A LIFETIME SPENT steeped in the world of fine hotels may take the shine off a premier property for some. But not for Jim Blauvelt. Despite a globe-trotting childhood as the son of a pharmaceutical executive, an education in hotel management and more than two decades with New York's Waldorf-Astoria, the Park Avenue icon's director of catering admits the place still knocks him out.
“It's such an amazing physical property,” he says, noting “spectacular Old World glamour in the front of the house.” But that's nothing compared with the back, where the no-holds-barred budget for the hotel's 1930s construction meant “kitchens the size of football fields, and pantries for pantries for pantries,” he explains. “The bean counters did not invent that model. Food & beverage people invented it.”
Of course, having seven major event spaces — including the 1,500-banquet-capacity Grand Ballroom, which alone accounts for 50 percent of the hotel's $54 million annual catering revenue — helps. So does an F&B staff of 850 — more than half of the hotel's 1,600 total employees.
With those stats, it's no wonder that the Waldorf is one of New York's most in-demand venues for large-capacity benefits, with high-profile hosts including Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera. During its busy seasons — September through Christmas, and March through June — “the lights are never turned off in the Grand Ballroom,” Blauvelt says. “There are breakfasts, lunches and dinners, and resetting all night, with decor being installed for the next morning's event.” Illustrating the point, he adds, “As [TV host] Diane Sawyer said to me one night, ‘Thank goodness for the Waldorf, or I'd starve to death. I eat here five nights a week!’”
With so many fund-raising events under his watch, Blauvelt has a wealth of experience to draw upon. And he's not afraid to use it to guide a client who's in danger of veering off course. “The bottom line is a ticket for a fund-raiser at the Waldorf begins at $1,000, and tables can sell for $1 million each. You cannot be overly frugal in that market.” If a client seems to be either pinching pennies or going over the top, Blauvelt says he has no problem offering a gentle, “‘May I ask what the ticket price is?’” and then following with, “‘Let me advise you with what other events in this category are doing.’”
His clients, who come to him because they need to raise large amounts of money from people who expect the best, rely upon such expertise as part of the Waldorf experience. It's just one element of an approach to service best summed up by an old Waldorf expression, posted “in gold leaf, of course,” Blauvelt says, throughout the back of the house: “‘The difficult, immediately. The impossible will take a few moments longer.’”
The Waldorf-Astoria 301 Park Ave., New York, NY 10022-6897; 212/355-3000; www.waldorfastoria.com
THE REAL DEAL
“Almost every one of my customers has sat across from me and said, ‘You work in such a fabulous environment. You have the best job in the world!’ But we know the realities of that, the angst that goes with it. You're not sitting there in your tuxedo enjoying the party. You're sitting there in your tuxedo thanking God that it got done.”
“What is a hotel really about? Is it about coming in, lying down, getting something to eat and going home? Maybe a roadside hotel. But icon hotels are about defining moments in your life — creating memories, surprising you with service and luxury, and creating an ambience in which you are as comfortable as you would be at home.”
DOING WELL DOING GOOD
“The best part of my job is that, certainly in the gala and benefit market, you are raising a great deal of financial support for wonderful things — whether it's the arts, medical research or scholarship. At the end of the day, it isn't about cooking filet and serving lobster. It's about the great things that the money being raised will do for those institutions. That gives some purpose to why you would sit in a room for two hours discussing the color of tablecloths. There's no other reason that makes sense.”