In the old days (say, 1996) if you wanted to check out the views from the top of the World Trade Center, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey charged you eight bucks for the ear-popping elevator ride to the observation deck.
When the new observatory of One World Trade Center opens in the spring, the tourism-venue management giant Legends will charge you $32 ($26 for kids) to be whisked up to the One World Observatory where you can regard the view through the Sky Portal, watch a video at the See Forever Theater or speak to a concierge at the City Pulse desk. Even the elevators aren't elevators anymore; they’re called Sky Pods now.
The prices, the amenities and especially the names for the amenities—all are evidence of the latest big change to come to downtown Manhattan. The city's highest tourist perch is back, and this time it's fully branded.
"This is much more than a ride on an elevator to get a view and go back down," Legends CEO David Checketts told Adweek. "We had to come up with these names to let people know that they'll have an experience up there. The brand should sell that experience."
Which is to say, selling the view. If you brand the observation deck, you're effectively branding a 50-mile vista of the tri-state area, no?
"That's a great point. It's interesting from that perspective," Checketts said. "But I'm not sure it would work if this were just any tall building in New York."
Well, don't be so sure. Observation decks are back in the city that once boasted as many as 12 of them. And as they vie for their share of the $38.8 billion that visitors drop every year, "view branding" is in full effect.
Last year the Empire State Building completed a rebranding effort that included the spruce-up of its observation deck, now the centerpiece of "The Empire State Building Experience." Competing with nearby "Top of the Rock"—the 70th floor observation terrace that Rockefeller Center reopened in 2005—the Empire advertises that its 86th floor, at 1,050 feet, is "the highest open-air observatory in New York." But that boast won't last forever. When the 1,227-foot-high 30 Hudson Yards tower opens on Manhattan's west side, its open-air observation deck will become the highest.
But One World Observatory could eclipse all of them, not just because of its height (1,250 feet), but—as Checketts tactfully put it—"for all the reasons you know." The World Trade Center is hallowed ground. The 9/11 Memorial drew 10 million visitors last year. And while it's a delicate point, the fact is that all tourism is income, and the Port Authority needs it. One World Trade Center cost nearly $4 billion to build, and the PA reportedly hopes to generate 25 percent of its revenues just from the observation deck.
That's going to require some first-rate marketing, and Legends has been hard at it. The hospitality company—which operates other New York City tourist landmarks including Circle Line cruises and Yankee Stadium—beat out at least 15 competing firms for the chance to operate the observatory. It's also spent nearly three years designing and naming seemingly every square foot of the new space—from the Sky Portal (a 14-foot-wide disk in the floor that gives visitors a high-def view of the streets below) to the Sky Pods (the fastest elevators in the world, according to the press materials). The observatory has its own marque, whose oblong "W" shape borrows from the building's structural profile, and also its own tagline: "See Forever."
“We all made our contributions here or there to come up with these names,” Checketts said. “Our whole team was trying to see what we could do to give us an edge to win. That was in our grasp when we came up with the ‘See Forever’ line. When I heard that, I knew it would resonate.”
And no doubt it will. Prior to its destruction in the Sept. 11 attacks, the old World Trade Center drew 1.8 million visitors a year. This time, 3.5 million is the goal—a figure that’ll generate $53 million in revenue yearly. In fact, the Port Authority has understood the value of the building's top floor for quite some time. In 1997, it sank $6 million into renovating the top floor of 2 World Trade Center and pushing the adult admission price to a scandalous $10. Still, the old observatory’s 18,000 square feet was downright quaint compared to the 120,000-square foot, three-floor colossus that Legends will operate.
It’s all good from the tourism point of view, but some watchers like urban planner Moses Gates, author of the book Hidden Cities, regards this particular view with mixed feelings. Moses points out that high-rise landlords used to operate observation decks as a kind of public amenity, charging little (or sometimes nothing) to access them. But that's all changed. What’s happened with observation decks, he said, “parallels the bifurcation of the city as a whole. Middle-class amenities like Broadway shows and baseball games have gotten really expensive. Almost 100 bucks to take a family of three to an observation deck is amazing.”
Still, Legends has taken considerable pains to install educational elements in its displays, including “Voices of the Building,” which features narration on how the old World Trade Center was built. And with a nod to the gravitas of what happened here in 2001, Checketts is taking the long view. “This will be inspiring, entertaining and enjoyable for a lot of people,” he said, “and I look forward to hosting them.”