May 22, 2019 by zkipster Editorial Team

Sparking Change Through Events: The Washington DC Edition

A great event is more than the sum of its parts, and doubtless sticks in the hearts and minds of your guests. But what’s the recipe for crafting events that go beyond creating memories and spark real change?

In our new Sparking Change series, produced in partnership with BizBash, we’re exploring the nuances of this question and the methods top event planners use to solve it.

Each installation explores a city known for its impactful events, through conversations with a select group of people behind some of the best events their city has to offer. First stop, Washington DC: a city where special events drive impact that can affect the whole world.

We talked to 5 event professionals doing work ranging from the highest level of diplomatic events to private occasions with star-studded VIP guest lists, and they generously shared a wealth of insights that can apply to events everywhere.

Natalie Jones | Meridian House

Hosting World Leaders from the White House to Meridian House

For events professionals, putting on a function can feel stressful when you’ve got a lot of stakeholders to answer to — your guests, your clients, your boss. But what about when those people are the Secretary of State, Vice President, and President of the United States?

“It was, I think, the most incredible opportunity of my life to be able to serve the United States and represent the United States,” says Natalie Jones, former Deputy Chief of Protocol for the U.S. State Department, and now the Senior Vice President of External Affairs at the Meridian International Center. “Every single program and event that we hosted was representative of the United States. No pressure at all.”

Jones has spent her career under that pressure. “An event for us could be anything from a 500 person summit to a one-on-one bilateral meeting, and each one was just as important,” she says. “And each one is leading toward some sort of change.” But even if your event is a little more low key than an international summit, Natalie has some tips to share on how good preparation — and a focus on the details — can keep your event running smoothly.

Photo: Stephen Bobb, courtesy of Meridian International Center

Create chemistry through small touches

Though Natalie created events big and small during her tenure at the State Department, there was one type that was in a league of its own: “Summits were the Superbowl of diplomacy.”

“Imagine just having an event literally with 80 heads of state, with 80 different needs, trying to take into account how do we represent the United States, but also being very cognizant of our guests’ needs and what their preferences are,” Natalie says. Keeping track of everything from who was coming from what time zone to whether a head of state preferred coffee or tea fell onto her plate.

But these seemingly small details made a big difference. “At the end of the day, we wanted to make sure that they were completely comfortable and they felt completely respected,” Natalie says. “And I think that honestly helps our President, our Vice President, or Secretary when they’re having those tough conversations.”

When leaders feel that level of respect in the details of their experience, there can be a trickle down effect in the meeting room. “I think we’re giving permission for the chemistry to work better,” Natalie says. “What are the small things that we can do to show that our boss was thinking about our guests again, whether through what we served them, the gift that we gave them, the entertainment that we presented. There are these small things that leaders and delegations and their staff pick up on.”

And that feeling is palpable, according to Natalie. “You can tell at the end of the visit when those leaders were going back on their planes, they are just so thankful. Whether it was establishing that relationship, whether they came to an agreement on an issue — you could tell that they felt like they moved the ball forward.”

An event for us could be anything from a 500 person summit to a one-on-one bilateral meeting, and each one was just as important. And each one is leading toward some sort of change.

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Do your homework

Knowing which small touches are important can only come from a deep dive — a very deep dive. Natalie notes, “Every single leader that came through, we would research their background, what their interests were, what were things that could really spark, wow.”

A significant amount of research was also devoted to figuring out how to best represent the United States. “How do we showcase the best of America? How do we highlight American craftsmen and women? How do we showcase American materials?” For a gift for French President François Hollande, that meant using the wood of a magnolia tree from White House grounds in a table designed by a furniture maker from President Obama’s hometown of Chicago to symbolize the cooperation between the two nations.

And an important part of the research process was understanding who to talk to. “Every time a leader was in the U.S. where there was another summit or treaty, we had to be experts on the topic and we had to kind of create a small kitchen cabinet each time,” Natalie says.

The key, according to Natalie, is knowing which sources to trust and figuring out how to reconcile any information that differs. “You need to know who has the best information,” she notes.

