New York

East (Destination)
Historic Properties / July 06, 2017

NYC, Long Island and Westchester County Still Dazzle Groups

by Jeff Heilman

  • Old Westbury Gardens Mansion

    Old Westbury Gardens Mansion


    Old Westbury Gardens Mansion, Long Island

    Old Westbury Gardens Mansion
  • The Vessel


    The Vessel, Hudson Yards, MANHATTAN

    The Vessel
  • Dale Chihuly installation


    Dale Chihuly Installation, N.Y. BG | Photo by Jeff Heilman

    Dale Chihuly installation

Last month marked my 30th anniversary of waking up in the city that never sleeps, and this place of inexhaustible possibilities remains as exciting as day one.

Behind billions of dollars in tourism and transportation investments, there are myriad more ways to be a part of it, too.

As revealed this May by NYC & Company at the Whitby Hotel in Midtown, this is the “New” New York City. Hospitality growth is one dramatic storyline. Opened in February 2017, the 86-room Whitby, with artful meeting space, including its 130-seat theater and book-filled Reading Room, is among a crop of new openings.

When first covering New York City for Meetings Today in 2005, the city had nearly 70,000 rooms, mostly in Manhattan. Now the total is 113,000 across all five boroughs, and fueled by the nation’s hottest hotel development pipeline, the target is 137,000 by late 2019. In the same period, tourism soared from nearly 40 million visitors to 2016’s all-time high of 60.7 million.

Epic even by NYC standards, blockbuster projects include multibillion-dollar makeovers of LaGuardia, Newark and JFK airports, the latter’s iconic 1962 TWA Flight Center becoming a 505-room hotel with 50,000 square feet of space.

Rising on the West Side, multi-tower, mini-city Hudson Yards, the priciest U.S. development project in history, boasts awesome elements such as The Shed, a performing arts venue with a massive telescoping outer shell, and the Vessel, a walkable vertical wonder of 154 interconnecting flights of stairs.

The Jacob K. Javits Convention Center’s $1.5 billion expansion adds 90,000 square feet of exhibition space and the Northeast’s largest ballroom, at 55,000 square feet.

“There are no signs of stopping,” noted NYC & Company President and CEO Fred Dixon, as Gotham visibly ascends to futuristic new heights with new “supertall” towers recontouring the skyline. With the bounty extended by Long Island and Westchester County, the “New” NYC dynamically aligns with the reimagined future of meetings.   

Amid this unprecedented turnover, here are some personal favorites from three decades of biting the Big Apple to its core.

Homeward Bound

In 1979, the New York Philharmonic recorded the soundtrack for Woody Allen’s Manhattan. Last fall, the orchestra played the gorgeous Gershwin score in accompaniment of the film’s live screening at Lincoln Center’s iconic David Geffen Hall. Among several rental venues on the legendary performing arts campus, the 2,732-capacity concert hall felt as familiar as home, as the packed house of knowing New Yorkers celebrated every landmark, scene and reference.

More inspiration calls just above Central Park at event-capable Saint John the Divine. Begun in 1892, mostly completed in 1997 but still under construction, this massive cathedral is the world’s largest.   

Founded by legendary Italian fashion photographer Fabrizio Ferri in 1991, Industria, in the West Village (with a second facility in Williamsburg, Brooklyn), is a pioneering multi-studio complex for cutting-edge event programming. Meanwhile, on the once down-trodden Bowery, the New Museum is a hot ticket for edgy art exhibitions, with the 200-capacity Sky Room panoramically commanding the stacked-box building.  

For Brooklyn, now a global byword for NYC cool, turnaround began in 1998 when the New York Marriott at the Brooklyn Bridge opened as the borough’s first new-build branded hotel in 64 years.

Within walking distance of the multipurpose Barclays Center and waterfront Brooklyn Bridge Park, Brooklyn’s largest hotel unveiled a sweeping $45 million transformation in July 2016 that included all 667 guest rooms and 44,000 square feet of meeting space, incorporating NYC’s third-largest ballroom.

My journalism career began in 2004 interviewing the WWII, Korean War and Vietnam War veterans of the Historic Aircraft Restoration Project (HARP) at Brooklyn’s national landmark Floyd Bennett Field, Gotham’s first municipal airport, from 1931.

Now part of the 27,000-acre Gateway National Recreation Area, the airfield has also since taken off. Renovated historic hangars house the 175,000-square-foot Aviator Sports and Events Center, with acres of outdoor event space. Group activities include guided nature programs, kayaking and HARP tours in Hangar B.

Turnstile Tours offers superb insider explorations of two other legendary former military facilities, the Brooklyn Army Terminal and Brooklyn Navy Yard.  

