Unobstructed: Broadway’s Next Act with Cristyne Nicholas (EP. 9)

Nick Begley

Nick Begley

Senior Marketing Manager

Public Relations veteran Cristyne Nicholas joined Mike Evenson on episode 9 of the Unobstructed podcast. They talked about Cristyne’s role in rebuilding New York City’s $27 billion tourism industry following the tragic events of September 11th and the methodology that can be applied to our current economic crisis.

They discussed the need to over-communicate so that people understand the new rules and expectations, along with the importance of the health confidence factor of businesses as we begin to re-open. Cristyne also shared the positive things she’s seeing in her community, including support for essential workers, the surge of creativity of artists and the general generosity of people.

Episode transcript

Unobstructed: Broadway's Next Act with Cristyne Nicholas (EP.9)


Announcer: You're listening to Unobstructed your view on the live events industry.


Mike Evenson: Welcome to another episode of Unobstructed. I'm your host, Mike Evenson. Thank you so much for taking the time to join us today, really excited to have our guest today, Christine Nicholas.  She's the co-founder and CEO of Nicholas and Lence Communications, which is an award-winning multi-platform firm that specializes in strategic public and government relations efforts. Christine has also been, you know, has been marketing New York City in some form or fashion since 1994. She's a public relations veteran while known for her dedication and commitment as the CEO and President of New York NYC and Company, rebuilding New York City's $27 billion tourism industry following the tragic events of 9/11. She currently serves as the chairman of the Broadway Association; we'll get into that. A not for profit business association, which is devoted to the cultural and economic betterment of Midtown West, which includes the Broadway theater district. Welcome to the Unobstructed podcast. Christine.


Christine Nicholas: Thanks Mike. Thanks for having me good to be here.


Mike Evenson: So how are things in your neck of the woods right now in New York? Whereabouts do you live and what's the mood?


Christine Nicholas: Well, I'm lucky to be close enough to the city, but not actually. Well, I'm in Palem, but we lived in a building on the Upper East Side, on the 17th floor right before we moved here, and we have a dog. So, we feel blessed that we no longer have to take the elevator ride down. And I really feel for my friends who still live in the high rises because you know, if you start on 17 or 35, by the time you get down to the lobby, there are about 10 people in that elevator and there's no way to distance. So, I feel for the people that live in the city.


Mike Evenson: Yes, given your background and just everything you've been through, which we'll get into over the podcast. I'm curious, you know whether you think that that COVID, which you know, is, is similar to 9/11 to a certain degree, but it's also completely different. Are you seeing an exodus from the city? Are you seeing your friends or people you know are, or what do you think the feeling is around kind of living in the city versus wanting to get away, wanting to create your own space and not be living there anymore.


Christine Nicholas: You know, I think this is having a major impact on real estate for New York City and in the suburbs, tough for New York City. But the suburbs are starting to see an uptick of people that want to be close enough to the city that they don't want to be. In the city, the problem that you're going to have is public transportation. I mean, when New York City was, was built, when the transit system was put into place in 1904, you know, it was really stretching out to try to build up communities. And then of course you had Long Island Railroad and Metro North and New Jersey Transit. And again, it's stretched out our metropolitan area. And then of course, Robert Moses built the parkways again stretching out the metropolitan area. You know, I think it's going to be very difficult for some people to get back on public transportation, especially after seeing the homeless sleeping in the subway, is I think what the governor is doing by cutting back the hours to sanitize the subways is really a step in the right direction.  I went into the city this week, I had to go to an appointment. But it was very strange being on the train, you know I have to say, I geared up for it, you know like when you gear up to go to the supermarket. I geared up for going on the, on the train, and once I was in the city, you know, I ended up walking to my appointment, which was about 25 blocks. It was a beautiful day, I didn't mind it, but what an odd feeling, just to see storefronts, some of them boarded up just there weren't any people.  You know for photographers is probably wonderful, it made me extremely sad.


Mike Evenson: I'm sure. And you've been living in and around New York for such a long time. And I'm assuming that you've never seen or experienced anything like this.


