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Insight; New York Hospitality Professionals - This Week: Bob Hofmann

“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 Professional Karen Shackman, President and CEO of Shackman Associates interviews Bob Hofmann, VP of Broadway Inbound, a Shubert Organization Company

Karen: Hello Bob,  Thanks so much for agreeing to join our interview series.  We go back so many years, and I think back to those wonderful early days when we shared many trade-show booths in support of tourism to our amazing city.  Broadway is such a key component of New York's identity and every program we  have run over the years has had a theatre experience.  As a result,  we are all anxiously awaiting the lights of "the great white way" to be turned back on.   And, so, the purpose of this is to find out a little more about what is happening in the theatre industry as of now, and, of course, how you are doing under these circumstances.  Before we go into these questions, please tell us a bit about yourself.

Bob: I’m a theatre brat.  Add in a love of sports, literature, art and Buddhist philosophy … I married a beautiful performer right out of college, Ann Kittredge, and we have 2 complex, brilliant children, a high school junior and college sophomore … Family First. I earned a BCA from UNC Charlotte – who can tell me what that is? -- and my MFA from Carnegie Mellon University. Other than waiting tables – Arriba Arriba anyone – I’ve been fortunate enough to always work in the theatre, in both creative and business positions. I seek challenges and always strive to add value in all I undertake.

Karen:  It is clearly an asset to have a combination of both the creative and business aspects of theatre – particularly now, I would imagine – and waiting tables seems to be a rite of passage.  How and where have you spent the last six months?

Bob: I live in Forest Hills Gardens and that’s where I’ve hung my hat since mid-March, with a few side trips to Cape Cod. I appreciate this neighborhood more than ever. It’s an oasis that has provided some necessary tranquility amidst this incredibly difficult time.

Karen:  “Oasis” conjures up such an inviting picture, and what a contrast  right now.  What are/were some of the items on your agenda as Vice President of Broadway Inbound to mitigate the fall-out of the pandemic and how have you supported your clients, management etc. during this crisis? 

Bob: It’s all about supporting clients, creative problem solving, and turning poison into medicine. This crisis has impacted everyone, dramatically. The question is:  will we come out the other side stronger for having experienced it?  Broadway Inbound’s primary efforts have been to get money back in the pockets of our clients through refunds, communications, and providing content to help carry us through. No one designed their financial systems to process millions in refunds for clients scattered across the globe, but I’m pleased to say that every BI client received the refunds due. BI manages clients facing two directions, the shows and institutions that comprise NYC’s live performing arts community, alongside our sales partners in travel. Getting this all right helps support all;  the entire distribution network. Next on our agenda is to address questions like: what policy changes can make us better? How can software upgrades make us more secure and efficient?  Which work-around solutions should become SOP? Most important, how do we all collaborate on bringing audiences back?  We’ve never faced a crisis like this, how we meet the challenge will define us. 

Karen: These are all incredibly important questions in the current day – and it seems so many components of the live event and hospitality industry are wrestling with similar issues.  We all thought we would be in a better situation now - 6 months into the crisis – but so many questions remain unanswered. 

You have always worked with an amazing team.  How have they been affected?  And how are you remaining connected with them? 

Bob: One of the saddest parts of this crisis has been the impact on staff. Like most, we’ve gone through several waves of furloughs and layoffs. I miss our full, amazing team and my thoughts are with them. So, we are doing more with less. Where we had the luxury to focus areas of individual responsibility, now each employee is involved in every aspect of the work. We remained closely connected from the outset. The BI systems are all web based, enabling us to utilize phone, chat, email and yes, Zoom, to communicate effectively.  Now we are heading back into the offices, part-time, and look forward to the even greater sharing of ideas and information opening allows. 

Karen:  We too miss your team.  And it seems to be common that many of us are working longer hours these days to compensate for the loss of valuable team members.  It is good to know that you will be heading back into the office, even part-time. 

Theatre is such an integral part of the New York experience.  What is the theatre community doing currently in response to Covid-19 – especially now as parts of New York are reopening?

Bob: There are many aspects to this battle and the theatre community is working on all fronts. Every major theatre organization is involved; theatre owners, presenters, producers, unions, marketing and advertising agencies, everyone. Renowned experts in facilities and epidemiology have been engaged to assist in addressing the most difficult questions. The Broadway League formed multiple task forces to work on the complexity of issues surrounding the reopening of theatres and supporting the artists and employees that make up our industry. The bottom line is health and safety for all involved including artists, staff and audience alike. Government relations has played a major role throughout and remains a critical component of our efforts. Senator Schumer led the announcement just last week concerning the Save Our Stages Act now pending in congress, which he sponsored to aid arts organizations and its workers to survive this pandemic.  Reopening our theatres is a major challenge and I’m proud that the industry is confronting it head on.

Karen:   We are keeping our fingers crossed regarding the Save Our Stages Act!  It is critical that it passes. There were some big shows scheduled to open this year and next – including The Music Man and MJ.  How are the theatres and BI/Shubert handling cancellations/postponements for shows which have not yet opened and for those which were running prior to the shutdown?

