Episode #36: The Allure of Authentic Attention to Detail

Part 2 of our look back at the mid-century modern TWA Hotel at JFK airport (Part 1 is here, if you missed it). If you ever find yourself at JFK with time to spare, it’s absolutely worth a visit. It’s an immersive experience that takes you back to the glory days of air travel. They’ve spared no expense in recreating exquisite details from the 1960s, right down to the penny tiles and 5-cent payphones. It’s a lesson for all of us — when it comes to customer experience, the little things matter.

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Hey, it’s the CXM Experience. And I am Grad Conn, CXO at Sprinklr. And I’m here today to talk about an amazing experience that I had recently. I actually started talking about this in a previous podcast, which is the TWA Hotel. To quickly recap that story, so you know where we are… So I missed my flight, by minutes or a minute probably. Couldn’t get on the flight I needed to get on to because they couldn’t check my luggage and it was too big to carry on. The Delta ticket agent very kindly suggested I stay at the TWA Hotel. I had not even thought of that. Helped me get a reservation and showed me how to get there.

I walked through the JetBlue terminal, I walked into the elevator. The elevator has two buttons, modern day JetBlue and 1960s TWA Hotel. Press the 1960s and you exit into a tube. And these tubes were really famous. You’ve probably seen them in tons of different movies. And they’re long tubes with red carpeting, white walls and atmospheric music playing, in this case, Frank Sinatra. And to your right is Howard Hughes desk and office. And so you start to walk down this tube. And it’s just an amazing feeling of being in a different place. It’s atmospherically so different and has such a different feel from anything that you’ve ever seen in an airport before. It’s just amazing. Almost, it’s not claustrophobic, but it’s so much more enclosed than what you’re used to normally seeing. The idea is that the tube is mimicking the feeling of being inside a plane.

So I walk down the tube, and I turn right. And I walk by a gallery of these amazing TWA posters from the 60s. And the place is brand spanking new, which is pretty incredible. And as you enter into the terminal, you realize that what they’ve done is they have recreated the TWA terminal from the 1960s. So over time, I’m sure it got pretty messed up. And what they did is they rolled it back to what it looked like the day it opened in 1962. And they’re maintaining it that way. And it’s a pretty incredible story in terms of what they’ve done. And I’ll take you through some of the stats, some of the things that they did there, but it’s it is pretty mind blowing.

And so you walk out and where the ticket counters used to be is now check into the hotel. They still have the conveyor belt behind check in. Fun fact, first airport terminal to have a conveyor belt for luggage check. And you can actually check your luggage. I mean, interestingly, they rent rooms by the half day and the day. If you have a layover and you want to get some sleep in the middle of the day, you can get a room. They also have a restaurant. So you can go to the Paris Cafe, which is a Jean-Georges restaurant. And you can get something to eat or drink. Or you can just walk around and check the place out.

I’ll talk a little bit about all the different things that are in the hotel. So some of the things that they did to rebuild and recreate this. It’s 12 miles of LED lighting, 33 staircases that they had to build. They had 35 different trades working on site at the same time and 52 subcontractors, and in total 174 firms were working on the project. There were more than 450 daily construction workers a day a day. And they poured more than 1,000 cubic yards of concrete for the tarmac where the Connie sits, and I’ll talk a little about Connie as well. They created 3,000 construction jobs. And what’s most interesting is that the tile and the flooring is what’s called penny tile. Little tiny little tiles, very difficult to lay. They laid 20,000 square feet of new penny tile. So all the penny tile you see in there, although it looks like the original, it’s actually brand new laid by this team. They excavated a lot because they built underneath the building as well to create a conference center. So they actually excavated 74,000 cubic feet of sand which they donated to the Spring Creek Park and created 600,000 square feet of project space.

Essentially what they did is they took the terminal, brought it back to life lovingly. So it’s the thing that you would have seen if you were walking in in 1962. Created the entryway and all that stuff. And then they built two brand new buildings, which are hotel buildings, and so they’ve got 512 rooms that they built in the hotel. And what’s interesting is they have all the flight crew stay there. So they’ve got at least a quarter of the rooms at any one point in time are reserved for the flight crews and the flight crews stay there and then can just walk to the AirTrain and to the JetBlue terminal through one of the tunnels, it’s very, very easy to do and very easy to get to access.

