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Insight; New York Hospitality Professionals - This Week: B. Allan Kurtz

“Insight; New York Hospitality Professionals”, a weekly interview series with professionals from the MICE industry in New York.

These are uncertain times for our industry – yet we believe that now is the moment to bring our industry closer together by strengthening our ties and relationships on a more human level. It is for this reason that Shackman Associates is undertaking a series of interviews with other New York hospitality professionals to learn how they are managing during this time.

In this episode of Insight; New York Hospitality Professionals Karen Shackman, President and CEO of Shackman Associates interviews B. Allan Kurtz, Managing Director of Gotham Hall and Ziegfeld Ballroom in New York City.

My name is Allan Kurtz. For some of you who know me, my first initial is B which stands for Bruce. I have been in the industry for a very long time, since the early 1980s. I have been with Gotham Hall since 2003 and actually found the Ziegfeld Ballroom location which we opened on October 10, 2017.

Karen: What is your current situation these days?

B. Allan: I am certainly not in lockdown but am working remotely like so many of us in the world. My last day in the office was Monday, March 16. I spend my time between Long Beach, LI and Bucks County, Pa in a little tiny town called Carversville.

Karen: How is your daily routine organized now?

B. Allan: The only difference is that I am not commuting into New York City. The routine has changed drastically though. I have never worked so much. I start my day at 8:30am, and I don’t end my day. And that is the difference between being in the office and now working remotely.

Karen: Sounds like a long day?

B. Allan: Yes, the day never ends. I respond to emails until the early hours of the morning because my laptop is always open. I may stop for a few hours to have dinner or watch a show, but then I go back again. You just don’t leave your office behind because you haven’t actually left it. I don’t believe I am alone in this. Everybody seems to have been working more, and not earning any money, by the way.

Karen: What is the norm for you these days?

B. Allan: Moving events around. Not booking events.There are very few inquiries. Corporations aren’t calling at all. International people don’t exist right now. The non-profits are moving everything around. And while they need to raise funds, many of the folks who support these events are older, and they are not coming out right now. Many tried to keep their events in this year, but are now having to move to 2021. Social clients and wedding are moving their events to the corresponding weekend the following year.

Karen: Are any of your clients considering virtual or hybrid events?

B. Allan: So far, we have not done any virtual events, but have a few sticks in the fire for hybrid events. These are about still having people in the building. That is what is important. I don’t care whether it is 100 or 200 people on site. It is about having some life at the event. I have found some of the virtual events very boring. If you have a hybrid event, there is still energy in the room, and the people at home at least feel a little of that.

Karen: How are you preparing for hybrid events?

B. Allan: We actually have an entire program set up, although we haven’t done it yet. We are ready to deliver food, programs, favors or gifts to peoples’ homes as soon as the first client says “go!”. So you can have 100 people eating in, and 100 people eating in their homes. And we can do that at a moment’s notice.

Karen: How often are you in touch with your team?

B. Allan: I have a zoom call with the Gotham Hall team at 3:30PM every day and with the Ziegfield team at 4:30 every day. So that’s a constant for me.

Karen: It seems the conversations are more with the social and not-for-profit clients than corporate clients for now.

B. Allan: Corporate clients just pulled the plug. They are “risk averse” and are not doing anything right now. Holiday parties that were booked are staying booked currently, for the most part. If they weren’t booked by March, they are not booking now. Everything is on hold for future holiday parties

Karen: And I guess the next few weeks are going to be a big tell for what is going to happen here. Everything slows down during the summer anyway, and now with the rest of the country opening, it will be interesting to see how that affects us.

B. Allan: Right. Now Ohio is doing weddings with up to 300 guests and we found out why - because the average size of a wedding in Ohio is 300 guests. And here, it’s obviously complicated. It’s about Phase 1 opening on June 9th and then getting to Phase 2 and 3 without setbacks.

Karen: We, in the hospitality business, are Phase 3 or Phase 4 at this stage. Right?

