With six weeks to go before President-elect Barack Obama takes the oath of office, many media outlets are still tentative about hosting inaugural events. Faced with a flock of challenges—a poor economy, competition for venues, guests, and attention—some potential hosts who once considered throwing their brands into the mix have either opted out or are still unsure, though MTV, CNN, and the Huffington Post continue to move forward with party plans.
“There are two factors making corporations leery to do a big name-in-lights program, one being the economy,” said Elizabeth Baker Keffer, vice president of The Atlantic and president of events division Atlantic Live. “Even if you have the money to host a big event, the optics of doing something lavish are not good. The second factor is the many congressional guidelines to hosting events in town. Non-Washington companies need to make sure they are compliant with the congressional guidelines.”
During the past couple weeks, event and PR staffers at several publications reported ongoing discussions about whether or not to host something. Some are still mulling: “We're undecided,” Vanity Fair public relations director Beth Kseniak said yesterday. Meanwhile, at Condé Nast sibling The New Yorker, special events director Melissa Meyer said the business side is currently discussing plans to entertain clients in some way. As of now, the editorial side of the magazine is not planning anything.
“I've heard mixed reports,” wrote Jayne Sandman, associate publisher of Capitol File, which is the official media partner of Creative Coalition's inaugural ball, in an email. “Obviously many companies—not just media—want to be involved. But it's not an easy economic climate for anyone right now, so I'm sure that some other media companies are being forced to make hard decisions. As far as venues being slim, I think if you're creative, there are plenty of great venues still available, just not for 2,000 people.”
American Express Publishing, Hearst, and OK! magazine have all ruled against parties. “It’s so hard to find a place, and it just became apparent that we were going to be struggling to book a centrally located venue,” said Beth Jacobson, director of communications at OK!. “We realized what makes more sense is to have reporters there, covering who wore what and which couples attended. We can still have editorial content and be competitive without having a big, expensive event. It’s a really bad time for everyone, not just the magazine publishing industry. There isn’t that extra disposable money.”
Striking the appropriate tone is a tricky task mentioned by many potential Washington hosts. Some are skipping spectacular productions in favor of smaller gatherings. ”Time will not be doing a big party during the inauguration,“ said Kathy Petersen, the magazine's special events director. “We will, however, be bringing a few V.I.P. clients and doing small V.I.P. breakfasts, luncheons, and dinners between the larger events.”
That's the plan for The Atlantic, too. “The logistics and economics are not appealing at this time,” Baker Keffer said. ”It would have been uncharacteristic of us to do a 2,000-person ball.” But she is overseeing several inaugural shindigs, including a Microsoft-sponsored party on January 19 to celebrate Washington Week moderator Gwen Ifill's new book.
Baker Keffer pointed out that challenges may be greater for out-of-town planners like those from New York-based media. “I think [the inauguration] is going to stretch the city. We have relationships such that we haven’t had trouble booking our vendors; [but out-of-town] organizations that don’t have the relationships with local vendors are going to be tested.”