15 Minutes With Mr. Hospitality

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Working with Leona Helmsley, The Donald, and the case of the missing cake


  • The ballroom at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel

Arthur Backal’s name is synonymous with successful events in New York City. He has spent his career in the Manhattan hospitality world and worked in iconic hotels like the The Plaza, The Pierre, The Helmsley Palace and The St. Regis. He used all that experience to eventually create his own businesses, State of the Art and Backal Hospitality Group, which helps clients in planning everything from corporate events to weddings to nonprofit functions. While he was growing his first company, the Mandarin Oriental Hotel was opening in New York, and he was hired as its consulting director of catering, a position he stills holds today.

“One night I could have been visible at four or five weddings and parties, making sure everything was alright,” he said. Now, at 53, with a wife and daughter, his priorities have shifted, and he sees the value of a work-life balance. “Just taking my daughter to school today, she asked me, ‘Can you take me to school again soon?’ That makes it all worthwhile.”

What was your first job in the industry?

I had an opportunity to go with the Regency Hotel, on more of the office side, or the Helmsley Palace, more on the food and beverage side. I worked in all the different areas, the restaurant, lounge, bars. Very early on, I got a banquet/maître d’ job, working with people more than twice my age. I remember in the 80s, I saw Clive Davis. He had- I think it was for one of his kids’ parties- Whitney Houston, Taylor Dayne, and Kenny G playing. They were just getting up there and doing one or two songs as friends. Now, if you had talent like that, you would have to have full production meetings and riders that tell you exactly what they want. Yeah, it’s great working with a celebrity, but to me, if they’re nice, approachable and real, that has a lot more currency.

How much interaction did you have with Leona Helmsley?

Back then, when they first opened, it was one of the top hotels, because that’s why Leona Helmsley was in her heyday. I had enough interaction with her. I might have been only 21 years old, was pretty smart to know when to have interaction and when to avoid. [Laughs]

What was it like to work with Donald Trump? Do you watch him on The Celebrity Apprentice?

Yes I do, and always tell people, “I was really the first apprentice.” Back then, I was a young, hotshot guy who got to know him. I really interacted with him a lot, and his wife, Ivana. She liked me; she saw that I had style and an appreciation for quality. Those were the early days, when they took over The Plaza. It was exciting. People can say that the Trumps and Helmsley were erratic or tough to work with, but it made me try harder and be better.

How old were you when you first started your own business?

It was right when I had turned 40. I was thinking about it in my 30s, but then got the job at The Pierre. That was the last game-changer job, because it was when I left the St. Regis after eight years running all the food and beverage and catering. The job came open; it was one of the biggest catering jobs in the city and didn’t have much turnover. The guy before me was there for 20 years. They were heavily recruiting me and I said, “Alright, I’ll give it one more go, finishing my hotel part of my career.” It was a great job, but I wanted more.

Explain Backal Hospitality Group.

It’s the parent company, but all embracing hospitality. I manage and develop venues and have ownership interest in different projects. I also have restaurant and technology interests. Our business happens to be more focused on the social market. We tend to do a lot more of that, but we’ve done plenty of corporate events and some not-for-profits, but our core business is the social business, so weddings, Bar Mitzvahs and birthday parties. But we do A to Z, from creating the concepts to finding the venues. Like everything, it’s a changing world. The internet is so interactive now. Clients know so much and are so hungry for knowledge at the moment. I’m all for it and think it’s great, but I’m always looking at how to move my business along. If I was just only doing planning, I think that would be a tougher situation.

I read that at a young age, you already started helping your parents plan parties.

It’s very rare to know at an early age and I knew in eleventh grade. I was almost going towards being a chef because I did like to cook. My mother and father entertained a lot, but weren’t in the business. They loved food and exposed me to all these great restaurants over the years. It felt natural. I was good with people. I grew up around a lot of my parents’ friends, so it made it easier to learn how to talk and relate to all different types of people. When I went to college [Michigan State], it wasn’t as big of a profession. Chefs were nothing like they were today. Now the hospitality business has become global.

Tell us a story of a disaster happening at an event and how you fixed it.

A whole wedding cake wasn’t ordered. The client never ordered it; we weren’t supposed to order it. There was a cake coming in for the party the next day, so I used that. It could have been a disaster, but it was averted. Things happen all the time, but you hopefully have enough experience to fix it.

How do you balance your family life with your work obligations?

I have been doing this a long time and I’m passionate about it. I know you still have to be present in the world of hospitality no matter what, but there’s a limit. I used to be not just at parties, but out trying every new restaurant. I love it, but if I have those nights where I could really be home and I know it’s not going to be critical, I’m going to be home.

For more information on Arthur, visit www.backalgroup.com and www.apella.com

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