Hilton.||**|||~|Times-Square.gif|~||~|The Hilton New York, located on Sixth Avenue and 53rd Street is worth a mention, due to its close proximity to several key attractions; the Rockerfeller Centre, the Art Deco Radio City music hall, the theatre district, and several of the key midtown shopping streets, including Fifth Avenue. The property boasts more than 2000 rooms, including 50 suites and several adjoining room possibilities, according to Lisa Maggiore, director of business travel and international sales, Hiltons of New York City. “We also have 50 different meeting rooms, three huge ballrooms, one of which is 25,000 square feet, one of the largest in New York, so there are plenty of opportunities for groups,” she says. Maggiore says although availability is tight in New York, Hilton will do its best to make guests are found alternative accommodation if their first choice is not available. “Our reservations staff are trained to ensure the guest will stay with one of the properties in the Hilton family and to upsell when appropriate. For example, if they cannot book a standard room in the Waldorf, we offer a suite at one of our other hotels,” she says. Her tip to travel agents selling New York is to ensure they select a hotel in the right location. “Downtown means Lower Manhattan and the business district, but most of the attractions are situated in midtown,” she explains. She directs agents to www.hiltonfamilynewyork.com where hotel locations are detailed. A midtown favourite with the Middle East is the St Regis New York, located on Fifth Avenue and 55th Street, which is featured in Emirates Holidays’ World of Choice brochure. The historic 1904 Beaux Arts landmark, is close to several key retail stores, including Bergdorf Goodman, Henri Bendel, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Tiffany & Co, not far from Central Park, and, according to Julian Alden, director of international sales, has been catering to the requirements of the Arab market “for many years”. “We have huge suites, 24-hour butler service, Arabic speaking staff, and all the services our Arab guests require,” he explains. Middle East guests represent a “small but important percentage of total business”, he adds. “Their peak travel time is our off peak, so it works very well.” Standout features at the St Regis include the Louis XVI-style furniture, marble baths, crystal chandeliers suspended from high ceilings and silk wall hangings. Rooms have recently been refurbished and upgraded to include the TV and internet technology. Emirates Holidays’ Heinrich emphasises that midtown properties are the ideal choice, but says clients can save money by staying downtown – at The Ritz-Carlton New York Battery Park, for example. And for something quirky, offer the four-star Le Parker Meridien New York, near Central Park. “It’s got a classic greasy hamburger joint in the lobby. The burgers are fantastic!” he says.||**||Everyone wants a bite|~|Statute-of-Liberty.gif|~||~|According to Heinrich, Emirates Holidays has witnessed a 25% increase in bookings to New York, from April to October 2006, compared to the same period last year. “I think this trend will continue. New York is a place everyone wants to go to at least once in their lifetime, and even though it’s a long haul destination, it doesn’t seem to put people off,” he says. “New York also seems to be more accepted as a year-round destination because the attraction of the city is so huge.” ||**||THE SALES PITCH|~||~||~|GETTING THERE: Air France: Amman-Paris, daily; Beirut-Paris, 21 flights weekly; Cairo-Paris, nine flights weekly; Damascus-Paris, four flights per week; Dubai-Paris, 12 flights weekly; Jeddah-Paris, four flights weekly; Riyadh-Paris, six flights weekly; Tehran-Paris, four flights weekly. Paris-JFK, 35 flights weekly; Paris-Newark, daily. British Airways: Muscat-Abu Dhabi-London Heathrow (LHR), daily; Dubai-LHR, 17 weekly; Qatar-Bahrain-LHR, daily; Kuwait-LHR, daily; LHR-New York, seven daily to JFK and three flights daily to Newark. Etihad: Abu-Dhabi-New York, daily. Emirates: Dubai-New York, twice daily; Dubai-Hamburg-New York, daily. Lufthansa: Abu Dhabi-Frankfurt, daily (four direct and three via