Ballroom Waltz: A Minute-By-Minute Account of Last Night’s REBNY Gala

Thursday’s Real Estate Board of New York gala packed an estimated 2,400 guests into the Hilton New York’s overstuffed Grand Ballroom—an increase from last year by about 200. The Commercial Observer walked the room, hobnobbed with brokers and landlords and taste-tested a dinner of steak and potatoes while washing it all down with a few stiff drinks. Staff Reporters Karsten Strauss and Al Barbarino get the inside dish.

6:01—The 117th Annual REBNY gala is underway and a crowd is gathering around two stocked bars. Drinks in hand, they begin breaking up into small groups of avid talkers.

6:08—“So far so good,” said one lender, who was skeptical about the ability to get deals going at the gala. “Sometimes it’s more an opportunity to catch up with your clients.”

6:15—An attorney from Belkin, Burden, Wenig & Goldman describes the dynamic of the cocktail conversations: “It’s like when you’re at a bar and you’re trying to talk to a pretty girl and she keeps going”—cranes neck—“They’re looking at who else is here!”

6:17—Another Belkin, Burden attorney sounds off: “Year in and year out you can go to the same party, stand in the same spot and see the same people.”

6:26—David Zar, head of leasing and acquisitions at Zar Property NY, glides through the pre-dinner cocktail party with a strut in his step and a twinkle in his eye. It’s his fifth time at the annual REBNY gala. “This is great.  It just puts you in a great mood, unwinding and catching up with old friends,” he says cheerfully, despite sipping on a Coke sans alcohol in preparation for tomorrow’s procedure, when he will have a kidney stone removed via shock therapy, which requires no incision or surgery, he assures a passerby. “From the outside—they’re going to blast it out into little fragments.”

6:36—Gala first timers Xanthe Eliopoulos—of Eiseman Levin Lehrhaupt & Kakoyiannis—and Carolyn De Falco—of ReMax—survey the scene over cocktails.

“It’s basically a really big party,” Ms. Eliopoulos said. Added Ms. De Falco: “I was hoping to do some networking.”

6:40—The crowd has officially bloated beyond the bar area and is spreading onto the main walkway.

6:43—“Let’s just take a few stories off the top!” said one partygoer to another.

6:47—A fellow broker teases Christopher Okada, president of Okada & Company, for calling her with last minute jitters on what to wear. “I called up four people and they were like tux, tux, tux, tux,” he says.  He opted for suit, yellow pinstriped tie, and a white shirt with blue stripes. It’s unclear whose recommendation influenced the final decision.  “But isn’t he stylish?” asks one broker.

6:50—“I don’t attach pictures to my Facebook page,” said a young man to a young woman, as they stood by the bar.

7:05—Massey Knakal Partner James Nelson bounces around the VIP room, happy to take a minute to reflect on the extraordinary fourth quarter in terms of investment sales.  “We did over 90 sales in December alone—it was crazy,” he says. While optimism is key to the brokerage game, even Mr. Nelson concedes, as others do, that the first quarter of 2013 will mark a slowdown. “It has to after that quarter.”


A crew of reporters interviews a number of prominent industry players in a mock studio set up on the side of the lounge. On deck is Larry Silverstein, president of Silverstein Properties. “Let’s go,” he motions to a young woman waiting for him when the interview concludes, as a number of young brokers line up to shake his hand.

7:18—“It’s an opportunity to reconnect with people you know,” said a title closer with Fidelity who preferred not to be identified. “And to make business leads and contacts.”

7:20—The crowd of slickly dressed real estate all-stars make their way from the main cocktail lounge and the VIP room to the main hallway as they begin to make their way, painfully slowly, to the Grand Ballroom.

7:25—An account executive with First American Title ushers stragglers out of the main cocktail area sponsored by her company, showcasing her Italian fluency in assisting a gentleman with ties to the great European boot, but not before sharing her praise for her favorite real estate trade publication. “We always have it in our office and I read it religiously,” she says of The Commercial Observer. “Piacere.”

7:28—“There seems to be more people here than last year,” said Alan Kahn, an attorney who’s attended the gala more than 10 times prior.

7:30—Ladies and gentlemen have been moving into the ballroom but seats are for the weary as machers continue a constant string of conversations with an ever changing cast of colleagues, old friends and new contacts.

