A Trailblazing Hotelier On Why New York's Hospitality Future Is Bright

The opening of the Wythe Hotel, in 2012, was one of the early cultivators behind the rise of modern Brooklyn. Now its owner, Peter Lawrence, is faced with a new challenge: help bring it back.

Williamsburg, Brooklyn, was a very different place when the Wythe Hotel opened its doors nearly a decade ago. Housed inside a historic 1901 cooperage building, the property was an early investor in the industrial neighborhood’s prosperous future. Modern Brooklyn was beginning to take shape, and the arrival of the Wythe solidified it as the next great nexus of culture, creativity, and social buzz.

The Wythe is part of the now-storied lineage of boutique properties that introduced a lifestyle and pop-culture edge into the hotel blueprint, starting with hallowed hospitality names like Ian Schrager and André Balazs, and extending to origins of the Ace Hotel, which eschewed sparkly celebrity clientele for the rising street artist community and the new-frontier cred that came with it. While those visionaries brought scene-making into the hotel space, the Wythe evolved the movement into something bigger: place-making. The decade that followed saw a wave of emulation. Hoteliers looked to defunct urban neighborhoods whose historic architecture and counterculture vibe were fertile grounds for reinvention, as well as unexpected destinations—Nashville, Austin, Portland—whose demographic makeup was begging for a spark.

As we enter what we hope is the final phase of the coronavirus pandemic, that narrative in many ways feels like a distant memory. What will we care about now? The future of travel has been a ubiquitous topic since we started questioning what the “After Times” will look like, which by calculation was nearly one year ago. New York, the epicenter of the country and the world, has been hit harder than anywhere in the United States—a city where a formerly vibrant street life has been replaced by a desolate landscape, boarded-up windows, and lightless high rises.

As New York and the country emerge from a long year of hibernation, Surface checked in with one of the local hospitality industry’s key players to discuss how the pandemic has affected the Wythe, travel after Covid-19, and New York’s prospects for the future.

How have you been managing during the pandemic? 

We’re doing okay. We’re in the business of gathering people and that’s not what should happen right now. I want my guys working and strangers rubbing elbows at the bar, but that’s a bad idea.

You were one of the first hotels to rollout an office offering, a partnership with Industrious that you recently announced will be extended. What’s the response been like? 

When people came the first time around, it was kind of revelatory for them. They were like, ‘Oh my God, I’ve never been so productive; I feel amazing; my mental health is better.’ For people who’ve been stuck in their New York City apartments with roommates or kids or spouses, having a quiet room to get focused was a really big deal. We’re excited to work with Industrious again. They are smart and thoughtful and very careful about their aesthetic. The first time was totally a flier, and it was a great experiment.

Do you think the addition of office-like amenities will be a permanent fixture in the hotel world?

Businesses have been forced to try the work remotely option. There’s been a range of responses to that, but my take is whatever business you’re in, your people need to come together whether it’s six or four times a year, or every two weeks. It creates a whole new level of demand for what is cheesily called corporate off-sites (hopefully they’ll get a better name). There’s a big role for hotels to play in that arena. 

What’s your personal take on remote work?

For people to be energized and inspired, you have to be in the same room.  See their faces. Notice when they get twitchy. Know what makes them happy. We rely on all of our senses for the real magic stuff to happen. I don’t live on Zoom but I have friends who do, and I watch my kids do remote schooling. It’s like everybody’s slowly melting. You can do it for 20 minutes or half an hour, but I have friends whose job is from eight in the morning till eight at night, and their mind is in it, but their heart is not. And the person on the other end, even if they are well-intentioned, is getting 70 percent at best. If those two people are in a room or— shameless plug for hospitality—out at a bar having a beer, then amazing things are gonna happen. 

What do you think travel looks like as vaccinations rise and herd immunity takes hold? I’m surprised by how many articles I read or podcasts I listen to where the view is that people will still be skittish about crowds. I can’t wait to go to a crowded bar or jump on a plane overseas. 

There’s a tsunami of pent-up demand from people who want to sit next to a stranger and share a weird story. Or be in a crowd, whether it’s a concert, restaurant, or even a subway train when it’s packed. Some version of that has to come roaring back. Same but in a different way on the office side. For companies, the culture of the place is becoming more important than the actual widgets. You can make culture on a piece of paper and send it to everybody, but that doesn’t really work.

The Wythe was one of the pioneers of the hotel-as-community-hub concept, which depends on locals as much as travelers. How are you preparing for post-COVID New York given that the city has lost so much in terms of hospitality venues? Do you see it as an opportunity because the competition has gone out of business?  

No, some amazing hotels are gone and the city is worse off for that. And there are layers, right? Great restaurants, bars, bookstores—all of that stuff is gone. The city is worse off for that in every way. So no, the more cool stuff and the more people that are throwing their hearts and souls at something in this town, the better for all of us. 

One of the great things the city did was let us take over the streets [with outdoor dining]. It really changed the nature of how the block feels for the better. That will keep happening next year, which will have a real impact on how the city celebrates the end of COVID. In terms of the hotel, I remain committed to a very old-fashioned version of what a hotel is: it’s the central hub, the inn and the church. It’s the place where the community goes to celebrate, mourn, and have real connections. Through this process, I tried keeping the hotel open in whatever way made sense. The first three months of COVID, we gave away 2,000 room nights to local frontline medical workers, which was just the right thing to do with the building. Forget about anything else—to have the building sit empty while those people were sleeping in their cars would have been insane.

What role will the Wythe play in the changed New York that emerges from this disruptive period of time?

Watching the neighborhood change pre-COVID, you have colleagues that are not in New York anymore for different reasons. I have neighbors who used to work with us that are not in New York anymore. I don’t really know yet how much the community has shifted and changed and we probably won’t for a while. I’m interested to see how we reposition ourselves to remain relevant to who our neighbors are now. When we opened, the guys from Kinfolk were opening their little cafe right on the corner, and now those guys are closed. That means the group of humans they used to bring won’t be part of our community anymore, unfortunately. There will be some adjustments in that respect.

There are a couple of great organizations already gearing up for the real work that has to happen. We won’t really understand what’s gone until everything’s open and there’s still all of these missing teeth in our favorite blocks where things used to be. But I have full faith that my little corner of Brooklyn—and the city at large—will find a way to get through this and be better and smarter and meaner and tougher and all of the good things we love about New York. Someone has a great quote that the obituary for New York has been written many times.

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