How NYC reimagined its New Year’s Eve celebration for the pandemic

America’s largest NYE party usually attracts 100k+ revelers. This year, the festivities will be 100% virtual. Here’s how the city pulled it off — and what it means for sponsors.

Jamie Medeiros spent the last day of 2019 working behind the scenes at one of the world’s most iconic street parties.

How NYC reimagined its New Year’s Eve celebration for the pandemic

She and dozens of her colleagues from Planet Fitness erected a stage in Times Square to market their gym to the throngs of revelers gathered to celebrate New Year’s Eve.

The night capped off with a performance by Korean pop group BTS, whose teary-eyed superfans had waited more than 24 hours to secure their spots.

But this year, Medeiros will take in the year-end sights and sounds from a much less exciting venue: her New Hampshire living room.

For the first time since its 1907 debut, the iconic celebration will be closed to the public. To comply with COVID-19 regulations, it’s gone virtual-only.

How are the event’s organizers and sponsors adapting for these unusual times? And what will the changes mean for the city’s hard-hit economy?

To find out, The Hustle spoke to city officials, sponsors, and other key stakeholders. 

The economics of a typical Times Square NYE

Most years, New Year’s Eve in Times Square is a massive gathering that attracts 100k+ people. They come for the:

  • Live entertainment: Past performers include pop stars Mariah Carey, Bebe Rexha, and Gavin DeGraw, along with offbeat acts like The Lab, a junior dance team of 8- to 16-year-olds.
  • Iconic ball drop: The ~12k-pound ball is decorated with over 2.6k Waterford crystals and 32k Philips LEDs, and is released from the top of a 77-ft flag pole at 11:59pm.
  • Confetti: 20 seconds before midnight, 3k pounds of confetti are dumped by 100 “dispersal engineers.”

Top: Fireworks explode in Times Square on New Year’s Eve 2018 (Stephanie Keith/Getty Images); Bottom: The ball drops on New Year’s Eve 2017.

At least 15 government agencies and private entities are involved in organizing, staffing, and producing the event.

That includes the Times Square Alliance (one of the main organizers), the Mayor’s Office, and the New York Police Department, as well as private entities like Jamestown Properties, the owners of 1 Times Square, the building that hosts the ball drop.

There’s also Countdown Entertainment, the firm that gathers footage from 20 cameras around the square and feeds them to the webcast and several TV channels, and the dozen or so billboard companies that contract with brands for special campaigns every December 31st.

While the total budget for this madness isn’t publicized, a few of the biggest expenses include:

  • Security: The event typically calls for ~7k police officers spread across several branches of the NYPD — the biggest deployment to one area of the city on any single day of the year. In 2017, the city placed the cost for security at ~$7.5m.
  • Talent: Headliners like Mariah Carey or BTS garner $1m contracts, even for short sets, while smaller acts collect between $250k and $500k.
  • Cleanup: Armed with backpack blowers and mechanical brooms, hundreds of sanitation workers are sent in right after the ball drop to pick up the 65 tons of debris left behind. For NYE 2019, these crews cleaned up in a record 7 hours.

Sanitation workers begin the cleanup of confetti in Times Square following New Year’s Eve festivities in New York, January 1, 2015. (Gary Hershorn/Corbis via Getty Images)

Attendance is free. But even without charging party-goers for tickets, the event makes enough to cover its costs. And the benefits are felt across Times Square: 

  • Big business for retailers: The flagship stores of premium brands (Disney, Hershey’s, Swarovski, CoverGirl) see 30% higher foot traffic than any other day in December.
  • A micro-economy boost: There’s a surge of business for the area’s 50+ restaurants and its many street vendors. In 2017, Olive Garden charged $400/head for an unlimited 2017 NYE buffet, open bar, and a chance to pop outside in time to see the ball drop.
  • Increased billboard exposure: Revelers can’t help but admire the 200+ billboards displaying the latest runway look or teasers for new shows. Even on a normal day, 60% of people walking through the area spend at least 5 minutes gawking at physical ads. 

Altogether, it’s been estimated that these billboards bring in $70m+ on NYE alone, with the largest share (~$3m) coming from the 1 Times Square building.

How a virtual-only event changes things

This year, event organizers faced the challenge of replicating this end-of-year magic without crowds of exuberant partygoers.

As in years past, we’ll still see the ball drop and the rain of confetti. Ryan Seacrest will still host ABC’s “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve.” And two-time Grammy winner Gloria Gaynor will belt out her classic ballad, “I Will Survive,” an apropos note to close out the year.

