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U.S. Presidential Inauguration 2021: How Would You Plan a Pandemic-Safe Celebration?

Dream scenario: You're asked to produce next week's presidential inauguration. What would you do? Here, we asked nine event producers to share their most creative ideas.

Barack and Michelle Obama's First Dance at the 2013 Inaugural Ball
Eight years ago, President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama danced to Jennifer Hudson singing "Let's Stay Together" at the official Inaugural Ball, produced by Hargrove at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. It was just one of many black-tie balls, all-star concerts and themed events that commemorated the occasion—which will likely look very different in 2021.
Photo: Courtesy of Hargrove/FotoBriceno.jpg

WASHINGTON, DC—It was already going to be a presidential inauguration like no other—and that was before last week’s riots at the Capitol building. With safety issues increasingly thrust into the spotlight, along with the ongoing pandemic-related concerns, Jan. 20's swearing-in of President-Elect Joe Biden promises to be a scaled-back affair compared to previous inaugurations, which have become known for their black-tie balls, high-profile watch parties and massive crowds. 

As of press time, the President-Elect still plans to be sworn in on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, as per tradition—albeit without the public spectators who typically pack the National Mall. According to The Washington Post, “the Secret Service, the agency responsible for designing and implementing a security operation plan for such events, released a statement Thursday night stressing its readiness for Inauguration Day.” President Trump has announced that he will not be in attendance.

Beyond the ceremony, the 59th presidential inauguration, which has the theme of "America United," will include a televised “virtual” parade featuring performances from communities across the country. And the day before the inauguration, the Presidential Inaugural Committee will host a lighting ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool to honor those who have lost their lives to COVID-19; organizers are asking towns around the country to light buildings and ring church bells at the same time. 

With the event facing so many changes, BizBash asked nine event professionals around the country what they would do if they were handed the reins—and the budget—to one of the country’s most historic and high-profile gatherings. Their fun, creative answers ended up offering a treasure trove of inspiration for hybrid and virtual events of all types.

Donald Trump's Swearing-In Ceremony at the U.S. Capitol in 2017The 58th presidential inauguration took place on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in 2017, when Donald Trump was sworn in as president. This year, event planner Andrew Roby says he would keep that ceremony on the Capitol steps, but significantly reduce the number of guests in attendance.Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Andrew Roby, CEO and creative director of Andrew Roby Events in Washington, D.C., would keep the swearing-in ceremony at the U.S. Capitol, but drastically reduce the number of guests in attendance, limiting it to key personnel spaced appropriately on the steps—and no public spectators. “But make sure we have someone singing the national anthem and 'America the Beautiful,'” he says. “We need that!”

Roby, who has been a guest at inaugural balls in the past, suggests taking them hybrid. “Turn the balls into mini experiences where attendees can follow the president and vice president as they travel from one ball to the next,” he says, adding that as Biden and Harris travel, programming could cut to guest appearances and performances. “Each ball already has a theme, so to ensure the look and feel is there, I'd go a bit overboard in the customization of each ball. Since they will have limited guests present, it's not out of budget to make this visually appealing for the virtual audience."

For watch parties, “I would invite households to enter a contest for the chance to be seen on TV viewing the inauguration from home, safely,” he says, citing how award shows such as the Emmys handled their events in 2020. 

Shelly Tolo, the president of Tolo Events in Seattle, is no stranger to inauguration events, having produced the swearing-in ceremony and inaugural ball for the governor of Pennsylvania several years ago. “We'd love to get our creative hands on a presidential inauguration one of these years!” she says.

Inaugural Ball for Pennsylvania Governors Tom Corbett in 2011Tolo Events' Shelly Tolo produced the inaugural ball for former Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett in 2011.Photo: Hoffer PhotographyTolo notes that when she attended a ball during President George W. Bush’s inauguration, “one of the most memorable things was the dance when the president and first lady stopped by. With that in mind, and COVID-19 too, we would definitely want all of America to have a chance to dance with President and Dr. Biden and Vice President and Mr. Harris,” she says. “We've all been wearing sweatpants for months now, so we would invite everyone to 'Dress Up for America' and attend a live virtual ball.” Tolo imagines livestreamed dance music, where participants can dance together on Zoom or another platform—cameras on. “Wouldn't that be powerful and unifying? A hashtag like #DressUpAmerica would be used for people to post photos of themselves in their black-tie best (or whatever festive outfit they'd want to wear).”

In the place of an in-person parade, “We'd have an online competition for families or neighborhoods to submit their own marching band or parade float videos,” Tolo adds. “We'd pick two winners from each state, plus D.C., Puerto Rico and the other U.S. territories, and edit them together for a virtual parade. You wouldn't know if you won until you watched the parade.” 