Christine Nicholas: Well, all my life, I'm a native new Yorker born in Brooklyn. you know, so, no, I don't ever want to see it again. I feel like I'm living in some kind of zombie movie where I've survived. You know, I have photos of me in Grand Central of just being alone. You know, everything is boarded up in Grand Central. It's just Zaros, God bless them. They have one, they have I think three Zaros in Grand Central. One of them has opened, you know, but they just had a couple of bagels there. I felt for them, you know so, but yes look it’s, I do feel that we're coming out of it. There's definitely a renewed energy now maybe it's because the weather is getting warmer. But I do sense that people are really ready to get back.


Mike Evenson: Yes, I certainly think that that's felt around the country and obviously New York has been hit harder than anywhere. And you know, I obviously everyone was for the most part, it feels like was supportive of shutting down, of closing of flattening the curve. And obviously what New York did was the most extreme that we saw in the United States and in North America. And I really want to dive into this, you know how to reopen. So, you think about looking at what the current landscape business situation, and you just bring such a unique vantage point, given what you were tasked with doing and what you were involved with during 9/11. You know, the situations are different, but I'm curious if you can kind of provide a sense of what your methodology was. What your mindset was and kind of how you approached you know what it would mean to open up how you would do it because it's fascinating to me. Cause I think a lot of organizations are starting to wrap their heads around that right now.


Christine Nicholas: Well, they're very different, 9/11 and what we're dealing with now with COVID. But we can learn from some of the examples that we used in post 9/11 and apply them now. Remember after September 11th, we really, as a tour know, I was the CEO of NYC and Company back then, which is the city's marketing tourism agency right. So, there was almost a sense of, it was irresponsible to market the city, to ask people to come in, when we were still grieving. We were still searching for people; we were still hoping that this was a bad dream or that we were going to find more people alive. So then to get up and be the cheerleader just did not seem right for the first couple of days.

And then what we did is, I remember the very next day on the 12th being called into a meeting with Mayor Giuliani, and he had all of the, sort of the financial and business leaders of New York City sitting around the table. And he went around and asked them when they can open. So, I remember Dick Grasso was sitting right across from me and he said to Dick, how quickly can you open up the stock exchange? And Dick said we don't, we've got to get electricity in there, we have to, so it was a little bit difficult to answer. So, I think the stock exchange was closed for maybe two weeks or so.

And then he turned to me and he said, well, how quickly can you get Broadway open? And I was with Jed Bernstein and we looked at each other, and we said, probably in a week or so. He said, you mean tomorrow. And we said, but Mr.  Mayor, we can't get all the actors and the performers. And you know, the musicians and many of them live in New Jersey and Long Island. And even if they drove in, remember the bridges were closed. There wasn't any public transportation, the airports were closed. He said, you tell them to show their ID, that they're with a Broadway show and we will get them in; the shows going on tomorrow night.

So, we're trying to register this and Jed and I, and then he went on to the next person. I think it was the hotels, and Jed and I are sitting there like looking at each other and there's like, you guys don't have something to do right now. We're going to need to go talk to the unions, give me a report later and let me know how it goes. And if they don't agree with this, call me and I will meet with them. So luckily, we did do that, everybody was ready to get back to work. They knew that it was their duty to do so and I think at the time, I know at the time the mayor was reading a bio on Winston Churchill. And he was basically taking a page from Churchill's book that during the Blitzkrieg, the opera went on. The theater, went on, the symphonies went on and his point was if we don't allow our culture to live on then we're giving the terrorists an even bigger victory, which we don't want to do. So, the show went on, on September 13th.


Mike Evenson: Yes.


Christine Nicholas: I saw the [inaudible 10:27] one day, yes, we also made sure that our elected officials and the folks that worked for the mayor, that we dispersed, and we all went to a show that night.  I went to see the Full Monty; the mayor saw Lion King. And what happened at the end of each show is everybody stood up and held hands with strangers and they sang God Bless America. And it was the, I still get chills about it.


Mike Evenson: What a great story and I'm curious if the, what the audience reaction was, were those, were those shows full?


