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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5 Days In New York City - Andrea Serrano

As a former New Yorker, this city will always represent the most profound part of my life. It was a time where my focus was my career in the fashion industry and knowing where the hottest party was every night of the week. The one thing I didn’t take advantage of was the diverse tourist attractions. As a local, going to all of the sites isn’t usually a top priority unless you have family or friends in town. 13 years and 2 kids later, coming back to New York for 5 days as a tourist was actually the most important thing on my list. These sites are a reminder of how New York is the epicenter of culture and continues to influence the world. The New York Pass is your ticket to all of the sites in the city and beyond. If you are planning to visit New York City and want to pack in more than a few attractions then The New York Pass is the way to go. There are several packages you can buy - 1 day, 2 days, 3 days, 5 days, 7 days and 10 days. Purchasing this pass guarantees lower rates for each site and faster entry at given locations. The other great addition is the guidebook that is divided up by area. The book provides a description of each site, and the nearest buses and trains to take. Starting at $119 for a one day pass to $399 for a 10 day pass the value is undeniable. [caption id="attachment_1370" align="aligncenter" width="2000"] Day 1: You can’t go to New York without going to Central Park. This big slice of greenery in the middle of a concrete jungle is your only escape into nature in the city. The Alice in Wonderland sculpture is the perfect place to capture a moment with your family. [caption id="attachment_1375" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Central Park - Andrea Serrano[/caption] Day 2: This day was jam packed with adventure! We started out at The American Museum of Natural History and if you have kids, this is a must. We took in the underwater re-creations of oceans all over the world, the evolution of man, and ancient dinosaur bones. This massive museum could also take days to walk through, but with more stops along the way we had to keep it moving. The next stop was the Top of the Rock to view the city. The breathtaking views from the 70th floor of the Rockefeller Center are breathtaking and the waiting time to see it wasn’t that bad. We ended the day at The Statue of Liberty. If there are only a few places you have time to see in New York, this should be on the top of your list. This was the 1st passageway for so many immigrants who made America what it is today. Taking the ferry over to the island, you wonder what these people were feeling as they set their sites on their new home. You must do the audio tour which is included in the package. The history and the stories are palpable as you listen to recordings of real immigrants on their journey to the land of the free. [caption id="attachment_1377" align="aligncenter" width="800"] Statue of Liberty - Andrea Serrano[/caption] Day 3: With so much to see in the city it could be overwhelming. We opted for a break in the hustle and bustle to check out Coney Island. I’ve been there more than a few times, but in the past few years they have made some great updates including new rides and the vibrant Coney Art Walls. With the New York Pass you can get 4 hours of rides at Luna Park plus access to Deno's Wonder Wheel which is great because you can really cover a lot of ground in those few hours. Other new additions were some great new gift shops with quality Coney Island merchandise and restaurants with some healthy food options that were non-existent just a few years ago. [caption id="attachment_1378" align="aligncenter" width="850"] Deno's Wonder Wheel - Andrea Serrano[/caption] Day 4: Our weekend continued in Brooklyn as we visited the New York Transit Museum. Located in a defunct subway station in downtown Brooklyn, this is one of the sleeper hits when it comes to taking in history of New York. Housing historical artifacts of the New York City Subway, bus, commuter rail, and bridge and tunnel systems it’s impressive for both children and adults. I love going into all of the old subway cars and seeing all of the beautiful details like padded wicker seats and old advertisements on display. [caption id="attachment_1385" align="aligncenter" width="1000"] New York Transit Museum - Andrea Serrano[/caption] Day 5: We ended our trip with the 9/11 Memorial Museum. I remember living in New York when this happened and how it forever changed so many people’s lives. I’m so glad I did, especially to pay respect to everyone who lost their lives and the first responders who risked everything. The museum did a a great job of documenting that day and displaying all of the artifacts. It was incredible to see people from all of the world there and realize how many people this event affected. Sharing all of these sites with my family over the 5 days of our trip was such a bonding experience and I can’t wait to come back and explore more. There are so many attractions to see and many that I wouldn't mind visiting over and over again. The New York Pass made my vacation easy and hassle-free. I would totally recommend it to anyone who is looking to conquer as many attractions as they can in New York.
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