New York Times
Serenity in Midtown, Starting at $3,200 a Night? Aman Is Betting on It.Heather Murphy, Aug 23, 2022
Vladislav Doronin, the chief executive of Aman Resorts, aims to bring the brand’s understated exclusivity and serenity — qualities that were forged in remote locations — to Manhattan. Will it work?
Described as “Aman’s newest island destination” on the hotel’s website, the Aman New York opened in the Crown Building on Fifth Avenue, just below Central Park, earlier this month. Above, the expansive 14th-floor garden terrace.Credit…Katherine Marks for The New York Times
Over the last decade, a gilded collection of elite hotels near Central Park have vied for the distinction of being the most expensive in New York. Several, including the St. Regis, Carlyle and the Plaza, opened more than 80 years ago. Most, including the Baccarat, a relative newcomer, greet guests with sparkly chandeliers.
This month, a new, relatively understated, crystal-chandelier-rejecting player arrived to challenge them: the Aman New York, in the Crown Building across from Trump Tower. At $3,200 a night — and often far more — for the cheapest available room, the cost of entry is nearly triple that of the rest.
For that price, guests get at least 745 square feet of space in muted colors, with gas fireplaces, retractable flat-screen TVs and Instagram-worthy bathrooms larger than many New York bedrooms. Oak floors and glowing Japanese-inspired screens complete the look. If they have the funds, guests can take it up a notch and spend $36,000 a night to reserve two adjoining suites and a half day in a private spa featuring its own hammam and plunge pool.
All Aman guests get access to a jazz club, an expansive greenery-filled terrace, indoor pool, sauna and a cryotherapy chamber where they can drown out the heat and chaos of Midtown before returning to their rooms. There, noise levels hover on podcast-studio levels of quiet, according to a staff member, who admitted that most podcasters cannot afford to stay at the hotel.
A suite at the Aman New York. Muted colors, wood floors, understated furnishings: The overall feel is a minimalist approach to luxury.Credit…Katherine Marks for The New York Times
All of this is part of the billionaire chief executive’s attempt to prove that the Aman brand’s version of serenity and exclusivity, originally forged in remote locations in Asia, can also succeed in Midtown Manhattan. Other urban outposts in the United States, including in Miami Beach, Fla., and Beverly Hills, Calif., are slated to open, as well.
“Since purchasing the brand in 2014, my strategy has been to bring the Aman experience to urban destinations, as well as continuing to grow our remote locations,” Vladislav Doronin, 59, the owner and chief executive, wrote in an email, adding that he aims to take the “Aman resort experience from the horizontal to the vertical.”
His strategy also includes creating a members-only Aman Club within new hotels that costs $200,000 per location to join, and expanding the Aman product line (a new addition: Aman New York fragrance).
Already, Mr. Doronin, a Soviet Union-born Swedish citizen who made a fortune developing real estate in Russia before he bought Aman Resorts in 2014, seems to have proven that he can generate intrigue. Before the hotel opened, even some “founders,” as members are called, said they struggled to secure reservations at the New York property. Eric Adams, the mayor of New York, was spotted at opening festivities.
Many of the Aman’s 22 residences atop the hotel’s 83 guest rooms were priced high even for Billionaire’s Row, as the surrounding neighborhood is called. And yet they seem to be selling. If the five-story penthouse residence closes for $180 million, the price real estate news sites reported that it went into contract for, it would be the third most expensive home ever sold in the United States, according to Jonathan Miller, a New York-based real estate appraiser.
The spa pool at Aman New York.Credit…Katherine Marks for The New York Times
Aman’s approach to service, design and privacy has created a cadre of self-described “Aman junkies” — celebrities, uber-rich people and other travelers intent on visiting each of the Aman resorts scattered in 20 countries.
“Once you go to one, you become addicted to this feeling that the hotel can achieve in you,” said a frequent guest who didn’t want to be named because she and her husband don’t want people to know how much money they make.
Aman’s goal, according to the chief operating officer, is to add at least a dozen resorts to the existing portfolio of 34 within a few years. But with its urban expansion, its hierarchical clubs and sheer number of properties, will the magic wear thin?
Discretion, peace and unicorns
Aman Resorts emerged by chance. In the late 1980s, an Indonesian publisher and hotelier named Adrian Zecha — a man so charismatic that he was among the first people to convince Rupert Murdoch to invest in Asia — was walking along the beach in Phuket, Thailand, and fell in love with a coconut plantation. Plans to build a holiday home morphed into a vision of a boutique hotel, which he constructed with Ed Tuttle, an American architect. Mr. Tuttle had never created a hotel, but he understood luxury; his previous projects included designing a holiday palace for the Shah of Iran before he was overthrown.
Amanpuri, which means “place of peace” in Sanskrit, according to the resort, opened in Phuket in 1988. Over the coming decades, Mr. Zecha created Amans throughout the world, typically working with Mr. Tuttle or two other architects: Jean-Michel Gathy and Kerry Hill. The focus was on building luxurious, typically minimalist, resorts that flowed seamlessly into the spectacular surrounding landscapes.
