NEW YORK — Since it was reconstructed in the late 1980s, the Central Park Zoo has been home to polar bears, seals and assorted birds — but no pachyderms. On Monday night, however, the preservation opened its gates to elephants of the GOP variety.
At the reception, which took place late in the afternoon of the first day of the Republican National Convention, the North Carolina and Georgia delegations mingled, ate hors d'oeuvres and observed the wildlife, but spoke very little about politics. In fact, other than the clearly displayed credentials adorning each of their necks, the visiting members of the GOP seemed like average tourists, chatting about restaurants they visited that day and stores where they shopped.
The delegates could thank NYC Host Committee ambassador Toby Osofsky for directing them to the best eating and shopping spots in the city, and for helping to liven up the conversation at the evening's event. While much of New York was busy working on travel arrangements, protest posters or apathetic sneers last week, at least one group eagerly awaited the Republicans' arrival: Osofsky and her 65 fellow volunteers.
Their work began early: At 7 a.m. on Monday, Osofsky was smiling from ear-to-ear, standing behind the hospitality desk at the host hotel for the North Carolina delegation. She doled out books, pins and ideas on where to eat, shop and wander.
Osofsky was chosen in July to be an ambassador for the Host Committee, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization formed to help welcome the Republican National Convention to New York. Trained by Les Clef D'or (a concierge association) and the New York City Association of Hotel Concierges, her duties include meeting her assigned delegation at its airport and hotel, coordinating its itinerary and serving as its official representative from New York.
From August 26 through September 3, Osofsky and her fellow ambassadors are collectively responsible for managing 26 hospitality desks, 400 volunteers and 13,000 hotel rooms, from 7 a.m. through 11 p.m. The ambassadors received several days of training in the weeks leading up to the convention, including one six-hour session on techniques such as Guest Services 101 (the basics in hospitality service) and the concierge practice of "listen, empathize, act and produce."
"Ambassadors are the links that will connect delegates and guests to the hundreds of merchants, museums, theaters, restaurants and other businesses," Christyne L. Nicholas, President of NYC & Company (NYC Host Committee's parent organization), said in a press release.
"I'm here as a friendly face, a real New Yorker welcoming the delegation to the city," Osofsky said. At 23, she is the youngest ambassador, hand-picked for her energetic demeanor and knowledge of the city, rather than her political affiliation.
At the ambassador "graduation" last week, NYC Host Committee President Kevin Sheeky, a Democrat, spoke lightheartedly about the differences between native New Yorkers and the visiting delegates. "We consider Central Park nature," he said. "In other parts of the country, that's not the case." Of locating their delegation, Sheeky noted they would be set apart from other pedestrians because "they'll be looking up." He joked about many New Yorkers' habitual paranoia: "Some of [the visitors will] look you in the eye. It's not necessarily a hostile look; you can make eye contact."
While heads of the host committee and the state of North Carolina have provided cautionary words about New York — "Don't engage the protesters; say 'I love New York' and keep moving on," "Thugs tend to work in teams of two" — Osofsky is on hand to display that sometimes elusive New York City quality of hospitality.
In her first days of work, Osofsky has taken on duties that extend beyond her ambassadorial assignments. She has spent extra hours at the hospitality desk, painted posters prior to the convention and accompanied her delegation to non-committee-sponsored events. Her goal is to ensure that her delegation continues to feel at home in New York, in the hope that they will visit again.
By the time of the zoo reception, Osofsky's reputation as a knowledgeable New Yorker had spread among the delegates, and she knew the names and faces of nearly every member.
And while the North Carolinians might still be sporting bold American-flag shirts and thick accents at the end of their visit, thanks to Osofsky and her fellow ambassadors, the visitors might regard New Yorkers as less aggressive and more, as Bill Harris, CEO of the 2004 RNC put it, "aggressively friendly."