>What Fresh Hell is This? The Death of One Brand at the Expense of Another
While much of the Facebook and Twitter traffic last week was revving over the colossal miscalculations of Susan G. Komen for the Cure; regarding Planned Parenthood, another textbook case of brand destruction was unfolding, albeit to a smaller, but no less passionate audience.
A small item in the Wall Street Journal announced that the Oak Room at the august Algonquin Hotel in New York City is closing.
Several years ago, the Algonquin became a “Marriott Autograph Hotel,” a top tier property with a signature identity and brand all its own. People stay at the Algonquin, not because the rooms are more spacious or the view is better than what they’d find at, say, the Marriott Marquis several blocks away. I’ve never had a room at the Algonquin where I could have both my suitcase and the bathroom door open at the same time. More often than not, the view from my small window is of other windows from across the HVAC shaft.
No, people book into the Algonquin because they enjoy seeing Matilda the cat lounging at the check-in desk. Because as they make way for another passing guest in the narrow hallways, they like to think of who else may have squeezed through that passage decades before. People stay at the Algonquin because it has history and character, not because they want the same color scheme and bed linens they could get at a Marriott anywhere from Portland to Paducah.
The Algonquin Hotel will soon transform its storied Oak Room, the room that hosted “The Vicious Circle” of literary giants such as Dorothy Parker, Alexander Woolcott, and Robert Benchley until it moved to a larger, round table in the Rose Room, into a lounge for “Marriott Reward Elite guests.” Mrs. Parker was fond of saying, “What fresh hell is this?” Indeed.
In later years, the dark paneled Oak Room helped launch the careers of Diana Krall and Harry Connick Jr. It gave Michael Feinstein a home before he built his own. It let us grow up and older with Karen Akers and Andrea Marcovicci. Soon it will be filled not with music lovers but with business travelers delighting in their free wi-fi and complimentary crackers and cheese.
I don’t begrudge business travelers a few amenities on the road. God knows, as just such a traveler, I’m eager to find any quiet port in the traveling storm that offers me a few moments of calm, a glass of wine—and free wi-fi. But there are maybe two other places in New York to hear first-rate cabaret artists. There are at least eight other Marriott Hotels in New York City alone. Why not upgrade one of those lounges? Why rip the heart out of a piece of Manhattan culture and history?
To a young aspiring actress who once sat in the Algonquin Hotel nursing a $9 cocktail (they were much cheaper in those days) imagining her starring role in the one-woman play she would write about Dorothy Parker (which remains unwritten), this is distressing news. For a middle-aged business owner enrolled in the Marriott Rewards program, this is depressing news.
On his blog, author, playwright, librettist, and critic Terry Teachout called it an act of “cultural vandalism.”
The Algonquin’s own Facebook page is wallpapered with comments denouncing Marriott and declaring to withhold their business. “NEVER again at a Marriott,” wrote one producer who has the power to book multiple rooms. Even loyal Marriott customers are dismayed, with one vowing to move her business to Hilton. One post called the closure of the Oak Room “soulless.”
With this one decision, Marriott damaged its own brand and extinguished the Algonquin’s. And for what? Will Marriott’s elite guests find more satisfaction in yet another generic traveler’s lounge than they would listening to incomparable jazz and vocalists? Talk about being tone deaf.
Dorothy Parker once mused that her tombstone should read: “Wherever she went, including here, it was against her better judgment.” Amen.
Felicia Knight is President of Knight Vision International, LLC
Image by aoifemac