Christine Nicholas: No, they weren't full, they were maybe 50%, 60%. So, you did get a sense that you were sort of doing the right thing. I think they closed the upper orchestra, I mean, I'm sorry they closed the third tiers and they had people come down so that it felt like it was a little bit more full. But we also put together a program called Spend your Regards to Broadway, which the mayor bought 50,000 Broadway tickets to be given out. But we didn't want to just give things away because as you know, something that is given away for free is sometimes not always valued.

So, and we also wanted to help the retail industry and we wanted to get people out. So, we created this program that, if they spent a certain amount of money and they showed their receipts to the visitor center in Times Square, we would then give them to Broadway tickets. And there was a line out of the visitor center, people holding their receipts to show that they went shopping. And they had to do the shopping after September 11th, up until then, I think we started that program almost at the end of September. And it really helped get people back into the mood of going to a show and knowing that they are helping the city.


Mike Evenson: I think what's fascinating about kind of that that 9/11 experience to me and I was thinking on the sports side too, it was like this idea that our culture, as you said, can't be extinguished and, and making sure that live events and arts and sports went on. I mean, to think 48 hours after, that the lights went on and the curtain went up is amazing. Where live events sit noa, in a Covid world is a fundamentally different place. It's fascinating to me now the mechanisms to get people into the, to come back might look quite similar. Spend money on retail and go to an event.

But live events and public safety considerations. I just don't think people don’t feel, let me ask you this. When it came to 9/11, I think people felt a sense of pride of New York, the way people responded, and just that this New York Community just rose up and, and it was always there, but it was heightened, and the rest of the world got to see it. Covid is a different situation, and I'm curious whether because New York's gotten hit hardest, if it's just that New York attitude of this is what we do, this is how New York survives. Or if people are kind of looking at this differently and saying, I don't like, I don't know that I feel the same as maybe I did in previous experiences like this.


Christine Nicholas: Well, there was a fear factor after 9/11, there was the fear factor that we could be sitting here and aren't we a target now to be blown up right. And then there was also the anthrax scare.


Mike Evenson: Right.


Christine Nicholas: So New Yorkers being tough, there was also that fear factor, which did keep some people away. But you know, you're absolutely right Mike, that the events served as an engine to get this whole city moving again right. Whether it was Broadway or whether it was when you saw President Bush throughout the first pitch right. It was this shared experience that makes events so powerful. You know that everybody at the same exact time is experiencing something.

And I think, you know, I'll tell you just personally when I knew Covid was really going to devastate our economy and the events business was when I was watching it unfold live with, during the NBA game right. When you saw that they weren't playing that there was this, something was going on in the locker rooms. And then when the player, it was known that the player was positive and then they just got everybody out of the arena. We knew right then this is bad because a player in his prime and being so healthy should not be getting Covid. So that was the other thing that told us this is going to be bad.

So, but I do think that this will, there'll be people that are going to rush to get back. You've already seen it around the country, you're starting to see it now with people wanting to get back. There'll be some people and unfortunately, it's probably, they may not come back to tourism or big events and I think more of our older population is playing this a little bit safer because they are as they should. But that's a huge market for tourism and for Broadway.

And when you look at the baby boomers and on up, they have the disposable income, or they did when the economy was doing great. They had the disposable income, they had the wherewithal and they, this baby boomer are the greatest generation, they were strong, and they were tough, and they were just going to go. You know, when we saw after 9/11, those were some of the first people back on the planes to come to New York City. I'm concerned that it's going to take a while to get that group back.


Mike Evenson: Yes, I think you're right and yes, I remember sitting there and hearing about Rudy Gobert and the Utah Jazz. And I remember seeing Mark Cuban kind of get the information that everything was going to get shut down and yes it was just wild and I think it's, the fact that you can't touch feel and see this, this virus, I think is  what makes it so hard for people to,  sort of to wrap their heads around. So yes and looking at kind of New York in general, regardless of whether events come back first or last, I'm curious what your thoughts are yes around when, what do you think will need to be in place for not just people going to events, but people to feel comfortable  being tourists again. And you go in Times Square and it's just like is there, I don't know that there are many places in the world that have that same kind of energy. And, when we look at that confidence factor [inaudible 18:21].


