What Goes Into Planning The Inaugural Ball And Why This Year Is Like No Other

Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis via Getty Images
Beyonce sings the U.S. National Anthem as President Barack Obama listens during swearing-in ceremonies on the West front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC.

While the Trump administration seems to be scrambling to attract performers willing to attach themselves to his upcoming inauguration — even the DC-based high school and university bands that traditionally march in the inaugural parade have declined to participate this year — the fact that there have been few announcements made about the entertainment lineup isn’t necessarily out of the ordinary.

“The Presidential Inaugural Committee (PIC) has only two months to put together a celebration that will be attended by tens of thousands — if not hundreds of thousands — of people,” says Theo LeCompte, who served as Director of Events and Ceremonies for Obama’s 2013 inauguration. “Four years ago, we weren’t ready to announce what we were doing in the middle of December. Usually you don’t start hearing until early January.”

But in 2013, LeCompte had a different challenge: how to spread the love evenly. “We had folks like Katy Perry and Stevie Wonder who had been out on the campaign trail for the president. They were excited to come perform, but we just had to figure out where to put them all.” The 2013 inauguration’s events included the Commander in Chief’s Ball for members of the armed services, a kids’ ball and two official inaugural balls (there are always many unofficial balls and parties surrounding every inauguration, but those are usually planned regardless of who wins the election). None of 2013’s inaugural performers — which included Beyonce, Alicia Keys, Usher and the cast of “Glee” — were paid to show up, although the committee covered their travel and production expenses.

Getting into the official events, which sources say can cost anywhere from $500,000 to multiple millions depending on the lavishness, tends to be more about whom you know than how deep your pockets are, as most of the tickets are reserved for members of Congress, longtime political supporters and military families. “The primary purpose of these events is to thank the people who’ve worked on your campaign and taken you over the finish line. They are intended to inspire big donors and refresh a commitment from key supporters,” says Kate Gibbs, media relations manager for Destination DC, a nonpartisan organization that supports DC travel and tourism.

It’s been announced that Trump will attend two official balls, a big change from other presidents’ first inaugurations (Obama, for example, attended 10) — but there’s been no word from Trump’s PIC on when or where those will be. Like much of the rest of the country, though, DC insiders are bracing for a departure from the norm: “Donald Trump has shown a willingness to be non-traditional,” observes LeCompte, and one insider said, “He doesn’t even read the briefing books, so I can’t imagine the event is going to run the way it has in the past.”

And in sharp contrast to the enthusiasm surrounding the swearing in of previous presidents from both parties, hotel business has been slower, caterers remain available, and venues that had been booked in hopes of a different election outcome may now remain empty. Although, Gibbs notes, many people will begin to book those hotel rooms in order to attend the Million Woman March, which recently received an official permit for the Saturday of inauguration weekend.

But it wasn’t just a contentious election cycle, Gibbs points out — it’s also been a contentious inaugural cycle. The lack of excitement around town from both democrats and republicans is hard to deny. Philip Dufour, founder and CEO of Dufour & Co. Productions and former social secretary for the Gores, says the silence in the Washington event-planning community is awkward.

“I’ve been here since 1984, and this feels different than any other inaugural event," he says. "There’s just not the energy or the buzz that there’s been in the past — on either side of the aisle.”  

President Donald Trump Inauguration