Small towns across the world like Montauk are becoming luxury destinations. Hoteliers building luxury experiences within them face a handful of challenges to balance the local community and original allure with high-end service and amenities. It will be interesting to watch how these brands and locations evolve as tourism continues to boom.
Montauk started out as a small fishing village on the East End of Long Island, in New York’s Suffolk County, a two-to-three hour drive from Manhattan. But it has evolved into one of the most sought-after destinations in the northeastern United States — with a reputation that extends far beyond its humble beginnings.
When it comes to a destination’s evolution from cool to something more luxurious, the question becomes how to maintain its original allure while providing the rooms, dining, and service expected by a higher-end clientele.
Is being a magical place — not to mention stylish and hip — enough, or do the amenities have to match Manhattan standards for Montauk to make it as a year-long luxury destination? What is considered luxury in a destination once known more for being a laid-back and relaxed surfer’s haven rather than a posh enclave? How do you manage the crowds while maintaining a sense of calm?
Expansion by an Insider
Few are confronting this conundrum head-on quite like George Filopoulos, owner and president of Metrovest Equities, which bought the controlling interest in Gurney’s Montauk Resort & Seawater Spa with his partner in 2013.
Its second Montauk property is a takeover and redesign of the Montauk Yacht Club. At least one previous member remarked during the opening weekend that it had grown tired and outdated in the changing landscape of the East End.
Filopoulos is designing spaces that include all the necessities of a luxury property — rooms with sea views, restaurants whose reputations and waitlists exceed their menus, seawater spas, green grounds, and thousands of square feet of indoor and outdoor space for weddings and events.
Filopoulos was a veteran vacationer in Montauk before purchasing its first storied property, and he understood the nuances of doing business in a small town that swelled during the season. Faced with the same challenges as the likes of hospitality leaders in other U.S. beach villages and Mexico’s Tulum, Filopoulos focused on community engagement from the start.
“I’ve got to see [the evolution] firsthand, and it’s really interesting,” Filopoulos told Skift.
Integrating Community Businesses
He recognized that integrating local brands, uplifting local business, and providing a platform to further engagement with sister businesses were a critical element to keeping the Gurney’s brand welcome and celebrated throughout its expansion.
Gurney’s Star Island Resort & Marina’s four restaurants and bars are led by Hamptons native and chef Jeremy Blutstein who built the menus around the local and seasonal produce from land and sea.
Seafood is caught daily by local fishermen and delivered directly to the docks at Gurney’s Star Island — a surprisingly rarity in this fishing town — and most produce is sourced from farms located within 20 miles of the property. This focus on sustainability and localism creates a positive feedback loop with the surrounding community despite drawing visitors from far beyond Long Island.
“The concept was conceived when thinking about how few fish restaurants remain in Montauk,” said Filopoulos.
“It’s hard to say without cracking up a little bit, but there’s been a lot of interesting places opening up over the last 10 years, and most of them are offshoots of a place that doesn’t really have any beach or any water around it. We started to look at that and say, ‘Well, that doesn’t make sense. Why don’t we go and do something that’s focused on bringing the freshest approach to that?'”
Gurney’s Montauk properties also partner with other brands that have a local presence to offer morning workouts, wellness events, and retail pop-ups.
“One of the first things we did prior to even starting work at Gurney’s was reach out to brands that we thought hit the same demographic as Gurney’s to come in and use this amazing setting. Wellness brings guests out, and we’ve had great success through partnerships. You’re doing it where your whole demographic is residing for that time period, and you get the opportunity to co-market together. It has to just feel right and, when it does, it works really well,” said Filopoulos.
Gurney’s properties stand out in Montauk not only for their size — with over 100 rooms each — but for creating a complete luxury experience from design to dining in a single location.
The hotels continue to see a rise in new guests as well as more visits from repeat customers. There are more guests coming from beyond the Northeast with a marked rise in Europeans and more people using the hotel as a seasonal rental rather than renting a home. Luxury amenities and the ability to book shorter repeats stays throughout the summer are part of the draw.
Gurney’s beachfront location hits close to 70 percent occupancy throughout the year, with more than 90 percent occupancy in June through September and 50 percent occupancy even in January. Weddings and corporate events drive business in shoulder months and the off-season.
A Refresh for Evolving Clientele
Gurney’s is not the only hotel brand reestablishing itself for the evolving clientele headed to the East End.
Other veteran luxury hotels in the Hamptons have also renovated for the increasingly younger and wealthier customer base. The Maidstone Hotel in East Hampton completed a renovation in May 2017. With 19 rooms, the renovation focused on a fresher design and more environmentally sustainable infrastructure.
Topping Rose House in Bridgehampton was originally built in 1843 and recently renovated with rates often going for around $2,000 per night.
“The Hamptons are a collection of beachside villages with a lot of history but a very seasonal crowd. As a result, luxury has been reserved for the extremely wealthy with their second homes out here. We are starting to see a shift where less-monied travelers can still enjoy the beautiful landscape,” said Joseph Montag, general manager at the property.
“New renovations such as ours have put all the details into place regarding a luxury experience. We certainly strive to have luxury service in terms of the personable nature with which we welcome guests.
“We see a wider and wider range of profile for our guests. Guests continue to get younger as wealth is developed at a younger age and travel is certainly trendy for those under 45, however, we have a lot of families with children that come out for the summer as well as more established annual guests.”
Surge in Vacationers
Montag expects that visitation will continue to boom in the next five to 10 years, with more people taking advantage of the ability to work remotely while on vacation. Although this has already impacted development in cities, he believes its impact on the economy in smaller destinations such as the Hamptons will skyrocket over the next decade.
These are clear examples of a historic villages transforming as their popularity booms, but there are always locals looking to maintain the status quo. There are numerous groups throughout the East End that work hard to ensure the impact of new properties do not overburden the fragile environment or price out long-term residents. In addition to hotels, the rise in second homes and Airbnb rentals put pressure on the local infrastructure and economy.
In an almost comical piece, council members and leaders of groups such as the Concerned Citizens of Montauk fought to preserve the cleanliness of their waters impacted by overburdened septic systems — a clear example of how the increasing popularity of the destination put the environment at risk.
What’s happening in Montauk and the Hamptons is nothing new, but the hoteliers building their brands based on the humble values of a fishing community with the backing of newly monied Manhattanites will continue to juggle the demands of all parties for the future.
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Photo credit: The new Gurney’s Star Island Resort and Marina took over the Montauk Yacht Club in the latest of the small town's transformation to cater to its increasingly high-spending visitors. Gurney’s Star Island Resort and Marina