The first season of Bethel Woods is now over, and it was a great success. The big buzz was the opening night with the NY Philharmonic. As I wrote about before, the audience was almost collectively willing them to "Please Come Back" and make us your summer home. Somehow, if the NY Philharmonic gives Sullivan County its blessing, all of the rest of the long-awaited rejuvenation of the Catskills will magically fall into place. But the Philharmonic wasn’t the biggest draw of the summer. That honor went to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, bringing 17,000 people to the fields of Bethel at a per head price up to $126!
Paralleling Bethel Woods success this summer have been the announcements of plans by Louis Capelli about the redevelopment of the Concord Hotel in Kiamesha Lake. The big buzz around Capelli’s Concord vision isn’t the 3,000 units of housing, but his desire to bring in Ritz Carlton as the nameplate on the centerpiece hotel.
Now I think having a Ritz Carlton in Sullivan County, just like having the NY Philharmonic make it summer home here, would be great. It would give Sullivan County two platinum brand names that would inevitably attract other investment and development. Developers of upscale shopping malls compete furiously to attract a few big brand names like Nordstrom and Tiffany, because once they’re "in" the rest of the upscale retail pack falls in line. Ritz Carlton, the Philharmonic, Nordstrom and Tiffany are like an upscale "Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval."
Other potential hotel developers have also floated the Ritz Carlton and Four Seasons names. Andy Krieger’s Livingston Manor spa hotel plan and the now defunct Campbell Inn project in Roscoe are two recent examples.
But does Sullivan County absolutely need these platinum nameplates to succeed? Ritz Carltons are overall great hotels, but tend to be a little stuffy and formal. Personally, they’re not my favorites. There are a lot of hotel brands — like "W", Ian Schrager’s hotels, and Kimpton’s boutique hotels, like the Hotel Monaco — that are hipper and a lot more fun. And most of the celebrity magnet hotels in South Beach aren’t affiliated with any national brand.
I’m not sure that having an outpost of Ian Schrager’s trendy "Morgans Hotel Group", like the Mondrian or the Delano, is right for Sullivan County, either. One thing that I think makes Sullivan County special is our lack of snottiness and attitude, something that many trendy design hotels dish out in oversize portions. Having model-caliber staff dressed all in black with "Madonna" headsets isn’t the right fit.
Here in Sullivan County, we need to think about a fresh recipe for success. Not the staid and stuffy faux formality of a Ritz Carlton, or the off-putting attitude of the Delano or Mondrian — both of which appeal to narrow markets that either have lots of money or can fit into a size 4. We need some hotels here that are nicely designed, even edgy, but are also welcoming and reasonably affordable. Hotels that are nice, but not so formal and unapproachable that full-timers here would feel uncomfortable celebrating a birthday or anniversary at the restaurant, or dropping in for a night of dancing in the nightclub.
If we keep waiting for the savior in the name of Ritz Carlton, we may be waiting a long time, and miss the mark. Possibly a lesser brand, like Wyndham, Crowne Plaza or Sheraton, while not as ‘glamorous’ might ultimately be more successful. After all, its going to be the local market that will keep the bars and restaurants busy in the dead of winter.
Bethel Woods kinda got it right. They offered a broad range of entertainment during the first season to gauge market appeal. Yes, the Philharmonic was a big draw, but so were many of the other acts. We want some ‘culture’ but we also want to get down and boogie.