Fraught with inconceivable levels of caution and concern for public health and safety, the inauguration of America’s 46th president was a colossal feat of planning and production. As our stressed-out, anxious nation came together to watch, the stalwart members of CANVAS were taking notes.
For the January 21 edition of CANVAS Conversations, a group of more than 20 executive-level event professionals shared observations and emotions from this extraordinarily irregular and thoroughly inspiring event.
- Congratulations to the Presidential Inaugural Committee (PIC). Already faced with the daunting and peculiar task of staging a unifying, joyful event amid the relentlessly surging pandemic, the PIC was left with exactly two weeks to start all over. After the storming of the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021, 25,000 National Guard members were deployed to ensure the safety and security of everyone in attendance—setting the event in a grim, military-occupied Washington, D.C.
- Oh, how we loved the “field of flags”—nearly 200,000 of them—representing those who could not attend due to Covid-19 restrictions and security concerns. This installation marked the moment with elegant and patriotic symbolism that will endure in pictures for generations.
- Although it appeared sparsely attended, the event had a global audience—watching on TV and fully engaged online. Call it 2021’s biggest omnichannel digital event…so far. The official event site, bideninaugural.org, featured several pages of content, some of which included “Get Involved,” “Schedule,” and “Day of Service.” The “Get Involved” page offered instructions on hosting a virtual watch party and provided a digital swag bag containing coloring pages, social media graphics, printable photo booth props and a special inauguration playlist. These elements created a unique opportunity for at-home viewers to participate in the event and could be adopted for any virtual or hybrid event. The platform also showcased a store where attendees could purchase branded items including champagne flutes, buttons and T-shirts. CANVAS members took note that this was a creative way to garner event sponsor ROI.
- During the live ceremony, all seats were socially distanced, and attendees were required to wear masks unless presenting. A safety officer was stationed on stage to clean the podium between speakers, and ushers released the crowd in small sections to maintain safe distances.
- Diversity, equity and inclusion were at the forefront of the ceremony, virtual parade, and primetime special. The Pledge of Allegiance was delivered by an American Sign Language interpreter who recited the pledge verbally and in sign language. When asking the crowd to stand, the language used was, “Please stand if you can.” For event professionals, this was a blueprint on presentation inclusivity.
- The diverse lineup of artists, including Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, and Garth Brooks, performed classic Americana ballads, many of which took on distinct meaning in these historic circumstances. The wide range of talent across genres, was a smart strategy to attract a diverse audience and underscore the event’s optimistic theme, “America United.”
- A spellbinding supernova arrived with the appearance of the nation’s first-ever youth poet laureate, Amanda Gorman, whose delivery of the poem she wrote for the occasion instantly earned her a forever home in our collective consciousness.
- The “Parade Across America” was a welcome celebration of culture, and each prerecorded video was scheduled to keep the show flow engaging. Lower thirds were utilized throughout to provide titles and descriptions of the prerecorded video, offering another moment of accessibility.
- Inauguration Day ended with the “Celebrating America” Primetime Special. Hosted by Tom Hanks, the 90-minute program featured diverse talent from artists like Foo Fighters, Bruce Springsteen, and Justin Timberlake, among others. The broadcast was candid with its use of the “live” badge in the lower corner of the screen to identify live performances. The pre-recorded numbers favored heavy design, choreography, and music video-level production values over the more typical illusion of “live” remote concert performance.
- As ever, the emotional impact of the event was found in content. Even in these once-in-our-lifetime circumstances—and even with an audience eager to take in all the patriotic pageantry and celebration it could find—screen fatigue persists. The program had to be powerful and inspirational to hold the attention of its millions of viewers. And so, it was. From Kamala Harris taking the oath as the first female, first Black, and first South Asian vice president, to Joe Biden repeating his passionate pledge to be a “president for all Americans,” the messages of unity and hope were ever-present throughout the day and into the evening, up through the final moments in which a zillion fireworks lit up the night sky.
When it was over, our nation—and event planners everywhere—exhaled.
Cindy Brewer is founding principal of CANVAS, a new way to network. Featured photo from Biden Inaugural Committee.