While the venues and honorees may change for the annual Real Estate Board of New York banquet, some things remain constant. The raucous event, dubbed the Liar’s Ball, has developed and maintained a notorious reputation for its crowd, which carries on loudly over the on-stage speakers. Imagine the Blue Seats at Madison Square Garden circa 1982, only with tuxedos and more booze.
Over the years, more people have come and contributed to the noise. In 1986, the industry lobby group’s annual banquet drew approximately 1,400 attendees. That’s no small number to be sure, but when the 118th REBNY Annual Gala kicks off on Thursday at the New York Hilton Midtown, an estimated 2,200 real estate industry members will be in attendance.
“Give or take a couple hundred,” Steve Spinola, the president of REBNY since 1986, said of the estimate.
The event is a time for catching up with old and new friends and, perhaps more importantly, making deals. After all, the real estate industry is not one to let a potential networking event go underutilized.
“People always tell me, ‘You should do something to make people more respectable,’” Mr. Spinola, who has the unenviable task of playing emcee at the banquet, said of the event’s reputation. “The crowd is rather rude, but this is what the people, my members, want to do at this event.”
The REBNY gala was first held on May 12, 1897, at the now-defunct Marlborough Hotel on Broadway between 36th and 37th Streets. This year’s event, to be held at the New York Hilton, promises to be just as boisterous as previous years. And Mr. Spinola wouldn’t want it any other way.
“I don’t want it to be a stuffy dinner,” he said.
Although Mr. Spinola acknowledges the unique nature of the event, he also understands his responsibility to at least attempt to quiet the crowd. He jokes that he breaks the record for use of the word “shush” each year. In the past, the organization went as far as to have someone on stage banging cymbals to get the crowd to pipe down.
“All I got was complaints from people nearby that it was hurting their ears,” he said of the failed attempt.
The event’s speakers and honorees face a similar problem of how best to deal with the crowd. On the one hand, there’s the “if you can’t beat them, join them” mentality of trying to better speak over a huge ballroom that’s already speaking over you.
On the other hand, you could do what Mr. Spinola remembers Steve Siegel doing.
When Steve Siegel was honored, the CBRE deal-maker decided to bring with him a sign rather than prepared remarks, Mr. Spinola remembered. Once Mr. Siegel reached the podium, he opened up the folded sign, which read “Thank You” and then promptly left the stage.
Mr. Siegel, for his part, remembers using the sign at a more somber occasion. To hear him tell it, as he did to The Commercial Observer last year, a sign came out to prompt a moment of silence for the recently deceased Edward S. Gordon.
“I brought the room to silence for a whole minute for the first time in history by hilding up a giant sign with ‘silence’ written across it,” he said. “Maybe it didn’t last a whole minute—maybe 40 seconds.”
However it happened, it’s clear that getting your point across at the event is not an easy proposition.
It isn’t always fun and games, however. More serious national and civic matters have in the past affected the event. One such moment occurred in January 1991, when Iraq launched a Scud missile attack on Israel in the waning weeks of the first Gulf War. Due to national concern for both American servicemen and women in the Middle East and our allies in Israel, the question arose whether to have the annual banquet at all.
“We decided to have the dinner, but we put televisions around the room,” Mr. Spinola said.
More recently, the REBNY banquet was scheduled for the same day as the “miracle on the Hudson” in January 2009 when the controlled ditching of U.S. Airways Flight 1549 led to its landing on the Hudson River. All 155 passengers and crew on the plane were safely evacuated, and later that evening the event dominated conversation during the annual gala.
“Chris Ward, the head of the Port Authority, showed up with his Port Authority jacket on straight from the Hudson River,” Mr. Spinola said. “He was able to tell me and the other people in attendance what had happened.”
Likewise, the show has gone on during troubling financial times. In the midst of the Great Depression in 1930, REBNY held its 34th annual banquet and managed to raise approximately $6,000 (or about $84,000 in today’s terms).
In an event traditionally dominated by men, the gala has certainly become more diverse over the years. Mr. Spinola estimates that the event was 97 percent men when he first attended in 1982.
“Now, you look around, and not everyone is wearing a tuxedo,” he said of the growing presence of women. “The world has changed, and women are playing a dramatic role in real estate.”
Changes in the attire of attendees aside, this year’s banquet promises to carry on the tradition as the preeminent social event of the year for New York real estate.