Kuwait); Amman-Frankfurt, daily; Bahrain-, Dammam-, and Riyadh-Frankfurt, three weekly; Doha-Frankfurt, 10 weekly; Cairo-Frankfurt, double daily; Beirut-Frankfurt, six weekly; Muscat-Frankfurt, four weekly; Tehran-Frankfurt, daily. Frankfurt-New York, 14 to JFK weekly and 14 to Newark weekly. Qatar Airways: Doha-New York from next summer. Frequency and date tbc. Virgin Atlantic: Dubai-LHR, daily; LHR-New York, six daily. VISA REQUIREMENTS: Visit www.state.gov for information and visa application forms. CURRENCY: US $1 = AED 3.67; BHD 0.38; EGP 5.72; IRR 9232; IQD 1464; JOD 0.71; KWD 0.29; LBP 1512; OMR 0.38; QAR 3.64; SAR 3.75; TRY 1.45. Currency conversions calculated at time of press. GETTING AROUND: Infamous yellow taxis are plentiful and ideal for getting from the airport to the hotel, and also around town. However, there are several airport transfer services available for clients that like to book in advance. Try Airlink New York’s door-to-door service between Manhattan and JFK, LaGuardia and Newark airports. Group and corporate bookings and travel trade accounts are welcome, while online booking is available and voucher programmes can be arranged. A range of vehicles, from private vans and motorcoaches to limousines are available. See www.airlinknyc.com. New York is also a great city to explore on foot, combined with cheap travel on the extensive subway system. SIGHTSEEING TOURS AND THEATRE TICKETS: New York tours by planes and helicopters, riverboat, or bus are all popular. Try CitySights NY for bus tours (www.citysightsny.com); New York City Helicopter Tours (www.heliny.com); or why not book your clients on a double-decker bus painted in the colours of New York cab (see Big Taxi Tours at www.bigtaxitours.com). Broadway shows are big business in New York, and current stage hits include kids favourites such as Beauty and the Beast, Mary Poppins and The Lion King, as well as the timeless classics Chicago, Hairspray and Chorus Line. Visit www.broadway.com, which can cater to individual and group bookings. Each supplier listed is travel agent-friendly. SHOPPING: New York is famous for its shopping opportunities, boasting a bevy of stores, from budget to luxury, too numerous to mention. However, Marco Heinrich at Emirates Holidays notes that there are two distinct shopping areas: the world-famous mainstream and top-end department stores and designer outlets midtown, centered on Fifth Avenue, and the boutique fashion, specialty food and quirky independent stores in Greenwich Village and the Meatpacking district, downtown. Macy’s department store, which operates more than 400 stores US-wide, including a flagship on 151 West 34th Street, offers a savings card to international travellers, which entitles them to an 11% discount on most products. Travel agents, tour operators and MICE organisers can obtain these in advance by emailing joan.wolff@macys.com. Also see www.macys.com. PACKAGES: Etihad Holidays: the lead-in price for a seven-day fly-drive package is AED 3895 ($1060) per person. A five-night break at the Hotel Edisson is priced AED 4995 ($) per person, including return coral zone flights, and five nights at the Thirty Thirty Hotel in central New York City is priced from AED 6120 ($1666) per person. Emirates Holidays: lead-in prices for a four-night package at the two-star Wellington Hotel (standard room) including return economy airfares from Dubai, is AED 5350 ($1457) per person based on twin share. The price is on a room-only basis, but includes room tax and service charges. A luxury four-night package at the five-star Ritz Carlton Central Park (in a superior room) is priced from AED 22,400 ($6099) per person based on twin share. The price includes return business class airfare, room tax and services charges. Rates quoted are valid until December 31 and exclude airport departure tax, fuel surcharge and development and distribution levy. Hilton New York: rates range from $229 to $449 per night, plus VAT. St Regis New York: rack rates start from $895 in high season. NYC & Company deals: see www.nycvisit.com for deals on luxury hotels in January and February and discounts on many of New York’s major attractions.||**||

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