AW360 Q&A with Stephanie Blake, CEO, Skylight

Advertising Week New York delegates already know how special the PENN DISTRICT venue is as it played host to the biggest Advertising Week event ever. We sat down with Stephanie Blake, CEO of Skylight, the company behind the PENN DISTRICT. Also, be sure not to miss Stephanie’s appearance on Advertising Week’s Great Minds Podcast!

Q: Tell us about Skylight…

The short explanation is that Skylight transforms buildings into destinations.

Skylight was born out of the 2008 recession at a time when real estate development hit a wall and projects were abandoned in buildings and cities across the US. We recognized that even in their undeveloped states, these spaces had untapped potential and so much to offer their respective communities.

In a way that nobody else does, Skylight sees a challenge like this as an opportunity, and creates new uses and new life for these inaccessible spaces through strategic placemaking.

From forgotten transportation hubs to Manhattan penthouses to downsized manufacturing plants, Skylight is able to see what once was and what might be. We develop event and entertainment venues as the anchors that change the course of languishing assets and districts. We insert energy into underutilized space in a building and see it extend to the surrounding environment. Skylight identifies a myriad of opportunities for space; we see real estate assets are ever evolving.

By developing thoughtful partnerships, programming, and activations for the built environment, we create unique destinations: experiential hubs that activate and revitalize a place.

Q: What is placemaking and why is it important?

Placemaking, as we refer to it, is the creative use of physical space. It’s not necessarily about filling empty space, but it’s the particular type of space that’s important; the forward-looking mentality of what the space itself can bring to a neighborhood. Through our placemaking initiatives, we transform underutilized real estate into cultural centers which become destinations for experiences and dynamic storytelling. Our spaces enable a brand to use physical space to tell their story. Skylight develops venues as a canvas for brands to take ownership of a moment or a movement and establish their brand as a leader through activation in the built environment. Breaking out from the digital saturation, we see brand activation and events as the best places to connect with a desired audience and generate a loyal community. Strategic placemaking these days enables brands to impact the built environment; it’s about events that celebrate the physical environment.

Q: What do New Yorkers know about Skylight already?

Skylight has been influencing the way New Yorkers experience culture for much longer than they realize. Back in 2012, Skylight was entrusted to breathe new life into the historic Moynihan Post Office in Midtown Manhattan. The long overdue renovations had stalled in the midst of the recession, and the wide open space sat empty, begging for a coat of paint and a tastemaker brand to bring it back to life, embracing the raw elements and detail that the space had to offer, as well as the unexpected midtown location.

Through visionary activation, Skylight saw the potential of Moynihan as an event space for the most exceptional moments in NYC. Most notably, we relocated WME/IMG’s iconic New York Fashion Week to Skylight Clarkson, hosting runway shows for brands including Rag & Bone, Marchesa, Edun, in addition to hosting the buzziest film premiers, concerts, art fairs and brand activations, from Nike to Range Rover to the Tate Museum.

Skylight played a pivotal role in the huge shift of culture from the underdeveloped, gritty, pre-High Line west side – including developing the event program on the High Line – and continues to lead its evolution east, where neighborhoods have come to define cultural movements today.

Skylight has some of the most exciting real estate adaptation projects in the city, including the Refinery at Domino Sugar Factory in Williamsburg, Essex Crossing in Lower Manhattan and PENN DISTRICT in Midtown Manhattan.

Q: What is Skylight’s involvement with the PENN DISTRICT?

Creating a destination that ties brands, community and culture together is about repeated, habitual activation. For the last 15 years, Skylight has developed iconic venues in New York, relevant to the industries and the calendar that makes NY tick, and with Vornado at PENN DISTRICT, we are establishing a cadence of events and experiences that are the connective tissue for the campus Vornado has thoughtfully designed.

Events function to animate and extend the canvas for existing tenants to connect with their employees, other tenants, target consumers and the public. The PENN DISTRICT event canvas also provides the opportunity to create valuable experiences by outside brands and companies to connect with the DISTRICT’s tenants and daily commuters. All of this activity adds to the vibrant tenant experience Vorando has masterfully designed the structure for.

Part of Skylight’s role is to create programming & events to further connect the DISTRICT through experiences – entertainment creates an energetic, dynamic workplace. You go to an office to get something that you cannot get at home. Activations create a heartbeat and encourage people to interact with and patronize a district. We call the shared experience “collective effervescence” –  experiences are more memorable and impactful when shared with others, a communal setting sparks collaboration and innovation.