A 2001 photo of the view from a private villa’s bathroom at Amanpuri, Aman’s resort in Phuket, Thailand.Credit…Peter Charlesworth/LightRocket, via Getty Images
Billionaires and celebrities, including Bill Gates and Prince, flocked to the resorts, partly because discretion was a core part of the brand. Service was also reliably exceptional. Each guest would get one or two staff members assigned entirely to them, said Miguel Guedes De Sousa, the general manager of the Amanjena in Morocco and the Amanpulo in the Philippines from 2003 to 2013. “During their stay they’d have no days off and work as many hours as possible so that they could be totally focused on that client,” he said.
The extreme pampering persists to this day. Lauren Trenkle, 37, of Manhattan Beach, Calif., and her husband have been celebrating their now 6-year-old daughter’s birthday at the Amangiri in Utah since she turned 3. During that first visit, the staff learned that the toddler liked unicorns, so they dressed up a horse as a unicorn. When the family returned to their room, they found a framed photo of the girl’s mythical encounter.
“She thinks it’s the only place we get to see unicorns,” Ms. Trenkle said of the annual tradition.
By 2013, Mr. Zecha no longer owned the company. When an Indian real estate company decided to sell it, Omar Amanat, an American movie producer and entrepreneur, approached him about trying to buy it back. They teamed up with Mr. Doronin, who had been staying at Aman properties since the ’90s.
Mr. Guedes De Sousa remembers organizing a birthday dinner in a romantically lit tent for Mr. Doronin and his then-partner, Naomi Campbell, in Marrakesh, back when they were just another Aman power couple. Compared to King Salman of Saudi Arabia, who sometimes bought out the Marrakesh hotel, or the man who requested 20,000 candles and fresh lobsters in the middle of the desert, they were low key, he said.
Credit…Stewart Wilson/Invision, via Associated Press
Mr. Doronin saw a missed opportunity to expand Aman to cities, where, he wrote in an email, it was difficult to find Aman-caliber “tranquility and peace.” So, in 2014 he, Mr. Amanat and Mr. Zecha acquired Aman Resorts for $358 million.
The partnership did not go smoothly, and a series of lawsuits over control of the company ensued. In 2016 a court in London issued an order stating that Mr. Doronin had settled with Mr. Amanat’s company and that Mr. Doronin was in charge. Neither Mr. Amanat nor Mr. Zecha is currently involved in Aman. (Efforts to contact Mr. Amanat and Mr. Zecha through their lawyers and media teams were unsuccessful.)
In 2015, Mr. Doronin took another gamble. He and Shvo, a luxury real estate developer, purchased the 20 upper floors of the Crown Building on the corner of Fifth Avenue and East 57th Street.
New York, it was hoped, would prove that Aman could thrive in U.S. cities. Seven years later, the Aman New York is finally putting that idea to the test.
In the months before the opening, however, Mr. Doronin drew unwelcome scrutiny, first in New York, where protesters gathered in March near the then-unopened hotel and demanded to know his stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and then for a land deal in Aspen. Mr. Doronin sued the publishers of the two news outlets —The Real Deal, in New York, and The Aspen Times, in Aspen, Colo. — for misrepresenting Mr. Doronin’s ties to Russia. The Aspen Times settled with him and he dropped his suit against The Real Deal, court documents show. He has denied that he has done business in Russia in recent years and denounced Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine.
The Amangiri resort in Utah, which, like many other remote Aman properties, flows seamlessly into the surrounding landscape.Credit…Aman.
Location, location, location
Much of the legendary Aman allure has to do with its locations. The Amangiri is set in a serene Mars-like swath of desert in Utah. Amanwana is on a small Indonesian island, amid a nature and marine reserve. Aman Sveti Stefan is set on the former summer residence of a queen in Montenegro.
But while guests at other locations gaze at tea fields, ancient temples, verdant valleys and lapping waves, guests at Aman New York gaze at Trump Tower, luxury stores and honking taxis.
On what was supposed to be opening night in early August, I tried — and failed — to gain access to the hotel. Peering through the doors, I spotted a beige couch wrapped in plastic. Yes, it was supposed to open this week, a doorman told me, but it had been pushed back until the following week.
Since I was there, I decided to explore the neighborhood. I walked past the Bulgari store on the ground floor of the Crown Building, past the police car in front of Trump Tower. Eventually I arrived at the Peninsula Hotel, one of the 10 or so luxury hotels in the area. At the bar, a man who described himself as “someone who invests in things” explained that the reason the hotel could charge $28 for a cocktail is that because, after Sept. 11, many in the finance industry moved here from the Wall Street area.