Bob: There has been a great deal of speculation about what will happen next, when we will open, what shows will survive, and the lasting effects of this pandemic on theatre. The next few months will have a significant impact on actually having better answers. As we speak, there are only a few shows that have made the decision not to proceed, most are analyzing when its best to return, or to open, and are planning accordingly. The Music Man and MJ are both moving forward with plans to open in the spring.

Karen:  Do you think that the big shows running prior to the shutdown will, in fact, reopen when it is safe to do so?

Bob: I do. Most if not all, and the openings may be staggered.  Everyone is looking at what the best path forward is and remains committed to returning, as you said, when it is safe to do so. 

Karen:  We will be anxiously awaiting updates in the new few months then.  How are the Broadway theatres working to accommodate the current safety, health and distancing protocols?

Bob: Health and safety first. One reason we haven’t yet reopened is because we are committed to doing it right —once —closely adhering to all government guidelines. Many have asked about the theatres opening with limited capacity. Unfortunately, the economics just don’t work. And even if they did and you could socially manage distancing in the house, what about on and back stage? The intimacy and historic nature of our theatres heightens the challenge. Nothing is definite but much is being discussed including …

  • Flexibility on cancelations, exchanges, and refunds

  • Upgrades to HVAC and infiltration systems

  • Staggered start times

  • Contactless entry

  • Temperature checks

  • Masks

  • Opening the houses earlier

  • Closing streets to accommodate safer free flow of audiences

Karen:  Those are all key issues – and without a viable vaccine in place, I see the challenges.  It is really good for the readers and clients to know what the theatres are discussing.   

When do you believe there will be signs of life on Broadway. I have heard that a few shows are possibly looking to reopen in some fashion in Q1 or Q2?  Is this correct?  And what is driving that position? 

Bob: When it comes to performances, I’m looking to the spring. Some shows are on sale now and more will be soon. So, there is already life.  Soon we will be ready to kick start it and look forward to including you in those efforts. Although we don’t have details to share, the Tony’s are planning for a virtual awards celebration later this year and I expect more activity to emerge surrounding that and other upcoming events.

Karen:  That is great news!  Although this will certainly be a different Tony season.  However, it is good to have a positive perspective on what is happening.  So many of our programs and events depend on the inclusion of Broadway.  What will theatre ticket prices look like going forward?   How flexible are you/the theatres being with regard to booked/postponed events, and, hopefully, new bookings?

Bob: The theatres’ understanding and flexibility allowed us to reschedule, exchange or refund every order we had in the system.  As far as future pricing is concerned, there are 41 Broadway theatres and even more opinions. Each show makes their decision based on the best interest of their individual show, where it sits in relation to its lifespan and popularity. Expect a varied approach. Several clients tell us that flexibility is more important than price. I agree.  Although some shows will adjust prices, universally the industry will carefully address added flexibility —several shows already have; lengthening the time groups have to pay, along with exchange and cancelation opportunities to secure the transaction for clients and rebuild the sales partnerships we rely on to fill seats. 

Karen: Flexibility is important now to rebuild.  We are seeing that in all aspects of the industry.  You have had many years of experience working in the theatre.  How do you see the industry evolving in the upcoming few years as a result of the pandemic?

Bob: Are you trying to say I’m old?  Okay, I’ll admit it, I’ve been around the block a few times. As an industry I see us working in even closer harmony, particularly as we address the ways and means to rebuild. Technology will become more vital in every area. Digital delivery and the relationship between live and recorded theatrical moments will be lasting. Theatre as art is always evolving.  It isn’t monolithic, it’s multi-faceted with varying purpose, addressing multiple needs for diverse communities.  No matter the form, theatre is always a dialogue between stage and audience. Entertainment? Yes, of course. Theatre also reflects, challenges, provokes, and illuminates while it entertains. At its best, theatre reflects its time and the lives of its audience and artists. I anticipate our artists rising to the challenge of the times with new works and new forms as our industry evolves the platform to share their creativity widely.

Karen: What an impactful summary!  It certainly reminds us of the role and value of theatre in everyday life.  It will be interesting to see the new works spawned from this crisis.   I am sure you have had many fun experiences in working with the theatre community.  Is there a fun anecdote you wish to share, perhaps something which has resonated with you over the years?

Bob: Fun? Like the time I met Tim Rice, who wrote the lyrics to one of my favorite all-time musicals, Jesus Christ Superstar? I memorized the album in college.  I could sing every part. We were at the same party and I had to meet him. I congratulated him on the show I had just seen but then shared how my friends and I had devoured Superstar in college. He grinned and told me a bit about he and Sir Andrew and the experience of writing Superstar in college. That was fun.  Or Cats, the Musical – I worked for Cameron Mackintosh for years. I never saw the show.  My London colleagues tried to force me through the door of the New London theatre once, but failed!

