Mad Dash to Snag Swearing-In Tickets, Rooms Begins

By Michael Ruane, Nikita Stewart and Joe Heim
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, November 9, 2008

Tens of thousands of people across the country will be scrambling this week to prepare for a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Washington for the Jan. 20 swearing-in of President-elect Obama, which could draw the largest inaugural crowd ever.

With the election of the nation's first black president and the enormous interest in the young, charismatic leader and his family, officials said the crowd could surpass the 1.2 million who attended President Lyndon B. Johnson's inauguration in 1965.

As Horace Mackey, of Stone Mountain, Ga., put it: "There's no way I'm missing that."

Obama's election set off an instant desire to see his inauguration -- just over 10 weeks away -- and then frenetic efforts last week to be present for what will be a milestone in American history.

Members of Congress, who will distribute tickets, were swamped with requests. The office of Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) was "deluged." The switchboard in the office of Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) was "overwhelmed." Staff workers for Rep. Donald M. Payne (D-N.J.) logged more than 2,000 ticket requests in three days. The office of Del. Eleanor Homes Norton (D-D.C.) got so many calls that they had to stop taking requests.

Airline bookings jumped -- almost 200 percent for one carrier. Web sites organizing bus tours were inundated; one organizer in Georgia saw deposits on inauguration trips jump from $6,000 to $30,000 in 48 hours. And hotel rooms were fast selling out.

William Hanbury, president of Destination DC, the District's convention and tourism arm, said the area's 95,000 hotel rooms are filling up faster than for previous inaugurations. Marriott, for example, expects to sell out most of its Washington area hotels in about a week, he said.

"There are still a lot of rooms available, but people need to be doing transactions now if they are serious about coming," Hanbury said, adding that if hotels can make additional rooms available closer to Inauguration Day, the price will likely be much higher.

Hanbury said he expects the demand to be so great that there will be many "innovative accommodations."

"It is an extraordinarily historic event," he said. "The church group from Atlanta, the high school from Chicago -- they're all trying to find places to stay. You're going to have people sleeping in church basements and high school cafeterias."

Local residents are offering to rent rooms, apartments and even homes to those coming for the event.

On Craigslist, a seven-bedroom estate in Fairfax Station, billed as a "lovely place to relax or host a celebrity reception," was offered for $18,000 for the week.

It is, of course, too early to tell how many people will attend.

"I've heard numbers as high as 1.5 or 1.6 million," Hanbury said.

A Metro official pointed out that Inauguration Day and the day before, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, are both federal holidays. Spokesman Steven Taubenkibel wondered about workers in the District: "Are they going to stay home? Are they going to want to be in the city?" He said Metro is still working out its inauguration schedule.

D.C. police plan to utilize an extra 1,000 out-of-town officers, beyond the 4,000 they usually borrow for the festivities. The military will have 5,000 service members on duty, including 1,800 along the parade route.

Meanwhile, from across the nation last week and on such Web sites as Craigslist came the virtual clatter of people in search of lodging.

Home swaps for the week were offered by people in Malibu, Sausalito, Manhattan and Park City, Utah. Some played up their role as Obama volunteers in hopes of catching a price break.

Others, like Nikki Lecompte, were more creative. The 36-year-old single mother from Houston was laid off from her job in February but wants to bring her four children to witness history. A New Orleans native, she's bartering with her culinary skills, offering to make Southern fried chicken, bread pudding with rum sauce and banana fritters in exchange for a place for her family to stay.

"Oh, my god. My parents were not allowed to sit at a lunch counter when they were coming up," Lecompte said. "To see King's dream realized means so much to me."

Even if she can't find housing, she insists that she and her family will be here for the inauguration: "If we have to, we'll huddle in blankets inside of our Toyota Corolla."

In Adams Morgan, someone was offering a "VERY UPSCALE, HUGE, BEAUTIFUL HOME!" for $12,500 for inauguration week.

A Capitol Hill home that sleeps eight was available for $7,500.

In Tenleytown, a studio was going for $150 a night.

On Craigslist alone, more than 200 posters have pitched their abodes since Tuesday, banking that hotels will be filled.

Michael Filippello, 39, had eight responses in the first 24 hours after listing the one-bedroom first-floor apartment of his three-story Capitol Hill rowhouse.

On Thursday, he agreed to $1,800 for the week, offered by a California executive.

But, first, visitors have to get here.

Victor S. Parra, president and chief executive of the United Motorcoach Association, said he didn't know how many buses would descend on Washington, but he is bracing for the biggest inauguration in history.

He could not recall a bigger event. ""It's like nothing I've seen before," he said. The association represents 875 motorcoach companies in North America.

In North Carolina, several black leadership groups have plans to bring 1,800 people on 34 buses to the District the day before the inauguration.

Bruce Lightner, owner of a funeral home in Raleigh, took the lead in planning the massive bus trip, which is sponsored by the state Martin Luther King Jr. association and two groups for black elected state officials.

"I had a vision in the night way a long time ago that Obama would be elected," said Lightner, 61. "Once he got by Hillary, there wouldn't be nobody to stop him."

Lightner began organizing the trip months ago, but people couldn't seem to part with a $25 deposit. "They didn't want to send in their deposits until they knew he was going to win," he said.

The Web site where people can find out about the trip features an organ playing "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing," known by some as the black national anthem. Packages range from $140 to $275, depending on town of departure and how many people are in a hotel room. Participants will stay overnight in moderately priced hotels in Southern Maryland and Manassas.

"Now we're inundated with people who want to get on the bus," Lightner said. "We are at capacity. We have no more buses," he said. "You can drive if you want, but it's gonna be crazy."

Mackey, the 29-year-old man from Stone Mountain, Ga., was also thinking ahead about the inauguration when he set up his inaugural trip Web site in June. He was having a conversation with a friend about an Obama inauguration, and he began taking trip deposits through his Web site. Starting Tuesday, his deposits jumped from $6,000 to $30,000 in 48 hours. "It's been utter mayhem," he said.

It was the same for airlines.

Delta Air Lines said last week that its inbound bookings for flights between Jan. 16 and Jan. 19 to the three D.C. area airports are up nearly 200 percent. Southwest Airlines reported a 100 percent spike in bookings timed to the inauguration. Bookings are up significantly at American Airlines as well, the airline said Friday.

On Capitol Hill, switchboards buzzed nonstop last week with requests for tickets not yet available.

No one seemed to mind. In members' offices, there was an atmosphere of collective history in the making and an urge to help every constituent participate.

"It's been crazy, but nobody's complaining," said Sharon Jenkins, communications director for Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), whose office had received more than 800 ticket requests since Tuesday. "People are euphoric."

Kenneth Edmonds, chief of staff for Rep. Jackson, whose father is one of the country's most prominent civil rights leaders, said: "People are so excited about the prospect of witnessing history. . . . They want to be able to tell their children they were here."

Staff writers Pamela Constable, Aaron C. Davis and Sholnn Freeman contributed to this report.

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