The federal government shutdown comes at one of the busiest times of year for DC’s event planners and caterers, and they are feeling the pain from a combination of lost business and the scramble to find alternate event venues. “We’re done until further notice,” says Susan Lacz, CEO of Ridgewells, which has the exclusive contract for events on the House side of the Capitol. “We just lost six figures’ worth of business on the Hill today alone.”
Any event planned for Smithsonian buildings also has to find a new place to party. Other federal buildings, such as the Kennedy Center, are a mix of government and private money. “We did have something for tonight at the Archives,” says Lacz. “Now they are doing it at their offices.”
Caterers are feeling perhaps more urgency than other industries. Coming between Congress’s August recess and the holidays, October is a robust time for official entertaining. Design Cuisine has approximately 15 events per night on the books for the month, according to co-owner Bill Homan. “I’m fine, but there is a chaos,” he says.
Mark Michael, CEO at Occasions Caterers, describes his company as being in “triage” mode for must-do events that now have to move to non-federally funded facilities. “So far, five cancellations and numerous events are in jeopardy if the shutdown extends beyond Friday,” Michael e-mailed.
The hosts and the caterers aren’t the only ones affected—food and equipment suppliers, lighting specialists, florists, musicians, valet parking companies, and other support staff are as well.
Homan says he learned some important lessons from the last big shutdown in 1995 and ’96, which lasted 21 days. “It was the same situation, where we had to move people around. This time, we started talking to our customers early. Now those people are calling and saying, ‘Thank God.’” He did his homework, he says, and got this week relatively under control, but “things happening beyond this week have people concerned.”
Caterers face a particular dilemma: Often the only alternative spaces available are hotels, which then handle the catering. Homan says that’s a big consequence of the shutdown, but “if I had to hand someone off to a hotel I would, if there is no place else available. The client comes first.” He says popular alternative venues are the Mellon Auditorium, Union Station, and the National Building Museum.
Event planner Carolyn Peachy, with one event planned for a Smithsonian building on October 14, says she’s not panicked—yet. “We will be looking for an alternative site, but also keeping plans in place for it at the respective museum, in case this is over quickly,” she said. Her clients are optimistic, too, she says. “Clients with events in November are not even asking the question.”