Christine Nicholas: I think you're going to need two things, yes, you'll need a vaccine and you'll need treatment, before I think people really feel comfortable. And also, probably before Broadway opens, there's been a lot of talk of whether or not you can open Broadway with distancing in the audience and maybe every other row, but it's not just the audience, it's the performers, it's the pit. I mean, you have the army, they call it a pit for a reason right. It's tiny, all crammed in there and there's also now, no, 100% surety that if you had COVID that you can't get it again; they're now starting to see some cases.

And then what is also very troubling is this newest issue with the children, which we felt the kids were immune and now not so much. So, I think until there's a vaccine, you won't see really big scale events the way we did. But I do think that they're getting closer to that and I do think that there are opportunities for events to take place in a responsible way. You know, we're working right now with Long Island and some beach communities on getting them open for Memorial Day weekend. And people I think have you know; they are tired of staying home and they also know that going out as a privilege right. So, they will distance, they will be responsible, at least I believe they will. They're not going to want to risk it so that we're going to have to come back in. It's one thing to be inside in February and March, in April when it's a little cold and you don't really mind being inside. Try staying inside in July in all of this, that's going to be rough.


Mike Evenson: Yes, absolutely. So, I believe it was Spain or Greece or one of those coastal countries that was going to start kind of doing reservations on the beach. So, I think you're going to see a shift here where nontraditional kind of reserved spaces, which are whether it's parks or open spaces or whatever, then have generally been first-come, first-served are going to need to be kind of more regulated. And it’ll, I'm assuming it’ll be a lot easier if we participate willingly.


Christine Nicholas: Right.


Mike Evenson: As opposed to group [inaudible 20:54].


Christine Nicholas: Right and I think the industry will be able to modernize with tech, at the same time when things are starting to reopen, it's going to be a slower reopening, so you're going to have fewer people. Also keep in mind, disposable income is going to be something that with people without jobs, they're not going to be able to spend that much. But so, let's just say in the case of restaurants and we work with Arthur Avenue where they have 40 of, probably the best Italian restaurants in New York City. So even if they're able to open at 50% capacity, they probably wouldn't even get 50%, coming back right away. If they were told, or you can open up without 50% capacity, people are going to be slow to come back.

You saw that in Connecticut, they just opened up this week and there were Connecticut restaurants that were gearing up for 70, they didn't get it. People are going to, they're coming back, but it's going to be slow to come back. And hopefully that will allow the establishments to keep up with that, to get used to coming back and putting in place certain things that will make people feel more comfortable. We also, so maybe it's reservation only, which a lot of these places are walk up. But maybe they have to do reservation only, and maybe they'll be able to expand out into the sidewalk or into the street to allow more people more than 50%, because it's very hard margins in a restaurant, very tough. It's like 15, 10 to 15%, so they need to be at that 70, 80% to break even and make money. But if you allow outdoor dining, then I think they can make their numbers. And I think the city is looking at allowing that.


Mike Evenson: So is this where again, as the chairman of the Broadway association and you shared that example of  kind of that  partnership to drive economic development  in 9/11, where you do the retail, you go to Broadway, you go to Broadway, you do the retail. Is that something that you'd recommend that organizations start looking outside their own business and say, who can we partner with? Who can we work with to bundle things together to create more opportunities for people to see value.


Christine Nicholas: Packages.


Mike Evenson: Yes.


Christine Nicholas: Right absolutely and I use that exact example of hoping that we can do something like that again. And there's also up in Arthur Avenue, they are opened, it’s limited, they haven't closed because they sell the essentials and it also is a lot of open-air shopping instead of like tight supermarkets, they've got shops. But they've figured it out where they have a curbside pickup and whatnot. But you have two of the greatest institutions in New York City that are right near Arthur Avenue, which is a botanical garden in the Bronx Zoo.  I would love to see those two institutions open quickly, right. They're outdoor, there's a lot of space for people to walk around. You can limit the space, and I think it's not going to be perfect. And as institutions are trying to figure out, well, how do we do this safely? I think people will abide by the rules that they put in place, knowing that they're going to be temporary.

