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Armed with a $30 million marketing push, New York City is getting back on its feet. But for one hotel general manager it’s a time of reflection.

Comparisons tend to be made with the SARS outbreak in Asia, but Gul Turkmenoglu, who works at the InterContinental New York Times Square, likens the peak of the pandemic to the terrorist attacks she experienced in Turkey.

“I opened the Conrad Istanbul, and Turkey used to be volatile,” she said. “We had small terrorist attacks. Every time we had one, all the bookings were cancelled and we’d lose six months of business.”

Gul Turkmenoglu, general manager, InterContinental New York Times Square.

Gul Turkmenoglu, general manager, InterContinental New York Times Square. Picture: LinkedIn

Turkmenoglu, who has more than 30 years’ industry experience, described those attacks as “rollercoasters” during her early years in hospitality, but said she just had to adapt to the conditions.

One lesson learned was to not let go of your senior staff, whatever the circumstances. During the peak of the pandemic, when Times Square was deserted, she knew she’d need her close colleagues to weather the storm and prepare for the recovery. It’s a lesson many organizations will soon learn the hard way — a labor shortage could be outpaced by traveler confidence this summer.

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“Learning from Turkey, I was able to keep my executive team intact,” she said. “We were unbroken and found creative ways to stay together and work together. Now there’s a huge scarcity in the market, but I don’t have any of those problems.”

Open Doors

Working together meant keeping the InterContinental New York Times Square open, at a time when most hotels were closing. Hundreds of doctors and nurses, as opposed to tourists, checked in from other states to assist a city under seige. The hotel was equipped with nearly 70 sanitization stations, and masks were compulsory.

Today, government-related bookings remain healthy, in fact it’s the hotel’s “bread and butter,” as only small meeting requests trickle through, mostly from pharmaceutical companies which are training or preparing for product launches.

Traditional business travelers simply haven’t returned, because offices haven’t opened, and they may not even open until December, according to Turkmenoglu, who joined the hotel in September 2019. However, local New Yorkers are booking the hotel out at weekends for special occasions and a change of scenery.

But being on the frontline, Turkmenoglu remains cautious. Pricing remains sensitive and this InterContinental’s rates are 40 to 50 percent down on pre-pandemic levels. She predicts things will get back to normal slowly, perhaps by April 2022.

Meanwhile, the CEO of anther hotel group is pegging a group booking recovery to the third or fourth quarter next year. “We are starting to see groups come back,” Loews Hotels‘ Jonathan Tisch said in a recent CNBC interview. “We’re starting to see investment banks book a couple of our hotels with big meetings. That is very optimistic.”

And real estate firm CBRE notes that while there are “ubiquitous signs of economic recovery and civic health” in a recent report, occupancy levels may not be restored until 2023, and “visitor counts” not expected until 2025.

The world will now be watching the Big Apple. As well as the record-breaking $30 million marketing campaign, called NYC Reawakens, there’s talk of a travel corridor with the UK which could speed things up even further. New York City mayor Bill de Blasio wants the city to fully reopen on July 1, while the recently signed $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan will funnel nearly $24 billion into New York, according to reports.

The CBRE report also highlights an accelerating immunization campaign that is helping the city accelerate its reopening plans, resulting in busier streets and subways.

“It’s moving much faster,” Turkmenoglu said. Her hotel, and New York City, have now become a litmus test for the wider recovery.

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Photo Credit: The InterContinental New York Times Square remained open for first responders as tourists stayed clear of the city. InterContinental Hotels Group