Hargrove Keeps Job as Presidential Party Host

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 30, 2008; Page D03

Since 1993, when the Presidential Inaugural Committee began designating one company to oversee all the major events that come with the swearing in of a new president, only one company has won the work. This year, it won again: For the fifth time in its 60-year history, Hargrove is in charge of planning and executing all of the official balls, parties and other events celebrating the new president.

This year, the firm's responsibilities will broaden into audio and video production for the official events. And Earl Hargrove, 80, who began helping his father run his decorating business from the basement of their Cheverly home in 1945, will be watching the festivities from above the fray.

Earlier this year, he sold the business to his middle daughter, Carla, and her husband, Tim McGill, for an undisclosed price. In recent months, they have been the ones trading off 14-hour work days, seven days a week, to win the contract with the Presidential Inaugural Committee. Though the value of Hargrove's contract with the committee has not been announced, it is worth more to the company than revenue, McGill said.

"It's tremendous because future customers will have seen our work on the national stage, so it gives us an advantage in leveraging new business, in demonstrating our ability to pull off the highest-profile event in the world," McGill said. "It also gives us an opportunity to establish a relationship with the new administration, which we hope would lead to continued work with them."

Hargrove will provide floats for the inaugural parade and decor for the 10 official balls, prayer breakfast, three candlelight dinners and dozens of other yet-to-be-announced happenings, as well as staging for myriad events at which the president will appear. It will also plan and execute logistics for an additional 30 unofficial private parties and events.

Hargrove has long been an institution in the Washington event-planning industry, setting the stages -- literally -- for the recent Group of 20 summit, the dedication of the World War II Memorial and NATO's 50th anniversary summit.

But it has also struggled to make prospective clients see it as more than a "decorator," as Hargrove says, because of its reputation for providing floats and accoutrement for the Cherry Blossom festival, the annual lighting of the National Christmas Tree, the Miss America pageant and the Washington Auto Show.

Hargrove's Lanham complex contains about eight acres of warehouse, manufacturing, business and creative offices. Within the rows of shelves in its warehouse are decades worth of decorations and trappings -- some kept for sentimental reasons, like flowers from President John F. Kennedy's inauguration -- others kept because you never know when you might need a King Kong, giant American eagle or ersatz cantinas.

These days, the event-planning industry is populated by nearly 4,500 companies, which produce $12 billion in annual revenue. But it is a "high-risk" business, according to IBISWorld analyst George Van Horn, and is becoming increasingly difficult in the face of the economic decline. Smaller companies, he said, which represent nearly 78 percent of the industry's revenue, face difficulties expanding into new geographic regions where other firms have historic roots, while larger companies that have geographic stretch must still find ways of growing business at a time when many companies are cutting back. The Washington region is part of the third-largest market for convention, trade show and meetings business, according to IBISWorld, an industry analyst.

By focusing on catering to such niche clientele as handcraft artisans and military hardware suppliers, Hargrove is growing. This year, the boutique company's revenue grew 13 percent, and next year McGill expects it will exceed 20 percent. The company is profitable. Earlier this year, it moved to expand its reach, opening a small sales office in Las Vegas.

"We want to continue to be a niche player," said McGill. "We're not interested in being the largest. And we learned a lot from having gone through this a few years ago."

He was referring to the bursting of the tech bubble and the financial fallout from Sept. 11.

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