NEW YORK - Soft openings - when a hotel is accepting guests and gearing up ahead of its official opening - are by definition works in progress, but they offer fresh, early looks at a hotel before the crowds get there. Such is the case with me right now: I'm staying at the Hotel Pierre, the venerable New York 5-star, looking out over green and leafy Central Park and taking a two-day peek at the reborn Pierre.
The Hotel Pierre has been an important hotel in midtown Manhattan since the early 1930s. With its elegant styling and prime location at Fifth Avenue and East 61st Street, it has long attracted its share of the rich and celebrated and has for years been a favorite of affluent brides. Managed by India's Taj Hotels and Resorts since 2005, the Pierre re-opens this week, following a $100 million renovation that has taken 18 months so far.
What's different? The lobby, for one. Gone is the old bar, replaced by a new, contemporary watering hole called 2 East, that's accessed just off the serene lobby; it's down a few steps and folded within a windowless room. The main lobby itself, marble-clad and more traditional in design, is nicely illuminated, with a high ceiling, somehow combining airiness with solidity.
Taj, a major player in India, regards the Pierre as its flagship in the USA, where it also operates the Boston Taj and San Francisco's Campton Place. The company renovated all of the Pierre's 189 guestrooms and suites, installing 40-inch flatscreen TVs and iPod docking stations. Wi-fi and Ethernet connections are available in all the rooms. The in-room safes are easily big enough to take a laptop and have a power outlet. Bathrooms, in the New York manner, are on the small side and the hotel's prices, also in the New York manner, are on the high side: Think $2 per minute to use the Internet in the 4th floor business center. But while you pay to stay here, quality is usually high. Room rates, which will start at $895 per night when the hotel formally re-opens around Oct. 1, can be significantly lower during the present soft-opening phase.
The Pierre still has a ways to go to reach its accustomed 5-star status, but with a four-month rollout before the grand re-opening, there is time to get operations up to speed. Also coming: The first U.S. location of the tony London restaurant Le Caprice. Hotel public relations staffers say this upmarket fine-dining establishment is expected to debut in the renovated Pierre by late September.
In the meantime, soft-opening glitches notwithstanding it's fascinating to watch Taj put all the pieces - old and new - together. Fully loaded and reset, the Pierre should be a strengthened position to contend in the fiercely competitive New York luxury market.