What is Downtown? Is it a location or a state of mind? The new W New York – Downtown hotel is located so far downtown that if it went any farther south it would be swimming with Luca Brasi. Out of the ashes of tragedy, a new downtown is being born. It isn’t the old Financial District that’s being reconstructed, but a new vision, a new idea, a new city. As glass and steel is welded and manipulated into place, the W is focusing its energies on the soul of the area. For many, the area still brings back hard memories, but going there is also an opportunity to honor courage, and strength, and the reasons we all live here. The new downtown is all about residences and nightlife and amenities that just a few years ago were not available without going at least a good mile north. I used to live in Tribeca, just north of this developing district, but far enough south not to find what we are used to finding. Getting an OJ at midnight was an ordeal. Laundry, restaurants, and fun was a trip to another hood. The new downtown has almost all the services you would ever need, and every day what’s missing is being addressed. It’s becoming a self sufficient little burg. It feels like another city, until you walk into the W. Then it feels like home. I caught up with the grand dame of the WNYDH, the lovely Sofia Vandaele, and asked her what it’s all about.
You are the general manager of the W Hotel on Albany St. It’s W New York Downtown and our official address is 123 Washington St. We’re on the corner of Albany, just a block south of the World Trade Center perimeter, and two blocks away from Wall St.
I just got a tour of the hotel, and it’s spectacular. And I’m not just saying that—I think it’s absolutely beautiful. This area is booming now. The old is being washed away and the new is going up. How does the W Downtown, the WNYDT, intend to embrace this neighborhood? What are you trying to do here? Well, when you look at the neighborhood, the first feeling you have is a sense of energy, and we’re a part of it. There’s a lot of regeneration, a lot of revitalization happening in this area, and not just with new buildings and construction. I think it follows you in every aspect of life here. Whether you come to work, whether you come to live here, it’s the fastest growing residential community in greater New York. It’s a community for us, as a hotel, to reach out to.
For people looking for an apartment in New York, something I’m doing right now, this area has always been an area where you can find good rent, because there’s been nothing here. In the past, you couldn’t get groceries, you couldn’t get this, you couldn’t do that. There was nothing here, but that’s changing rapidly. Massively. You almost sense that people really come here to live in New York. You get an area where people live and work that has a fantastic Whole Foods close by, that has a phenomenal Bed Bath and Beyond, great restaurants in the Battery Park City area. Stone St. is going through a revival, South Street Seaport, and everything in between. Plus the area is accessible from anywhere in Manhattan, and it’s also accessible to niche areas, Governor’s Island, for example.
And there’s a waterfront. Are you basically servicing the guests in the hotel with your food and beverage strategy, or are you hoping that the neighborhood will feed you as well? Do you expect people from the traditional downtown, or other parts of Manhattan, to travel here? All of the above. With the 58 floors we’ve built here, WNYDT is a hotel, but it’s also 223 residential units. It’s really about being part of a residential community. Our BLT Bar and Grill is a 24/7 experience, because the person that works down here will come with a colleague for a drink. Then they might go for dinner at BLT Bar and Grill, or invite friends over for after-dinner. On the weekend they come back with the family.
This neighborhood is expanding. As I look out this window, the Deutsche Bank building is being taken down two floors a week. The neighborhood is growing exponentially. Can the hotel grow? Is there a roof? There are different parts of the hotel that will definitely be activated. Our key element is on the 5th floor. Our Living Room bar and terrace has no equal downtown. We will definitely tap into our connections to get the best possible drinks on the menu. We’ve worked with celebrity mixologist Charlotte Voce. She’s put a fantastic cocktail menu together. We have the outdoor space, a complete wraparound terrace on the 5th floor bar that really nobody else has. But at the same time, BLT Bar and Grill is our culinary provider throughout the whole building, and next summer they’ll have an outdoor space on our public piazza in the back on the hotel. We have our own DJ booth. We have a music director
Who’s your music director Michaelangelo L’Acqua
He’s an old friend of mine, he’s part of my family. So Ma, as he is known.
New York City is the only major city I can think of that has a waterfront but rarely uses it. You’re downtown, you’ve got Battery Park, you have these new developing spaces, Battery Park and Riverside Terrace. Do you believe that the water can be developed into a major attraction? We’re really at the tip of Manhattan. We’re surrounded by water, and I think that flux of energy in itself is felt. Whether you arrive from Brooklyn via water taxi, or you come around the tip of Manhattan, or you come to the World Financial Center, you have a little harbor here.
SV:Hotels are increasingly being driven by hospitality. Most hotels are being hospitality retro-fitted. You built this hotel around hospitality. How important is hospitality to a hotel? It’s the core. What’s so unique about the positioning of W is that we build everything around the core of our “Whatever, whenever” service. We strive for that passion, that personality within our people that will consistently deliver that “whatever whenever” service. It’s in small little things. We had such an amazing experience this week. There was a young boy here who just had surgery, wasn’t feeling well, and our doorman, Richie, took it upon himself to actually build a rapport. He said to managers, “I really want to do something for this kid.”
What did he want? Charleston Chews. The candy. Oh, they’re amazing—don’t have them, or else you won’t stop. So you know, the kid said, “That’s my favorite candy.” So we got them and sent him a note with the sweets that said “From your buddy Richie. That’s whatever, whenever. You go that extra mile. It’s the core hospitality spirit. It’s small things, sweet simple things, or it’s big wow experiences. You can book a chopper or a helicopter to go to your house in the Hamptons. We’ll get it arranged for you
You people know where to get Charleston Chews in this town? We actually found them in a small deli close by.
Are hotels the future of New York nightlife? I think they have been for a while, and I think they will continue to be an important part of the nightlife. We don’t just offer the bar or club experience. You can come and have a fantastic dining experience. You can have great drinks, but you also have the music, you have fashion. It’s much more about the 360 degree experience.
You’ve got the Ace Hotel, you’ve got the Standard hotel, you’ve got the Gansevoort Hotel, and of course Ian Schrager. Gotta give Ian credit for starting the boutique hotel. That’s what people say, anyway. How did the industry change after this? W brand is evolving. What did you borrow, steal, learn from the experiences of these other NY brands that have broken so well. The Standard, in particular, had a way of regenerating the Meatpacking District. We really feel the W has led the pack of these lifestyle hotels for 12 years already. When W Union Square came to that area, it added something, and we really feel that WNYDT, as a hotel, will be the catalyst to assist people like the downtown alliance and other partners that are so critical to the success of downtown. We will definitely be a catalyst to help them succeed in putting downtown, as a destination, on the map.
How did a nice girl like you come to this? Well, for me hospitality, literally, comes from within, it comes from the heart. It’s something that I grew up with. My mom and dad they were in hospitality industry In Belgium. It’s something that I have always embraced as a passion. I’ve been with Starwood for close to 15 years. When I started in hotel operations, it was like a tailor-made jacket. And then I got an opportunity here in NY, so it was a designer jacket that I got to put on. It’s an amazing brand to be with.
You’re a busy gal. Where do you go out and play? I live near Nolita, so my neck is definitely East Village, LES, Nolita. I love Madame Geneva, I think it’s a great. It’s the back of Double Crown. Everybody knows double crown! I’m Belgian, so I love steak frites, which is my national dish, and I go to Lucien for that, which is on 1st and 1st. Lucien is great, and the Pink Pony is obviously another one.