By Chad Kaydo
Things will be different. But they will go on.
That's what we're hearing, as the special events industry deals with the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks. It goes without saying that the people in this industry--like all Americans--have been affected on a personal, emotional level. And as they start to go back to work, they are also forced to deal with the tragedy as businesspeople. Special events and business entertaining in New York accounts for an estimated $4 billion industry, which will no doubt feel its own effects of this tragedy.
We've spoken to event planners, caterers and other industry vendors to get a sense of what they're thinking about. As they deal with their own personal feelings, they're also wondering when the event circuit will return to some sense of normalcy, and what to expect as people put together events for a city that has focused on almost nothing but the attacks for more than a week.
Many industry people are talking about two almost paradoxical, but equally reasonable ideas: First, most people can't even think about parties now--or at least the silly, meaningless ones that have no purpose. But the second feeling is that people need to gather for a sense of camaraderie and togetherness now more than ever. Companies and individuals who can understand and react to these two sentiments will survive--and perhaps thrive--in the New York City that emerges from this catastrophe.
Meanwhile, many individuals and companies who work on events have already reacted to this disaster. When the attacks halted New York's event activity, many people in the industry rushed in to help recovery efforts. And then, as they headed back to work in the past few days, they started to address how to deal with scores of cancelled events, as well as the city's changed mood. While it's too soon for any definitive answers, we've put together a sample of what people have been doing, talking about and planning.
Before people in the special events industry could look at the effect of the attacks on their industry, they had to deal with the disaster as people. And many of them used the tools and resources they have gained as event planners--organizational skills, food preparation, technical innovations--and dedicated them to helping those working to save lives amid the wreckage. Here are a few stories of those in the special events industry who helped:
- Catering company Robbins Wolfe Eventeurs' kitchen is located at 521 West Street, within view of the World Trade Center site. “Much of my staff saw what happened from right outside,” partner Christopher Robbins told us. As survivors passed by while fleeing the wreckage, the staff handed out bottles of soda and water leftover from the Hamptons Classic. Later, the caterer delivered food from the company's cancelled events to St. Vincent's Hospital.
- While some caterers had to leave their headquarters to deliver food, Abigail Kirsch Culinary Productions had emergency workers show up right in their venues. Chelsea Piers, where Kirsch is the exclusive caterer for Pier Sixty and the Lighthouse, became a center for triage work, rescue workers and supply storage (as did the Javits Center). “We had triage at Chelsea Piers so we were feeding doctors,” the caterer's James Kirsch told us. “Banquet tables were turned into beds.”
- On Tuesday, Tom Cheves and two of his employees at Airstar Lighting Balloons USA drove up from Florida to bring some of the company's Airstar lighting units (Read our Discovery...) to help light the rescue efforts at ground zero. (The drive took 24 hours due to traffic and the equipment they were hauling.) The lightweight, balloon-like Airstars are usually used to light film sets or to decorate special events--but they've also helped tornado relief efforts and other post-disaster work. After Cheves arrived, he worked with Duane Chan-Shue and Peter Prostowich at the product's New York distributor, Special Events Available Light, to deliver four of the units and some generators to the rescue site.
- On Wednesday, Jaclyn Bernstein, Robert Hulsmeyer and Kevin White of special events and destination management services company Empire Force Events rented a van and headed to the impromptu emergency center at Chelsea Piers. After finding out what the rescue workers needed, the trio gathered donations from neighborhood businesses and ended up running supplies directly to the site downtown. Once there, they also helped distribute items among the different camps set up to help. “As event planners, we saw that it needed organization,” Bernstein told us, so they helped workers communicate with each other and share supplies. After working until 1 AM, the trio regrouped on Thursday, and then went back to help on Friday, delivering water, food and other requested supplies.
- Event decor and entertainment firm Pink Inc.'s six full-time staffers were listening to the radio on Friday when they heard that the dogs helping rescue workers were getting cut from walking on the glass at the site. Looking for a way to help, they designed special booties for the dogs, using white vinyl leftover from a past decor project. Making and delivering sets of boots for 20 dogs helped the rescue efforts, and also gave the Pink Inc. crew a welcome diversion and a way to deal with their own feelings. “We called them go-go boots,” Pink Inc. director of marketing and sales Daniel Nardicio told us, sounding relieved to have something to laugh about amidst so much sadness.
- Danny Meyer temporarily closed his restaurants in order to have the kitchen staffs prepare and deliver food to hospitals, fire and police stations and shelters.
- Restaurant and independent movie house the Screening Room has been closed to the public (it's just south of Canal), but its staff has been serving food to rescue workers.
- Robert De Niro, whose TriBeCa restaurant ventures have been closed since the attacks, helped organize a food drive to feed the rescue workers, and worked with Spirit Cruises yachts Spirit of New York and Spirit of New Jersey to deliver food to ground zero, Entertainment Weekly's Web site reported. Since Friday, TriBeCa Grill chef Don Pintabona has worked with other top New York chefs including Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Daniel Boulud, Charlie Palmer and Gray Kunz to provide food for emergency workers, 500 meals at a time.