One big difference this year: The event will pay tribute to dozens of first responders, frontline workers, and essential workers from the New York area who will be hosted in separate pods paid for by the main corporate sponsors: Kia, Planet Fitness, Barefoot Bubbly, and Waterford Crystals.

A man stares at a billboard in Times Square amidst confetti in Times Square in 2011 (Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images)

NYE’s typical economic ripple effects for Time Square businesses will be heavily impacted.

Already burdened by the city’s social distancing restrictions and laws curbing tourism, restaurants and bars now have to deal with barricades set up along the Times Square perimeter to enforce the no-revelers rule. 

The area’s hotels are also suffering. Quintessential spots like the Marriott Marquis, the Crowne Plaza, and Knickerbocker hotel — which offer rooms with killer Square views — are expecting sharp declines.

But the virtual nature of the event opened the door for an old-school revenue model.

Can TV save the NYE star?

While Times Square’s tourism sector continues to suffer, the event itself might make out okay because of a potential boost in TV revenue. 

That’s because in a typical year, network viewership is about 500x larger than the number of people physically present.

Although the organizers of the event tout an attendance of 1m, it’s actually physically impossible to fit that many people into a 5-block stretch. In-person guests are more likely to number ~100k.

With local NYE celebrations cancelled around the country, marketing execs say they expect higher network ratings this year.

Russell Wager, Kia’s director of marketing operations, oversaw decisions around the sponsorship plan this year, which includes Kia visuals on the 1 Times Square billboards directly below the bright numerals spelling out 2021. 

“100m people around the world will see that ball drop,” he told The Hustle. “And we’re going to be on that building when that happens.”

The Hustle

Wager includes in the 100m estimate viewers streaming the webcast, which was first shared at NYE 2008. This time around, a feed that’s part of the webcast will also be available in an app developed by Jamestown Properties to complement watching the countdown at home.

There, viewers can toggle back and forth between cameras placed in several points throughout the square. 

Cutting edge… sort of

With the app, organizers hope to recreate the spontaneous discoveries people have when they’re in the Square in-person.

Along with camera feeds, the app also includes a virtual world of Times Square which users can explore through avatars. The world has games hosted by corporate partners, pre-taped musical performances, and virtual “billboards” showcasing digital art. 

But overall, organizers seem to be playing it a bit safe technology-wise. 

The app isn’t integrated into the event’s main offerings to the same extent as New Year’s Eve celebrations in other cities: 

  • Singapore: Last year, Singapore put on a light show featuring 500 tiny, perfectly calibrated drones arranging themselves to look like jellyfish or birds — before finally shapeshifting into a countdown clock. 
  • Seattle: In Seattle this year, organizers will use sky recognition tools to overlay video of the Space Needle with colorful designs that sync up in real time with changes in the atmosphere.

Drones forming the shape of a planet in Singapore on NYE last year (Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images)

A silver lining in all of this is that marketers have been forced to think more creatively to address the buying environment that the challenges of this year have created.

Kia, for instance, usually prioritizes Super Bowl sponsorships to launch new products. But this year, it’s planting its Sorento SUV front and center in Times Square. Wager and his team didn’t want to wait for the Super Bowl, in early February.

Kia’s interest in doing some type of New Year’s Eve sponsorship was partly piqued by the many difficulties of 2020.

In August, Wager and his team decided that a message around turning the page on 2020 was something that they wanted to lean into. 

Though Kia is relatively new on the scene, some other corporate sponsors are happy repeat customers.

Over the years, Jamestown Properties and the Times Square Alliance, the event’s main organizers, have built relationships with sponsors, partners in city government, as well as visual artists and the theater community — all of whom contributed to rethinking the event.

People walk past a display of glasses marking the upcoming 2021 new year on 6th Avenue in December of 2020 in New York City (Gary Hershorn/Getty Images)

Medeiros, the vice president of marketing at Planet Fitness, has been working with the Alliance for 6 consecutive years. That made it a “no-brainer” for the company to commit again, she says, even with the uncertainty posed by COVID-19 restrictions. 

Since Medeiros had worked the event for several years, she was also able to make suggestions about how to maintain some of the night’s usual sense of excitement even without thousands of eager partiers.

She and her team came up with the idea of having inflatable puppets dressed in the company’s purple and yellow t-shirts and hats populate one section of the square, as a way to mimic the swaths of color that appear in the crowd on a typical NYE celebration. 

Medeiros said she hopes the “wacky” puppets will bring some laughter to viewers stuck at home. Her goal is simple: “to show people that we’re going to move on into 2021.

“We’re going to leave 2020 behind us,” she said. “People need that.”

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