This interview with Deborah Briggs by Laura Bruney and Etain Connor of the Arts & Business Council of Miami was originally published June 2, 2014 on their blog.
With a façade that harkens back to the golden age of Ocean Drive yet refined for a contemporary palate, The Betsy South Beach is known for hosting a variety of events that are diverse, innovative and always interesting. Ask around town and the hotel that is consistently identified with showcasing the arts is The Betsy. Ask artists and organizations that work in the arts and their praise for the hotel is broad and deep for it is hard to find a true partner. On a glorious spring day on South Beach we joined Deborah Briggs, Vice President for Marketing, Philanthropy, and Programs at The Betsy at BLT Steak, the hotels signature eatery. Lucky for us we are between the lunch and dinner crowds so have a quiet hour to nosh on the most delectable cheese popovers. The Betsy’s attention to detail is observed with the accompaniment of a cute “popovers recipe” card for those so inclined to try to recreate perfection. While nibbling we embarked on an amazing and eye-opening conversation.
ABCMiami: What do you think makes a vibrant community and what role do the arts play?
DB: When my brother, Jonathan acquired and renovated The Betsy–philanthropy, with a focus on arts, culture and education was always at the core of his mission. We were inspired by our father, Hyam Plutzik’s legacy that art is a catalyst to bring people together around things that matter to them. Each of our hotel guestrooms for example, are outfitted with a mini-library and a bookmarker is placed on the bed during evening turndown. We believe the arts provide us with the opportunity to live in the moment and have an engaging collective experience. All great civilizations, past and present, are distinguished through the arts – and we are committed to that enterprise in our community.
ABC: What do you value in partnerships?
DB: Partnerships are everything. Our community building model is collaborative non-monetary and to that end, we work with many, many organizations who share a commitment to the power of arts to bring people together. We provide the infrastructure and collaborate with the programming and our partners use that space to invite their donors, prospects, artists and potential sponsors to break bread around something that matters to them. Those who participate become ambassadors not just for the organization but also for our hotel. When we partner with an organization, there is a shared commitment that has tremendous value to everyone involved.
ABC: Tell us about one of your great partnerships with the arts?
DB: We love all our partners. Each one brings an exceptional commitment to their organizations and to our partnership. We champion each other and that’s how great partnerships should be. Among our partnerships is our work with the Dranoff Two Piano Foundation. They received a significant grant to do a composers program at the New World Center. Their Director called to ask if we could house the international composers at the hotel. We not only donated rooms but also created a Composers’ Forum at the hotel. We had a two piano concert in the lobby and hosted a private dinner for Dranoff’s artists and donors.
Another memorable partnership was bringing Zimbabwean poet, Chenjerai Hove to Miami for a month. Chenjerai is a renowned human rights activist, intellectual and author who came to Miami in collaboration with Florida International University. The University invited him to be a visiting professor and the hotel was honored to host him as part of our Exiled Writer’s program. During his month long stay we created a meaningful cultural exchange with FIU students, Miami Dade Public schools, Arts Center South Florida and other partners throughout Miami.
ABC: What arts groups is your company involved with and why?
DB: Since re-opening five years ago, collaboration has been part of our DNA. By linking good artistic work with core business goals the hotel has redefined community partnership in a model that reflects a new social contract. We believe in the power of community conscious programming. To that end, in the past five years we have worked with more than 250 groups from providing a venue, to creating a festival around a group, to hosting unique cultural showcases. We have worked with groups as diverse as The Royal Shakespeare Company, The Knight Foundation, O’ Miami, the Arts & Business Council, Miami International Piano Festival, Sundance Film Institute, GableStage, Miami Lighthouse Project, Our Pride Academy, Unity Coalition’s Celebrate Orgullo Festival, and many others.
ABC: How have you cultivated your relationships?
DB: Most of what we do is organic. A few years ago, a reporter from the LA Examiner, Carolyn Burns Bass stayed with us and wrote a great article about our Writer in Residence program and our alliance with the literary community. We found out that Carolyn was the founder of a Twitter based community of writers and book lovers called Lit Chat. We became a champion for Lit Chat’s vision and mission and hosted the first annual Lit Chat Writer’s Retreat at the hotel. This past January we proudly celebrated Lit Chat’s 5th Anniversary by featuring 30 local and regional authors in an amazing live program in the hotel that was tweeted to over 20 thousand followers. The live program quickly sold out and literature fans around the world were able to participate via live streaming from the hotel. We celebrated the day by having Lit Chat’s reception on our roof deck in the evening with over 100 artists and guests in attendance. It was remarkable.
Using our father’s work as a catalyst for our inspiration (he was a three time Pulitzer nominated poet who sadly passed away in his fifties), we wanted to provide an opportunity for writers and artists to spend a week immersed in creating their work. This is where the inspiration to create the Writer’s Room at the hotel came from. The desk where he composed many of his poems sits in The Writer’s Room for inspiration and we have hosted more than 100 artists since 2012. While in residence the only thing we ask is that the artist do something in the local community. They can do work with kids in a school, do a reading or local event or interact with other artists. We were honored to receive a Knight Arts challenge grant and this program has inspired us to do more. Their endorsement of what we are trying to do makes us believe we can find our place if we are authentic to our brand.
ABC: Why do you think it’s important for corporations to support the arts?
DB: That seems like an odd question to me. It’s like asking why we need food and water. We need the arts. The cultural community is an asset, especially in the hospitality industry and cultural tourism is an important market for South Florida. The arts are an economic driver and play an active role in the growth of Miami as a truly global city. Look at how much Miami and Miami Beach has evolved and grown through the arts. From Art Basel to the New World Center and outdoor Soundscape Park to festivals and street fairs that happen almost weekly, our community’s cultural opportunities are vast but we need to leverage the assets of business to support the arts. There are more than 200 hotels on Miami Beach. Imagine the aggregate impact if every hotel had one meaningful partnership to support one important cause. Imagine the impact this type of collaboration could have. At The Betsy we promote our brand by wrapping our arms around artists and the arts. Our marketing philosophy is all about connecting our hotel to the communities we serve through philanthropy, events and programs. We program in our hotel for the local community, but our message reaches a global travel audience. So really, it all circles back to our dad who said, “Art is the great humanizer”.
About the Arts & Business Council of Miami
The Arts & Business Council of Miami (ABC) is a unique program making a positive and significant difference in South Florida assisting more than 500 arts groups and thousands of individual artists through volunteer programs, educational outreach, leadership training, collaborations and networking events. ABC serves as a vigorous and effective catalyst for building working partnerships between the corporate & cultural communities. ABC has proven value to all organizations from grass roots emerging groups to major cultural institutions. The organization was incorporated in Florida as a 501c3 non-profit organization in June, 1985. Stay tuned for more interesting interviews and get the inside scoop on why some of South Florida’s top corporate leaders collaborate with the arts.