- Restaurant and club owners including Merchants Restaurant Group have already started planning benefits to raise money for relief efforts. (Check out our list of World Trade Center Disaster Benefits. To tell us about events you're planning, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
- Jennifer Stewart--who performs as Living Liberty, a live version of the Statue of Liberty, at corporate events--went out to give people a patriotic New York symbol.
- Carey International announced it would offer its chauffeured vehicles at cost from September 13 to September 21 for those trying to travel between cities while air travel was impossible or limited.
WHO'S CANCELLING--AND WHO'S NOT
Obviously, New York's special events halted on Tuesday, as the city watched the tragedy unfold. This week's schedule has been considerably lighter than last week's original calendar, both because of the tragedy and the Jewish holidays. But what about the rest of the month? How are event planners dealing with such an unprecedented occurrence? And will they reschedule events that got cancelled last week?
While some events have been completely cancelled, we're hearing that many are just being postponed to a later date. 7th on Sixth executive director Fern Mallis announced that Fashion Week's unfinished shows have been rescheduled for October 22 through 24 (designer Douglas Hannant has already rescheduled his show for this Thursday). When we spoke to Abigail Kirsch's James Kirsch on Friday, he reported that many of the caterer's events from last week had been postponed (and a few weddings went on as scheduled), but no events planned beyond September 24 had been changed.
Robbins Wolfe Eventeurs partner Chris Robbins also says most of the company's events from last week have been postponed, not cancelled. (Of the 11 parties the company had planned, only two small private functions went on, although with a less celebratory manner.) Many corporate clients are still planning to hold events scheduled for later in the month. “The feeling is they need to get back to work,” he says. “But I don't know what the turnout or the mood is going to be at these things.” The area where Robbins expects to see some changes is with private social clients, who throw dinner parties for no definite reason. “It's hard to figure out how much of that just won't happen in the next month,” Robbins says.
Maren Waxenberg, director of special events at George Trescher Associates, a fund-raising firm that works on lots of tony benefits, says the disaster hasn't caused a rash of benefit cancellations. Although the opening night of the New York City Opera scheduled for Tuesday, September 11 at the New York State Theater will be rescheduled, all of the firm's other benefits are going ahead as planned, starting with the Municipal Arts Society's event on October 1. Waxenberg says that instead of jeopardizing these benefits, the disaster has made them seem even more necessary. “Events that have a particular mission have a new resonance,” she says. “It's not just a party that people are throwing just to throw it.” The benefits may have a slightly different tone from events held six months ago, but the organizations that have already sold tickets can't afford to cancel them.
Howard Givner, president of special event company Paint the Town Red, also says he's hearing about more postponements than cancellations. His account execs had spoken to about a dozen clients on Monday, and all were going ahead with events planned for October and beyond. The firm even got two calls from customers who weren't planning to hold holiday parties, but decided that the World Trade Center attacks made such events more necessary.
Paint the Town Red, which also runs a location consulting operation, also got lots of calls from planners checking to see which financial district venues were damaged in the attack. Because those venues also lost records (and some didn't have back-ups), planners with events already booked weren't necessarily contacted by their reps to tell them their event needed a new location. (Check out our Downtown Venue Update to find out the status of many locations below Canal Street.)
He also said he hadn't heard about any venues who weren't willing to postpone events to later dates or apply deposits to future events. “I just don't think people have it in them to slug it out over cancellation fees right now,” Givner said. Most contracts also have provisions for acts of war and so-called “acts of God,” so planners should be protected anyway.
Lee Blumer of Manhattan Center Studios told us she wasn't sure how the venue would deal with returning deposits or applying them toward future events, but she said the location's special events scheduled for last week and this week were cancelled. (Concert performances planned for last weekend still went on, with the exception of comedian Margaret Cho's show, which is being rescheduled.) This week the venue is hosting some grief counseling sessions and corporate meetings.
As a destination management services company, Empire Force Events works primarily with companies from other cities who travel to New York for events and meetings, and partner Jaclyn Bernstein told us some customers are hesitant to travel to New York in the immediate future. Yet while that might limit incentive travel events in New York, locally based companies who choose not to have employees travel and keep their own meetings and motivational events in their home city may offset that loss of business. (Check out our Fall Event Guide for ideas for such events.)
Even while people in the industry are offering ideas about the future, they still acknowledge that it's just too soon to tell what will happen. And they're also still dealing with last week on a more personal level. “A lot of us aren't even sure what we can do at this point,” Samantha Bowerman, the immediate past president of the New York chapter of Meeting Professionals International, and manager of meetings and conferences for the American Institute of CPAs, told us. Only four of the 15 people on her staff were in the office on Friday, while the others worked from home or other places while dealing with their own personal lives. She cancelled all meetings scheduled for this week, and plans to evaluate other upcoming events on a case-by-case basis. “You're trying to keep things business as usual, but it's also hard to focus,” Bowerman said. “We're just trying to be there for each other.”
Additional reporting by Suzanne Ito and Mark Mavrigian
Let us know how your company is dealing with the tragic events facing our city and the special events industry. Send an email to Executive Editor Chad Kaydo at email@example.com.