Empire State Building - Interview with Jean-Yves Ghazi

By Suz Pathmanathan

  • How tall is the Empire State Building? 1454 feet.
  • Four million people visit the Empire State Building every year
  • The building has its own zip code: 10118.
  • Valentine’s Day is the only day that couples can get married on top of the Empire State Building.
  • The Empire State Building was started and finished in a record-breaking 20 months.

See more Empire State Building facts.

As modern life continues to move at pace and buildings stretch skyward to accommodate and entertain its city residents, there's one building in particular that remains the jewel of New York's skyline: the Empire State Building.

Since its conception, it has been a towering symbol of ambition and imagination - a feat of human endurance, ingenuity and financial resolve. As many as 3,400 men worked on the building every day to assemble its skeleton in record time and it cost an estimated $41 million to build at the time (around $558 million by today's standards). Since its unveiling, it has proved to be fertile ground for inspiration. Films such as Sleepless in Seattle (1993) and King Kong (1933) gave the building as much prominence in film as it's had in our collective imagination ever since.

But what's it like to be at the helm of one of the Seven Wonders of the World? We had the honor of catching up with Jean-Yves Ghazi, the Director of Empire State Building, to find out.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to us. Innovation has been at the forefront of the building's design since it was conceived. How have you kept this spirit of innovation alive in 2019?

Our guests love the building. They adore the outdoor views. However, they weren’t too crazy about the queuing process. So four and a half years ago we embarked on this project [the ESB's new exhibit, second floor galleries], during which time we assembled best-in-class teams to design content and expand the overall experience. This creative, intelligent approach ensured that the ESB continues to inspire our visitors, and places them at the forefront of everything we do.

We kept getting feedback from our visitors validating our endeavor to take the ESB in an experiential direction. We learned how deeply the connection with the building runs when it comes to our guests - it really is a profound thing. This insight motivated us to create experiences that would help fuel their pre-existing emotional connection with the building.

For those unfamiliar with the second floor galleries, can you give us a bit of a summary?

Sure! The second floor galleries is an interactive journey into The Empire State Building's legend and history. Telescopes mimic the original survey markers, and guests can watch short film clips of actors reenacting day-to-day interactions that would have occurred on the street outside in the early days of the building’s construction. They can then explore the building through different decades, interact with touchscreens and ride in a simulated elevator. Spatialized audio, jets of air, as well as an optical illusion with a one way mirror on the floor will make them the feel like they're looking many floors down the shaft. It really is a unique experience.

That's before we mention the massive, digital rendering of King Kong...

Haha, yes. You can touch King Kong’s hands which have broken through the walls. It's pretty spectacular, thanks to HD displays and 4D media elements. It feels like he's right outside the window!

Incredible. Immersive exhibits aside, the Empire State Building has obviously had such an effect on the collective imagination throughout the world. In what ways did it inspire you as a child?

Here in New York, we have a tendency to not visit attractions in the city unless we have family visiting. So when my family came over from abroad to see me back in 2001, of course they wanted to see the Empire State Building. It’s a day I’ll never forget. My family were absolutely blown away by the experience. Fast forward to today, and I’m fortunate to lead the most iconic landmark in New York City – one of the top iconic attractions in the world. It’s a tremendous responsibility, but it’s such a privilege too. Having been in the hospitality business my entire career, I love the reaction our guests have when they visit. It reminds me of the same emotional connection my family had when they came to see it.

Speaking about it being an integral part of people’s memories, what is the most fantastic story you’ve seen or heard while working at the Empire State Building?

We see lots of proposals, and probably the most elaborate one was when a guest started putting down rose petals completely unannounced before getting down on one knee in front of everyone. Once a year – during Valentine’s Day - we also host weddings. (Who doesn't want to be married at the top of the Empire State Building?). Every year we host a unique crowd of close-knit families coming together to celebrate the big day. These are the moments that feel so special to me. But let’s not forget that while these weddings are special moments in their own right, it’s all the other moments – the smiles, the gasps you hear as people gaze over the top of the building, and the laughter of visitors engaging with our exhibits – that we create every day. They’re all absolutely priceless.

Sustainability is something that you take seriously. Can you describe the steps the Empire State Building has taken to reduce its impact on the environment?

Buildings use around 40% of a city's total energy, and in dense urban settings like New York, commercial buildings account for up to 75% of energy used. The Empire State Building, through its energy-efficiency program, has continually beat its energy-efficiency guarantee, from year one. We're exceptionally proud of this achievement and have the ambitious aim of surpassing our targets, year after year.

Cutting-edge technology minimizes your energy use. But how have you leveraged it to change the way you tell stories?

It’s an interesting question! Technology continues to evolve, and the way to tell these stories is with speed, accuracy, and ease of access. All of our exhibits including the interpretive panels come in a range of languages to encourage effortless interaction. From an accessibility perspective and from a technological perspective in general, I can tell you that it has had a significant impact on our ticketing process whereby we introduced ticketing kiosks that include other languages. As technology evolves, we’ll deliver information in a meaningful, fun, and practical way.

What new exhibits are in the pipeline that you’re excited about?

You'll have to come and find out! Our second floor galleries exhibit is still so new, but the positive reaction from our guests have been phenomenal - we're absolutely thrilled. We'll continue to enthral and delight our visitors from around the world - so watch this space.

A huge thank you to Jean-Yves Ghazi for this incredible interview. And if you want more of the best things in the city we've got just the thing.

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