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Renters Get The V.I.P. Treatment

The New York Times, April 2015

By Michelle Higgins

A private tour of Central Park led by its official historian and photographer. Premier seats at a basketball game and a meet-­and-­greet with a former Knicks player. Front­-of-­the-­line access at hot Manhattan nightclubs. Instant reservations at hard-­to-­get-­into restaurants.

These are just a few of the perks that luxury rental developers are using to woo new tenants and persuade current ones to renew their leases. With condolike finishes and sprawling amenity floors with rooftop pools, bowling alleys and pet spas now prevalent in many high­-end rentals, developers are hoping the V.I.P. treatment will help set them apart from the competition.

“If you want to increase the likelihood of tenants renewing, you really have to give them something more,” said Rob Neiffer, a director at Invesco Real Estate, which owns the Instrata Lifestyle Residences, a portfolio of luxury rental buildings in Manhattan and Brooklyn formed in 2013. Instrata has an in-­house event coordinator to develop residents­-only events like free wine tastings at Corkbuzz Wine Bar in Chelsea Market and $10 pizza­-making classes at Pizza a Casa on the Lower East Side, normally $195 a person.

The idea, Mr. Neiffer said, “is to create a living experience that seems so wonderful to these residents they feel they can’t get it somewhere else.”

Major rental buildings have long employed concierge services to assist with move-­ins and last­-minute reservations and to foster a sense of community through on­-site events. But in recent years, the emphasis has shifted to exclusive experiences outside the building, like tickets to a preview of the Armory Show and a fancy benefit party at the Museum of Modern Art ($175).

“We’ve always done ‘meet your neighbors on the roof deck,’ ” said Michael Fazio, a founder of Abigail Michaels, which provides concierge services to major developers and management companies, including Argo Residential, FirstService Residential, Instrata and Manhattan Skyline. “In the last two years it’s become more and more sophisticated.”

The company, he said, works its connections to procure tickets to sold-­out shows, gallery previews and other special opportunities that renters either can’t get or are too busy to handle themselves. Each month, renters in buildings like Twenty Exchange Place in the Financial District and the Saranac at 95 Worth Street in TriBeCa are notified of the offers via email, and need only hit “reply” if they are interested.

Jason Yang, a 24-­year­-old basketball fan who lives at Instrata’s Mercedes House on the Far West Side, took advantage of an $85 ticket offer to see the New York Knicks play the Charlotte Bobcats (now Hornets) at Madison Square Garden in January of last year. Though the package was not exactly for a marquee game, it offered prime seats at a steep discount and a meet-­and­-greet with John Starks, a former Knicks shooting guard.

“You don’t meet people from the N.B.A. all the time,” said Mr. Yang, who works in the financial industry. “So it was really cool for me.”

Mr. Yang and his roommate watched the game from Chase Bridge seats, which are suspended from the ceiling of Madison Square Garden, offering a top-­down view of the action on the court below═ż those tickets normally cost $110 to $165, depending on the game. They were also treated to an unexpected surprise. The forward Carmelo Anthony scored a career-­high 62 points, setting a Knicks franchise record and a record at the current Madison Square Garden. “We always talk about it,” said Mr. Yang.

Bragging rights are part of the appeal. Late last year, the Related Companies presented a V.I.P. card to tenants of Abington House, the Tate, the Caledonia and MiMA that allows them to bypass the velvet rope at popular nightclubs like Marquee and the PH­D rooftop lounge at the Dream Downtown hotel. The card, a partnership with the Strategic Hospitality Group, which manages a roster of nightclubs and restaurants, can also be used to secure last-minute reservations for hard-­to­-get tables. Similarly, residents of the Caledonia can simply flash their apartment key to skip the line at 1 Oak, a popular nightclub.

“You really feel special,” said Cristi Silva, a Related resident who has breezed past the line at 1 Oak on many occasions thanks to a Caledonia key. “People in line are like, ‘Who is that?’ ”

Ms. Silva, who has lived at three of Related’s rental buildings over the last several years, has also become a fast fan of the new V.I.P. card for last­-minute restaurant reservations.

“It’s amazing,” said Ms. Silva, who rents a one­-bedroom at the Abington House for $4,000 a month. In October, she emailed the service for a last-minute reservation at Bodega Negra, a popular restaurant in the Dream Downtown hotel. “Within 10 minutes, the whole entire thing was taken care of,” she said.

At dinner, Ms. Silva and her guest were seated at a large table and treated to a complimentary shot of tequila. The experience, she said, was the opposite of a previous visit to the restaurant, when she and a friend were unceremoniously turned away because they hadn’t been able to secure reservations in advance. Without the card, she said, “it was impossible.”

The perks come at a time of rising Manhattan rental rates. The median monthly rent in Manhattan was up 8.9 percent to $3,375 in February, the second highest level reached in more than seven years, according to a report by Douglas Elliman. The V.I.P. privileges, which are offered at some of the swankiest rental buildings, can help justify paying top dollar. At Instrata, for example, the asking rent begins roughly at $3,000 for a studio and goes up to $15,000 for a three­bedroom.

Renters who can afford these prices are just the kind of people that perks purveyors would like to get to know. “There are so many people wanting to get in front of these residents,” said Mr. Fazio of Abigail Michaels, the concierge service. “Not everyone makes the cut.”

“You don’t want residents to think we’re soliciting them with every two­bit offer,” said Daria Salusbury, a senior vice president of Related, which curates perks and surveys residents on how the company is doing. “You want to do it judiciously and in a manner that would complement their lifestyle. We don’t want to barrage them.”

Perks that get the green light tend to be from vendors willing to create an exclusive experience. In recent months, for example, renters in luxury buildings were offered a Central Park tour with Sara Cedar Miller, the park’s official historian and photographer═ż a two-­hour “immersive” cupcake-­making class at Butter Lane bakery in the East Village and blowout hair styling sessions in their apartments.

Vendors in turn benefit from word-­of-­mouth referrals. And there is incentive to impress: The more special the experience, the more likely a resident is to brag about it, be it at a dinner party or through their Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or other social media feeds. Instrata, for one, facilitates sharing by sending a professional photographer to resident-­only wine tastings and other events and posting those photos to its own social accounts. Last month, for example, Instrata at Mercedes House posted more than 100 photos of a pizza­making event on its Facebook page.

Alison Nathanson, a 22-­year­-old recent college graduate working in product development in Manhattan, was there with her roommate, Samantha Breslin. “If it’s a food or wine event, we will be there,” said Ms. Breslin, 23, who works for a nonprofit.

Besides the free food and discounts, the roommates said the events make it easy to discover new places around the city. “It’s taking me out of my neighborhood and making me try new places,” Ms. Nathanson said. Sure, a pizza-­making class might sound interesting, she added. “But would you really act on it on your own? Probably not.” With the rental service, she said, “it’s all set up. All you do is send an email saying, ‘yes, I’m coming.’ ”

Samantha Kimmel, who rents in the Gramercy area and has taken advantage of special offers from the Knicks meet­-and­-greet to Tribeca Film Festival tickets, said the service has not only taken some of the work out of organizing her social life, it has also made her more popular in unexpected ways. “My friends know I can get reservations that other people can’t,” she said. “At work, if anyone wants a dinner reservation they come to me.”