Q: Tell us about Skylight’s partnership with Advertising Week…

Advertising Week is a monumental conference that takes over one section of the city each year, bringing the biggest global names in advertising, tech, marketing, sales, and more into the heart of NYC. The conference happens around the world and requires a large footprint and prime location for its thousands of attendees and speakers.

Our relationship with Advertising Week began as an organic conversation about their needs for this conference: the conversation ranged from square footage to geographic location, target audience to  brand alignment, identity and themes, etc. PENN DISTRICT was a fantastic location and had a venue which ticked off many of these boxes, and then some.

We have a shared vision with Advertising Week about the way brands impact and define real estate; we share an inherent understanding of the unique canvas a district can be for brands to tell a story and elevate their identity. We also both see the powerful role of brands as 21st century patrons of art and culture, and community – we both acknowledge that some of the most impactful advertising moments happen in the physical world, where magic is made between real estate and brand storytelling.

Q: What makes PENN DISTRICT the right place for the annual Advertising Week conference?

One of the most important factors for Advertising Week is to be close to their audiences and biggest stakeholders. This section of Midtown Manhattan is already home to entertainment, tech, and some of Advertising Week’s biggest participants are tenants at PENN DISTRICT, including Meta, Apple and others like Netflix, Google are in the neighborhood, which adds to the appeal of the DISTRICT activation.

PENN DISTRICT is the perfect spot for Advertising Week because it is a full campus which has been home to advertising for so many years – so many ad agencies have called this neighborhood home. This area has spawned ideas and innovation, and PENN DISTRICT is now further shaping the community.

Skylight strategically brought Advertising Week’s annual conference to PENN DISTRICT to showcase several spaces across Vornado’s thoughtfully reimagined DISTRICT. Advertising Week’s format was exactly what the DISTRICT was designed for – the opportunity to activate so many innovative and usable spaces, all connected either under one roof or steps away within the DISTRICT. An ideal activation is one that takes over the entire canvas, and activates different spaces across the onsite amenities. For example, Advertising Week integrated programming into the Social Stair and The Landing for breakfasts, happy hours and other programming in concert with the main conference location at 100 W 33rd Street.

The draw for Advertising Week was also the accessibility to transit, the advanced technology, elevated and functional aesthetic of PENN 1 footprints, and the amount of space available, as they needed to house their 10,000 guests and participants over the course of several days. Advertising week also had a lot of trust in Skylight to weave together the narrative of the DISTRICT and support their execution operationally.

For their conference this year, Advertising Week occupied 200K+ square feet of multi-use space across the DISTRICT. There were theaters, brand pavilions, brand activations sites at 100 w 33rd, 4 breakfast panels at the Social Stair at Penn 1 where Skylight had hosted a TED series, Vizio NewFront and Climate Week panel since opening. Vizio is actually returning to the district for the show and excited to explore 2024 opportunities across the district. The 150 person per day breakfast panel series will utilize the built in high tech screens and systems at the Social Stair and food and beverage from the neighboring Landing restaurant. Additionally the Landing hosted daily curated lunches in their private dining rooms and received an influx of reservations from AW attendees.

Q: What can we expect from Skylight, PENN DISTRICT in the future?

PENN DISTRICT will be a home for entertainment, education, wellness and world-class food & beverage. We will host thought-provoking, cultural, innovative, and professional programs and content. Through diverse experiences and offerings, the DISTRICT is creating a space for casual and intentional collisions.

As it is already at the center of one of the most important entertainment hubs in the country—Madison Square Garden, Javits Center, close to Broadway and the Chelsea Arts District, the DISTRICT adds to that legacy and expands its impact by creating new spaces and opportunities for brands and organizations to engage with the performances, artists, and ideas taking shape in this neighborhood at the center of NYC.

Across the plazas and public spaces, the DISTRICT offers the opportunity to expand consumer access to events and moments that are typically ticketed and closed door—for awards shows, major performances, sports games, both brands and consumers are eager to engage in spaces beyond the anchor event venue.

Prior to Advertising Week, Skylight laid the narrative groundwork with a series of TED partnerships, and will continue to bring engaging activation to the DISTRICT and the tenants – both in their personal and professional lives.

In addition to programming across the DISTRICT, we are looking forward to the launch of PENN 2 early in 2024, which will bring more activation space for the community, including Skylight’s newest venue The Townhall, a 280-person auditorium which will be home to large format events including product launches, screenings, conferences and galas.

Beyond NYC, Skylight is also working with developers and brand partners to unveil and activate unique new spaces across North America, with our offices in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Toronto.

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