Eli Marcus has been around the block.
The “Mayor of Times Square” has been working in New York City’s hospitality industry for more than 40 years.
He started out selling advertisements for New York City’s visitor magazine City Guide, and recently got promoted to chief marketing officer at Davler Media Group. City Guide prints 3 million copies that are distributed in more than 500 locations.
One big reason for Marcus’ longevity in the industry is his ability to build relationships with business owners that last. Patsy’s Italian Restaurant’s owner Sal Scognamillo, for example, has known Marcus for more than 30 years.
“He not only does what he says he is going to do, but he does above and beyond all the time,” Scognamillo told the New York Business Journal. “He always has a little surprise up his sleeve to help you out. He attracts good people because he is good people.”
For instance, Marcus created an “Everything to do NYC” Facebook page during the pandemic to promote businesses like Patsy’s — an Italian restaurant that has been in New York City’s Theater District since 1944 and was frequented by Frank Sinatra.
“I’m sure it’s over 100,000 people by now that he has on that group,” Scognamillo said. (In fact, there are more than 120,000 people in the Facebook group.) “I couldn’t ask for a better PR guy than Frank Sinatra, but Eli is a close second.”
Marcus spoke with the New York Business Journal about his first role and legacy at City Guide, how New York City’s businesses have evolved and the No. 1 rule for businesses that last.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What was your first role at City Guide in 1988?
My role was to get clients in the magazine. I got the theater community to work with me and that’s what propelled us. I went to the Shubert Organization, which was the largest theater owner, and I met Philip J. Smith, who was at that time the executive VP. He later went on to become the chairman of the board. He said to me, “Kid, I got a show for you. I’m going to give it a shot, advertise it with you, but you better make this show work because this is my baby.” That show was this obscure show called “Cats.” The rest is history.
From there, I probably worked with over 200 Broadway shows. Then the attractions and restaurants and retailers all came onboard, so we went from this tiny little obscure magazine that really wasn’t distributed very well or looked very well and it all evolved into what it is today. Right now, we are pretty much the only game left in town. For all intents and purposes, we are the 800-pound gorilla in the room in New York City.
Imagine you had never worked for City Guide. What wouldn’t have happened?
I don’t think there would be a City Guide if I didn’t bring the sponsors into our publication. I’ve helped it to be diverse. I’ve helped it to attract restaurants, retailers, Broadway shows and attractions. I’ve covered every gamut. Without that diversity, we don’t really have a visitor magazine. You can’t be a visitor magazine with one category or two categories or weekend categories. You’ve got to have volume.
I don’t think we’d be there without my creativity and without the thoughts of diverse things that I’ve been able to do in terms of added value for my clients and without the personal relationships I have built with places like Patsy’s who’s been my client over 30 years. I mean, that’s not easy to get over 30 years of loyalty. I have a hard time believing that if I didn’t build the Broadway section 30-plus years ago, we would be around.
How have businesses evolved in New York since you started at City Guide?
Businesses have had to change the way they do business. Some of it is uncomfortable, but a necessity. For instance, the pandemic taught us a lesson, right? Now all of a sudden, we’ve got outdoor dining. Now you got to build these fancy little shacks or unfancy little shacks. It was a necessity — if you didn’t build a shack, you’re going to go out of business. So people had to improvise — they had to build these shacks, and in some cases, they actually increased their volume. It was a blessing in disguise for sure.
Now everybody is on the digital train. I got to go on Facebook and I got to go on Instagram. Marketing has shifted from in the past purely print-oriented to now social media and digital-oriented. They’re all viable and I think that sometimes people go to the extreme and they put all their eggs in the digital basket, which is a mistake too. You’ve got to have diversity and now we have more diversity of marketing than we’ve ever had. We have more choices.
I am all about creating new initiatives and new added value for my clients, which is why I’m the only one still pretty much surviving in the marketplace because we don’t present a one-dimensional picture for our client. What do I mean by one-dimensional? Somebody advertises on a trash can in Times Square. You might like that fine, but are you ever going to be able to measure that? No. And do you have any clue if this is ever going to sell you a ticket? No. All your eggs in that one basket. Why not do something where I’m giving you 17 different things for your dollar? I’m giving you added value.
What do the businesses that have lasted in New York have in common?
The No. 1 rule is to own your own real estate. Own your own building. That’s for a retailer or a restaurant. A good example is my good friend [Sal Scognamillo] who owns one of the most famous restaurants in the world: Patsy’s Italian Restaurant on West 56th Street. He’s been around 80 years. He lost 75% of his business during the pandemic. As you probably noticed, a lot of restaurants closed. You see a lot of these vacancies. [But] he owns the building. If you own the building, you can withstand things that other people can’t withstand. The ones that are around, they own the building.
There’s obscure restaurants and businesses that have been around a very long time. You wonder how these guys are here. I have never even heard of them. They are there for 40 years, [and] they own the real estate. Then you watch the guy next to him who’s famous or well-known and he goes out of business. How did he go out of business? How did that Michelin-star restaurant go out of business? Rent. Rent. Rent.
And No. 2 is you have to have quality. You’ve got to have something that the masses want. If you’re too niche, you’re not going to get enough customers. So it helps to have mass appeal. Junior’s has mass appeal. It has cheesecakes. It’s got a reputation supposedly as having one of the best cheesecakes, if not the best cheesecake, in the world. It’s known for that. It’s iconic. Shake Shack is an iconic venue. It’s got this rabid following and it can pay rent and sustain itself because it’s got a strong brand. So build a strong brand. Build a strong name.