If they were in charge, the team from JJLA in Los Angeles would expand the traditional events into a full slate of virtual programming. CEO Jeff Consoletti and design director Abby Borden say, “This year's inauguration would feature a weeklong slew of programming truly celebrating the pomp and circumstance and tradition of the event itself. Taking inspiration from the acclaimed Netflix series 7 Days Out, we would curate programming across a dedicated channel that celebrates all facets of the planning and lead-up to the big day. In the week up to the inauguration, what is the transition team doing? What's the flurry of transition and packing up from Wilmington to Washington, D.C.? What designers are meeting with them? What foreign leaders are calling them?”

Consoletti and Borden would also have camera crews following the team that’s building out the swearing-in ceremony. Different segments would highlight the floral designers outfitting the White House, the sous chef prepping a menu, the fashion designers preparing final fittings and more. “Then, on the morning of the inauguration, how did [President Biden and Vice President Harris] spend their morning?” they add. “We follow Joe's train ride from Wilmington into the nation's capital. Who rides with him, and what are the stories that show the American patchwork of diversity and resilience that delivered him to the White House?”

To add a personal touch to viewers at home, inauguration gift boxes could be available that include fun items like aviator sunglasses, commemorative glassware or a bottle of White House label wine. For an added touch, “A social media campaign would align with the launch around what people are ‘swearing’ for themselves to do in the next four years for their communities and their country.”

Finally, Consoletti and Borden would wrap up programming by airing a small family gathering at the White House that captures some of the typical inauguration activities, such as a dance between the president and first lady. “While we aren't showing the grandeur of a huge ball in a D.C. landmark, the small gathering shows the effort that goes into maintaining the peaceful transition of power with brevity, acknowledging the new administration's focus on getting us out of this pandemic safely,” they explain. 

2017 U.S. Presidential InaugurationFor the 2017 inauguration, thousands of people lined the parade route along Pennsylvania Avenue from the U.S. Capitol to the White House. This year, Bravo Productions’ Greg Jenkins would instead line the route with oversized monitors, where Americans could RSVP as “virtual spectators.”Photo: Maria Bryk-Newseum

Greg Jenkins, partner at Bravo Productions in Long Beach, Calif., would focus on the parade aspect of the inauguration. “I can distinctly recall the Obamas walking down Pennsylvania Avenue with all of the pomp and circumstance,” he says, imagining he’d kick off a Biden-Harris parade with “a performance by Tracie Ellis Ross and her iconic mom, Diana Ross, singing 'God Bless America.' Mom and daughter duo is dressed to the nines and will be performing live in D.C.—without an actual audience.” It would be followed by floats with riders such as Common, Katy Perry and others who were supporters of the Biden-Harris campaign. “Tributes from international and national leaders from all spectrums of society would have a prerecorded video message played at some point during the parade broadcast.”

In Jenkins’s plan, no spectators would be allowed on the street, but Pennsylvania Avenue would be lined with oversize monitors. “Instead of bleacher seats or live spectators standing on the streets, supporters would be encouraged to RSVP to be a virtual spectator on the street. They would be able to wave, and get a backstage pass and go behind-the-scenes to some of the ceremonial activities.”

For the finale, Jenkins would have a parade of cars driving down the street in celebration. “All cars would be prescreened and provided with flags they could place on the vehicle and wave,” he says, adding that given recent events, all participants would receive a full background check by the FBI, and that the parade’s perimeter would be blocked off by law enforcement, barricades and trucks. “This would all be staged under two hours, retaining everyone's attention and practicing excellent public health guidelines while also maintaining some tradition of pageantry on inauguration day."

In response to recent events, Shakira Johnson, founder and creative director of Johnson PR & Events in New York, says “health and safety is the new glamour! Keeping in mind the storming of the Capitol and the overall discord regarding this election, I would plan for increased security including the national guard and riot police.” Johnson would also limit live attendees to members of Congress and other vetted party insiders, both for safety and to ensure social distancing. 

For watch parties, Johnson would focus on celebrating first responders and essential workers. “They’ve proven to be the everyday heroes of the pandemic, and I’d have them share heartfelt messages of unity, liberty and freedom—messages of hope that we all need and can stand behind right now,” she explains. “And for a bit of glamour and goodwill, matching masks [would be] worn by the president and the attendees—another symbol of unity—that viewers could purchase, with the proceeds going to a consortium of charities responding to pandemic relief for American families in need.”

