New Hosts Challenge Big Party Players During White House Correspondents Weekend

By Chad Kaydo May 3, 2010, 6:01 PM EDT

MSNBC's Saturday night after-party

Photo: Tony Brown/Imijination Photography for BizBash

Washington sweated through its annual ritual of party-going as sport this weekend. As the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner lured the usual assortment of Hollywood stars and New York media heavyweights, some new hosts entered the fray to compete for guests and press mentions. And the pack dutifully worked through the new stops on the circuit, with all of the required invitation jockeying and celebrity gawking.

The centerpiece, of course, was the actual dinner for 3,000 at the Hilton Washington, where media outlets filled tables with a panoply of famous faces; this year saw the likes of Jon Bon Jovi and Justin Beiber. But much of the weekend chatter centered around party R.S.V.P.s.

Each of the weekend’s big time slots saw a new challenger—The New Yorker on Friday night, MSNBC on Saturday, and Politico’s Sunday brunch for 250 at the $24 million Georgetown manse of its publisher, Robert Allbritton. These hosts’ party reputations—and guests’ curiosity—made them the most-discussed invitations.

Despite the weekend’s traditional focus on famous faces over food, decor, or entertainment, the new challengers thought up some special touches. The New Yorker booked the rooftop space at the W Washington, D.C., one of the city’s prime party locales, and brought New York-based DJs Andrew Andrew, who use iPads to spin remotely while wandering a crowd of 250 that included White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.

Upstart host MSNBC made a big statement at the Mellon Auditorium with three-story-high banners emblazoned with the faces of its personalities, a performance from KC and the Sunshine Band, grill-your-own s’mores stations from Occasions Caterers on a balcony, and a specialty drink bar manned by Rachel Maddow.

Meanwhile, at the residence of the French ambassador, Vanity Fair and Bloomberg—perennial hosts of the weekend’s most exclusive invite—drew a mix of A-list names from Washington (Senator Chris Dodd and White House senior adviser David Axelrod) and Hollywood (Scarlett Johansson and Bradley Cooper), without feeling the need to dress up an already impressive venue.

Capitol File’s party, the other big after-affair, doubled as an 85th anniversary celebration for the Rennaissance Mayflower Hotel, which underwrote the festivities and brought in New York-based Tony Berger of Relevent to produce brand activations for the 1,600 guests the magazine expected to pass through.

At the Hilton
Before the slog through security checkpoints to get to the dinner, the pre-parties hosted by media outlets are mostly about getting drinks and dinner tickets in the hands of invited guests, and many hosts don’t bother with froufrou touches.

Among the exceptions was Atlantic Media, which, with the help of Hargrove, draped a large space in black fabric dotted with sparking lights to suggest a night sky and hung photos of the Obama administration’s first year. The Time Warner room had the most hosts (People, Time, CNN, and Fortune) and more than twice as many bartenders as Newsweek, which decorated a similar-size room with red, white, and blue balloons. Thomson Reuters had a DJ and glowing bars.

For dinner, the association attempted a green route. Using as much local produce as possible, the Hilton’s executive chef, André Coté, designed a menu with herb crusted petit filet and a pomegranate demi pared with roasted halibut and basil gremolata. As for the program, the consensus was that President Obama fared better than host Jay Leno.

The Morning After
For anyone still hungry the next day at Allbritton’s Politico brunch, Design Cuisine served a lush, pretty spread of jewel-sized breakfast bites like truffled hashbrowns and tiny sticky buns on sticks, as well as a crêpe bar. Stone urns and large and small arrangements of tulips from New York florist Vert-De-Gris decorated a tent in the backyard filled with local and New York-based media bigwigs like Norman Pearlstine and Charlie Rose, along with the likes of Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius. As Katie Couric chatted up the Jonas Brothers, Ben Bradlee called down to his wife, Sally Quinn, from the top of the stairs to the house.

Politico likely siphoned attendees from the stalwart of the morning-after timeslot, a brunch at the Hay-Adams thrown by the McLaughlin Group. But new co-host Thomson Reuters (along with producers from First Protocol) still reeled in a mix of media, political, and business players like Mort Zuckerman and Arianna Huffington for omelettes, shrimp, and the hotel’s famous rooftop views of the White House.

The Run-Up
The preceding week has ballooned with events piggybacking on the dinner’s mojo—from Animal Fair publisher Wendy Diamond’s “White House Pet Correspondents” mixer on Wednesday, to the Creative Coalition’s TV star-packed award presentation at the Library of Congress on Thursday. But the real action began on Friday night, with parties hosted by big media brands.

Atlantic Media—owner of The Atlantic and National Journal—held its traditional dinner at the Georgetown home of owner David Bradley. Guests packed themselves tightly on the small front lawn for cocktails, and sponsor Audi parked two shiny new cars on the driveway. Then everyone walked through the house to a Loane Brothers tent in the backyard, where Atlantic food editor Corby Kummer’s sustainable menu (designed with Susan Gage Catering) included grilled local rockfish with herb and spring pea broth with new potatoes. Susan Gage worked with the Ociana Group to decorate the 15 tables with bird figurines and plants in mercury glass urns.

People and Time returned to town with a party in the newly spiffed-up first-floor event space at the St. Regis. The Time Inc. siblings mixed guests related to their different perspectives—celebrities like Precious star Gabourey Sidibe and Glee’s Matthew Morrison, and several female NBC News political correspondents. While a few folks nibbled from an Italian buffet in the courtyard, a screen flashed photos of guests in front of a step-and-repeat in a nearby room.

The real event industry news here was the return of a large gift bag, a black Le Sportsac that easily weighed 10 pounds and was packed with cosmetics (full-size Clinique products for men and women) and snacks (coconut water and Larabars), plus a DVD of By the People, a documentary about Barack Obama’s campaign, the one nod to the nature of the weekend. The organic baked fries and Eboost packets might have provided well-timed morning-after sustenance for partied-out guests, though.

Friday also saw the second annual late-night “First Amendment” bash hosted by the Impact Arts & Film Fund, The Washington Post, and the comedy Web site Funny or Die. It filled several dark, unadorned rooms in an empty retail space on Cady’s Alley, the block of design stores in Georgetown.

The unchallenged time slot of the weekend was Saturday afternoon, when TV producer and media macher Tammy Haddad hosted several hundred people under a scorching tent. The list of co-hosts for the event in support of  CURE Epilepsy and Mothers Day Every Day included Hilary Rosen and BizBash C.E.O. David Adler. As a mix of political, media, and social types—from Hilda Solis to Kim Kardashian—worked the yard, the Jonas Brothers hurried past paparazzi outside—and another Audi on display—to hold court in Haddad’s family room.

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