An Evening at the Liar’s Ball: Raucous Behavior! Bottles of Colgin at the 21 Club! Talking Over the Cardinal?

It was a typical evening at the Real Estate Board of New York’s annual gala as John Cardinal O’Connor stepped up to the dais to address a crowd of several thousand of the city’s most ambitious commercial real estate brokers and owners.

But in a ritual repeated more or less each year, the archbishop of the New York archdiocese’s 2.37 million Catholics and one of the Vatican’s most forceful spokesmen in the United States during the 1980s, was summarily ignored by a brokerage community far more interested in making deals than in hearing the Gospel.

january 4 2012 8 An Evening at the Liar’s Ball: Raucous Behavior! Bottles of Colgin at the 21 Club! Talking Over the Cardinal?Whether it was Mayor Bloomberg or Mayor Giuliani or a litany of governors going back to Nelson Rockefeller, guests of the annual gala have routinely been humbled at the New York Hilton’s Grand Ballroom, a cavernous space so stuffed each January with tuxedoed men and a smattering of elegantly dressed real estate women as to intimidate even the most confident of speakers. The collective chatter is fierce and formidable, and it swells to a deafening volume, with each broker hyping his or her year in deals with disingenuous aplomb.

“It almost doesn’t matter who the speakers are, because I’ve never seen—as much as I love my colleagues—a ruder group of people than at this banquet,” said Peter Hauspurg, chairman and chief executive of Eastern Consolidated and a 30-year veteran of the gala.

Affectionately referred to by seasoned vets as “The Liars Ball” for the rosy real estate projections offered up by attendees, this year’s affair, the 116th in the board’s storied existence, will boast more of the same, with brokers coughing up $1,000 per seat to schmooze, stir up new business and drink. Indeed, most confirm, they didn’t ante up for a $10,000 table simply to nosh on rubber chicken.

“It’s kind of the best and the worst of New York,” said Cherrie Nanninga, a chief operating officer at CBRE and a gala vet. “It’s the best in that it gets everybody together and it’s a real community. And it’s the worst in that … there’s no decorum whatsoever.”

The evening does start with some decorum, at least. Just before the gala commences, the REBNY Foundation holds its annual cocktail party inside the hotel’s Mercury Room, where the biggest builders and brokers in the real estate game convene for a civilized, invitation-only gathering. “That really has the top dogs in the industry, so it becomes a very clubby room,” said Mr. Hauspurg.

But then the action moves to the Grand Ballroom, where the male-dominated scene—“Like a bookie room with booze,” quipped real estate maven Barbara Corcoran—turns to the tried-and-true act of handing business cards. “It’s an active time, and a million cards are given out that night,” said Larry Silverstein, chief executive of Silverstein Properties. “Everyone walks in with stacks of cards to give out. Halfway through the evening the cards are all gone, and you say, ‘Holy shit, what happened?!’”

Armed with their stacks of cards, brokers use the gala’s program to see where in the sea of formalwear their intended prey can be found. “There’s 1,100 people and everybody has their book where everyone is seated, and people just kind of take that book and start going and visiting [people],” said Mr. Hauspurg.

The evening also has its share of overeager, albeit univited brokers desparate to break in and who, price be damned, try to sneak into the party without paying the hefty fee.

“It’s all vendors who want to crash,” said one up-and-coming broker, who has attended the gala and, in fact, snuck a few of his friends in on several occasions. “I would say the worst vendors are the ones who sell office furniture.” Crashing the parties has become less of an issue, assured some REBNY members. “There’s always guys waiting outside to sneak in and all kinds of stuff,” added Mr. Silverstein, who was chairman of the Real Estate Board of New York from 1983 to 1985. “But I think today that is rare, I assume.”

And when they’re not hunting down business, gala attendees are on the lookout for free wine, a surefire commodity in an event that features a cash bar and plenty of thirsty guests. “Wine is sort of entering the consciousness to the industry as a whole,” said Mary Ann Tighe, REBNY chairwoman and a tristate chief executive at CBRE. “In the early years of my career, the word passing [was], “Go to the Port Authority table, they have the wine.’”

In the late ’90s, to be sure, the Port Authority’s table was favorably situated in the main floor of the gala. Throw in the two million-plus square feet in vacant space the agency was looking to rent out at the time and its copious amounts of wine, and the Port Authority’s table became a popular destination for brokers thirsty for business and a free glass of tipple, several veteran brokers recalled.

“I subsequently came to realize that this was part of the Port Authority staff’s cleverness,” added Ms. Tighe. “They understood that everybody would come to see them if they had wine at their table.”

“I don’t think it was good wine,” said Ms. Nanninga, who sat at the table during her time as deputy chief financial officer and director of real estate for the Port Authority. The wine, she said, helped not in securing business, but in meeting new brokers. “The brokerage community was very, very important to us, because we were trying to establish that … you could do business with the Port Authority,” added Ms. Nanninga.

Over the years, the industry’s biggest players—and biggest oenophiles—would bring in cases of their own fine wine to the gala. Unlike the Port Authority, however, this powerful group, which has included Vornado Realty Trust chief executive Mike Fascitelli and Newmark Knight Frank’s Neil Goldmacher, was hardly as generous. “It’s always just for their table,” said one developer. “I’ve had some of it. It’s excellent.”

Mr. Goldmacher and Mr. Fascitelli did not return calls requesting comment.

When the clock strikes 10, and brokers and developers are on the hunt for the next big party (or an empty cab), another group of industry veterans has typically splintered off to the 21 Club, where wine, once again, becomes a central talking point among real estate professionals. Cassidy Turley’s Richard Bernstein and Mark Boisi, along with colleagues Robert Billingsley and Jim Fredericks, have for the past two decades used the lounge area at 21 Club to decompress with a good bottle of red wine, like Colgin Cellars or Bryant Family Vineyard’s cabernet sauvignon.

“When we come through the doors of the 21 Club and they take one look at me and the rest of my crew, they start salivating, because they know we’re going to be cracking open the wine and going pretty deep,” said Mr. Boisi.

For those looking to amp things up a notch, brokers have historically ventured to the after-parties thrown inside the Hilton by the Title Insurance Company. “It’s drinking and shooting the bull and the Title people wanting to make sure that they are in your face so that the next time you are doing a deal you are calling them up,” said one real estate figure.

The parties have also been known for being risqué in the past, according to several brokers who pointed to the ’80s as a particularly decadent era for the REBNY gala. “I’ve been to REBNY parties where the assumption of even myself or some of the women that I work with being there, we were automatically thought of being part of the prostitution crowd,” said a longtime female real estate professional, who believes prostitues were frequenting the event. “It’s not just the REBNY gala, it’s an across-the-board-thing.

“Of course you still hear about the parties and the extravagant entertaining that goes on, but it’s not on the scale that it used to be,” she added. “Maybe because of the lack of money.”

Others, however, denied the event was ever as louche as others purported it to be. “Are there beautiful people there? Yes, but I have yet to see anything more than hand-holding,” said another real estate figure.

While the evening as a whole remains like, as one real estate professional put it, “a continual bar mitzvah” for those who have been attending the affair since the Kennedy presidency, at least one young broker failed to see the silver lining of such a pricy night out.

“The whole party sucks,” the broker sniffed. “It’s $10,000 for a table and a cash bar.”

Organizations in this story

People in this story

{{ story.sponsored_byline | safe }}

{{ story.featured_attachment.caption | safe }}
{{ story.featured_attachment.caption | safe }}

Buildings in this story

Organizations in this story

People in this story

Activity in this story

Loading next story...