U.S. Presidential Inauguration Ball 2013The inauguration balls, like a 2013 event from BET Networks (pictured), are traditionally known for elaborate decor and grandeur. In place of the in-person events, Creative Impact Group’s Joanna Brooks would mail packages to VIPs’ homes that evoke the theme an in-person ball would have had, such as Texas barbecue for a Texas-hosted ball.Photo: Dennis Kan/

Joanne Brooks, president of Creative Impact Group in Chicago, would focus on innovative technology to create a safe experience. She envisions the swearing-in as a virtual event, where “a team of AV specialists would use cameras and streaming to make the event appear live in front of the White House—but attendees would be virtual,” she explains. 

To recreate the feel of inauguration balls, special e-invitations would be delivered to attendees. “Upon RSVPing, a special package will be delivered to each attendee’s home, including all things they would have normally received at the inauguration ball in person," Brooks says. “Many of the balls are themed, so the package could be put together based on the theme. For example, the state of Texas may host a ball. All things Texas could be sent to the attendee, including Texas barbecue for food.” Entertainers and emcees could host virtually, and “the backdrop for the band, speakers, hosts, etcetera will make it appear that they are at the location of that specific ball,” she adds. At-home guests would be encouraged to wear gala attire and mingle on a virtual platform. 

For watch parties, Brooks would create a platform where attendees could “log in and feel like they are part of the festivities" through chat and networking features. 

Scott Swenson, the owner and creative director of Scott Swenson Creative Development in Tampa, Fla., would take what he calls a “multilayer” approach to the inauguration this year. “Have a physically distanced live component (perhaps a drive-in concert), and also include a social media element—maybe before the inauguration, have people from around the country or world submit videos of congratulations, which could be shown at the drive-in concert, streamed nonstop on a custom website, and perhaps even be incorporated into a video sculpture in a wide-open outdoor park,” he suggests. “I think the concert could also be livestreamed on multiple channels, with vloggers sharing their take on the event from different locations.”

For the parade, Swenson says that “participants could choose to engage in a video scavenger hunt. The winners would be granted a video phone call or signed certificate from the president and vice president,” he suggests. “This new administration is all about reconnecting with the American people, and I feel that these kinds of grassroots elements would appeal to their base.”

For the swearing-in ceremony, Heather Mason, CEO of Los Angles-based Caspian Agency, would lean into a popular pandemic trend: bubbles. “Set up clear bubbles along the route and in the area where the swearing-in will take place,” she says. “Invite households to reserve one from which they can watch the proceedings. Prime pods will go to first responders and frontline and essential workers.” Mason would also line the route with photos and famous quotes of Americans throughout history that represent the spirit of the inauguration. For security purposes, attendees in the bubbles would be preregistered with their names and photos, and verified with RFID trackers. “This would ensure that security knows who is where at all times and could easily identify people if problems arise.”

Yoga Domes, Socially Distant Pod SeatingCaspian Agency's Heather Mason is inspired by a recent pandemic-friendly trend: clear bubbles. She imagines them set up along a parade route, with prime pods being reserved for frontline workers.Photo: Courtesy of Caspian AgencySince most people will be viewing the event on TV, Mason would focus on creating eye-catching visuals. “Illuminate the pods closest to the stage in red, white and blue LED lights in the form of the American flag when seen from the air. Ask people who will be further out to download an app that will synchronize colors to create visuals when seen from the air. Even just random lights could look like confetti when everyone holds their phones up,” she says.

For the ball, Mason would “build the world’s largest dance floor and have it partitioned by plexiglass so people can have their own pod to dance in with open-air above,” she says. “Use light-up dance floors that synchronize to the music and create visually arresting images when seen from the air.” Another fun idea? She would coordinate a gown giveaway on the week of the inauguration, where people can enter a contest to win a gown by giving money to causes the Biden-Harris administration supports.

Deanna Nwosu, an Ohio-based event planner for Foundation Software as well as her own company, Deanna Camille, would keep the emphasis on the American people. “Why not create a way for us to plan a virtual inauguration celebration together?” she suggests. “Similarly to how HGTV will have viewers vote on finishings in their dream homes, have a social media campaign to design the ball and pick what the first couple will wear. Allow some vendors to be chosen by vote as well.”

Other shared experiences, she says, could involve each state choosing a recipe that showcases their region's food. Individual families could compete using the recipe as inspiration, with each state choosing a winner. “Those 50 state winners could get access to a virtual potluck event with the president and first lady, and afterward, a cookbook would be created featuring all the winners and their dishes,” she says. “Proceeds from the cookbook would benefit the first lady’s charitable initiative. Basically, find a way to stretch the celebration beyond just that weekend.”

Nwosu adds, “I think a big concern is a rewrite of history down the line with the events these past few weeks. We could collect video messages (before, during and after the inauguration) and compile in a documentary and put the footage in a vault for later viewing—while producing a small snippet preview for including in the inauguration weekend.”

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