Luckily, the team found a universal truth when it came to doing their homework: go as close to the source as possible. Jones reflects that aides were a huge resource when preparing for such visits. “When sparking change, the people closest to the human side of power become the new barometer.”

Photo: Chuck Kennedy, courtesy of Meridian International Center

Change happens at the human level

In both her roles at the White House and Meridian International Center, a focus on humanity guides Natalie’s work. In terms of the events that she works on at Meridian House, she says, “We believe that more perspectives lead to better policy. We’ve become this powerful convener of connecting the diplomatic community with the U.S. government and the private sector because we believe that there are gaps that exist between those three communities, and every week we’re working on events and programs to help accelerate this collaboration.”

That sometimes means planning events that get people out of their comfort zone. “People gravitate towards what’s comfortable to them and what they know. And I think it takes an event to be the catalyst for bringing people together that maybe normally wouldn’t meet,” Natalie notes.

The best measure of success for Natalie? Getting emails the next day asking for contact information. “If you can have people who walk away from a program and just say, let’s meet, let’s work on that, let’s move that issue forward — that’s a success for us.”


Want to hear more from Natalie? Listen to her full podcast interview with David Adler from BizBash and Alex Carter from zkipster.

Andre Wells | Events by Andre Wells

Making Everyone Feel Like a VIP in a World of Stars

Whether it’s a red carpet premiere, wedding, or high society gala, André Wells has seen it all. The Founder of Events by André Wells is one of the most sought after event planners in the country, working with clients from media companies like Disney, BET, and CNN to institutions like The National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Smithsonian to celebrities like Stevie Wonder.

As an industry tastemaker, André has experience creating the kinds of events that move the ball forward, so we sat down with him as part of our Sparking Change series to pick his brain on how to create an event that has an impact long after the night is over.

There is no dress rehearsal

It’s important to remember that you only have one shot at creating a successful event, André reminds us. “We get one opportunity. I want to know what is the goal, what are we walking away with, and how do I do that in our hour, two hours, four hours?” He continues, “Once you get there, you have a captive audience. So, if you don’t use your time wisely, it’s going to be such a waste.”

That means thinking through the little details of the event way beforehand — starting with curating the guest list. When you have a strong sense of the narrative of the event you’re putting on, the invite list can be used as a tool to spread your message. Figuring out the right people to have in the room is the first step in making sure your event packs a punch in terms of creating lasting change.

“You have a captive audience,” says André. “You can’t give them too much information because you’re going to lose them — they’re going to tune out on you. I always tell my clients, it needs to be dynamic while you have their attention.”

I think if it’s an event, everyone is a VIP.

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Making it personal makes it stick

One way to keep that attention is to show that you care. “I think if it’s an event, everyone is a VIP,” André declares.

“We recently did an event that had a lot of powerful players, and it was kind of an 11th hour decision, but I said, you know what, we’re going to do a receiving line, and we’re going to welcome each and every one of these people,” André reflects.

That little decision had a big impact. “They were shocked because they weren’t expecting that. People were able to not only shake hands, take a photo with these people, but then they were also actually able to go out and spread the word and show that,” André says. “And it brought a lot of feedback to the event.”

Creating memories like that can help put people in the right frame of mind and keep them thinking about your event and cause long after the night is over. “I think people want to feel connected,” Wells notes. “People want to feel comfortable. Just like a lot of companies are dressing down the CEO and everyone is working in an open environment where you can see, touch, and feel.”

“Everyone should be able to touch, feel connected,” he continues. “Especially if it’s something that’s going to be an annual event, because you want to make sure you’re able to get that audience that following year and build.”

Break your message down to create an impact

Another way to build is to think carefully about what message you’re sending to guests, André shares. “They won’t change if you hammer them over the head, just like you tell a child, I told you to clean up your room, clean up your room, clean up your room. But if you send the subtle messages, eventually it sinks in.”

At a recent event, Knock Out Abuse, a benefit for victims of domestic violence, the team did just that. “We decided we need to do something that really appealed to the masses, and what would that be?”

