The GM of the Hotel Elysée in New York has worked in every department at the property, starting at the front desk in 1993, and in that time, he’s fallen in love with its history.
NEW YORK—What started out as a way to pay the bills after moving to New York City became a lifelong career for John Avina, who went from working the front desk to general manager of the Hotel Elysée by Library Hotel Collection.
Avina has spent his entire hospitality career at the Hotel Elysée. He and the hotel have a history together, and that connection has made Avina appreciate the property’s unique story, as well as that of the city that surrounds it.
Originally from California, he interned for different members of the House of Representatives in Washington D.C. Not pleased with life in the nation’s capital, Avina moved to New York and was working temp jobs when a college friend told him he should meet a friend of his father’s, Henry Kallan, president of the Library Hotel Collection, formerly HKHotels.
“I showed up with no hotel experience, no friends, no money,” Avina said. “(Kallan) said, ‘Well, you can start today. Go downstairs and see if you like it.’ And I did.”
That was November 1993. Twenty-four years later, Avina has worked in every department at the Hotel Elysée, from front desk to sales and marketing, and finally, starting in 2001, as GM of the property.
“It’s the best experience you can actually have by working in every single department,” he said. “You have an appreciation not only for what the guest is going through, but (also) what your coworkers in each department are going through. You have an understanding and appreciation because you’ve been there. You’ve seen firsthand some of the problems, some of the situations that can arise as well as the good things.”
Avina briefly left the hotel early in his career for about three months to pursue his degree, and then to take the position of program assistant for the Estee Lauder Companies for political and charitable contribution.
“Being in that rigid corporate environment made me want to come back,” he said. “(Kallan) was more than happy to have me come back, which I appreciated as well. That’s when I started my path moving up. I realized I had left a very good thing.”
As he came into his own as a hotelier, Avina said he adopted his boss’s philosophy, which is that the guests must have a positive experience. As GM of a property in a small hotel collection, he can make decisions regarding guest relations without having to seek prior approval from someone higher up. For example, he can comp a guest’s stay or send a congratulatory bottle of champagne.
“It’s nice to be free to do what the philosophy of the hotel wants you to do without any restraints,” he said. “That’s why I’ve remained here.”
It’s also part of the reason he wants to make sure the hotel remains long after he’s gone.
Founded in 1926, The Hotel Elysée has a storied history, which includes connections with several celebrities. Actress Tallulah Bankhead, an 18-year resident at the hotel, threw a days-long party celebrating President Harry Truman’s victory over Thomas Dewey in the accompanying Monkey Bar. Writer Tennessee Williams (who has a presidential suite in the hotel named after him) lived in the hotel for 15 years before his death in the “Sunset Suite” in 1983.
Former Hotel Elysée owner Mayer Quain passed the property on to his son and daughter, who used to tell Avina stories about the history of the hotel before their deaths in 2001 and 2007, respectively.
Avina said he has tried to incorporate the hotel’s history into its operating model.
The previous owners presented the hotel as a quiet “off-the-avenue” location for the literati and glitterati, he said. If a writer were coming from the west coast for a book release event or the opening of a play, a train ride would take two to three days. The writer would need to stay about a week or so, and this hotel catered to that type of guest. The hotel and Monkey Bar were between two of the hottest nightclubs, he said, and the Monkey Bar acted as the weigh station as people would wander from one to the other.
Celebrities found homes in the hotel, Avina said, including famed Yankee centerfielder Joe DiMaggio, who liked that he could escape from the press here. Rock legend Jimi Hendrix also stayed at the hotel, but ended up leaving (voluntarily) after other guests complained about his habit of playing guitar in the middle of the night when he said his creativity peaked.
It’s difficult to preserve the history of the hotel while also trying to keep up with the changing technology demands of guests, Avina said. The average age of the hotel’s guests is 45-plus, he said, and most are seasoned travelers looking for history and understated elegance with a high level of service.
“We don’t have the 20-somethings here looking for a rooftop bar and an exciting downtown location,” he said.
That said, some younger guests do stay at the Hotel Elysée. While it might not be the right place for them every time they come to New York, he said, the younger guests are just as charmed by the property during their stays.
As the hotel undergoes a renovation sometime within the next 18 months, Avina said it will be important to preserve its identity while upgrading certain amenities to meet guest needs.
“I want to incorporate even more of the history of the hotel, perhaps go back to naming rooms with individual names as well as numbers,” he said. “Maybe putting back some of the old suites that once were, and looking for period furniture. Perhaps dedicating a floor to each decade that it’s been open. I really think one of our main draws is the history of the hotel. There is that customer who appreciates that point in time, that old New York, which is disappearing. I’d like for us to preserve that as much as we can moving forward.”
Avina said he’s seen old New York disappearing little by little every day in his 24 years here. The Hotel Elysée and the Monkey Bar are among the few holdouts left.
“I just see that uniqueness of New York disappearing too quickly,” he said. “I want to hold onto it a little bit longer.”