A practical guide to Washington event planning

What can make the difference between “the event we had last year” and a memory people will be talking about all year? Location!

That’s right, the well-worn saying “Location, location, location” has real truth to it when it comes to making an extraordinary event.

Fortunately, Washington is full of wonderful venues that accommodate all sorts of group sizes, needs and budgets. While venues change and trends come and go, we’ve found that some of the most important considerations remain the same.


Having a clear understanding of the goals, the target audience and the message you want to deliver is integral to making a good venue choice.

For example, our company recently worked with a client on a presidential inauguration event where the client wanted to impart a message of freedom. We recommended the Caring Institute, in the historic home of famed statesman and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. The venue was the perfect platform for the goals of the event.


Budget: how much and where to spend it.

Your budget will of course influence the site-selection process; however, it is important to recognize that Washington’s event-space inventory is so diverse that it can be easy to find an appropriate place — and get a few “add-ons” in the process.

For example, the National Air and Space Museum attracts a high rental fee for private usage — but it also means a full scope of entertainment and activities for your group. Also, the rental fee is considered a charitable donation, which may be tax-deductible for your organization. 

Timing matters.

Peak times in D.C. are usually March through June and September through November. Booking space at other times can often result in off-season discounts.

Programs on Friday and Saturday evenings often attract premium rates and rental fees, whereas events during the week or day programs can often be had for less rental fees.

•  Close in on the guest count.

No matter how beautiful a space is, if you are squashing people into it like sardines that is what they will remember and all the time and energy you put into a great program will be lost.

You have to be familiar with accessibility requirements and all the small but important quirks of the venues. Classic examples are some glorious historic homes and gardens that have been grandfathered in accommodation laws, so they do not have to be accessible for people with disabilities. 

Some venues charge by the number of attendees, so the closer your estimate is to the total the less you need to worry about unexpected overages.

•  Cater to their tastes.

In our experience, it is better to think way ahead about this aspect of the program. For example, if the venue has an exclusive catering contract you will be locked into its pricing and options.

You have to know what caterers can work where, as well as who works best where, and get recommendations on the best fit overall for that venue.

Consider when the event really begins.

The agenda might say “7 p.m. to 9 p.m.”; however, depending on the staging and various other elements, you may need to load in much earlier.  Some venues charge extra for that. Some simply have strict rules about when you can access the building.

Think of the program.

What about the layout? A venue with many small rooms is not suited for an awards ceremony, any more than a venue with strict noise restrictions is suitable for an orchestral performance. 

Is the venue a government building at which the president and other high-ranking government officials have priority or use without advance notice? Are there security concerns for some of your guests?

How far are you prepared to go?

There are great venues in D.C., and many outside of the metropolitan area also, that offer competitive rates.

Like any large city, Washington can be challenging to get around during peak times. You must think about transportation and its impact on your program.

So whether you are planning a fundraiser, an awards dinner or a big reception, following these practical steps will yield predictable and positive results and set your event apart from the rest.

McGregor is president and CEO of CSI, a Capitol Hill event-planning firm. For more information, go to www.csi-dc.com. The CSI staff also contributed to this article.