REBNY Gala 2013: Banquet To Bank On

It’s described by real estate wheelers and dealers as “the industry’s only must-attend event.” A crippling bout with a stomach virus was the only thing that once kept a 25-year veteran of the affair away. At least one pillar of the brokerage community wants the whole thing disbanded.

The Real Estate Board of New York’s Annual Banquet is back this week at the New York Hilton’s Grand Ballroom, its 117th edition. Food will be served and ignored. Booze will flow and attention will be paid. Award recipients will make acceptance speeches drowned out by a cacophonous crowd that makes the old Yankee Stadium’s bleacher creatures look reserved.

The first Real Estate Board of New York (then the Real Estate Board of Brokers) gala took place on May 12, 1897, at the since-destroyed Marlborough Hotel on Broadway between 36th and 37th Streets. The dinner started with littleneck clams and ended with “fancy ice cream” for the evening’s 50 assembled members and guests.REBNY2013_LukeMcGarry for webBanquet attendance increased twentyfold, to 1,000 guests, between 1897 and 1914. And the (hypothetically) black-tie event has only gotten bigger and louder since then.

Leslie Wohlman Himmel, a partner at Himmel + Meringoff, hasn’t missed the gala since she first attended—or, more accurately, crashed—in 1983. She was surrounded mostly by strangers. “I’d ask everyone I ran into for their business card,” Ms. Himmel said. “Now, I go and say hello to a couple thousand of my friends.”

The gala seems to have fattened Rolodexes across the city, back when people still had Rolodexes. “I’ll never forget the first one I went to, in 1985,” Robert Knakal, chairman and founding partner of Massey Knakal Realty Services, said. “[Co-founding partner] Paul [Massey] and I knew five people in the room.”

A guest list replete with power brokers is one reason why the banquet endures as the Oscars of the real estate industry. Luminaries come from fields outside of, but complementary to, the business, presenting brokers and owners with the chance to meet, hobnob and drink with the biggest names in investment banking and politics.

But normally steely real estate players get sentimental about the event and its unique charms. “Some people may see the gala as an incubator for future deals,” Bruce Mosler, the chairman of global brokerage at Cushman & Wakefield, said. “But it’s really a rare opportunity to thank your colleagues.”

Jeffrey Sussman, the president of Property Group Partners, agreed. “You get to see people you’d like to say hello to,” he said. “It’s nice, these days, that you don’t only talk to people over email or phone calls.”

It seems that not even assigned seating can cut the wine-abetted bonhomie by causing competitiveness or perceived slights. The prime tables are front and center, within canapé-tossing distance of the dais and its neglected speechmakers. But no one really cares about table geography.

“People might look at it as a pecking order if table placements were open to discussion,” Jimmy Kuhn, president of Newmark Grubb Knight Frank, said. “But the same people have been at the same tables for 25 years. It’s like lunch at the Four Seasons—you know your spot, and it’s all yours.” Mr. Sussman has another theory to explain the unimportance of seating.

“You can’t sit still without someone pushing you or smacking you in the head with a tray,” he said. Indeed, banquet guests are in perpetual motion through the ballroom, which contributes to its egalitarian feel. Another common bond between guests is that none of them come for the food.

In place of dinner, there’s an overwhelming din. Banquet attendees talk at length and with notorious enthusiasm. There might exist somewhere on earth a potential guest speaker that would get the ballroom to shut up, but he hasn’t been found yet.

“The only silence I’ve ever heard there is at the beginning when they play ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’” Mr. Sussman said.

“Speakers recognize that the people in the room are happy for them, but also that they’re there to see and interact with everyone,” Mr. Mosler said. “There’s not a moment of collective silence, but it’s not a sign of disrespect.”

REBNY will present awards this year to Donald Zucker (the Bernard H. Mendik Award for Lifetime Achievement), Mike Fishman (the Harry B. Helmsley Award for Distinguished Service), Dottie Herman (the Kenneth R. Gerrety Award for Humanitarianism), Woody Heller (the Louis Smadbeck Award for Commercial Brokerage), Dick Concannon (the George M. Brooker Award for Management) and William Montana (the Young Real Estate Man of the Year Award).

Despite being honored this week for his youth, Mr. Montana, the chair of REBNY’s commercial brokerage division and a managing director at Studley, has been attending the banquet for nearly 25 years. “This is the event I remember all the young people in the industry wanting to go to,” Mr. Montana said. Citing the expensive ticket price, he recalled that fledgling real estate pros with modest bank accounts would go to considerable lengths to procure an invitation from their firms.

“You want to be in that room,” Mr. Montana said. “You want access. Smart people go there with an agenda: ‘I need to see the following five people, make or solidify relationships with them and get some face time.’” In another example of his intelligent approach to the banquet, Mr. Montana says his acceptance speech will be “short, sweet and loud.”

The accomplished winners might want to save their best oratory for another speech. Mr. Kuhn was the recipient of the Young Real Estate Man of the Year honor in 1986. “I walked up, said ‘thank you’ and stepped down,” he recalled.

“With all due respect to the deserving award winners, they’re not Marlon Brando or Anne Hathaway,” Mr. Sussman said. “You’re not going to be hearing any dramatic political statements. I’ve experienced it, talking to even smaller groups—people’s eyes wax over and they dive in their chairs.”

Not everyone is as forgiving of the audience patter drowning out the dais. “The gala should be one large cocktail party or a designated networking event,” Steve Siegel, chairman of global brokerage at CBRE, said. “I’ve said for years that I don’t understand the purpose of everyone being seated. Just serve drinks and hors d’oeuvres and hand out the awards at a separate ceremony with 300 guests.”

Mr. Siegel spoke from firsthand frustration. “Edward S. Gordon died, and he was an icon of our business. I’d worked with him, so I was asked to speak,” Mr. Siegel said. “I brought the room to silence for a whole minute for the first time in history by holding up a giant sign with “silence” written across it. Maybe it didn’t last a whole minute, maybe 40 seconds.”

The banquet has been dependably boisterous for as long as attendees can remember. Total alcohol intake has also remained steady and impressive. But the makeup of the assembled has evolved. Mr. Sussman went to his first banquet in 1967. “There were two women there—Hattie Carnegie and Leona Helmsley, before she was Helmsley,” Mr. Sussman said.

REBNY presented the Louis Smadbeck Award in 2004 to a woman for the first time. The winner, Mary Ann Tighe, stepped down this month as the board’s first female chairperson.

But as esteemed as the awards are, they are secondary to the gala’s primary function as a social extravaganza. The catching up and conversation is surprisingly innocent: most people who spoke to The Commercial Observer about the event said deal-making, for once, takes a backseat to nonprofessional friendliness. (Mr. Montana, on the other hand, said, “I can tell you that deals get done there.”)

“The interactions are shorter than a tweet,” Ms. Himmelman said. “There’s not really time for deals; it’s ‘Hi, I love your dress.’” Mr. Kuhn also noted the revolving door of interactions that keeps engagement concise but civilized. “I talk to 1,000 people for 30 seconds each, he said. “You have to. If you don’t show up, they’ll think you’re dead.”

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