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Manhattan’s Uninspired Meeting Scene Is Good News for Brooklyn

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Skift Take

Although Manhattan continues to market successfully to meeting planners by promoting the city’s iconic selling points, the most exciting spirit of innovation to create memorable events is in Brooklyn.

— Greg Oates

New York City was ranked #7 in Cvent’s Top 50 USA Meetings Destinations 2015, based almost entirely on the hotel, convention, and logistics infrastructure in Manhattan.

For many national and international meeting planners, Manhattan is New York. Manhattan is where all the stuff is, including the I.M. Pei-designed Javits Convention Center, some of the country’s most iconic hotels, and America’s best dining and entertainment scene.

The borough basically sells itself as the most cosmopolitan city in the U.S., unless you’re a meeting planner looking for new and innovative meeting space for 500 or more attendees.

A decade ago this wasn’t really a concern. There wasn’t a lot of demand for edgy event venues before the sharp rise in recent years of tech startup and co-working culture, millennial-influenced meeting design, adaptive urban redevelopment, and mixed-use “innovation districts.”

Just 10 years ago, attendees were more compliant with the idea of gathering in a corporate hotel ballroom.

Times have changed though for many companies driving innovation forward in tech, media, fashion, design and other sectors.

For example, the inaugural Skift Global Forum in 2014 welcomed 400 attendees at The TimesCenter in The New York Times building on 41st Street in Manhattan.

For the 2015 Forum, paid attendance doubled. So, the company needed another fresh and lively space for 800 people that could help communicate Skift’s mission to define the future of travel.

With too few options in Manhattan, we crossed over the East River to the Duggal Greenhouse inside the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Brooklyn is becoming an increasingly attractive option for more corporate and association conferences, especially those affiliated with creative industries. A lot of the factors behind that is based on the borough’s surging commercial development and global brand presence.

“The challenge in the world of conventions is delivering new experiences for attendees, because the standard hotel ballroom feels generic for a lot of people, and it can be difficult to roll our personality into that kind of environment,” says Elizabeth Osder, principle of The Osder Group, who developed the programming for Skift Global Forum in Brooklyn last year.

“Duggal was a blank canvas in a unique historical building on the water,” she explains. “Brooklyn is the new hot New York that delivered on the Skift brand promise, and it was an experience that everyone will remember.”

The Challenges of ‘Make It NYC’

As New York City’s official destination marketing organization, NYC & Company is mandated to promote all five boroughs. That’s more easily accomplished for leisure travelers, especially due to the rise in demand among leisure consumers seeking emerging local neighborhoods.

It’s a much bigger challenge for NYC & Co to promote the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island to national convention groups. In fact, it’s basically impossible. Unless you’re booking Yankee Stadium for an event, the Bronx offers very little of interest to most planners with out-of-town delegates.

Same with Queens. Staten Island is pretty much completely irrelevant. So there’s a political disconnect there because while the marketing organization has to promote all five boroughs, planners are realistically only considering Manhattan, and to a much lesser degree, Brooklyn.

Last fall, NYC & Co refreshed its Make It NYC meetings marketing campaign with new visuals and a new tagline: “Meet Where You Want To Be.” The advertising creative launched with somewhat uninspired stock photography depicting the Manhattan skyline and the Statue of Liberty.

The marketing concept emphasizes how New York helps drive conference attendance because so many attendees around the world are already motivated to visit Manhattan.

“‘Meet Where You Want To Be’ really pushes the message to both a delegate of a meeting, and also the meeting planner, by striking a chord in them about wanting to be in New York City on all levels,” says Jerry Cito, SVP of convention development of NYC & Co. “So yes, meet in our world class hotels in order to execute your meeting, but also to take advantage of everything that New York City brings to a planner and a delegate, which is far above any other location both domestically and internationally.”

We asked Cito about how he would respond to a meeting planner saying there’s nothing new and innovative in Manhattan for a group of 500 or more. The new Make It NYC campaign promotes the new Whitney Museum in the Meatpacking District, which only hosts 450 people. Likewise, the new One World Observatory at One World Trade Center seats 300 people.

Cito suggested larger venues available in Manhattan such as the Guggenheim Museum, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the Met Museum, USS Intrepid aircraft carrier, and Madame Tussauds.

Those venues may have a significant value proposition for select groups, but they’ve all been around for decades. MoMA opened in 1939, and was redesigned in 2004. The Intrepid fought in WWII.

The Rise of Brooklyn Meetings

In operation since 2013, the Brooklyn Tech Triangle is an alliance of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the DUMBO Improvement District, and the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership economic development agency.

