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Insight; New York Hospitality Professionals - This Week: Jerry Cito

“Insight; New York Hospitality Professionals”, a weekly interview series with professionals from the MICE industry in New York.

These are uncertain times for our industry – yet we believe that now is the moment to bring our industry closer together by strengthening our ties and relationships on a more human level. It is for this reason that Shackman Associates is undertaking a series of interviews with other New York hospitality professionals to learn how they are managing during this time.

In today’s episode; New York Hospitality Professionals Karen Shackman, President and CEO of Shackman Associates talks to Jerry Cito, Executive Vice President, Convention Development at NYC & Company.

Karen:  Hello Jerry, I am so pleased that you were able to find some time for this interview. I know that you all have your hands very full now with the many new projects and amazing initiatives you are launching to bring New York back to the great city we know it is. I can only say a huge thank you to you, Fred and your entire team for what you are doing on behalf of us all. Our personal history goes back a long time. We have walked the floors of many tradeshows and conferences around the world, advocating for this amazing city we call home. I am sure there are not many in our industry who don’t know you - but for the sake of consistency in our interview series, would you please introduce yourself, your role with NYC & Company, and how long you have been with the company. 

Jerry: Thank you, Karen. I’m honored to be a part of your series, and congratulations on its success. I’m Jerry Cito, EVP, Convention Development at NYC & Company, the official destination marketing organization and convention and visitors bureau for the five boroughs. I’ve been with the organization for over 19 years, in different positions. Currently, I lead the Convention Development team globally, responsible for developing New York City as a premier meetings and conventions destination, positioning the destination’s diverse meetings offerings and highlighting the world-class products and services of member businesses like yours – many thanks for your membership and support for all these years, Karen!

Karen:  Thank you Jerry. Our membership with NYC & Co has been an essential aspect of our identity in New York for over 25 years. And being part of the NYC & Company family has been important to me personally, as well as professionally, as we all continue to drive our common goal to bring visitors from all around the world to New York. Please give us an overview of your current situation. Are you still working remotely?

Jerry: Yes, still working from home. All of us at NYC & Company have been working remotely since about mid-March. In the past we normally traveled quite a bit, and though we’re accustomed to working while on the go, I think we all have had to get used to a completely different way of getting our jobs done. I’m looking forward to spending a bit more time in the office, to be honest!

Karen: It is certainly an adjustment for all of us all – trying to reestablish a new type of work schedule. Now that New York is in Phase 4 of the reopening, how are things evolving and what are some of the initiatives you are instituting?

Jerry: Throughout the crisis, and, of course, now that New York City is in Phase 4 (with some modifications) of Governor Cuomo’s New York Forward plan, we’ve been very committed to connecting with our members and our clients, keeping them informed on the most up-to-date information on our city.

As more tourism and hospitality businesses begin to reopen across NYC, it is critical that we support them now by inspiring locals to safely reconnect with the five boroughs. To do so, we launched a new local revitalization effort designed by New Yorkers for New Yorkers titled All In NYC, as well the Stay Well NYC Pledge, which is a set of health and safety practices for both businesses and consumers.

These efforts, among others, are detailed in All In NYC: The Roadmap for Tourism’s Reimagining and Recovery, a document we recently published in partnership with The Coalition for NYC Hospitality & Tourism Recovery, an initiative of NYC & Company, summarizing our response to the current moment and explaining in detail how our strategies will evolve, moving forward. This includes restoring confidence among meeting and event organizers to choose NYC for future business, which we know will be critical in positioning our city and industry for long-term success.

 Karen: We are following these great initiatives very closely and are supporting them as best as we can.

What is the norm for you these days?

Jerry: Like all of us, the norm has been anything but normal, and all about change. It’s been a consistent marathon of Zoom calls with our members, colleagues and most importantly, our customers. They’ve really looked to all of their DMO partners, more than ever, as we assisted each other through these past few months and into the future. Communication, collaboration and the sharing of information has really been key.

Karen:  It is interesting that throughout this interview series, the two words most consistently used for describing an effective recovery are communication and collaboration. We too are working to strengthen our ties with our industry partners, which ultimately gave rise to this interview series as a means to provide a platform for a common voice and to share experiences during these unprecedented times. Fortunately, through our many international Sales & Marketing offices we are still able to reach out to clients with insightful educational webinars in all corners of the world. Connecting with each other is important and more challenging than ever.

How do you connect with your team? 