And so what’s interesting about the experiences that they’ve… what’s unusual about the TWA Hotel, and maybe uniquely unusual, is it’s one of the only places I’ve ever been where it’s painstakingly reproduced as if it’s a museum. Yeah, it’s a full working hotel restaurant bar. And it’s a unusually unique and beautiful building. And, you know, obviously a landmark building. And they’ve done a lot of other things, too though. They have a micro car inside. They’ve got a convertible car from the early 60s parked out front, they have a uniform display of TWA flight attendant uniforms in one side. The chairs are all Saarinen chairs, series seven and womb chairs and things like that. It’s a very authentic experience. And you immediately realize you’re in a very special place. You realize you’re in a place that is an homage to a time that’s maybe a bit gone. But you can experience it now.

What I particularly loved, and I always love those really fine touches. And we’re going to talk about this a lot on the CXM Experience. If you’ve if you’ve listened at all, you’ll know that I’m a pretty major Disney fanatic, and part of my Disney fanaticism comes from this just deep love of their attention to detail. And a lot of people  would be like don’t waste your money on that, no one notices that. People do notice it. They do notice details. And Walt Disney knew this better than anybody. I’ll never forget one of my… I’ve had many, many moments in many of the parks. And this is a silly moment to be one of my most memorable moments out of all the time spent there. But there’s one moment… it was in the California Adventure. And it was just as you’re going to where it’s the Cathay Circle theatre where Club 33 has its secondary headquarters. And it was early in the morning so the park is just opening, so still pretty quiet. And a Disney employee was sitting on the ground, probably cross legged, and she had a paintbrush. But a very tiny paintbrush, like the kind of paintbrush you would use if you’re painting a plastic model, if you made plastic models like tanks and planes and stuff like that. I did as a kid. Like a Testers paintbrush. Very small, very fine tip. And she was painting… she was not painting, she was repainting. So she was freshening, the gold leaf at the bottom of one of the lampposts on the street. And I just stood there looking at her. And she was really careful in how she was doing it. She was painstakingly careful with each stroke to make sure that it’s done properly and looked perfect. And I think boy, it must take her like a year to work her way around all the lampposts in the park at the speed she was going. But they look beautiful, and they look perfect and they look brand new. And I’ve never forgotten that.

And same thing at the TWA Hotel. The whole thing has a painstakingly recreated authentic quality that’s just so perfect. They’ve done such a good job. It’s been open for a while now. So such a good job of keeping it pristine like that. One of the things I love and this is a great detail is that at the time, a phone call — in 1962 — a phone call was a nickel. It became a dime a little bit later and stayed a dime for a long time. But it was a nickel at the time. And so in that hotel in the terminal lobby where the payphones used to be in 1962, there are now payphones again, the original silver black handset payphones and they take coins. And it’s a nickel to call. Just go and have that experience if you want to.

The rooms are also gorgeously done. While the rooms are brand new, because those are two brand new buildings. What they’ve done in the rooms they’ve done other things to make sure that they’re authentic. For example, there’s an actual magazine from 1962. Typically a Life magazine, just sitting on the coffee table. They’ve gone and scoured all the secondhand bookstores around America, and found all these Life magazines. And they put the authentic old Life magazine in the room. You can sit there and read a Life magazine from 1962 if you want to. The other thing that’s really cool is that the telephone in the room is a rotary phone. And different functions in the hotel are just different numbers. So if you want the front desk you dial one on the rotary phone. Must be amazing to watch some people who’ve never seen a rotary phone, figure out how to use it. But it’s pretty cool. You’ve got a rotary phone interface, to the front desk and everything else, all the other services in the hotel.

On the roof, there’s a little pool and a bar. And you can sit on the roof and watch planes take off and land and have a drink and sit by the pool and enjoy yourself. And as you go through this whole hotel the whole thing has got this feeling of traveling back in time and feeling like you’re part of something that’s very glamorous, and it’s very luxurious, and it’s very leisurely.

So I want to do one more segment on the TWA Hotel, I want to talk a little bit about the Constellation in the back. And we’re going to talk a little bit about the stores that are in the hotel and how they manage those. And a few other details that are kind of fun, which I’ll save till next time.

And for today, this is the CXM Experience. And I am Grad Conn and I’ll see you next time.