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For Party Planners, a Difficult Delivery

By Darragh Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 16, 2005; Page D01

The florist shows up, fretting about trucks and security and saying, "They're freaking out at DAR and telling us we have to be there before 1." Veteran inaugural party planner Jenna Mack answers with her standard refrain:

"It's gonna be fine."

Jenna Mack's deliveries and catering for inaugural events will be affected by security concerns. (Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

It's a phrase she repeats almost hourly, soothing clients, caterers, truck drivers, dance-floor deliverers, Secret Service agents and fellow event managers. They have days to go before the most security-obsessed inauguration in history -- the first to suspect every truck and package coming into the city -- but already they're nearing collapse.

Mack herself is the syrupy-voiced co-founder of Event Emissary, a party-planning company that also manages the gilded space inside Mellon Auditorium, the Greek Revival temple at the core of the Federal Triangle. It is home to two official presidential inaugural events -- the chairman's reception and brunch. She and her partner, Stephanie Campbell, are also doing three large corporate parties, including a grand soiree for a large District law firm at the Ronald Reagan Building. Four thousand were invited to that one. Only 600 RSVPed. ("They never do," Mack sighs.) Her company is calling the other invitees but still, with four temps phoning 50 people an hour, they have 81 pages of names to go.

Now, mid-morning one week before Inauguration Day, Mack has webbed her Diet Coke can, business cards, BlackBerry and keys between the fingers of her left hand. With the right she holds open the door for another walk-through of the Mellon. Within minutes, the can is in the trash and she is swigging more caffeine straight from a two-liter bottle. Her outfit (all black, topped by a luxurious boiled-wool turquoise jacket) ends with a pair of Speedo flip-flops, her scarlet toenail polish slightly chipped.

Back in her office, 10 voice mails await her. In 25 minutes she has another meeting, in a federal building, and she can't find her driver's license -- required for entry. A security guard wants to know how much overtime he can hope for next week. ("Every day," she tells him. "It'll be like -- " and she halts, dreading the truth, "16 hours a day. Every day.") The BlackBerry phones chime in tandem now: First hers, then her partner's, and here Mack is again, toodling to a vendor, "Hi Mitch!" and zooming in immediately on this year's delivery complications. Before coming to the Mellon, she tells him, he must first take his freight to be scanned at the Navy Yard, where "they'll X-ray the truck, seal the truck, and you have to be here within 15 to 30 minutes."

Mack and Campbell know party planning: They can trouble-shoot a shortage of crushed-velvet tablecloths with swirling paisleys, and they know where to rent gas heaters with mere minutes' advance notice. But the nightmare of party planning in post-9/11 America is new.

They still have clients who expect Event Emissary to work its usual magic -- allowing a particular limo into the colloquially termed "No-Fly Zone," where no vehicle may enter, for example. At one point, Mack tells a client, "On a normal Saturday, I could make something happen. But on Inauguration Day, I don't think . . . "

Campbell overhears and trills, "No way!"

These two and their small sorority of Washington's high-end party planners are just now learning -- mere days before the historic affair -- how to maneuver, for example, an average 10 to 15 trucks per party through the labyrinth of federal security. Many deliveries will be made blocks away from the event. (Blocks! fret the party planners, wringing their hands and imagining bumps in the sidewalk toppling their caterers' Crescors -- all those six-foot cases of canapes on wheels.)

Thousands of guests are expected to attend nine official balls, three candlelight dinners, a reception, a brunch and dozens of corporate parties that are much more lavish than the official ones. But it is niggling details, not panoramic overview, that consume Campbell and Mack's attention in the foyer of the Reagan Building, where the law firm's party will be held. Campbell stands near the 14th Street doors and envisions the scene as the guests descend on the registration desks.

"So they're coming down the staircase in a grand entrance," Campbell flings her arms wide and sweeps across the floor, nearly colliding into a man with a briefcase. "Do I have enough room?" She turns to Mack, newly worried that the area is too tight for everyone to fit comfortably. "I don't feel I have enough room."

Mack performs the same sweep and nearly knocks into a grim woman in a trench coat. Concerned, they turn to Karen Shao Coberly, the catering manager at the Reagan, who assures them that everything's going to be "just fine."

But Shao Coberly adds, quickly and forebodingly, "I don't think you should have valets." Whether guests may arrive by car is questionable: According to what they've heard so far, the Reagan appears to edge the No-Fly Zone of severely restricted traffic. Parking troubles, Shao Coberly notes, "would be a fiasco."

"Thank you . . . ," Campbell answers with a brittle laugh, "for using that word in connection with my event."

Soon, Campbell is sitting on the bottom stair of 31 leading down into the atrium. She takes calls on her wireless headset and checks items off in her planner: blue organza and silk beaded linens, trusses, draped sheers, the grand entrance, and color-coded coat-check tickets. (One of a planner's greatest fears is, Mack says, "disastrous coat checks.") All set except, Campbell suddenly decides, for the chairs. She doesn't want ordinary. She wants elegant. But that costs money. She shrugs, justifying the expense out loud, "We cut $1,000 off the plants today. So we can add it back in chairs." She calls in a special order of straight-backed, bamboo chivari chairs.

At this point, Mack's BlackBerry rings, and she counsels a caterer.

"Yeah. Deliveries," she tells him. "They're gonna be a challenge but we don't know what the answer is." Pause. "I mean, we know what we think is gonna happen." Another pause. "It's definitely gonna be a mess."

But it won't be as bad as the situation faced by another caterer, a friend in the business. He's doing breakfast, lunch and dinner on Jackson Place near the White House. His trucks must park "two blocks away and they're going to have to roll all of their food down the street," she says.

Campbell takes a call from her ice sculptor, who is doing seven oversize pieces, including the White House, a nearly-life-size American eagle and the Statue of Liberty.

"I need to have the room set by 5 p.m.," Campbell insists to the sculptor. "I have guests coming at 6 p.m." She pauses, listens, and continues, "I'm not worried about the ice. It'll be fine for an hour and a half."

Another pause. Her voice tightens, "Six o'clock is gonna stress me out. When those VIPs walk through the room, we are not going to be decorating."

And by the time Mack finishes chatting with her caterer, she is once again repeating the party-planner's refrain.

"Everything," she says before hanging up, "is going to be fine."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company