Jerry: Consistent Zoom and conference calls. In the beginning of the crisis our CEO held team calls twice a day, receiving and sharing updates in real time. Everything was very fluid, changing by the day, if not the hour. We continue to have regular check-ins now, so even though we aren’t able to be face-to-face at the moment, we all still feel very connected and aligned with each other.

Karen:  We are very grateful for Fred’s continual updates. It certainly helps provide a larger picture of what is happening although, as you say, things keep changing from day to day. How have you kept abreast of industry happenings and the sharing of information across the various associations/industry sectors during this time?

Jerry: I’ve been participating in a number of work and industry webinars and virtual events over the past months. I have attended some very well executed webinars, in addition to keeping up with ongoing board activities with PCMA and the Meetings Mean Business Coalition (MMBC). MMBC recently kicked off a virtual discussion series, starting with a session on The New Meetings and Travel Journey, and NYC & Company has also held several webinars for our members, as part of our NYC Talks program.

Additionally, as a member of the Events Industry Council’s APEX Covid-19 Business Recovery Task Force, we’ve played an active role in the creation of the Meeting and Event Design Accepted Practices Guide which intends to serve as a resource and educational tool for industry professionals, to help rebuild trust that in-person meetings and events can happen safely. Additional resources will be released soon.

Karen:   It is impressive how many “hats” you wear and how many organizations you are an intrinsic part of. And I look forward to the release of the additional information you have just mentioned.

What does the landscape of the membership look like right now? Are members still dealing with cancelations or, hopefully rebookings?

Jerry: Sadly, but not surprisingly, we continue to see the cancellation of live events, meetings and conventions through this fall/winter as a result of the pandemic, with some programs moving entirely virtual, or rebooking for later in 2021. As restrictions and guidelines regarding gatherings evolve, we continue to support our members and planners to the best of our ability, with the ultimate goal being postponing business, instead of cancelling altogether. I’m happy to say we’ve had many successes in keeping business booked in our city.

Karen:   It has been a huge drive to get clients to postpone and not cancel, and I am glad to hear that there are many successes in that regard. What else are you hearing from clients as to their perspective on business to New York?  

Jerry: It has been great to see the supportive response from our clients, as it relates to New York’s progress in fighting the coronavirus and successfully bending the curve, as well as to our ongoing and regular communications. While this has been an extraordinarily difficult time, overall, our clients recognize the crisis has not been unique to NYC and they remain bullish on the City’s recovery. To that point, it was welcome news to see that Facebook just recently signed a major lease in the James A. Farley Building in Midtown, as this certainly shows a confidence in and commitment to the New York market. Our team also continues to work with clients for any short-term opportunities depending on the restrictions but also those long-term pieces of business that are essential to our future success.

Karen:  We are also experiencing a similar reaction from clients. It was heartwarming that clients reached out while New York was in crisis mode, and again now that we are on the upswing. We seem to be a role model for other metropolitan areas around the world. And we are grateful to Facebook for their support of the city!

Are you seeing clients interested in virtual or hybrid events or simply holding off until in-face meetings resume?

Jerry: Yes, any events that took place over the past few months, and those that are planned for the near future, have been all virtual – a lot of clients have been thrown into this new way of putting on a meeting. Hybrid models allowing for both face-to-face and virtual options as in-person events begin to regain momentum has been a big topic of discussion. The Javits Center’s new state-of-the-art broadcast studio is one great example of how NYC venues are adapting to accommodate this model for future events.

One thing that is certain, is that hybrid offerings will be the bridge that keeps us connected to the time when we can get back to face-to-face events in the future, and even then, it’ll be an option that planners provide to their audiences. As we all know, though, this will never fully be able to substitute the value of in-person meetings and collaboration.

Karen:  As you know, I did a site of the Javits broadcast studio a few days ago, and it was great to see what they have done to provide a unique and turnkey option for clients – an important “pivot” for them during this time.

Earlier you touched on some of the amazing initiatives that NYC & Co is putting into place to drive awareness to the city and the boroughs.   Are you able to compute client reactions to the initiatives?

Jerry: That’s really kind, thank you so much. Client feedback regarding our Dine in NYC, Shop in NYC and Virtual NYC programs has been very positive – particularly for Virtual NYC Site Tours, a resource for meeting and event planners which spotlights online tools offered by many of the City’s hotels and venues.

Karen:   In keeping with this trend, we also launched a series of virtual and hybrid events that have been very well received as a temporary fill-in for in-person events.

Are you mandating any health and safety protocols for your membership?