The angle they chose was helping everyone understand what their contribution could do, no matter how big or small. During the live auction portion of the night, the auctioneer listed off what different contributions would mean for the cause. “This is what $500 can do. This is what $100 does. This is what $5 is,” André explains. “This is so people can really see. It really helps, and this gives everyone an opportunity to feel like they’re helping.”

And that can help spark change long after the event is over. “What I’ve seen for myself is people like being included. It’s amazing how much money you raise with that and how much people feel like they’re part of the community and connected,” André says. “People don’t tune out if you make them feel good. They may not remember the flowers. It’s how you made them feel. People remember that.”


Want to hear more from André? Listen to his full podcast interview with David Adler from BizBash and Alex Carter from zkipster.

Tammy Haddad | Haddad Media

Bringing TV Producer Charisma to Special Events

Tammy Haddad is the consummate Washington insider — so it’s no surprise that one of her earliest secrets for success was perfected while attending event after event. “How to hold my plate and my wine glass in the same hand at the same time, so that you can shake hands,” Tammy says. “These are critical things to know to be successful, right?”

And that little trick has come in handy, as Tammy’s attended many more events over the years — and run more than a few herself. A veteran producer of shows such as Hardball with Chris Matthews, Larry King Live, and the Today Show, Tammy has worked for over 25 years on the kinds of programs that make an impact. Since 2007, she’s been the President and CEO of Haddad Media, which has produced high profile multimedia events for clients like The Washington Post, HBO, Politico, Google, and more. Tammy sat down to give her best advice on using powerful personalities to create high-impact events — and how to keep the ball rolling after.

Photo: Bruce Boyajian, courtesy of Haddad Media

Cultivate good energy

Curating a guest list is at the top of Haddad’s list for pulling off a successful event. When it comes to figuring out who to invite, she takes a page from her TV producer handbook. “Who do you think is the number one guest on a TV show — meaning if they’re on your show, you’ll get high ratings?” The answer? Not Barack Obama or Donald Trump, but Bill Maher. “I’ll tell you why. Something always happens when Bill Maher is on a show. He’ll say something outrageous, but it’s fascinating. He has an aura. He captures you. You don’t even have to like him. But I’m telling you, the ratings go up.” The energy that such a guest generates can be palpable in the room.

The element of surprise shouldn’t be underestimated, Tammy advises. “You want people who are going to bring different kinds of things to the table. I know I always hate when I go to an event and I’m seated with all the people I’ve known forever. Or like you go to a wedding with your family and they seat you with your family. Hey, I’ve been with these people for many years. You know, bring in some other people or mix it up a bit.”

And Tammy also believes that it’s on the organizers to figure out how to make all the personalities mesh. “You’ve got to know who’s in the room. Your hosts need to do a little work. Whoever your host is or if you are the host, you have to know who’s there. You have to know who’s going to play.”

Lead the way yourself

A key component of keeping up the energy you’ve worked so hard to create? Making sure you yourself get involved. “First of all, I don’t think you should go anywhere unless you’re going to be a participant in the conversation. Whatever the conversation is, if you’re going to show up, be a good guest or don’t show up at all,” Tammy says.

Any successful event professional has to enjoy getting in on the action. According to Tammy, “You have to make a decision that you’re going to be a collaboration artist. You’re going to give something, and you want to get something from someone else — that you really enjoy mixing it up.”

When you’re really involved, it makes it easier to relate to your guests personally. “You make it connect with something that they’re interested in. In a distracted world, normally, you would think, who doesn’t like to talk about food? Who doesn’t like to talk about politics these days? But you really have to pay attention to the message you’re getting back from people. And I do think that’s the difference,” Tammy says. “You’ve got to look in their eyes, and here’s the other thing — you need to know when it’s not going to go anywhere.”

But how do you get attendees to care? “I don’t think you can. I think they’ve got to, they’ve got to want it.” But Tammy is quick to clarify: “I do think there’s a chance, because why would you walk in the door if you didn’t want to accomplish something in the room?”

You have to make a decision that you’re going to be a collaboration artist.

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Find the story — and keep it moving

And figuring it out comes down to determining what story you’re telling — and making sure that you tell that story efficiently. “I’m a TV producer. I still think I’m producing Larry King Live or the Today Show where you have a little of this, a little of that. You know, the Today Show, in five minutes, it’s going to be something else. Move it along.”