It’s the people I’ve met through theatre that really stay with me, and the experiences we shared. Big personalities. Large emotions. The nun who convinced me to audition for the school musical so that my basketball friends would think it was cool and follow. A professor from UNCC who handed me a check to help cover my tuition at her alma mater, CMU, because she knew I had to attend.  Performing a production of Candide in a prison … The resident company I managed in Seattle at The Bathhouse Theatre, who, in a flash, would throw together a Radio Play called The Big Broadcast when the theatre needed it most. Classmates.  Colleagues. My mentors, many —I drove them crazy, but they didn’t often show it and they made me the person I am.  I met my wife doing A Midsummer Night’s Dream – 37 years and still running.  It was over a great paella in Spain with clients and friends (The Thomas’s) when I realized that I love the people of the travel industry equally. My two worlds collide beautifully. We share a joy of life, community, food, drink, arts, … it’s always the people who resonate.

Karen: Sounds like you could write a book or a play yourself!!  Big personalities.  Large emotions!  What a great description of the industry.   And I am so pleased you have embraced the people from the travel industry into your affections!  Is there any book or series you are reading or watching at the moment that takes you away from the current situation? 

Bob: I usually have several books going at a time. I guess I should be reading some escapist literature, instead I am deep into Buddhist Philosophy. On my bedside table sits the 23rd volume of a 30-volume series called The New Human Revolution, By Daisaku Ikeda, President of the Soka Gakkai International, a NGO of the United Nations of which I am a member. I firmly believe in the need for human revolution to achieve the change we need in our society today -- when you change, everything changes. Also on the table is The Writings of Nichiren Daishonen and James Baldwin’s, THE FIRE NEXT TIME.  I most recently completed Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, by Ibram X Kendi. My weightier reading preferences are balanced with watching Family Feud reruns.

Karen: I am so impressed, Bob.  These are truly weighty tomes – and bear much discussion.  Like all of us, I imagine you have joined many webinars in the last couple of months.  Are there any key take-aways you wish to share that may be valuable to the hospitality community at the present time? 

Bob: Indeed, I have joined many and appreciate all the connections and insights gained.  For me the most value has come through marketing seminars focused on specific areas– SEO and the value of story-telling, but nothing greater than how intertwined we all are, the importance of our partnerships, and how much we will rely on those partnerships to succeed.

Karen: Partnerships and relationships have been two recurring themes throughout this interview series – and how accurate that all is, especially now.  What three essentials have aided you while working through this situation in the past few months? 

Bob: I’ll give you 4.  Books.  Music. Family. And long nightly walks through the neighborhood with my wife, taking the time to check in and talk with friends along the way, always with appropriate social distancing, and occasionally a nice glass of wine. 

Karen: It all sounds so normal!  How do you keep yourself fit and mentally healthy?  

Bob: I did a 30-day cleanse in the middle of this isolation, I watch my wife work out – do I get any credit for that? And as I said, we added walks to our day, and my Buddhist practice keeps me focused and mentally healthy.

Karen: It sounds like you are leading a very balanced life, under the circumstances.  What is the first place you are going to once restrictions are fully lifted? 

Bob: The first Broadway show that will have me! Can you imagine what that first night will be like?  I plan to be there soaking it all in.

Karen: I imagine that it will be a monumental occasion.  It makes me smile just thinking about much joy there will be on both sides of the curtain.  So, how do you think New York can regain trust with travelers so that they feel safe enough to visit our great city again and to enjoy Broadway again? 

Bob: Although we were a hotspot, NYC did such a great job reducing the curve and keeping the contagion rate low. I hope travelers recognize that and that our continuing efforts and results engender trust. How we proceed may be the determining factor. The NYC travel community is incredible.  If we don’t give up, continue to follow the guidelines, and proceed carefully as we move forward and couple that care with honest communications, there is no doubt that travelers will return. There is a lot of work ahead, and it certainly won’t happen overnight, but we are up to the challenge.

Karen:  Yes, we are.  We are #NewYorkTough

I know that there are several new initiatives currently being put into place while live theatre is on pause.  Please can you elaborate? Bob: “Broadway will be Back” (follow the hashtag) and “It’s Worth the Wait” But while we are on pause, unable to experience live events, many streaming services have stepped in to fill the void. There’s a lot of great material out there, still … most of it is pre-recorded.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that, it’s just different. So, to address the gap the Shubert Organization created ‘Shubert Studios’. Fully compliant with all safety regulations, so you can rehearse on stage, host a LIVE event with an extended digital audience, and produce and stream high-quality video, the Shubert Studios merge the electricity of live events with industry leading livestreaming services and studio equipment. It’s cool and a tremendous opportunity for the meeting and events industry, in multiple ways. We are just getting going but already busy and excited about the possibilities ahead. I may have to watch on a screen, but when performed live, it helps to satisfy that craving and the experience I am missing.

Karen: There are so many more questions I would like to ask right now.  But for the moment, any parting words or insights you want to share?

Bob: Never give up.  Wear your mask.  Vote.

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