On a recent Thursday morning, the staff at the Rockaway Hotel was busy installing sanitation stations, arranging lounge chairs six feet apart and practicing contactless check-ins. Scheduled to open Labor Day weekend, the upscale property sits just two blocks from the Atlantic Ocean in Queens.
“We don’t have time to complain or say this pandemic stinks,” said Jon Krasner, one of the developers involved in the venture. “We have to go with the flow, figure it out and invent a new normal.”
Many people would consider opening a hotel in Rockaway Beach right now to be a huge gamble, considering the time of year, the recent history of failed hotels in the neighborhood and their general plight across the city.
But tell that to Randi Savron, a retired teacher and local who has been desperately trying to book her 60th birthday party at the Rockaway Hotel for next May.
“I’ve been on the phone with them every day trying to find a date that is open,” she said. “The hotel is already booked for communions, bar mitzvahs. My girlfriend is going to a wedding there on New Year’s Eve.”
This Queens neighborhood should not be starved for idyllic places to stay and socialize. It has a stunning coastline and vibrant art, music and food scenes. It is less than 20 miles from Manhattan. Last summer, according to NYC Parks, more than four million people visited.
But hotels have always struggled in Rockaway Beach. La Quinta opened an inn in 2016 but it soon became a homeless shelter. The Playland Motel, a quirky boutique with rooms designed by local artists, officially closed four years ago and lasted only three. And the Boggsville Boatel, a floating houseboat that took overnight guests, was around for only two seasons.
This hasn’t always been the case, according to Marty Nislick, a local historian. “In the early 20th century, the Rockaways was a huge mecca for hotels,” he said. “It really was what the Hamptons are now.” A hotel that claimed it was the largest in the world was built there in the early 1880s, Mr. Nislick said. “Funny enough it was named the Rockaway Beach Hotel, and it never opened because of financial difficulties.”
Rob MacKay, who oversees marketing for the Queens Economic Development Corporation, said modern hotels in the Rockaways face other problems: Developers are focusing on hotel construction at the two airports in Queens, as well as in Long Island City, one subway stop from Manhattan. And beyond that, “There are hurricanes, and it’s a very seasonal destination.”
The Rockaway Hotel is the latest attempt to make the area an overnight destination. Terence and Dan Tubridy, brothers and third-generation Rockaway residents who own the local Bungalow Bar, started work on the hotel six years ago, teaming up with Mr. Krasner and Michi Jigarjian, two other developers.
The six-story property offers over 50 rooms and takes up an entire block on Rockaway Beach Drive, a quick walk from the NYC Ferry.
At a time when fresh air has become a health priority, the hotel has a generous amount of outdoor space. One rooftop is so big that you can watch surfers on one side and do plane spotting on the other (Kennedy International Airport is just five miles away). There is a deck for yoga and an outdoor pool. Inside, there is a spa and restaurant.
The hotel plans to hold programming year round, inside and out in order to draw business in every season and despite the pandemic.
The trick, Mr. MacKay said, will be to convince New Yorkers that the Rockaways are worth more than a day trip. Camille Hugh, who creates card games and lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn, said that she visits the area up to five times every summer, but just for the day. “I have never tried to stay the night because we live very close by, a 30- to 40-minute drive.”
Nina D’Agostino, who runs The Scouts Collective, which produces travel guides, wonders if New Yorkers will shell out hundreds of dollars for a staycation (Rockaway Hotel room rates currently start at $300).
And then there is the seasonal factor. Will tourists want to visit in February? “I know with Rockaway, people only come in July and August,” said Jeff Anthony, who was born and raised in Rockaway and now runs Skudin Surf, a surf school. “I don’t know how many hotels can open and survive the winter.”
Mr. Anthony is also concerned that the hotel, should it survive the colder months, will bring more congestion.
He is not alone. Ms. Savron, who helps run the Facebook group Friends of Rockaway Beach, said some of its 30,000 members had voiced skepticism about the new hotel. “You have the die-hards who have lived here their entire lives, but they don’t want to see hipsters or yuppies,” she said. “They call them every name in the book.”
But at a time when jobs are hard to come by, the hotel is providing work for Rockaway Beach residents. Mr. Krasner said that he had recruited 125 full-time staff members so far, many of them locals.
Regina Moerdyk, an operation manager, is one of them. “Being a mom of a special-needs child, working locally is paramount,” she said.
And Sarah Trogdon, who makes soaps and other bath products from her Rockaway Beach home for her company, Goldie’s Natural Beauty, is providing amenities for the hotel. She said the gig was enabling her to continue employing two part-timers, both of whom live in the neighborhood, despite losing half of her business this year because of the pandemic.
“When I see their Instagram ads pop up, it’s my girlfriends from the neighborhood who are modeling for them,” Ms. Trogdon said of the hotel. “I know all of them, they aren’t hired models. That is very cool and very funny.”
The hotel may have a homegrown feel and image, but it is unmistakably upscale: Rooms can go up to $900 a night during high season. Neighborhood leaders are hoping that guests with thick wallets will also pour money into the local economy.
“Rockaway has gotten a lot of press in the last few years, especially after Sandy, but it’s still a place waiting to be discovered,” said Alex Zablocki, the executive director of the Jamaica Bay-Rockaway Parks Conservancy, which helps preserve 10,000 acres of parkland, including Rockaway Beach, Fort Tilden and Jacob Riis Park.
“For us as a nonprofit it’s important to bring in new people who might want to be stewards of these places and to raise funds that are needed,” he said. Mr. Zablocki has been working with the hotel to plan activities for its guests and employees alike, from beach cleanups to adventure kayaking tours.
Other locals are just excited to have a new place to socialize.
“We have a small amount of places where we hang out, especially in the winter,” Ms. Trogdon said. “There is one thing that is going on a Friday night, and everyone is there.”
Ms. Savron, besides wanting to throw her birthday party at the hotel, plans on going there for a staycation soon.
“My wife, Kim, she said, ‘We live close by, and we have a beachfront condo. Why would we stay at the hotel?’” she said. “I told her, ‘We are going to go because we can, because it’s gorgeous, and because we want to show support.’”