B. Allan: Correct, I mean it really depends on how you look at it. We have been categorizing ourselves as “Restaurants, Bars” which is Phase 3 but some of the larger things are Phase 4. There’s no real defining line between Phase 3 and Phase 4 as far as events are concerned. For example, a hotel gets to open but does their ballroom get to open up? So, if you have a large enough space and you can do a 200-300 person event with social distancing, that could work. I think it is going to be on an “as you go” basis.

Karen: How will pricing be affected by having a significantly lower number of people in your spaces?

B. Allan: We are definitely allowing people to adjust their minimum guarantees without affecting their pricing. But If a 400 person event drops to a 100 people without it becoming a hybrid event - that becomes difficult to manage. We are absolutely working with clients on their guarantees and treating everyone as an individual case.

Karen: Where do you see an increase in costs?

B. Allan: Labor costs are going to go up now because cleaning people will need to be front and center. It used to be that nobody wanted to see the broom and dustpan out, but that has changed. I’m going to have a battery of 6 uniformed cleaning people greeting guests as they walk in the door. And they will be the ones sanitizing all the high touch locations throughout the venue every 15 minutes - whether that is elevator buttons or handrails.They will be the most important people in the space making sure everything is disinfected from one end of the building to the other.

Karen: Are you still dealing with rebookings or cancellations:

B. Allan: Yes, every day and clients are trying to figure out how to do their events. For example, one non-profit in the healthcare field may change their event to a Thank You to their staff instead of a fundraiser. It seems their supporters will continue to support them and we will do our part to make sure it is a success, even if the event drops from 600 to 200. They have been with us at Gotham for about 9 years and it is important for our relationship to work with them.

Karen: A lot is about relationships then?

B. Allan: Absolutely. For clients who have been with us for many years, like Shackman Associates, it is important for us to keep the relationship intact and we will do what we have to.

Karen: What are you doing for yourself to keep sane during this period?

B. Allan: Actually, to keep myself sane, I started an industry task force called BEST: Banquet Events Strategic Taskforce. Together with 30 of the best locations in town, we developed guidelines on how to handle events, how to take care of our guests properly and how to be safe. And food safety? We’ve always done that - but there are extra steps now. We want people to know what those extra steps are both front and back of house.

Karen: That is really impressive and very helpful to know. As an event producer, we also need to outline to our clients what our colleagues in the industry are doing.

Karen: I totally agree. On a personal level, are you doing any outdoor activities? Running, hiking or doing yoga?

B. Allan: Yesterday, my wife and I painted a birdhouse and the day before, we went fishing. So, I am doing some outdoor things. But, I have made a concerted effort not to work on weekends. That would not normally be the case, but that is what I am doing.

Karen: Is there any TV show you're watching or any books you're reading right now?

B. Allan: There is really only one show that I’m watching right now and that is Ozark.

Karen: Everybody is watching Ozark!

B. Allan: I’m in the 3rd season, I’m not a big series person or binge watcher personally. I also watch a bit of YoutubeTV so I can flip through the channels. Since I live out in the country, I watch some documentaries on birds. And I am good with comedians, I need a good laugh.

Karen: Once all the travel restrictions are eased, what's first on your mind?

B. Allan: We usually go away over Christmas time as the event industry is a little bit quieter then. We were looking at Aruba for the holiday season but may end up in South Florida this year just in case we need to drive home. The question is a hotel or not a hotel and we have to figure out what works for us.

Karen: Any parting words?

B. Allan: There are two words which sum up the position we are in: Confidence – our staff needs to be confident they can come to work safe and healthy and return home safe and healthy. The other is Integrity. If we promise something, we have to deliver on that promise. This way, in time, we hope to build up confidence of clients, guests and staff – and for the industry as a whole.

Karen: Thank you! I appreciate you taking the time for this interview. I agree, let's build confidence and a safe and healthy environment for clients, guests and staff as New York City is starting to reopen again today with Phase 1.

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