News & Politics

Inauguration Nation: The Miracle Worker

Welcome to Inauguration Nation, our series where we track the step-by-step process—and madness—of planning and putting on inaugural events. This week, we introduce you to the Marriott Wardman Park’s Chris Otway.

Chris Otway is Wardman Park's events guru. Photograph by Michael Ventura

A group of people are walking through the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel. They’re here to scout the space for a blowout inaugural event. They clutch information packets outlining the hotel’s specs, including floor plans, parking, guest rooms, and outdoor event spaces. They have pencils, cameras, and cell phones in hand. Chris Otway is at the helm to answer their questions.

They’re standing in one of the executive suites, a guest room with living, dining, and meeting spaces.

“Do you know the square-footage of this room?” a man asks.

“About 600,” Otway replies.

“Are all the rooms the same size?” another chimes in.

“No, this is the smallest.”

“What about tissues?” says the first man. “I didn’t see any in the bathroom. We’ll need tissues.”

“I’ll check on that for you,” Otway replies as he jots something in his notebook.

This is a typical day for Otway. He’s the Wardman Park’s director of sales and catering. His job is to bag big-ticket events for the hotel, and that means being able to answer every question and assuage every concern a client might have—right down to tissues.

Otway’s clients are about as diverse as they come: He works with trade associations, nonprofit organizations, the US government, and foreign diplomats. He’s the point person for event inquiries from the White House.

Right now, he’s in the throes of negotiating contracts for inaugural events. He hopes to book back-to-back parties to fill the two days before the inauguration. Those events will include breakfasts, black-tie VIP receptions, and, most important, the hot-ticket events we told you about last week. He anticipates hosting a prayer breakfast on the day of the inauguration, and he’s holding space for one of the official inaugural balls. “It’s well-rehearsed chaos,” he says.

Otway plans about 100 events a year at the hotel, 30 of which he classifies as “very high-profile,” meaning a president, foreign diplomat, or celebrity is among the guests. He’s been in event planning for 15 of his 32 years with the Marriott company. Next year’s inaugural will be his fourth.

Until this week, Otway’s been in a wait-and-see pattern in terms of inaugural-event planning. With this election coming down to the wire, none of his clients were willing to book until they knew for sure who’d win.

“We were concerned because we needed to make sure we’d have vendors available,” he says. “Luckily, all the other venues I talked to were in the same boat.”

With the election decided, Otway’s event planning is steadily gaining speed. The day after the election, he e-mailed us to say his phone was already ringing off the hook.

Otway’s not surprised. Based on the number of Obama-related inquiries he received before the election, he expects to plan one of the most sought-after events of the inaugural season. He can’t give details until the ink is dry on the contract, but he assures us that major celebrity appearances are not out of the question.

With only 74 days until the inauguration and with the bulk of the planning still to tackle, does Otway feel the crunch?

“Seventy-four days is a lifetime in catering,” he says. “We work miracles sometimes.”

Inauguration Nation: The Ball’s Already Rolling
The Insider: Christopher Otway

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