Real estate’s glittery holiday parties on hold due to Covid

"This is the year of no parties"


Fried Frank’s annual holiday bash typically draws about 1,000 clients and friends to Cipriani, where they stand elbow to elbow sipping cocktails and snacking on hors d’oeuvres.

But this year may be one for the Grinch.

Planning for the firm’s annual holiday bash typically starts a year in advance. But last month, the white-shoe law firm officially pulled the plug on its celebration, seen by many as the industry’s unofficial start to the holiday season.

As much as I like having fun and going to the parties and seeing everybody, I think this is the year of no parties.
u2014 Daren Hornig, managing partner, Hornig Capital Partners.

“In the current circumstances it’s obviously the right decision,” said Jonathan Mechanic, the chairman of the firm’s real estate department, who makes a point of personally greeting several hundred guests each year.

Like so many things in 2020, the packed holiday parties of years past are now verboten for New York’s real estate players, as health experts advise against large indoor gatherings. On Dec. 11, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo shut down indoor dining again as the number of Covid-19 cases rose across the state.

“As much as I like having fun and going to the parties and seeing everybody, I think this is the year of no parties,” said Daren Hornig, managing partner of Hornig Capital Partners.

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For the industry, the month of December is typically a whirlwind of party-hopping — and, for some, deal-making. Lavish parties at Cipriani, Top of the Standard and Tao are places to see and be seen, as raucous partygoers indulge in food and drink while networking, swapping market intel and gossiping.

In 2018, Hornig sold the Bruckner Building after an encounter at a holiday party. Which one? “I don’t want to say it was Madison Realty Capital, because I don’t want to owe Josh [Zegen, Madison’s co-founder] a commission, but I definitely owe him some drinks,” he joked.

Mechanic said Fried Frank’s higher-ups thought long and hard about what to do in lieu of an in-person bash. They ultimately rejected a virtual gathering, concerned that people wouldn’t connect in a meaningful way. “Our event is really kind of a who’s-who in the real estate industry,” he said. “To do something that was not going to be keeping with the nature of that event didn’t seem right to us.”

He said organizers were also concerned about technical glitches. “The notion of some CEO getting frustrated didn’t sound appealing,” he said.

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Brown Harris Stevens also opted out of a virtual celebration. Instead, it plans to donate funds it would have spent on a party to various charities, including New York Cares and Neighborhood Coalition for Shelter. “This makes us feel so much happier,” said Hall Willkie, BHS’ president in New York, who said Zoom can’t replicate the energy or feel of in-person gatherings.

Cipriani's at 110 East 42nd Street (Photo via Cipriani's)

Cipriani’s at 110 East 42nd Street (Photo via Cipriani’s)

Cooper-Horowitz, known for a daytime affair that takes place on the second Wednesday in December, canceled its party, but is holding out hope that “when things improve we can do a spring holiday party,” Richie Horowitz, one of the firm’s principals, said in an email.

In lieu of its traditional party at the Morgan Library and Hotel, which it helped renovate, Sciame Construction sent electronic greeting cards with photos from prior years and the invitation, “See you next year.”

Kramer Levin also sent a video message to clients, offering words of thanks for health and connectedness. “In normal circumstances, I love going to the parties, I really do,” said Jay Neveloff, who chairs the firm’s real estate group. “Seeing people I like at the parties — it’s just personal connections that are so important.”

Neveloff said the firm didn’t have a companywide celebration, but departments are hosting virtual gatherings on their own. The real estate department participated in a virtual escape room during the second week of December.

Other firms have also done virtual events: In early December, Fried Frank partner Jennifer Yashar led real estate attorneys in a potato latke and applesauce-making class over Zoom, with recipes for potato pancakes and Moscow Mules circulated in advance.

Despite the health warnings, some industry players have attended big bashes. Against the advice of the Centers for Disease Control, President Donald Trump followed through with a string of holiday parties at the White House this month. On Dec. 9, South Florida developer Gil Dezer and Douglas Elliman brokers Oren and Tal Alexander attended the president’s Hanukkah soiree. “Spare your political views,” Oren Alexander wrote on Instagram. “The president just served us kosher food in his house and wished us a Happy Hanukkah.”

But for others, respite from weeks of party-hopping was a relief. Simon Ziff, president of Ackman-Ziff, said he was, in fact, ready for a break from the holiday parties. “I will miss seeing all of the paparazzi following around [Fried Frank’s Jonathan] Mechanic, [Royal Abstract’s Marty] Kravet, [Madison’s Josh] Zegen and [Cushman & Wakefield’s Bruce] Mosler,” he joked. “But they all are pretty damn photogenic.”

Neveloff said instead of party invites, he’s gotten assorted gifts from clients, including a box of high-end truffle oils. On Dec. 12, he attended a virtual gala to support National Jewish Health, a respiratory hospital in Denver supported by New York developer Larry Silverstein. “Wine was delivered two days ago. Yesterday we got a box with cookies, popcorn, all sorts of goodies,” Neveloff said prior to the event. “What I don’t know is whether I’m supposed to wear a shirt and tie.”