So, if they say, look you're going to buy a ticket online, it's going to be a time ticket. So that we know that in one hour we're only going to sell 200 tickets and then maybe they say, you can only stay for four hours where some people would normally go to the zoo or whatever for the entire day. Look, I have kids that go to these trampoline parks, right and they get a color-coded wrist band, and this is not rocket science. And they make the announcement or like, Oh, cause you buy two hours, right or you buy one hour, whatever you want to buy. And they say, okay, everybody with the yellow wristbands, you must exit now, please make your way to the exit. So sure enough, they make their way to the exits. They know what the rules are going into it, so they're not going to get upset.

I think you just have to over communicate when you reopen. So, people know what the expectations are, of how they are supposed to be responsible and know what the rules are. Same thing with the opening, the beaches right now, if you know what the rules are and, you know, we're listing the rules, they're all on the website. They're going to be posted outside of, when you're entering Long Beach, everybody will know what the rules are. Hopefully, there won't be any problems.


Mike Evenson: You know, and I think there have obviously been exceptions around people breaking the rules and not wanting to follow the rules. But I think, for the most part, I think you're right. I think that citizens in the U S and you know, I live in Arizona where we've been less hit by COVID. But people are playing by the rules and they're okay with that. And I think that, I think you're absolutely right, putting those rules up front, incenting and enticing them to get out, I think is going to be important. And then that health confidence factor, I think is going to be really critical too. And I'm curious what conversations or what discussions you've been having around who's going to create that standard.

So, you got the CDC out there that's kind of making those recommendations, but what's like, is there going to be a law, is this going to be law? And what are those cleaning standards or health standards going to be? Or is it that likely impossible the next 12 to 24 months. And so, it's going to need to be a symbiotic relationship between the vendor and the patron that are going to both have to feel comfortable with that situation.


Christine Nicholas: Well, I think through the various agencies, they're going to put forth recommendations that businesses will need to abide in order to open. A lot that's being done now in New York is done by executive order. So, it is like a law, but it's not a bill that has to pass by both houses and get voted into. But I think people will follow the rules and hopefully they're temporary. You know, I think everybody wants to make sure that we just don't go back to where we were in March.


Mike Evenson: Absolutely. What has given you hope and optimism? Like what either that you've been involved with that you're seeing, kind of materialize that you think is going to is really kind of pushing us in the right direction or even personally, as far as how you've engaged with entertainment differently and live events, or maybe you haven't. Like, what has given you kind of the most hope and optimism?


Christine Nicholas: Well, from a Broadway perspective, I am just always in awe of this community, but their creativity right now has just been phenomenal. You know, from the early days of putting together the handwash challenge that Theater Mania put together. Rosie O'Donnell's, I think that was one of the first things she did a live show and brought in all of these performers. I can't say brought in, but went to.


Mike Evenson: Yes.


Christine Nicholas: There virtually and seeing these people's homes and it's been a lot of fun. I think what's impressed me is the amount of money that's been raised for the frontline workers and for the actors fund that people have been so generous. And even when the future is uncertain, they've still been generous, and they've given. So that has impressed me a great deal and now we're working.  I also think the creativity we haven't even seen yet because a lot of these playwrights are busy writing now. So, we'll see that in six months to a year when they can start sharing that. And then hopefully in years to come, they'll just be this surge of creativity that we'll see on the boards.


Mike Evenson: Yes no, absolutely. And we've been witness to lots of live event organizations that have been forced to pivot and it's amazing what, what innovation comes out from that. And people's experiences around experiencing live at home, is something that I don't think anyone really, I’m a sports fan, so I'm used to live at home. I mean, I live far away from the Green Bay Packers and the Milwaukee Bucks and so I can't experience those events live. But sports at home is established I would say, now we’re starting to see music and arts become a much more digestible at home than ever before.