Going the extra mile is essential to continue sparking change long after your event ends, and putting in the effort upfront can pay off in spades. “I think that there’s a story in everything and your job is to find it. And if you can’t figure it out, then you probably [shouldn’t be doing] the event.”

The narrative of the event shouldn’t end when the lights go off in the ballroom, either — utilizing your media connections to keep the story alive is key. “If you have an event and you want to tell the world about it, it doesn’t stop at the end when you clink glasses and hang out and go to the next party,” Tammy says.


Want to hear more from Tammy? Listen to her full podcast interview with David Adler from BizBash and Alex Carter from zkipster.

Ron Bracco | Hargrove

Designing Environments for Events that Make History

In the event industry, sometimes the occasion is an intimate affair and sometimes it’s a high profile gala, but it’s hard to imagine designing something with more ceremony and spectacle than the US presidential inauguration — and not just one inauguration, but every single one, Republican or Democrat, going all the way back to Harry Truman’s in 1949. But that’s exactly what Hargrove, a family run business based out of Maryland, has made its name on.

Vice President of Events Ron Bracco is helping to lead the charge, from working on events for clients like Microsoft and Sony to setting the stage for NATO summits and the Democratic National Convention. Throughout his career, Ron has worked to build environments for events that make an impact — and he’s got some tips for how to create event spaces that help foster and energize change.

Photo: FotoBriceno, courtesy of Hargrove

Cultivate a reputation that inspires trust

The reputation of Hargrove precedes itself, according to Ron. “People knew Mr. Hargrove and knew that he would be the person who would answer the question and provide that service.” That’s a value that has remained, decades later. “We’ve always been there for our clients,” Ron says.

Developing a sterling reputation inspires clients and partners to trust you and will helps to reduce compromise and miscommunication. “Every one of us has always been there for our clients, fulfilling the needs, asking the questions, making sure that their objectives are met,” Ron says.

That also means being flexible. While Hargrove’s events have put on a show since the 1940s, the planning behind them has adapted with changing times and new opportunities. “We are a company of protocol and prestige and official pomp and circumstance. But we’re also an innovative company that thinks in terms of what our clients need and the ever-changing industry and the evolution of engagement.”

There’s a higher message in how we design a piece. And it was all driven by asking, what do we want to accomplish?

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Set a clear shared timeline

When working with large and complex events, there’s a frequent danger of scope creep, and setting a clear plan of action early helps to ensure that every outcome is better thought through, developed, and realized.

At the outset of each project, Bracco’s first step is always to get organized and make a timeline. “The very first summit we did in 2009, there were roughly about three months to actually plan that event.”

That summit was the G20 Summit in Pittsburgh. “90 days for a large scale summit — you can pull it off in 90 days. We’ve done in less, but that’s what happens ideally,” Ron says.

No matter the timeframe, the steps forward are clear for Ron and his team. “Day One is always a development of the scope of the work, flushing out a floor plan, understanding the movements of the press and the leaders, and understanding the politics behind the placement of everything.”

Planning aside, it is also important to remain adaptable throughout the process. “Generally, you’re presenting to the stakeholders within the first two weeks a designed concept, first renderings, and then it’s moving all throughout the process,” Ron notes. But that’s often far from the final idea. Although a plan at the outset is key, flexibility is perhaps even more essential.

Photo: FotoBriceno, courtesy of Hargrove

Understand what makes each event unique

That dexterity allows for the space to make the most of each specific event, and to highlight what makes it special. “In the case of the 2009 Pittsburgh summit, it was really one of the first big summits we had done in a few years, and it was the first time that we weren’t the general contractor providing all those services. So, there was a little bit of ramping up, getting a grasp on the work, chartering new ground in a lot of ways,” Ron reflects.

The learning curve for the summit was steep. “It was constant logistics, constant questions, constant checking out. We would actually build the set in our facility and have the White House and the State Department come out and actually see the other sets, understand how the principals would move through it.”