In 2015, Vladislav Doronin bought the 20 upper floors of the Crown Building, which now houses Aman New York. Mr. Doronin describes the building as “one of the finest examples of Beaux-Arts architecture in the city.”Credit…Katherine Marks for The New York Times
This is part of the reason there is space for the Aman hotel and club, several luxury travel agents explained to me. International travelers want to be near Central Park, high-end shopping and the Museum of Modern Art — and bankers and traders want somewhere to drink.
“It’s the internet bubble of luxury travel right now,” said Juan Fernandez, the owner of Elli Travel Group, an agency based in New York, who has found that as his clients emerge from their “Covid hangover,” they are not only willing, but also excited to spend more than they’ve ever spent before.
Transforming the Crown Building into something that had the potential to become such a hot spot was a major undertaking, despite the fact that, in Mr. Doronin’s view, the building was “one of the finest examples of Beaux-Arts architecture in the city.”
He reached out to Jean-Michel Gathy, the only living architect from the original Aman trio of designers. Mr. Gathy’s career took off when, in 1987, the architect, then in his early 30s, designed a project in the Maldives that prompted an introduction to Mr. Zecha. Over the coming decades, he’d design Amanwana in Indonesia, and Aman Venice, where George and Amal Alamuddin Clooney spent their wedding night beneath a 300-year-old fresco. Mr. Gathy is currently working on seven more Amans, including two in Saudi Arabia.
On the 14th floor of Aman New York, a sprawling, tree-and-shrubbery-filled terrace has spaces to lounge, dine and seal deals.Credit…Katherine Marks for The New York Times
I met Mr. Gathy in a lounge at the Park Hyatt, a couple of blocks from the Aman, which, four days past its scheduled opening date, was still not ready. Mr. Gathy, a Belgian architect who lives in Malaysia, said he began the New York project by taking the elevator to the top and then walking down, floor by floor, examining the geometry of the windows, the ceiling heights and the overall “flow of the building.”
It did not take him long to decide how he’d organize the hotel, which would include a “public area” where the hotel would come alive on the 14th floor, the location of the largest terrace — a sprawling tree-and-shrubbery-filled area with spaces to lounge, dine and seal deals.
“I don’t want them to say, ‘Oh, it’s beautifully designed,’” Mr. Gathy said. “I want to make sure that people enjoy the terrace and come back. If they do that, my project is successful.”
Every Aman must have a “sense of place,” he added. Identifying New York’s characteristic feature was easy, he said: “What makes New York New York City is energy.”
To limit how far a diner can see in Arva, the hotel’s Italian restaurant, the lighting designer Enrique Peiniger used narrow beams of light to illuminate the tables. “When you sit at the table you can see the person in front of them, but not four or five tables away,” he said.Credit…Katherine Marks for The New York Times
That energy plays into every design decision, he said. For example, he chose chairs for the restaurant with straight backs to help top bankers efficiently sign big deals, he said, adjusting his posture.
He worked closely with the lighting designer Enrique Peiniger, who created lighting scenarios that encourage discretion in Arva, the hotel’s Italian restaurant, which may eventually take reservations from nonguests. To limit how far a diner can see, he illuminated tables with narrow beams of light. “When you sit at the table you can see the person in front of them, but not four or five tables away,” he said.
Over a week after what was supposed to have been the official opening, I finally got a chance to see the hotel. The regal Art Deco-inspired door was still obscured by scaffolding. This meant that the first opportunity to experience the Amanness of it all came within the foyer, which featured a gas fireplace embedded in dark marble and a simple beige couch.
The area around the check-in counter was more impressive. Rather than a chandelier, the star of the show was a massive burnt-orange piece of art made from recycled cardboard. In the nearby elevator, a screen played a looping video of Aman resorts all over the world, which left me feeling like I was on my way to see a travel agent. But once I exited on the 14th floor, it was clear that I was not. Past a dramatically high-ceilinged seating area with yet another gas fireplace, I arrived at the massive terrace, with its bonsai trees and fountains exuding calm.
A bathroom in one of Aman New York’s suites.Credit…Katherine Marks for The New York Times
Even the standard guest room was larger than many competitors’ suites. Perhaps the most impressive features are the bathrooms, with their alluring white tubs, modern vanities and screens, dotted with gentle light. In one of the suites — which go for around $20,000 a night — the bathroom was larger than some two-bedroom apartments in New York.
Ahead of the opening, there had been some drama about the pool, with some wealthy guests telling the newsletter Air Mail that it struck them as “municipal.” But it felt to me like a warm, tropically humid Art Deco-esque space where one might sip Cognac.
Mr. Gathy had described a vision of bankers doing deals in this place. On the way out, I approached two men in suits — one maybe 55, the other half his age. They were chatting with such buoyant intensity that it occurred to me that Mr. Gathy’s vision might have already become reality.
What did they think of the hotel?
“Off the record, it’s fantastic,” said the older man.
When I asked for his name, he gave me a smile-smirk that seemed to imply that I should know who he was.