Gotham Gazette

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Getting New York City's Events Industry Up and Running Again

versa nyc outdoor

When can event spaces come back in New York City? (photo: VERSA)

The future is coming into focus. New York City is starting to reopen, and officials are releasing specific guidelines on how different industries can get back up and running, such as regulations for outdoor dining. Empty middle seats and temperature checks are clearly in the future for airlines. 

But what about the events industry, which brings in $10 billion and employs approximately 500,000 in the State of New York? As CEO of the Backal Hospitality Group, I’ve seen first-hand how the events industry in New York City has been utterly flattened by the coronavirus. While restaurants have been able to pivot to offer takeout, curbside pickup, or delivery when New York first went on “pause,” and airlines are still able to fly throughout the past few months, the events industry has come to a complete halt, the hardest hit among businesses based on the idea of bringing groups of people together. 

With all the daily announcements from Albany, it is still unclear which of the four reopening phases will allow events to restart. 

Backal Hospitality Group employs up to 200 individuals and creates corporate events, fundraising galas for not-for-profits, and social gatherings. We cannot fall between the cracks (or phases). The many thousands who count on the events industry for their incomes are eager to get back to work and want to do so safely. How do we rebuild?

Following the recommended guidelines for health and safety protocols from officials, those of us in the industry need to be proactive, creative, and aggressive in coming up with solutions ourselves; ideas that will preserve the appeal of what we offer while making customers feel safe because they are safe. It might seem like an impossible task, but it’s not. 

First, we will have to accept that our events may look different in the beginning. We must adapt, even if it brings some temporary financial pain. For a time, our profit margins will be stretched if not eliminated, but at least we will be doing any business at all. We must recognize we are in this for the long run, and we will have to rebuild step by step slowly and steadily to get where we need to go and preserve our industry that employs everyone from independent florists to caterers to local entertainment to photographers and many more. 

If we smartly implement health and safety protocols for all events, which go hand-in-hand with the goals of elected officials, then we may avoid having our industry on hold for months longer, which would be devastating to the livelihood of thousands of New Yorkers. 

Here are some ideas:

Governor Cuomo has allowed groups of 25 to gather. It’s more than the original groups of 10 he authorized, but, since this still isn’t much of an event in terms of our industry, why not several groups of 25 in smaller, separated rooms? Would that be the basis for a socially-distanced evening or lunch?

In New Jersey and Connecticut, both governors are allowing larger groups, including Gov. Ned Lamont of Connecticut who may permit groups up to 250 by mid-July with social distancing protocols still in place. As Governor Cuomo has said before, I think the region should be unified on such regulations.

Could guests be brought into an event on a staggered and reserved timeline, cycling through and with thorough cleanings in between each group, so that the overall group never gets too large?

What is safer – sit-down dining or pass-around appetizers? And why not use one of the more elegant and simple dining systems ever conceived: the Bento box? These could contain multiple items for a single guest, and no passing them around. And they can be made quite beautifully. 

All servers will of course wear masks and gloves. A few months ago, this might have seemed strange, even alarming, but this is our new normal for the health and safety of all of us.

Then there is the great outdoors. Let’s take a cue from the restaurant industry.

Perhaps, before the pandemic, you had an opportunity to gaze down at the rooftops of Manhattan from a skyscraper. That landscape has changed incredibly in recent years. What was once a sea of black tar and AC units is now filled with gardens and decks and cabanas. Rooftop bars and restaurants abound, and there is a great deal of opportunity. 

A few years ago I became a managing partner and operator at VERSA Restaurant and Rooftop, which has an 8,000 square-foot outdoor area located in the Renaissance New York Midtown Hotel. It’s been closed for over three months. Summer is upon us. If the city and state have approved outdoor dining rules, they should apply to outdoor event spaces, too. We have the room to socially-distance our tables, and then some. 

And we have a far better view than you do from the street.

Arthur Backal is CEO of Backal Hospitality Group.

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