Wollman Rink, Central Park, Manhattan
New York City

New York City is a winter wonderland over the holidays. Everyone’s feeling festive and there’s an abundance of classic experiences that you just can’t get anywhere else in the world. But it’s also one of the busiest times of year, with crowds of locals and tourists out shopping and celebrating and soaking up the holiday energy. How do you manage all of this if you’re visiting New York with a large group? We asked one of the city’s top group travel experts—John Williams, President of American Guest USA—for the inside scoop.

John Williams | American Guest | NYC Tips

As a leading destination management company, American Guest works its connections all over the city to make sure clients—both corporate groups and leisure travelers—get the absolute best of New York during their visit. Here, Williams shares his professional and personal tips for a fun and seamless group trip to his hometown.

Rockefeller Center, Midtown, Manhattan

Rockefeller Center | © NYC & Company/Marley White

What are your top tips for visitors coming to NYC in a large group?

Consider using a professional to lay out a program and let them guide you along the way. Next, it’s key to know what you want. Set up one person as the lead. When you use a committee approach, it’s probably going to be a challenge. Also, be flexible (if possible) on your dates; it can make all of the difference. A first trip to New York calls for one kind of plan; if the group has been here before, you can drill down to the real New York experiences. Don’t leave gaps in the plan. Lastly, understand expectations — time, money and interests will determine what can and can’t be done. When it’s the holiday season, be prepared to go to ‘Plan B.’

For example, transportation. How is your group going to get around? At the holidays, Manhattan is gridlocked. What should be 10 minutes will take you 30 minutes; 20 will take you 45 or 60 minutes. It may be better to walk. But, maybe it’s 5 degrees or snowing. Have practical alternatives. Make a decision on transportation several days out and allow for longer travel times.

Do you recommend groups use taxis, car or van services, or the subway?

For individuals or groups, if you’re shopping in Manhattan during the holidays and the budget allows, have a vehicle take you around. It’s a place to leave your bags and catch your breath. Carrying bags at the holidays is like wading through chest-high water — a task to avoid if possible. Of course, the fastest way to travel is the subway, but if the group is more than 10–12, it’s like heading cats. Cabs are too few to be a reliable source for anyone, especially if in risky weather. Conclusion: hire a vehicle; it’s worth it.

What are some good casual restaurants for groups? 

Downtown, we like Battery Gardens, at the tip of Manhattan, inside Battery Park. It’s got views of the Statue of Liberty, not everybody knows about it, and it’s a good value, reasonably priced. It’s not formal; smart casual. Just west of there — at Brookfield Place, there’s Le District. It’s a marketplace — plus you can get steak, seafood, coffee… they will prepare it so you can have your meal while you’re there. And they have a regular restaurant, which is wonderful as well. Harry’s Italian is another good place in the financial district. Uptown, try one of the Benjamin steak houses for lunch — it’s casual and costs less than dinner.

Top of the Rock view of Empire State Building

Top of the Rock
view of Empire State Building | © NYC & Company/Marley White

Should groups do tours for sightseeing or do it on their own?

Either way, have an advance plan. Understand that during the holidays it’s going to take longer. For the Statue of Liberty, buy tickets early, because they do sell out, and go early. If you’re going to go to One World Trade Center, Top of the Rock, or the Empire State Building, make sure you have your tickets in advance and plan your day out. I would do one of those things either first thing in the morning or at the end of the day. Do not doing them in the middle, you’re just wasting your day waiting in line.

For tours, I always recommend the double decker buses if it’s a group’s first time in New York — for half a day or full day. It gets you acclimated — you’ll have a better understanding of how the city is laid out, what you want to see more of, and what you’ve checked off your list. The next day, schedule a private vehicle and guide so you can hit the places you are really interested in, or to go to Brooklyn or Queens.

How should groups handle visiting New York’s museums?

For most of them, you can just show up and buy tickets there. But you’ll waste time so do it in advance. Always try to make sure the museum fit everyone’s interests. If you’re going to MoMA, make sure they appreciate modern art. The American Museum of Natural History is pretty much for everybody. You could spend hours or days at a place like The Met. So, that’s where a DMC is important — we can help with research, asking you questions, getting you a guide and making sure you’re efficient in your time. Your group may want to split up — one half may want to go shopping, and the others may want to do museums for a couple of hours.

What about Broadway shows?

The first thing to understand is that, like hotels and airlines today, Broadway shows are dynamic with their pricing. So, what would be $110 in January may be $190 in December. What was available 10 seconds ago just went up in price by $30. It’s supply and demand. Next, consider where you want to sit. If there are nine of you, you probably will not not be seated together. Split up; you’ll have better seats and a better experience. You can usually get tickets at the last minute; you’re just going to pay more than if you had a DMC plan your shows. For the holidays, I recommend The Rockettes. They’re appropriate for the most groups. If you buy Broadway tickets from Ticketmaster or at the theaters, they don’t ask you, ‘Who’s is going to the show?’ We do. We’re making sure that it’s the right experience for your group. A DMC can tell you why a 2:00 PM matinee may be a lot better than the 8:00 PM show. Or, we can arrange meet and greets with some of the cast. We could do a Q&A after the show, or a private cocktail event inside the theater prior to the performance.

Brooklyn Bridge, Brooklyn

© NYC & Company/Julienne Schaer

What are some less obvious activities for groups?

Private cooking classes with a personal or celebrity chef are fun. Think about whether you’re looking to just have fun or actually cook and have dinner. Expert guided walks with stops at historic bars for a beer are great. A trip across the Brooklyn Bridge with a stop in Williamsburg. Volunteering as a group is fantastic. You can get involved in coat drives, volunteer at soup kitchens or donate toys to the local hospitals or schools.

What are some of the most impressive group activities you’ve organized?

The “wows?” Depending on the budget, perhaps staging a program on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Organizing a fleet of helicopters to travel out to the Hamptons for a private event. Having a private charter around New York Harbor on New Year’s Eve. Everybody thinks of Times Square for fun but there are fireworks in the harbor and in Central Park. Private suites or rooftops in Times Square where you can see the ball drop make for a much more intimate experience.

What are some of your personal favorites for the holidays in New York City?

21 Club is a New York institution. At the holidays, it’s a great place to have a drink or a meal. That’s a quintessential Manhattan experience. Bryant Park’s Winter Village: everybody knows Rockefeller Center has a skating rink but not everybody knows that Bryant Park has one that is just as fantastic and has shorter lines. All the holiday kiosks and pop-up restaurants really set the mood. If you’ve got kids, I like taking them to the American Girl store. I love walking through Grand Central Station, going to the churches to see the decorations, and going to a little café in SoHo or Little Italy for dessert. There’s nothing like going to see the windows at the department stores. I try to do that with my kids every year. We go to all of them in one night: Lord and Taylor is one of the best, then Saks, Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s. That’s fun. Doing a horse and carriage ride in Central Park at nighttime is awesome.

Rebecca