Along with the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, the three organizations are helping spearhead business development in Brooklyn by supporting the growth of small and large companies throughout the borough.

According to Andrew Kalish, director of cultural development at Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, the office vacancy rate in downtown Brooklyn is 2%, which is basically zero because there’s only small pockets of space scattered around the urban core. He says Midtown Manhattan’s office vacancy rate is around 12%. Flatiron is 10%.

“Once upon a time people chose to set up shop in Brooklyn because it was cheap compared to Manhattan, but more and more companies are choosing to locate to Brooklyn as a first choice rather than as an alternative,” he explains. “They’re choosing to be in Brooklyn because they really want to be in Brooklyn.”

Kalish believes that robust commercial growth is based on the explosive growth of the Brooklyn brand worldwide, emphasizing independent business and placemaking above all else. A growing number of corporations want to be align their brand with that fresh commercial and creative frisson.

To help build that community of creative and corporate talent, and spur business connections between them, the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership launched the first Make It Brooklyn Innovation Summit in 2015 to introduce entrepreneurs and corporate executives invested in the future of Brooklyn.

“We brought together all different types of business leaders, from the chocolate maker to major corporate and real estate entities, to really show the depth and breadth of the borough,” says Kalish. “That’s really resonated with people. They’ve seen the success stories, they want to be here, and they want some of that success to rub off on them. So now the market is responding.”

It’s responding with a slew of new commercial buildings, hospitality development, and event spaces. For example, the Brooklyn Expo Center opened in September 2014 with 25,000 square feet of event space.

“Companies are trying to rebrand themselves as creative companies so they’re adopting attitudes that are typically more startup driven,” says Chris Rechner, sales manager at BK Venues, which operates a number of event spaces in Brooklyn including the Expo Center.

“You feel that creative energy everywhere in the historical neighborhoods and the food and retail scenes,” he adds. “So Brooklyn offers both interesting spaces for events and experiences after the event that younger creative people are looking for, versus watching people dressed up in Manhattan running to get to work.”

Brooklyn Hotel Development

On the hospitality front in Brooklyn, a total of 20 new hotels are under construction or in development across the borough. The bulk of them are 300 rooms and less, and while many of them lack a lot of meeting space, the sheer volume of inventory moving into the market will help planners create larger room blocks for meetings hosted elsewhere in Brooklyn.

Barry Sternlicht, founder of Starwood Hotels, is opening the new 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge this year in DUMBO, overlooking Brooklyn Bridge Park and the East River. Meeting and function space tops 16,000 square feet.

According to Kalish, the demand is there but the market needs to catch up.

“Everyday we get calls from people interested in hosting conferences and events in Brooklyn, but our challenge has been, other than the Marriott Brooklyn downtown, there hasn’t really been enough large hotels with a lot of guest rooms and event space,” he says. “That’s about to change. Hotel construction in downtown is booming, and we have over 2,000 keys coming on the market in the short term.”

With 628 rooms and 44,000 square feet of event space, the New York Marriott at the Brooklyn Bridge is the largest hotel in downtown Brooklyn. General Manager Sam Ibrahim told Skift that his sales team sells Brooklyn as much as they sell the hotel.

Toward that end, the Marriott hotel employs a Destination Manager who talks to meeting planners about the area’s unique neighborhoods. To help spur those conversations, the hotel has a significant amount of destination content on its website, unusual for most corporate chain properties.

“The content is mostly just a teaser,” says Ibrahim, “but it does get people to call our Destination Manager so it’s a valuable lead generator.”

Ibrahim adds that he works closely with NYC & Co to promote Brooklyn, and he told Skift that the marketing organization has done a good job promoting the borough. But, he explains, there’s early internal conversation taking place now with the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce about how the local business stakeholders can promote Brooklyn more aggressively specifically to meeting planners.

“With over 600 rooms, we’re playing with the big boys,” Ibrahim says. “Selling Brooklyn used to be a challenge years ago. Everyone was, ‘Where is Brooklyn?’ Now with DUMBO, there’s a lot of action on the waterfront, but people still don’t know about Brooklyn unless you feed it to them.”

For Osder, Brooklyn does present its own unique challenges in terms of added transportation time, disconnect from business meetings  and a present lack of venue choices to provide clients.

However, she says attendees are less likely to skip out of a conference early to attend a Broadway play. Planners have a more captive audience in Brooklyn and the potential to create something completely unexpected.

“I look at it as a trade off, because once you get over 400 attendees, Manhattan starts to come up against a lot of limitations,” she says. “It’s like no risk, no reward. I would define the experience for planners in Brooklyn like this: It might be a little intimidating to get there but it’s rewarding once you’ve arrived.”

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