Focus on details helped contribute to sparking real change. “It’s creating the environment that opened up dialogue. And so often, a designer might lean towards the cool, kind of modern look or whatever it is. But if you can design a space that actually gives a sense of where you are in the environment, what’s the bigger purpose, what’s the message?” Ron notes, “When we approached the design, we don’t think about pieces and parts, we like to think from the perspective of what we’re creating from a feeling aspect, from an impact certainly.”

“There’s a higher message in how we design a piece. And it was all driven by asking, what do we want to accomplish?”

For the team working on the G20 event in Pittsburgh, the desire to be as sustainable as possible was a driving force. “We built a table that was all recycled materials. The furniture that was rented for that particular event was all made with an eye on ecological and green methods. So, those kinds of messages carried through for everything that we did.” says Ron.


Want to hear more from Ron? Listen to his full podcast interview with David Adler from BizBash and Alex Carter from zkipster.

Kris Coratti | Washington Post

Transforming a Legacy Media Organization into a Trailblazer for Events

For Kristine Coratti Kelly, the Washington Post is more than just a newspaper: “We really think of ourselves as a national and international media brand, which is different than a few years ago.”

That change began in 2016, when Kris started as Vice President of Events and Communication, helping to run Washington Post Live, an event series that brings together the bold names you know and the emerging voices critical to understanding the national and international issues we face today. Kris shares her top advice for putting on events that spark dialogue on the most pressing global concerns of our time.

Don’t be afraid to try something new

Creating a live, in depth journalistic experience — as opposed to doing more standard events — was at the top of Kris’ agenda when she began the job. “My first goal was to really make them think about Washington Post Live as another news platform,” Kris notes. “Just like there are all these different ways that our content lives or that people get our content, that live platform could be a powerful one.”

As the Washington Post Live team began to conceptualize what their events would look like, Kris realized tapping into their main resource would be key: the reporters. “If you don’t have that buy in from the newsroom, if you can’t utilize the power of your Pulitzer Prize winning reporters, then I didn’t feel like we could win without them,” Kris says

The audiences, the chance to see the behind the scenes angle reporting was an exciting opportunity that set the Post’s events apart from the average panel discussion. “They want to feel like they’re in the room for this incredible reporting that they read on our pages every day,” says Kris. “When people realize, oh, wow, the interview that normally happens over the phone that I read sound bites from — I can actually see the whole thing unfold in front of me. That’s a really exciting prospect.”

Harness your strengths

Making use of the power of the journalism and knowing the excitement that would build inside the Post’s events, Kris was also thoughtful about the potential to reach a broader audience. “We have this incredible digital platform. It would be mind boggling if we didn’t take advantage of it,” she says.

That means knowing who to invite — and who will spread your message. “We really curate the audience because we want them to be relevant to the topic that we’re discussing,” Kris says. “We can create an atmosphere where they’re talking, they’re meeting each other, they’re getting excited so that in the room, they’re tweeting about it to an audience who’s going to follow them because they care about the topic that’s happening on stage.”

A recent event on criminal justice reform proved the benefit of having a curated audience, and helped to spread the reach of the Post’s event even farther. “We had all these experts and the right people in the room who people follow when they want to learn about a topic,” Kris explains. “They’re tweeting. And Kim Kardashian West ended up retweeting someone who was actually inside our event.”

“That just blew up the impressions on social. But that’s sort of the idea — that you utilize all of these audiences to spread the journalism you’re creating.”

Allow space for change to happen

Finally, Kris highlights the importance of really thinking through the physical space of your event. “My event person who oversees our whole logistics group came up to me and she said, you know, I feel like the way we’re set up, it gives people too much space to find these little niches and not interact,” she recalls.

“The second we changed that, it was like we were putting on different events,” Kris notes. Thinking about creating opportunities for conversation completely changed the way the Post’s events unfolded, and changed Kris’ overall approach.

“I was focused on content,” she says. “And then I realized, oh, wow, no, actually, there is a strategic value to thinking about where you’re putting these things.”

We have this incredible digital platform. It would be mind boggling if we didn’t take advantage of it.

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Want to hear more from Kris? Listen to her full podcast interview with David Adler from BizBash.