Site of the 1939/’40 and 1964/’65 world’s fairs, Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens has group-capable venues including Arthur Ashe Stadium, home of U.S. Open tennis; Citi Field, home of baseball’s New York Mets; and the Queens Theatre.

Housed in the NYC Building from the first World’s Fair, the Queens Museum features the Panorama of the City of New York. Updated five times since 1964, this scaled model of NYC features approximately 895,000 miniature buildings.  

Departing from Breezy Point, seasonal charters with American Princess Cruises reveal the city’s majestic waterways, including seal, dolphin and whale-watching adventures.

Facing the Long Island Sound, peninsular Fort Totten Park is a sprawling former U.S. Army base featuring Civil War fortifications (guided tours available) and evocative event space at the 1887 Castle.

Bronx treasures include the 1843 Wave Hill House. Formerly inhabited by the likes of Theodore Roosevelt and Mark Twain, this 28-acre clifftop estate, overlooking the Hudson, accommodates meetings and events for up to 175 people.

The 250-acre New York Botanical Garden, now exhibiting 20-plus Dale Chihuly glass installations through October, includes large-scale event venues such as the Victorian-style Enid A. Haupt Conservatory. Options at the adjacent Bronx Zoo include receptions for 80 in the Congo Gorilla Forest, and soon, a 400-foot zipline experience over the Bronx River.

Yankee Stadium flexibly hosts up to 10,000 people, while celebrity-led Hush Hip Hop Tours showcase Bronx sites from hip-hop’s founding days.

Staten Island’s star is destined to rise with the projected spring 2018 opening of the New York Wheel, the world’s tallest observation wheel.  

Accessed from Lower Manhattan via the Staten Island Ferry, the LED-lit 60-story wheel, featuring 36 subway car-size pods, forms part of the $1.2 billion redevelopment of the North Shore waterfront as “Destination St. George.” The new Empire Outlets retail complex will incorporate F&B concepts, 20,000 square feet of event space and a 190-room boutique hotel with rooftop lounge.

Existing St. George attractions include Richmond County Bank Ballpark, home of the Staten Island Yankees; 1929 St. George Theater; and nearby Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden.

Opened in 1833 as a haven for retired sailors, this National Historic Landmark is ideal for groups. Rental venues on the 83-acre campus include the 686-seat Music Hall (1892), enchanting walled New York Chinese Scholar’s Garden and exhibit-rich Staten Island Museum.

Island Hopping

With memorable visits including the Cradle of Aviation Museum and Long Island Aquarium, Long Island was my first-ever meetings FAM.

Other enduring favorites include the 269-room Garden City Hotel, offering 30,000 square feet of space, and Manhattan-style Polo Steakhouse. The nation’s first dedicated conference center hotel, 187-room Glen Cove Mansion Hotel & Conference Center, offers 29,500 square feet of IACC-certified space.

The Gilded-Age collection includes 32-room Oheka Castle Hotel & Estate (1919); 1924 Chelsea Mansion; Old Westbury Gardens (1906); Nassau County Museum of Art, formerly the Frick Estate; and Vanderbilt Museum, with its fascinating Marine Museum and domed Planetarium.

“Long Island has evolved into a premier, stand-alone destination complemented by our easy access to the nation’s business capital,” said Discover Long Island President & CEO Kristen Jarnagin. “Combining pristine beaches, an award-winning wine country, revolutionary history and endless shopping and culinary options, Long Island is a supreme ‘bleisure’ travel destination.”

Westchester Wonders

Steeped in history, rich in arts and culture, and an F&B magnet, NYC’s northern neighbor is another treasured go-to.

Exceptional hospitality at every touch point, customized conference planning, locally sourced F&B and dynamic amenities and activities on 114 acres make 369-room Doral Arrowwood Resort, offering 70,000 square feet of IACC-certified space, a standout in Westchester’s conference center collection. Tours of the newly reopened outdoor sculpture gardens surrounding PepsiCo’s nearby corporate headquarters are also “a must.”

“With our tourism industry thriving, many properties have undergone significant renovations to keep up with the demand,” said Natasha Caputo, director, Westchester County Tourism & Film. “Whether seeking tranquil scenery along the Hudson River or a happening city vibe, meeting and event professionals should look no further than Westchester County.”

The bureau’s partnership with Metro-North Railroad makes customized group travel from Grand Central Station to primary destinations like historic Tarrytown a snap.

Tour-capable Gilded-Age mansions in this former “Millionaire’s Colony” include John D. Rockefeller’s Kykuit and Washington Irving’s Sunnyside. The fairytale hilltop 33-room Castle on the Hudson is an exclusive buyout address, while event-capable Lyndhurst is a Gothic masterpiece on 67 riverfront acres. 

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