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With Inauguration Over, Vendors Reflect on Giant Crowds, Security Constraints, and Last-Minute Cancellations

For planners and vendors alike, the festivities surrounding the presidential inauguration last week made for one of the most stressful series of events ever staged here. Many workers in the industry are still recovering from the grinding intensity. The crowds, security sweeps, street closings, staffing issues, equipment procurement, and magnitude of expectation were unprecedented. And for some, the lack of a crowd even caused problems, with a few last-minute ball cancellations causing turmoil.

Hargrove, the official event planner designated by the Presidential Inaugural Committee, executed 44 events in 34 venues over six days, including all 16 official inaugural events. The effort required 200 trailer trucks of equipment and staging decor and 600 to 700 staff members who worked in three shifts for 19 days. For the company’s 16th inaugural, security was the biggest issue.

“It took six of our people five full days just to do the Secret Service credentialing,” said Hargrove C.E.O. Tim McGill. Float drivers and handlers had to be on site at 2 a.m. on Inauguration Day for the parade that started at 2 p.m. Bomb-sniffing dogs were sometimes in short supply, causing drivers long waits.

From a design aspect, McGill singled-out the People’s Concert at the Lincoln Memorial, where Hargrove constructed a 10,000-square-foot stage with movable walls, as “the most challenging event I’ve seen in a long, long time,” he said. “We only had 14-days to put it all together. Renderings would come from the producers, or portions of designs, which had to be quickly converted into production drawings, then to fabrication.”  

For many, the largest challenges were tasks that are normally pretty simple, like getting from one side of town to another or over a Potomac River bridge. “The biggest problem we experienced was getting our waitstaff to the locations,” said Design Cuisine C.E.O. Kathy Valentine. “Just to walk blocks, get on the Metro with closed stops and the crowds, we had to be patient and work events with the staff that we had. It was the first time I heard of when staffs spent the night in the museums and Capitol.”

Transportation to the official inauguration luncheon for 230 people in the Capitol's Statuary Hall, where seafood stew and a brace of birds were on the menu, was also a feat for Design Cuisine. “We had a police escort at 4:00 a.m. up Interstate 395, and we were the only ones on it,” said Valentine.

Eric Michael, co-owner of Occasions Caterers, added, “We were wild, and that doesn’t describe it.” The company’s largest events included a seated dinner for 1,200 at the National Building Museum, as well as the Google and Creative Coalition balls. “We anticipated all along that security measures would be difficult, and we factored that in. But then the Secret Service and police changed plans without telling anybody. We had staff held at checkpoints for five hours waiting to get to their locations. But we did well by getting our knives and corkscrews in there a day ahead.”

Meanwhile, on inauguration night, the 30,000-square-foot Marriott Ballroom at the Marriott Wardman Park was empty. The promoter of the American Music Inaugural Ball, organized by Dionne Warwick, canceled the night before.   “We were disappointed and it affected us financially,” said the hotel’s public relations director, Mark Indre. “We had people scheduled to work. We had to donate the food to D.C. Central Kitchen.” The food bank for the needy received 360-pounds of pork ribs, 700 roasted pork loins, 780 pieces of chicken Parmesan, 1,000 dinner rolls, and 32 pies. The hotel was also to be the site of the Caribbean Ball, which was also canceled.

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