Special Events

Planners veto election-night parties

Although the U.S. presidential election last week dominated the news in many markets, election-night parties were a no-show.

Very few planners polled by Special Events Magazine produce such events. “We never even got an inquiry,” many planners told us.

“From my experience, election-night parties are smaller, private affairs often handled by the host or the hostess on her own,” notes Nashville, Tenn.-based event designer Timot McGonagle. “Then there is the whole difficulty of party affiliations among the guests—even between couples—so often someone feels left out. Not a great basis for a party.”

What’s true for social events seems to hold true for business events as well. San Francisco event planner Heather Keenan, head of Key Events (www.keyevents.com), had a wonderful election night party all set for a high-tech client’s user conference at a local hotel—complete with star gobos, 60-foot balloon arches, a white leather conversation pit, and five plasma screens—only to have the host back out due to concerns over crossing hotel workers’ picket lines.

She agrees that election-night parties are potential powder kegs. For an association’s election themed event staged last month, “we had very angry people who thought we had more Kerry buttons than Bush buttons,” she recalls. “Unless you are lobbyist, it’s not appropriate to bring politics to the workplace. What happens is it takes the focus off the corporation or association and focuses it on the election.” (For a list of Keenan’s do’s and don’ts of U.S. election parties, see below.)

This is not to say that the U.S. presidential election did not see plenty of other special event business. In late October, ME Productions (www.meproductions.com), with offices in Pembroke Park and Orlando, Fla., staged a $50,000-a-plate fund-raiser with 130 guests in a private home in Boca Raton, Fla.

Executive sales and event manager Ted Boyd skipped the traditional red, white and blue color scheme for a chic palette of white fabrics, pewter linens, silver chiavaris and black carpeting. Tabletops featured four square vessels, one filled with white hydrangeas, one with white callas, one with white roses, and one with a sole white orchid.

The night’s biggest challenge? “The Secret Service,” Boyd reports. “They changed the timing constantly.” The agency also installed armored panels on the stage where the candidate was to speak; “We concealed them with white fabric,” Boyd notes.

And presidential event stalwart Hargrove Inc., based in Lanham, Md. (www.hargroveinc.com), which has worked on U.S. presidential inauguration ceremonies since 1949, kept its record going strong by staging election-night events for both the Republication and Democratic national committees.

It took 14-hour days to create the RNC’s main stage at the Reagan International Trade Center. Hargrove marketing director Marvin Bond relates: “The energy level in the room elevated as midnight approached with the West Coast exit poll information. Bars remained open later than planned. As the election coverage continued without a declared winner or concession, many people stayed through the night.”

At 6:30 a.m. on Nov. 3, Hargrove learned that President Bush would be coming to the Reagan Building, and so cancelled the planned 9 a.m. teardown. The Secret Service did another security sweep, requiring Hargrove personnel to be on hand and move drape and décor elements as required. “An e-mail from the RNC generated 3,000 supporters for the 3 p.m. victory speech, after which teardown began,” Bond adds. “The press riser was not removed until after the evening news East Coast time slots to allow for live shots.”

Event planners who do see clients requesting election-night parties should proceed with caution, warns Lee Gregory of San Francisco-based caterer/planner McCall Associates (www.danmccall.com). “If you take the gig, get paid in advance—if the candidate loses, there won’t be any money afterward!”

Heather Keenan’s “Do’s and Don'ts of U.S. Election Parties”

  • Do choose symbols that reflect patriotism.
  • Do have tons of red, white and blue everything! Fireworks, bunting, linen (use sequins!), and red, white and blue jelly beans.
  • Do use nostalgic symbols of American patriotism: Uncle Sam on stilts; pictures of Rosie the Riveter; news clips of WWII factories or USO events; a big band with a curvy female singer; a living statue of the Statue of Liberty; "peace" symbol necklaces.
  • Do use fun/patriotic music (John Philip Sousa, “Hail to the Chief,” “The 1812 Overture”).
  • Don't cause people to take sides. Don't have the candidates' names anywhere! No buttons, no signs.
  • Don't have a TV broadcasting the election. Besides the fact that your event will go into overtime, half of your guests will be depressed.
  • Don't let the CEO, CIO, CFO, Board of Directors, etc., show whom or what they support.
  • Don't put up an American flag. There are more rules on how to hang an American flag than you can even imagine, and more people who want to tell you how to hang that flag. Also, the flag is a sacred symbol to some people and fabric to make bikini tops and boy shorts to others; you are bound to have both in your audience.
  • Don't have a political speaker at an event. For the opening session or as a keynote at a luncheon, OK, but at a party?

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