22-Aug, 04:08

11:44, March 22 214 0

2017-03-22 11:44:03
Social Circuit Crisis: With the Waldorf Closed, Where to Hold That Gala?

When the Waldorf Astoria shut its doors on March 1 for two to three years, hotel guests and visiting heads of state weren’t the only ones trying to find alternative accommodations.

The hotel was the home to countless galas and parties, including the Alfred E. Smith dinner, traditionally the last event where the presidential candidates share a stage before the election, and the Viennese Opera Ball, which bills itself as the oldest white-tie event in New York City. Its closing left a void in the city’s social circuit that event planners and philanthropic gatekeepers have rushed to fill.

“It was almost like a starter’s pistol,” said Richard Martin, the director of development at the Ronald McDonald House of New York, of the June 2016 announcement of the hotel’s temporary shutdown. The charity has held its spring fund-raiser at the Waldorf for nearly a quarter-century.

Starting from late June, Mr. Martin scoured the city for comparable spaces that could handle more than 1,000 guests. He eventually settled on the Empire Ballroom at the Grand Hyatt New York. “We could fit into the space, and we liked the look of the location,” he said. “And they had a good price for us.”

Not everyone felt so lucky.

Melissa Meredith, the director of strategic events at the International Rescue Committee, had more difficulty finding a suitable alternative to the Waldorf for the organization’s annual event. “Our dinner is the first Wednesday in November,” she said. “It’s been that way for a long time, and it’s what our audience expects.”

But that date falls in the middle of the busy fall social calendar, so the closest she found was Nov. 2, a Thursday, at the New York Hilton Midtown. There were other concerns, too.

“The Waldorf is a prestige brand, and Hilton is a midpriced brand,” she said. “For us it’s, how do we translate the Waldorf experience to a venue that’s very different, so it doesn’t feel like a downgrade?” The organization booked the site anyway, banking on party decorations and audiovisual elements to elevate the experience.

Size and location were also concerns for other event planners. “We typically go over a thousand people,” said Meredith Forbes, the senior director for special events at the Hospital for Special Surgery.

That meant smaller spaces like the Mandarin Oriental and the Metropolitan Club were out. Instead, her team looked at Cipriani Wall Street, Chelsea Piers and the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center on the Far West Side. But those locations are hard to reach from the hospital, which is on 71st Street near the East River. “We like to make it so our physicians and surgeons can be home at a reasonable hour,” she said.

Ultimately, they went with the American Museum of Natural History on the Upper West Side.

The Waldorf Astoria’s hiatus had been on the table since the Anbang Insurance Group, a Chinese company with a mysterious ownership structure, bought it from Hilton Worldwide Holdings in 2014 for $1.95 billion. (Hilton continues to operate the hotel as part of a 100-year management contract.)

The specifics of the renovation plans have not yet been released, but filings with the city’s Buildings Department offer a hint of what is to come: The owners intend to convert many of the hotel’s rooms into apartments, adding 210 units.

The hotel’s grand ballroom and other interior spaces appear to be safe, in part because they were designated for protection by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission this month. “In a city where relatively few hotels preserve their historic interiors, these lavish public rooms remain important for their understated Art Deco character and lasting cultural significance,” the commission wrote in its report. Any major changes to the designated spaces need approval from the commission.

Jee Park, a spokeswoman for the Waldorf Astoria, declined to give details about the renovations, but she confirmed that the Grand Ballroom will be available for charity events and other social occasions when the hotel reopens.

That comes as a relief to black-tie patrons. After all, it is difficult to find a space quite like the Waldorf Astoria, which opened in 1931 as the largest, tallest and most expensive hotel ever built, and has hosted presidents from Herbert Hoover onward, been a home for Marilyn Monroe and served as the backdrop for movies, including “Maid in Manhattan” and “The Royal Tenenbaums.”

“The Waldorf is definitely iconic,” said Norma Ragalli, the associate director of development for Catholic Charities, which has long held its annual gala and its Cardinal’s Christmas luncheon there.

This year, the charity will hold its gala at the American Museum of Natural History, and its luncheon at the New York Hilton Midtown. “Everybody was grabbing the dates, so you had to pretty much take what you could get,” Ms. Ragalli said.

“Our event planners at the Waldorf encouraged us to move over to the Hilton,” she added. “It has a very different vibe, a very different look, but we’ll try our best to make it festive.”

Also going to the New York Hilton Midtown are the organizers of the Alfred E. Smith dinner, which has been held at the Waldorf since 1945. The dinner made news last year when President Trump, then still a candidate, broke with tradition and turned the friendly roast into a political mudslinging.

“It’s going to be very strange come the third Thursday in October, and we’re not headed to the Waldorf Astoria,” said Joe Zwilling, a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, which helps organize the dinner.

“I know that many of the people who attend the dinner looked forward to sitting at the same table, having the same waiter, the same atmosphere, as they have had and as their parents and grandparents had before them,” Mr. Zwilling added. “There is a sense of continuity, of tradition, of belonging.”