Christine Nicholas: Yes, and you know, we work with the Armory Track and Field up in Washington Heights, which is a state-of-the-art indoor track and it's where many Olympic athletes go to train. That's where the Millrose Games take place every year. So, what they've been doing is, and they have a lot of kids from the community come through there to train and obviously they can't do that now. So, what they've put together is this workout program for the kids through Zoom, and they were thinking they do it once a week, twice a week. But because it's an Olympic year and we've been in touch with many of the Olympic athletes because they were preparing and they were training at the Armory, they have such deep contacts in that world. They've reached out to some Olympians; so, you've seen Natasha Hastings.


Mike Evenson: Wow.


Christine Nicholas: Allyson, Felix, Bernard Lagat, these Olympic athletes want to share with the children how to work out to make sure that they stay fit. And if you're fit and you keep exercising, your mind is going to be stronger right. You're going to have a better outlook in life, and I think that's what these athletes are sharing with these young kids. And it is just been a joy to watch. So, you can probably find it on Zoom or it's the track and field armory up in Washington Heights in New York, but it really is so inspirational. And just this week there's a woman named Ida Healing, and she turned 105 and Ida has been a runner. And she holds the record for the 90 and above. And so, they had a special surprise where they had Ida to go on the Zoom with the kids and they sang happy birthday to her. And then she gave some wisdom for these children about staying fit. You know that it's the most important thing for them to do right now, just so that they don't get lost in the sadness.


Mike Evenson: Yes, yes totally agree. And it's ironic that now that people are kind of being more forced inside and more of a two-dimensional kind of experience. It is more important than ever to kind of have a healthy body, which creates a healthy mindset. And I think nutrition plays a big role in that too. And so, I, talked to a lot of people that are exploring kind of cooking and new recipes and stuff. So, it's been a really challenging nine, 10 weeks for everyone. And it'll be fascinating to see what comes out of this. So many people have Broadway memories Christine, and I'm curious how can, how can people support Broadway right now?


Christine Nicholas: Well, I think there are many ways that the Actor's Fund and Broadway Cares/ Equity Fights AIDS are two wonderful organizations and they are constantly putting on streaming shows they can go on their website. Also, if you want more of a selection and be able to watch Broadway productions at your own time, Broadway HD is a streaming service that was started by Stewart Lane and Bonnie Comley. And they started this about six years ago, but now all of a sudden, it's taken off. I will say that they should have hope, Broadway will be back. Broadway was what brought us back after September 11th.

Unfortunately, it was one of the, it was the first thing, right that led us. And unfortunately, it will not lead us now because just of the restrictions. But it will be there and boy, it's going to be magnificent when we can all celebrate together with a show. You know, my last show I saw was Company, which was just on I think it was March 11th. And I'm so glad that I actually did it, but there were times when I was sitting before the show started or during intermission. And I had my turtleneck up over my head because I was really questioning my judgment at that point, like, wow.


Mike Evenson: Yes.


Christine Nicholas: Are we really doing the right thing here? And sure, enough they closed the next day.


Mike Evenson: Wow.


Christine Nicholas: You know I got to see Diana as well, which was in previews and I got to see a workshop of Mrs. Doubtfire. So, this season really would have been an exciting season for Broadway. And I just hope that some of those shows can come back when they finally get the green light to open.


Mike Evenson: Yes, me too and even if they look different, hopefully people will be the supportive of kind of whatever that new venue experiences is going to be. I mean, there's no question a lot of these older venues just aren't built for social distancing in mind and you have to wonder whether social distancing and live events, even, even correlate.  I'm not sure they do, but we'll see what, what comes of this.


Christine Nicholas: Okay.


Mike Evenson: Well Christine, thank you so much for joining the, the Unobstructed podcast. Again, really appreciate your perspective and your history. And I hope to have you back sometime soon.


Christine Nicholas: Well, thanks, Mike. And I hope to see you in person sometime, so I can welcome you back to New York.

[00:36:11] Mike Evenson:

 Make it happen. Thanks Christine.


Christine Nicholas: Thank you.


Announcer: Thanks for listening to Unobstructed your view on the live events industry. Subscribe today, wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts.

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