Jerry: Ensuring adherence to health and safety guidelines is key to our collective success, and we encourage all our members to take the Stay Well NYC Pledge, which asks tourism and hospitality businesses and their guests to follow public health protocols like wearing masks and frequent handwashing/sanitizing to help the five boroughs reopen safely and responsibly. We have also created a toolkit for businesses to help share the Pledge with their audiences.

Of course, many of our member hotels, venues, and other businesses have their own protocols in place, as well. By working together, we can help guarantee compliance with these guidelines and sustain confidence in New York City’s response to the pandemic.

Karen:   When reaching out to our vetted supplier network, we were glad to see how many have developed health and safety protocols. Most have developed their own guidelines although some have not managed to adequately communicate that broadly enough in order to gain trust with potential guests. We are actually now offering visualized communication concepts for those who don’t have the inhouse capacity.

How flexible are you/ member organizations being with regard to booked/postponed events, and, hopefully, new bookings?

Jerry: Our clients have been telling us how flexible and supportive all of our members have been – everyone’s goal is not to lose a piece of business if at all possible, but to rebook it. It’s the relationships in our business that have always been the most important, and that has been the case now more than ever, in navigating these times.

Karen:   How are you positioned for reopening, when the city allows for this.  What are the priorities you are focusing on in order to get back to business?

Jerry: The All In NYC campaign I mentioned before is really the first step – we are currently focused on hyperlocal exploration, inspiring New York City residents to get out and see their city safely. This includes spotlighting public art offerings across the five boroughs and promoting staycations – helping to drive overnight stays – through our new “NYC-cations” effort. We will expand this programming as more tourism businesses begin to reopen and as conditions allow, we will extend our efforts further to regional, domestic, and eventually international audiences.

As we continue to move forward, we are also communicating to planners any city and state updates and guidance pertaining to meetings and events, particularly to those within the tristate area, in addition to reminding clients that New York City is here for future business, when planning events, meetings and conventions into the future.

Karen:  On a personal level, what have been the most stabilizing factors for you during this time?

Jerry: Well, I’d have to say the incredible team we have at NYC & Company; our Yellow Lab, Fletcher, who we got about a year ago and has brought a lot of joy to our family during this time; and then of course my wife Shanna, who’s in the industry, and our two girls Ava and Lola – is it bad that I listed Fletcher before the ladies in my life ?! ;)

Karen: Funny! Like these times, I guess our priorities also shift according to the moment. What are you doing from a personal wellbeing perspective to keep you same?

Jerry: I’ve been walking with the dog and even jumped on my bike from time to time to clear my head, which I’ve enjoyed. I’ve always liked working in the yard, so weeding and “deadheading” my roses is another way, and those that know me well know I have a Vespa, so some rides on the scooter have also been enjoyable.

Karen: Who knew!!! I had no idea you were into gardening – and I am sure the Vespa rides are fun. Both completely opposite ways to decompress – especially since no zoom meetings are involved. Is there anything you are watching or reading that keeps your grounded and entertained?

Jerry: I’m a huge Breaking Bad fan, so that and Better Call Saul! Not sure how grounded those shows will keep anyone, but they sure are entertaining…

Karen: Have you had an occasion to be on the road at all during these past few months for business? Is there any location you are looking forward to visiting once travel restrictions have eased?

Jerry: I recently took a daytrip to Washington, D.C., for the MMBC board of directors meeting. It was really nice to see some of our colleagues again after so many months, and to experience one of the industry’s first hybrid meetings since the pandemic began. It was also good to see firsthand, the new travel journey and experience, which has been a big topic regarding the recovery of our industry. From the Uber ride, to my experience at LaGuardia and while on the Delta flight, all the new health protocols in place made me feel safe and comfortable in traveling. The hotel also had health and safety practices and social distancing guidelines in place, which were well executed while not impeding on the success of the meeting.

On a personal level, every February, my family tries to escape the Northeast’s winter weather and travel somewhere warm. We are really looking forward to that day, whenever it comes!

Karen:  I am so pleased that you felt comfortable travelling. That is a great step forward at a time when we need good experiences and positive news and I hope that by February we will all be travelling safely. Something to look forward to. Any parting words or insights you want to share?

Jerry: I’ve always said we are very lucky to do what we do and where we do it, but most importantly who we do it with – in terms of our clients, but also our members and our colleagues at NYC & Company. If anything, recent months have only reinforced what we all already knew about our business, our City and each other. I’m incredibly grateful to be a part of what we all know will be NYC’s success story!

Karen: Thank you so much Jerry. It means a lot to us that you have taken the time to share your insights and info with us. We are grateful to you and the leadership at NYC and Company for all you are doing to help our city and industry recover. Hope to see you soon!

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