Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is an annual extravaganza. Turkey is roasting in the oven, sweet potatoes and vegetables are being prepped for the big meal and the TV is blaring the iconic sounds of marching bands and seasonal music.
So, what happens when a pandemic hits?
There were a few weeks back in the spring when Susan Tercero, executive producer of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, wondered the same. But it didn’t take long for her and her team to realize that upholding this tradition was uniquely important not only to New York but the entire country.
NRF spoke with Tercero to learn about the steps Macy’s is taking to ensure this year’s parade will feel as close to traditional as possible while adhering to health and safety measures.
Do you recall your feelings during the first few weeks of the pandemic?
The whole purpose of our event is to draw crowds and invite as many people as we can to experience these public events in person and on TV. My first thought was, ‘How will we do that? How can we continue to have these events at a time when that’s exactly opposite of what we should be doing?’
The other immediate challenge we faced was that we were already pretty far along in our planning. We were faced with having to reimagine the parade in a much shorter time frame, along with ongoing uncertainty. How do you plan for things that you don’t know yet?
We ultimately decided to start planning based on what we did know: We knew people needed to be socially distanced, and we started to see people wearing masks as we learned the virus could spread through respiratory droplets. We also spent a lot of time talking about how to reduce some ancillary events that lead up to the parade.
Was there ever a point when cancelling was on the table?
We went through multiple scenarios and the idea of cancelling was out there in the extreme distance, but the more we delved into the planning, and worked with our partners, including the city of New York and NBC, cancelling just wasn’t an option.
It might be safe, but it wouldn’t be successful in the sense that our events are really important to not only to Macy’s, NBC and the city of New York, but to the country. People are craving a return to normalcy, and they’re really craving some of these holiday traditions.
"People are craving a return to normalcy, and they’re really craving some of these holiday traditions. Here at Macy’s the parade is very much a part of the heart of our company."Susan Tercero
If you think back to Macy’s Fourth of July fireworks — that was a very difficult time, too. But we sensed that people needed a break. We were able to provide the fireworks by taking a different, but still celebratory, approach.
As we move toward Thanksgiving, those same feelings prevail. People want to wake up, turn on their TVs and see the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. There is comfort in knowing that Santa is going to come by, and the holiday season is starting.
Let’s talk about this reimagined event. What can viewers expect?
The good news for everybody accustomed to watching the parade at home, is that it’s going to look and feel very similar. You’re still going to see a parade marching down 34th Street. Viewers will see the floats and balloons and the celebrity performances, and the traditional broadcast will feel very familiar. There are some pieces that we will record a bit earlier, but a majority will be live. Obviously, there will be a lot less people on the street, but there will be marchers — just fewer of them.
We’re not going to have the high school marching bands; they’ve been deferred to 2021. In their place, we’ve reached out to some other New York-based cultural events and parades that got cancelled this year — events such as the St. Patrick’s Day parade, the Pride parade and the West Indian parade — and we’ve offered them a place within our broadcast. They will have performances, albeit scaled-down in terms of people, but New Yorkers will still be able to see some spectacle and parade-like elements happening.
Macy’s employees have always played a huge role in the parade. To what extent were you able to re-engage them this year?
Here at Macy’s the parade is very much a part of the heart of our company; the employees have always been supportive and engaged and they are working to support the parade in different ways this year.
We are only going to be able to have about 25-30 percent of our normal volunteer base, but we are still engaging the Macy’s employees.
One example is the large balloons traditionally carried by our employees. In the past we would have about 90-100 employees assigned to each, and one small utility vehicle was used. This year we’ve added vehicles so the balloons can move down the block with far fewer people. That meant we needed to find volunteers that could specifically drive these utility vehicles. It’s different but engaging in another way.
How are you managing the implications of COVID-19?
To say this has been a Herculean effort is really an understatement. Typically, we begin planning the parade 18 months out, and it’s a well-oiled machine. This required a new set of objectives and priorities.
We have had to do things such as ship costumes to people. We had to come up with an entirely different credentialing and security system. And, of course, we will have all kinds of things in place to ensure the health and safety of our participants. The layers of complexity to put this whole thing together has been massive.
Nonetheless, the good news is that everyone really wants this to happen, and we are committed to pulling it off seamlessly. It’ll be a huge success, and a huge testament to the team that has worked on it.
What are some things you’ve learned through this whole ordeal?
One thing I have learned is the importance of carrying on traditions, even if they must be modified. What I saw with the Fourth of July was so many people were so grateful that we were able to still set off fireworks; we did it in a way that was meaningful for them, and we still did it safely.
I think we’re going to end up doing the same for the parade. Also, along with upholding tradition, we’re bringing something new and interesting elements to the parade, which people are really craving.
We always tout the importance of safety at our events, but I think it’s extremely crucial this year. We’re being very mindful of the health of our own people and those who are joining us to pull this off. It’s our number one priority, and the foundation for a lot of our decisions.
The final thing I’d add is our intention to give back. This parade is our gift to not only New York City but to the entire country, and now more than ever, it’s important for us to do that. We hope that upholding this tradition will bring a measure of joy on Thanksgiving morning.