October 6, 2013 by Christina Hamlett
A Conversation with Robert Shahnazarian, Jr.
It seems to be the story of his life: whenever Robert Shahnazarian, Jr. enters the scene, there’s always music that somehow magically accompanies him. No, the charismatic owner of Noor – Pasadena’s premier destination for upscale parties, fund-raising events and conferences at Paseo Colorado – doesn’t travel with his own portable sound system but his longstanding connections to the music industry have fostered an appreciation for what it takes to “orchestrate” a successful and innovative business model.
In early 2011, Shahnazarian had just left a 12-year career as a producer for Sony Music to pursue the dream of opening a space that would not only retain the traditions of different cultures but also deliver the elements of hotel core service, elegance, and location. That he fell in love with the location is an understatement. “It gave us a rich opportunity to have indoor ballrooms coupled with a wonderful balcony overlooking Colorado Boulevard and offering a breathtaking view of the mountains and City Hall.”
His decision to leave Sony was a combination of listening to a dream business that his wife had embraced and recognizing that the traditional model of selling music was rapidly becoming obsolete. “Labels can spend half a million dollars or more making and marketing an album and people can now listen to it and download for free. I went to get my MBA at Pepperdine and rethink what I was going to do with my life. At the same time, my wife and her brother finally took her dream of opening up a space that retains the traditions of different cultures but delivers the elements of hotel core service, elegance, and location. A lot of the ethnic banquet halls are usually not in the best locations, have tacky decor and the service – though not always – can be mediocre. The wealthier, new generation of clients doesn’t want to go to those halls but when they go to the larger hotels they tend to lose the culture and the customs. I went to a Taiwanese wedding at a big hotel in town, for example, and everything was great but there was absolutely no culture about it. What we realized was that there was a mid-tier level that just wasn’t being addressed. People who have special events to celebrate don’t want to spend as much as they would at a hotel but they still want a beautiful décor and outstanding service. I think our debut of Noor really meets the current demands of the economy and the marketplace.”
He explains that the name Noor in Armenian means pomegranate. “A pomegranate symbolizes fertility and abundance. It also means ‘illumination’ or ‘the light’ in Farsi and Arabic. When we came up with our logo, the roundness is the pomegranate and the lighter part is the illumination.” With a smile, he fondly points out that the two ballrooms – the Sofia and the Ella – were named after his young nieces.
Despite its grand opening in the midst of recession and competition from existing iconic venues such as The Langham, Noor quickly proved it could deliver a level of ambiance that resonated with its clientele. While Shahnazarian reveals with pride that everything turned out wonderfully, he’s also not shy to admit that he awakened several mornings during the planning process with a few more gray hairs than he’d had when he started. “What I’ve come to know is that when you’re planning events there are so many things you can control – the food, the décor, the service – but the one thing that will always be the unknown is the unique vibe that the participants ultimately bring with them. If they come with the idea of having a great time, they probably will no matter what else happens. On the other hand, if they’re in a grumpy mindset, can’t find a parking place, or get rained on, even the smallest glitch is going to loom large.”
“By learning through trial and error and really listening to the market, we’ve been growing 25 to 30 percent each year from the previous year.” He is judicious about follow-up calls after an event. “If someone doesn’t re-book, I always ask them why.” In one instance, he explains, he was able to track a significant amount in lost sales because the bride said she didn’t like the carpet in the main ballroom. “During a window of about nine days last November when there weren’t any events booked, we pulled out the carpet and put in some beautifully shiny dark chocolate flooring and it made all the difference. If there’s one thing I learned from the music business, it’s that the artists I always liked were the ones that could constantly grow and change rather than resting on their laurels. No matter what type of business you’re in, that same commitment to growth and reinvention applies.”
Even before the doors of Noor first opened, Shahnazarian was approached with what would become yet another extension of his passion for music and culture. “We were still under construction when one of the board members of Levitt Pavilion Pasadena asked if we’d like to donate. Levitt Pavilion is a nonprofit here in Pasadena that raises money to provide 50 free outdoor community concerts at Memorial Park every summer. Given my music production background, I was intrigued by this opportunity to support music and culture within the Pasadena community and went on a Friday night to check it out. There were two thousand people – families, socialites, homeless people, different ethnicities – everyone just there for two hours to enjoy great music. How could I say no to something that amazing?!”
After serving two years as a board member, Shahnazarian was recently elected board president. “Levitt Pavilion is actually a national organization that follows the model of finding public parks that can serve as city cultural centers. Because of the current economic times and the need to be tighter with overhead, a decision was made to merge the Pasadena board with that of the MacArthur Park in downtown L.A., especially since we were both going after the same grants. The infrastructure supporting the arts – primarily those with expendable income – is shrinking. In these trying times, the organizations that can become nimble, cut their overhead, renegotiate rents, and find new sources of revenue are the ones that are going to survive.”
What appeals to him about Levitt Pavilion concerts is that they truly offer something for everyone – families, jazz aficionados, world music, pop, alternative. “It’s an exciting vibe where you bring your own picnic, check out the different food trucks, grab a spot on the lawn, and enjoy music under the summer stars.” He’s quick to point out, however, that he doesn’t want people to associate “free” with “not as good.” “Levitt Pavilion brings in top name acts from around the world. We have an artistic director that we pay to go to different music conferences in Europe and South America to find acts while they’re coming on tour and sign them up to perform in Pasadena. We pay all of the artists that come to perform and we hire a professional sound company as well as professionals to do the lights.” The season starts in mid-June and runs until the end of August.
As if this weren’t enough music to his ears, he is unabashedly grateful for how much support Noor continues to receive from all of the local schools and nonprofits. “In return for that support, we’ve started something called the Community Contribution Program. When a school or nonprofit books a fundraising event with us, we donate up to $2,000 back to them. As long as they’re a 501(c)(3), anyone can participate in this with us. We’re here to serve this wonderful community, and it’s all part of the priceless opportunity to be able to give back and watch them grow.”
Originally published in The Pasadena Outlook