The “save the date” Evites for fall parties are starting to arrive, a bittersweet reminder that summer is almost over. You glance at the invitation, mark your calendar and go back to your trashy beach novel.
Though most of Washington is still in vacation mode, plans for fall fundraisers, Halloween promotions and, yes, even Christmas parties are already in full swing. You see a “save the date” and think, “Free drinks!” To your hosts — political campaigns, think tanks, corporations, charities, trade associations, NGOs — the Evite is the first step in a carefully calculated strategy to grab your time and attention.
The very important people of Washington are short on time and easily bored. Which is why, during the dog days of summer, almost 400 people gathered last week at the Ronald Reagan Building for Elevate, a conference for Washington event organizers. Their goal: learning to make their events more memorable, attract the right guests and do it all on a politically correct budget.
It’s not enough to throw free booze at people anymore, although that never hurts. The old formula of cocktails, dinner and endless speeches is giving way to artisanal menus, designer mixologists and charging stations. Plus hashtags, live Instagram feeds and anything else that will transform another boring evening into a talker.
A giant Lite-Brite board, perhaps, where guests can play with a massive version of the favorite childhood toy? Or maybe wearable technology such as a light-up bracelet, the kind spotted at the Taylor Swift concerts at Nationals Park?
“One of the things I’m excited about is wearable bracelets,” says Sarah Peterson, a newly hired associate for donor engagement and special events at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. Her job is to help plan opening nights, donor dinners and other fundraisers, especially for younger audience members. She thinks the motion-activated bracelet might be perfect for a meet-the-cast party. “It’s cool,” the 22-year-old says. “It’s so cool.”
Lights, camera phones, action! It’s not really a party until somebody tweets.
“Nobody’s an attendee anymore,” says David Adler, founder of BizBash, the events media company that hosted the conference. “You’re all participants — whether you like it or not.”
All of this comes from a man steeped in the old, pre-smartphone Washington tradition.
Adler grew up in the nation’s capital, graduated from American University and founded Dossier magazine in 1975, at age 21. It was the city’s first publication devoted to the social elite and arrived just as the Vietnam War, post-Nixon vibe was swinging back to more traditional (and conspicuous) displays of wealth and power.
The young publisher moved in the city’s top circles and sat at the most exclusive tables. “I went to so many parties, people thought I was a maitre d’,” he says.
Adler sold Dossier in 1988 and moved to New York, where he turned his expertise at parties into a career as a corporate-events organizer, throwing elaborate soirees in grand settings. In 2000, he founded BizBash, an online resource for event companies to share ideas and products for meetings, conventions, trade shows, festivals, weddings and other gatherings.
Maybe it’s the Washington upbringing: Adler, now 61, thinks of himself as the self-appointed mayor of his industry and calls politicians the original event experts.
“It’s one of the best skills they have,” he says. “Their whole life is going to events, and they’re all about making sure people show up.” A standing-room-only crowd is a triumph (someone in Bernie Sanders’s campaign is a genius) and an empty room a disaster (Rick Perry, white courtesy phone).
The point behind all of the planning is to get bodies into the room, whether you’re selling a candidate, an idea or a product. All of the technology, all of the innovation is designed to get people talking and networking.
“When I’m meeting you face to face, I’m much more likely to have a future conversation with you than if I connect with you over an e-mail,” Adler says. He’s a huge fan of the 6-8 p.m. cocktail party. “You get together people with amazing power in one room, and they talk to each other,” he says. “Those conversations can change the world — if you curate them properly.”
Networking (hitting up friends, supporting charities, volunteering for a cause) will get you on guest lists. And a good invitation makes invitees feel they really need to show up because the party will be valuable and fun, or something great will happen and they’ll blow it by not going.
“Classic FOMO,” Adler says. “Fear of missing out.”
A well-planned D.C. event gives guests some touch of Washington: meeting politicians, partying in embassies or museums, a view of the monuments. Experience is the new luxury, especially among One Percenters looking for exclusive invitations to state dinners or White House correspondents’ dinner weekend parties — and sponsors are eager to be a part of that.
“Everyone’s marketing something, whether you’re a politician, an NGO, a charity, a brand, a product or just giving a speech,” Adler says. “Events are a framework for the amplification of that.”
Elevate’s lunch speaker was event planner extraordinaire Colin Cowie, renowned for multimillion-dollar weddings, hotel openings and Oprah’s Legends Ball. Cowie and his team travel the globe putting on jaw-dropping parties and treated the audience to a slideshow of his greatest hits.
“I get paid well to spend other people’s money making everybody happy,” he said, smiling broadly. Cowie gets a $100,000 design fee for his top-of-the-line custom parties, which have a budget of $5 million or more. Needless to say, everything is perfection.
In Washington, it’s never that simple.
In 2010, staffers from the General Services Administration attended a conference in Las Vegas and were investigated after the $822,000 price tag (including mind readers, lavish spreads and more) became public. A handful of top GSA leaders were fired or forced to resign; the White House weighed in with stern disapproval.
The incident had a chilling effect on the events industry — people were terrified of hosting any kind of conference or convention, even those with bare-bones budgets. The truth is that wild spending has always been the exception; organizations in Washington demand more accountability for every dime spent, and “no one really has an unlimited budget,” says David Corson, director of events at the S&R Foundation, which funds arts and science fellows.
Still, hosting even a modest event in Washington is expensive. Adler estimates the cost of a basic two-hour reception at roughly $75 to $125 per person, plus tax and gratuity. That’s for food and drink only and doesn’t include invitations, decor and other expenses. Seated dinners, depending on the venue, can range from $150 to $375 per guest.
And renting many locations is a separate budget item, says Adler: The Library of Congress costs $35,000 for a corporate host and $17,500 for a nonprofit. A party at the Smithsonian can cost $20,000-plus for the space; the National Building Museum goes for $17,000 and up.
But many hosts are willing to spend the money for these historic spaces.
“One of the loveliest things we have in Washington is all these amazing venues you don’t have in any other place,” says Philip Dufour, who founded his own event company in 2007 after working at the State Department and as social secretary to Vice President Al Gore.
Another unique draw: Washington celebrities, many who come because they believe in the cause or charity. “The fact that you can be at a party and there might be a Supreme Court justice, or the secretary of state, or senators and congressmen — it’s really an unusual level of guests,” Dufour says.
Those traditional draws are wrapped in modern touches: electronic check-in, more emphasis on visuals for social media, fewer speeches — all designed to give people something they haven’t seen before. When Dufour starts planning an event, he asks clients: “Where do you want people to be when they leave your event? What is it you want them to understand, to feel, to see and hear?”
So organizations that once hosted formal dinners are opting for cocktail receptions with heavy hors d’oeuvres, short programs and dessert buffets, which gives guests more opportunity to come and go as needed.
“If you get stuck at a dinner table until 9:30 p.m. on a weeknight, everyone starts looking at their watch,” Dufour says. “I’ve seen people leave a dinner even if the secretary of state is speaking, saying, ‘I’ve got to get home.’ ”
How do you gauge whether a party was a success? Number of tweets? Instagram? Can’t a party be . . . well, just a good time?
Of course it can. “Sometimes you have to explain to people that a return on investment isn’t always measurable,” Dufour says. “It’s not an exact science.”