Correction to This Article
An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that the Newseum will be open from 5 to 11 p.m. Jan. 20 for an inauguration party. It will be open from 3 to 10 p.m.

Competition Is Tight for Obama Inaugural Balls

By Anita Huslin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 21, 2008

Two months before Barack Obama won the election, Dionne Warwick asked the largest hotel in Washington to hold space for her inaugural party. The Newseum, the newest potential party venue along Pennsylvania Avenue, was booked by New York promoter Jay Norris a month before Election Day. Oprah, apparently, is still looking for a spot.

But unless you are the Presidential Inaugural Committee, which decides how many official inaugural balls there will be, who will host them and where they will be held, it may not matter how much money or clout you have or how sharp your elbows are. Speed is the key now, as is a check in hand. Wire transfer is even better. In the scrum for inaugural party locations, event planners are racing against time and competition to score a spot for Jan. 20, putting down cash on the spot, no discussions, when they find a place that fits, and showing up unannounced to tour the facility and sign contracts on the dotted line.

"MTV called and were stopping by to look at this space," said Chris Frame, director of special events for the National Building Museum, which hosted its first presidential inaugural ball in 1885. "A lot of charitable groups I've never even heard of are coming out of the woodwork to do balls. We've gotten calls from youth groups that honestly don't have the capacity to fill a building this size, or the budget, but they've called because not very many spaces are available."

"November 5th, all hell broke loose," said Kay Williams, director of booking and partnerships for the new Harman Center for the Arts, two blocks from Pennsylvania Avenue. "The first group came through the building, looked around and said, 'We want it.' We told them we would put it on hold until we had the deposit. They said okay, picked up the phone and called their office and asked for a wire transfer. They walked out and 10 minutes later, another person with a check came in and I had to say they missed it."

Two days before the election, the J.W. Marriott, conveniently situated on Pennsylvania Avenue, sold its $1 million "Build Your Own Ball" package to an undisclosed buyer. It includes two presidential suites, two vice presidential suites, 300 guest rooms, a $200,000 credit toward food and drinks, exclusive access to a 12th-floor terrace covered by a heated tent, and a party for 450 guests. Yesterday the Ritz-Carlton dangled a few perks and baubles for guests who buy a $99,000 "Red, White, Blue and Green" package: four-night stay in a presidential suite, first-class round-trip airline tickets (with carbon-offset emissions credits), 24-hour on-call chauffeur in a luxury hybrid vehicle, two tickets to an official inaugural ball, seating for two at the inaugural parade and a four-night stay at the Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman.

Planners like Jenna Mack of Event Emissary are doing double duty: managing bookings for spaces like, in Mack's case, the Mellon Auditorium and seeking out locations for clients looking for a place to party. The bigger the group, the harder it gets. Mack has two clients who wanted the Mellon, but it was booked. With just two or three large venues left downtown, she has noticed an escalation in prices.

One site, not far from Pennsylvania Avenue, which she put a hold on for a client, was $24,000 to rent one week, then $36,000 the next, she said. "Everyone knows that people are getting desperate," Mack said. "And because the economy's so bad, the events industry has been hit very, very hard. The inaugural is kind of the one shot the events industry has to help make up for December and what we think will be a bad spring."

Location costs vary widely. Reserving the National Building Museum for an event can run from $20,000 to $30,000, depending on the size and how much security will be needed. Union Station will run roughly $40,000 for an evening, according to its property manager. The Harman Center for the Arts declines to say what its booking fee is but says it will charge double for labor on Inauguration Day and the day before, which is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Even so, its primary renter for Jan. 20 was thrilled to have scored that location.

The Creative Coalition stumbled onto the Harman Center after it could not reach the Historical Society, saw the $150,000 starting price for the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, and then visited another site that Executive Director Robin Bronk described as "feeling kind of a like a bus station, and smelling funny."

"It felt like one of those fairy tales," she said. "This one's too expensive; this one's too depressing; finally we found one that was just perfect."

At a lunch last week, members of the Special Event Sites Marketing Alliance were abuzz about who had booked what, but things are moving so quickly it's difficult even for those in the middle of it all to keep track.

"We're not very refined yet" in terms of having detailed plans for events, said Caroline Bedinger, president of the association of area executives who manage event planning for museums, mansions, historic homes and buildings, art galleries, ballrooms and other spaces. She is also events manager for the Folger Shakespeare Library, which is booked the night of Jan. 20 for the Bytes & Books Ball, being thrown by the National Coalition for Technology in Education and Training.

"We're still trying to figure out what the hell's going on," said Bedinger, of the event-planning community.

D.C. event planner Traci Allen found herself in the enviable position of overseeing a bidding war that had erupted among groups looking to book one of the venues she represents, the Ultra Bar on F Street NW. "The pace has been incredibly busy," she said.

The region's newest convention center, the Gaylord National, is about 10 miles from downtown Washington and across the Potomac River in the new National Harbor complex. It still has plenty of room space available, and all or part of the restaurants, the main atrium space and smaller ballrooms can be reserved. Its main space, a 50,000-square-foot ballroom, has been booked for Jan. 19 for the Texas State Society's Black Tie & Boots ball, and the company is holding it in hopes that the official inaugural committee will want to have a ball there on the 20th.

For those who don't feel the urge to spend $100,000 for inaugural ball tickets, there is at least one prime location where they can take part in inaugural night festivities. The Newseum will be open from 5 to 11 p.m. for an inauguration party open the public. You just have to pay the regular museum admission price. But food and drinks aren't included.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company