Americans won't pick the guest of honor until tomorrow, but the Washington community started planning months ago where thousands of inaugural celebrants will sit, stand, sleep and party when the next U.S. president takes the oath of office Jan. 20.

In a town where large crowds are commonplace, the inauguration -- with its parade, balls and numerous other activities -- is still considered a big deal. And planning for this once-every-four- years extravaganza is a herculean effort.

"After the election, you only have about 10 weeks to pull it off," said Ron Walker, a senior partner at the search firm Korn Ferry International who planned the inaugural festivities for Presidents Richard M. Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George Bush. "You have to be very well organized. It is a 24-hour-a-day job. There is no time to enjoy Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year's."

In other words, start early.

The Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies began work in September and has designed the tickets and programs for the tens of thousands forecast to watch the swearing-in ceremony at the Capitol. The printing, of course, must wait until there are names and photographs for the spaces that are now blank.

The Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee have reserved the same blocks of rooms -- more than 1,100 of them -- at the Renaissance Mayflower Hotel and the Renaissance Washington Hotel.

And the Armed Forces Inaugural Committee, which plans, coordinates and provides support for official inaugural activities, has been operating since July and has spent $3.1 million on preparations. Its full-time staff of 325 will grow to 819 by inaugural week.

The military has been involved in inaugural planning since George Washington took the oath of office in 1789. But because things change, said a spokesman, Col. Doug Coffey, it is not practical to dust off the old plans, not even the ones used four years ago,

This year, for example, about half the money spent so far paid for computer and communications equipment to track inaugural events and the estimated 5,000 military participants. And the Armed Forces has a home page on the World Wide Web -- http://www.dtic.mil/afic -- this time around.

"Every {president} tries to find his place in history," said Tom Groppel, director of ceremonies for the Armed Forces Committee. "It is flavored into the makeup of the parade, what we do in the opening ceremony and in whether or not there are youth balls. They have a lot of imagination. We just have to put a harness on the imagination. If we don't have a good grip on what we are going to do by the first of December, we are in trouble."

The engine that will drive the inaugural train, the Presidential Inaugural Committee, is not created until after the election, when the incoming chief executive will appoint his own people. Still, representatives for President Clinton and Republican nominee Robert J. Dole have made discreet inquiries within the past week to Walker, according to the veteran inaugural planner.

(Dole, a spokesman said, has decided that his inaugural parade route would include the closed stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House.)

Walker said he told both camps that whoever wins the election should immediately develop a timetable, appoint one or two honorary chairmen to the inaugural committee, create the official and unofficial invitation lists and begin raising several million dollars in seed money from private donors to pay for such inaugural activities as the balls, concerts and other gatherings for the first family and its guests.

The size and cost of presidential inaugurations have grown dramatically. In 1969, Nixon's first inauguration cost $2.3 million and was attended by about 200,000 people. Clinton's 1993 inauguration cost $25 million to $30 million and drew about 800,000.

For many, the inauguration offers a chance to make a good impression -- or a hefty profit. Inspired by the campaigns used to promote San Diego and Chicago during the political conventions, a coalition of Washington business leaders and the District government now meets every Tuesday to develop ways to promote Washington's tourist attractions and new business developments during inaugural week.

Merchants will be urged to decorate their businesses with red, white and blue bunting, and hundreds of residents, from government employees to taxi drivers, will be asked to wear buttons with the slogan "We're Glad You're Here."

"We are seizing an opportunity to shine," said Marie Tibor, vice president of the Washington Convention and Visitors Association. "We want to present an attractive and newsworthy face to the public and media."

Around town, many hotels are requiring a four-night minimum stay during inaugural week and already have some takers. "This is the one time we don't have to beg for business," said Emily Vetter, president of the Hotel Association of Washington.

The Willard Inter-Continental Hotel, one of the few hotels on Pennsylvania Avenue NW along the parade route, is fully booked. Its 342 rooms are in such demand that the hotel began accepting reservation requests, in writing, on Inauguration Day four years ago.

At the Ritz-Carlton on Massachusetts Avenue, half the 206 rooms are reserved for the inauguration. And in keeping with a tradition that began in 1988, the hotel is offering a Premiere Presidential Package: $30,000 for a four-night stay in a suite. The price, double what was charged in 1988, includes breakfast in bed daily, a dozen roses daily, a gourmet dinner for 12 in the suite's private dining room and a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce. Four years ago, a Fort Worth couple paid $24,000 for the same package.

The Ritz-Carlton has conducted its own presidential preference poll during the last two months, placing a ballot and two cookies -- one decorated with a donkey and one decorated with an elephant -- on the pillows of its guests.

Among the 1,166 people who voted -- most of whom ate both cookies -- Clinton got 52 percent, and 38 percent picked Dole. But Thursday, when the hotel ended the poll, Dole for the first time won the weekly count, 48 percent to Clinton's 40 percent.

Still, Irene, a donkey who attends political events as a mascot for the Democratic Party, is so confident that Clinton will win that her handler, a retired Alabama farmer named Willie Kirk, has reserved a suite at the Mayflower. Kirk said Irene plans to participate in the parade and hopes to get an invitation to have tea with the first lady in the Rose Garden. CAPTION: Ritz-Carlton guests received cookies and a ballot to express their preferences.