More Hollywood Glitz Comes to the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner

We probe the arrival of the “gifting suite.”

By: Carol Ross Joynt

When we heard there would be a “gifting suite” at the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, we were intrigued. Over the years, the dinner has become more of a Hollywood event rather than one about Washington and reporters, and the addition of a gifting suite would complete the transformation. These posh emporiums of free stuff are routine at awards programs such as the Oscars and Golden Globes and films festivals such as Sundance. But Washington? There’s the occasional bag of swag after a dinner, but no lounges packed with a smorgasbord of watches, jewelry, trip offers, beauty products, and electronics—and they certainly have not been part of any media dinners we know of. Particularly because the quid pro quo is that when a guest chooses an item at the suite, the guest is then expected to give the item a verbal or photographic endorsement. Can reporters do that?

The actual invitation to the gifting suite is worded carefully. “Gifting” is nowhere to be seen. The name of the suite’s host, Creative Coalition, appears in the middle, not at the top. The text begins: “GBK invites you to pay it forward for the arts.” The gifting suite is called the Thank You Lounge. And there are conscience-mollifying caveats. Invited guests can, if they want, donate their chosen gifts to charity, and a donation will be made in each guest’s name to the Creative Coalition Arts Advocacy Program.

While the Creative Coalition is in charge of the list of invitees, the event is being produced by GBK, a Los Angeles-based group that specializes in this sort of thing. GBK provides many services, but the service it lists first is “celebrity gifting.” At the bottom of her e-mail, Julia Rimes, GBK’s talent coordinator and senior account executive, notes “upcoming events” as “the Creative Coalition White House Correspondence [sic] weekend gift lounge” and, soon after, the Cannes Film Festival. The two seem to have little in common—save the celebrity presence.

It’s worth a visit to GBK’s website to view the “gifting suites” video, complete with TCC president Tim Daley autographing what appears to be a sauna, Malin Akerman attesting to the “great products,” William Shatner “endorsing” a bed, and Jaime Pressly, giggling, “I’ve had an amazing time, and I’m leaving with a 500-pound bag and a couple of trips.” In frame after frame, it’s one celebrity after another, smiling and posing with products. Try to imagine an esteemed White House correspondent in the same role.

The invitation includes logos from the St. Regis hotel in Bora Bora; Jorg Gray watchmakers, which specialize in a “Secret Service watch,” so called because the company says President Obama’s security detail gave him such a watch; Lovelinks by Aagaard, a jewelry maker; Eye Walker Elements, a perfumery; and Made by Survivors, a jewelry company that describes itself as an “international nonprofit organization which employes and educates survivors of slavery and other human rights abuses.”

But no matter how many clever words or mind-easing qualifiers, a gifting suite is still a gifting suite. So we wondered: Is the Washington version just for celebrities, or for journalists, as well?

We reached out to Rimes at GBK, asking for a list of Washington people who have been invited to visit the Thank You Lounge. Her response was enigmatic. “Those that were invited were those attending the [White House] Correspondents’ Dinner to be ‘gifted’ . . . Any respectful news outlet to ‘cover’ the event.” We wrote back asking for clarification of whether only actors and actresses were invited or whether the list also includes journalists. “It definitely includes journalists attending the dinner,” she replied.

Even if you receive an invitation, it does not reveal the location of the gifting suite. It gives the dates—April 26 from 1 to 6:30 PM and April 27 from 10 AM to 4 PM—but the intensely guarded address, we were told, is “provided upon RSVP.” And an RSVP only elicits an assurance of the address details at some point in the future.

It’s been a busy week at the White House and tough to track down White House correspondents who are focused on the WHCA dinner. Ed Henry, the organization’s president, did not respond to e-mails. A regular in the White House press room seemed completely befuddled by the idea. “They’re doing what? A gift suite?” And yet another longtime White House correspondent said the gifting suite invitation was received, one of many WHCA-related invitations, but it was also immediately deleted.