In the world of event planning, there is one New Yorker who is definitely “top of the heap,” and that’s Arthur Backal. He is the go-to guy when planning parties and special events.
One of the most memorable events he planned was a $10-million private party at the legendary Rainbow Room that featured Aerosmith, the Eagles, Stevie Nicks, 50 Cent, Ciara, Kenny G, and Tom Petty. This party embodied his business mantra: “Really make sure you provide everything your client wants, and then give them more.”
The lavish opening gala at the Mandarin Oriental, New York, is another shining example of this mantra brought to life. More than 700 celebrities, dignitaries, royalty, and society patrons were entertained by Thai dancers, traditional Chinese mask-changing performers, and a performance by a favorite son of New York, Billy Joel—all in the hotel’s 6,000-square-foot pillarless ballroom.
This extravaganza was significant to Backal for two reasons. Not only is he the consulting director of catering for the hotel, but he is also the CEO of State of the Art Enterprises, the event management firm that planned the event.
Entrepreneurial Spirit Unleashed
“I wanted to do more than be in just one property. That’s why I started my own company. I wanted to give people a different perspective,” explains Backal. “When the Mandarin contacted me about this hotel they were opening in the Time Warner Center, I presented them the idea that I would operate the catering department of the hotel, but also wanted to be able to do other projects including the planning of corporate and social events.”
A few days after Mandarin Oriental’s grand opening, Backal was at it again, planning NYC & Company’s Leadership and Tourism dinner for 500 at the hotel.
“We had arranged for Cyndi Lauper to perform, which was great, but an unexpected surprise was when Tony Bennett showed up and asked if he could sing a song or two,” says Cristyne Nicholas, the former head of NYC & Company, the city’s official marketing, tourism, and partnership organization. “Arthur’s reputation preceded him, and I knew we would have a spectacular event with him at the helm.”
In an article in The New York Times, Backal is credited with contributing to the enormous success of the Mandarin Oriental, as many of his high-end clients followed him to the new venue.
“I helped open the Mandarin Oriental, and it’s a project I keep near and dear to my heart. It’s been eight years and I’ve helped steer the hotel through the recent economic challenge. It’s coming out of it very strong,” says Backal, a well-dressed 49-year-old, as we sit in a conference room at his most recent venture, Apella, a collaboration between Backal Management Group, Alexandria Real Estate Equities, and Riverpark, a Tom Colicchio restaurant.
Apella, an impressive event and conference center, offers 10 thoughtfully designed private rooms that accommodate up to 300 guests, contemporary interiors, and sweeping views of the East River.
Alexandria Real Estate Equities, the developer and owner of the new building on East 29th Street, contacted Backal last January about operating a conference center.
“When I saw their plans, I realized this was much more than a conference center. I always like to push the envelope. I told them I’d run it like a five-star property and do the best conferences in town, but would do social events here, as well.”
And that’s exactly what he has done at Apella, which opened on October 26, 2010. The name comes from ancient Greece and recalls the place where a diverse group of thought leaders from Sparta would come together to address crucial issues.
A Man of Many Hats
As if these ventures weren’t enough, in 2007, Backal accepted the opportunity from long-time friend Tony Fortuna to become a partner in a new restaurant. TBar Steak & Lounge opened on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, and other projects are in the works.
Backal, a native New Yorker, reminisces about being a teenager and the organizer of his parents’ parties. His mother, an attorney and then judge, and his father, who ran the family business that manufactured office supplies, did a great deal of entertaining.
“I was around a lot of interesting people—lawyers, judges, doctors, businesspeople. Plus, my dad would often have me accompany him on business lunches. I remember having lunch at Lutece and the 21 Club when I was only 10,” he says.
When he graduated from the Hotel and Restaurant Program at Michigan State University, a family friend helped him land an interview at The Helmsley Palace, where he was offered a job.
“I worked my way up from the bar to the restaurant, then room service, and settled in at a young age in the banqueting department. I learned so much at that job. With all the difficulties and challenges you heard about Leona [Helmsley], it really gave me a good understanding to know your place and to really know your job because she would call you on it if you didn’t.”
He went on to work with Donald and Ivana Trump at The Plaza; oversaw the entire food and beverage operation for the re-opening of the St. Regis; and helped to restore The Pierre to its legendary grandeur during his time there as director of catering. Stints at The Waldorf-Astoria, The Rainbow Room, and Cipriani round out his career.
There is no “typical” in Backal’s world, but he does spend time every day at the Mandarin Oriental, at Apella, and in his corporate office, and remains constantly connected with his multiple BlackBerry devices, an iPad, and an iPhone.
“The term ‘time management’ is often overused, but it truly is of the utmost importance. Delegation is also vital. I have a great deal of peace because of the teams I have developed and have in place,” he says.
His passion for the event-planning world is legendary. So is his commitment to family—wife Liana, sons Robby and Cory, and daughter Amanda—and to giving back. He and his wife are particularly committed to The Food Allergy Initiative, the primary goal of which is to find a cure for life-threatening food allergies, as he and his oldest son have such allergies. City Harvest, the world’s first food rescue organization, is another of his philanthropic efforts, and he is a member of its 2011 board of directors.
And at Backal’s 50th birthday party (the big day is Halloween), he will have all of the features his bashes are known for—pizzazz, celebrities, great food, and entertainment—but in lieu of gifts, Backal will suggest that his friends and family instead make charitable donations.
“I’ve worked with so many great people, companies, and organizations, and hopefully I’ve contributed to them in some small way. I appreciate so much what has been given to me, but I try to give back more,” he says.