7:31—REBNY President Steven Spinola attempts the first of many ‘shushes.’

7:45—Before cracking into his dinner, Joe Koicim takes a nostalgic look back on fond memories of his entry into the industry, when he first crossed paths with fellow Marcus & Millichap brokers at a career fair during college. “That’s when I first linked in with Peter (Von Der Ahe). Eight and a half years later he can’t imagine doing anything other than real estate and the REBNY gala has served him well in the past, even landing him a fruitful deal last year. “This is the event you want to be at to see everyone in the industry, and every year I’m amazed at how many people make it out.”

7:48—Rob Speyer takes to the podium as REBNY’s newest chairman amid the din of the crowd. “Even if none of you are listening, I’m still looking forward to working with you in the days ahead.”

7:49—Mr. Speyer gives a shout-out to honoree, Mike Fishman of the labor union 32BJ, as well as outgoing chairman, Mary Ann Tighe. “She has done an extraordinary job.”

7:50—Mike Fishman presents Steven Spinola with a whistle to help quiet the crowd.

7:54—“Bernie really was a truly great friend,” said Donald Zucker, after receiving the Bernard H. Mendik Lifetime Leadership in Real Estate award.

7:56—Woody Heller—being honored with the Louis Smadbeck Broker Recognition Award—attempted to express some thoughts at the podium—“For the first time in my career, I’ll try to be brief”—but the crackling overture of the crowd’s conversations, like a mighty wave, forced his words back into the dais.

7:57—Mr. Spinola uses his new whistle!

7:58—Sen. Charles Schumer emerged, stepped to the podium long enough to say, “Let’s keep building and grow New York!” in a thunderous, booming voice, before disappearing. His entire speech lasts 23 seconds.

8:01—“Luck of the draw,” said Port Authority executive director, Patrick Foye, on why he was seated at the very end of the table on the dais.

8:04—Mr. Spinola pulls out his whistle again.

8:05—“In Hollywood, they say the camera adds 20 pounds,” said William Montana, holding up an illustration of his likeness by artist Michael Marsicano in last week’s Commercial Observer. “Well, in real estate, the caricature artist for The New York Observer’s REBNY issue adds 50. At least he gave me more hair than I actually have.”

8:08—Mr. Spinola completes his 68thshush’ of the evening.

8:11—Dottie Herman: “I want to tell all my colleagues, you have certainly made a difference in my life and so has New York.”

8:16—The crowd continues talked during a prepared film on the Midtown East Rezoning plan the courtesy it could not muster for REBNY leadership and honorees.

8:37—The last of the uneaten Caesar Salads are removed from the tables.

8:39—REBNY organizer confirms there are 200 more attendants than at last year’s gala.

8:45—“I like MaryAnne Gilmartin’s dress. I’m not a fashion critic, but I want it,” says one party attendee, who demands anonymity after proceeding to characterize another female attendee as “haggard” in appearance, and later comparing REBNY President Steven Spinola to a kindergarten teacher for continuously shushing the crowd as he delivered his speech to attendees, who customarily refuse to withhold their chatter, even during the evening’s ceremonies and presentations.

8:47—The dais begins to empty and food begins to reach the mezzanine-level tables, where The CO has been relegated, quite slowly.

9:02—Food sits before The CO. Steak: room temperature, but tender. Potatoes: an au gratin-like stack of thin slices—surprisingly tasty. Spinach: definitely the weak link on this plate.

9:10—The ballroom has evolved into a tessellated network of different conversation groups, all whirring with promise of potential deals or the relaxed din of friendly banter.

9:20—No fistfights observed yet.

9:25—“I feel people are pretty upbeat, which is a good sign,” said Cushman & Wakefield’s Mikael Nahmias, predicting a good 2013.

9:26—“It was livelier than last year,” said Craig Deitelzweig of Rockrose Development. “I think last year people were trying to feel good. This year I think more of the same.”

9:29—A mass exodus of partygoers is underway. Ladies and gentlemen pour from the ballroom to collect their coats.

9:37—Stepping outside the Hilton to get a breath of fresh air before deciding which after party to attend, Murray Hill PropertiesDaniel Lolai opines that investors will remain active, despite the conclusion of fiscal cliff talks. As for the gala? “Plenty of deals will happen here today,” he said.

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