Jeffrey Straus is, perhaps, the ultimate event planner: Each December 31, he orchestrates a six-hour, million-dollar-plus extravaganza for more than 500,000 guests who come just to watch a sphere slide down the flagpole of New York's One Times Square at 11:59 p.m. Straus, a 43-year-old lawyer turned impresario, was handed the job in 1995 by the building's owner, who wanted to mine the event's "intellectual property." Here's how he pulls big numbers from 60 dwindling seconds.
Start the buzz early. Straus and the Times Square Alliance of property owners have made December a monthlong teaser. "We get incredible coverage from the arrival of numerals, the ball, and the lightbulbs, and then the confetti test on the 29th," he says. He also lets network crews jockey for space and provides a video feed to broadcasters worldwide.
Keep 'em smiling. A billion people watch the ball drop on television. But "what makes it exciting at home is to watch people in the street enjoying themselves." So the hordes in Times Square have to look thrilled to be there — even if they've been standing under December skies since late afternoon. The key is interaction: Sing-alongs with Cyndi Lauper, communal bell-ringing, and live game shows have worked in years past.
Know the line... and march right up to it. Sponsors including Korbel, Panasonic, and Waterford Crystal pay roughly $250,000 apiece to get in on the festivities. But Straus treats the 97-year-old ball ritual as sacred; he has rebuffed proposals to turn the ball into a corporate symbol like a soda can. On the other hand, his event runs a deficit — so anything else is ripe for experiment. Straus hopes someone will underwrite a pre-midnight "branded mixture" of confetti.
Minimize mischief. The fiesta has to look inviting — no trampling or vomiting for the cameras. So New York's police ban booze and corral revelers in batches behind pens. Straus says the barricades actually create a "smaller party within the bigger event. By the end of the night, you know people in your pen." Other rules, such as a no-beach ball policy, prevent a "crowd surge." They also keep the focus on that bigger ball.
Make it fresh. Every year, Waterford updates part of the 1,070-pound ball; in 2001, crystals honored nations and service organizations that lost citizens in the September 11 attacks. And each year, there's a designated guest intended to instill a little solemnity. In 2003, the first African-American prisoner of war to return from Iraq won the honor. These reflective moments come and go well before the main event.
A version of this article appeared in the January 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.