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Meet the Vendor
What it takes to Produce a Presidential Inauguration with Steve Kerrigan
by Chris Carver
on January 16, 2017
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

INTRODUCTION
Imagine... it's early November and you've just been chosen to produce the presidential inauguration in 52 days. So, what do you do? Where do you start? Actually, how the hell did you get the job in the first place?

Well, there was no better person to ask, than the individual who was responsible for the last two. Steve Kerrigan not only led the production for President Obama's 09' and 2013 inauguration, he also oversaw the production of the Democratic National Convention for both terms as well. Let's just say, if anyone know's, this is the guy.


Screenshot 2017-01-14 14.57.17.png

Steve is the guy on the right. Photo Cred: The Kerrigan Family Album 

LETS SET THE SCENE
For any production nerd, you could spend hours asking any number of questions when it comes to producing the events surrounding the largest transition of power in the modern world. So... As I prepped for my interview with Steve, my goal was hit on the following points: 

BTW - if there's anything you'd want to ask, add it in the comments and I'll see what I can do. 

Enjoy. I sure did.

Parade The Atlantic.jpg
Photo Cred: AP Photo/Alex Brandon

You ready to jump in Steve?
Absolutely.

Alright, so where did you grow up?
I grew up in central Massachusetts, a little tiny town called Lancaster. 8,000 people now.

Big family, small family?
It was an Irish Catholic family. There were 3 of us born just within 3 years. I was the youngest.

What was 15-year-old Steve like?
Much different than 45-year-old Steve. I was very shy and observant and sort of hesitant to get engaged or raise my hand. That changed soon thereafter.

So at 15, what is hanging on your wall in your room?
Oh gosh. At that age, I shared a room with my brother, so he had a Tony Dorsett poster and I had a Gone With the Wind poster, because I loved that movie. Which was probably an early indication that I was going to come out of the closet when I was 30.

And if your friends were a little tipsy now, how would they describe you?

I hope loyal, fun. Probably a little bit of a pain in the ass.

Since you're not an event producer by trade, how did you get into production?
No I'm not. I sort of stumbled into event production through politics. I was working for Senator Kennedy. I did advance work for Senator Kennedy and by extension a lot of other democrats in the '90s, but it was never a profession. Then we bid to host the 2004 Democratic National Convention in the City of Boston, and through that I got more involved in that process. Then when we won the bid, I eventually became the Chief of Staff for the city side of the bid, so the host committee.

9133696907_fa3f2d3b66_o.jpg
Photo Cred: Kerrigan for Lieutenant Governor website

And how do you even get considered to take on the job of producing the presidential inauguration?
It connects back to that '04 DNC. I was in Chicago at headquarters in 2008, and working in the scheduling and advance office. As you probably remember, we won the election and Al Gore said, “Kerrigan was the Chief of Staff for the convention in '04. He knows this kind of stuff better than we do. Why don't we bring him on?"

That's when I came on to be Chief of Staff for the first inauguration. I was just as surprised as anyone else. All because of that one experience. 

Steve Kerrigan and Joe Biden.jpg
Photo Cred: Kerrigan for Lieutenant Governor website

So, walk me through what you first steps were, when you took the job.
I remember my first 24 hours verrrry well.

We wanted to have a bigger parade than we'd ever had. We wanted to have a big concert on Lincoln Memorial. We wanted to do a National Day of Service and all these Inaugural Balls.

So my thoughts were around what was this roughly that going to cost, and, more importantly, what was our staff structure going to be to accomplish it. I made a goal of 24 hours from day 1, to have a staff structure in place, so that I could have a budget drawn up to give to the department heads so that they knew what they were working with. And, to give to the finance team so they knew what their target was.

That was really the first step, because you can come up with a lot of great plans, but if you don't have the money and the people to do it, it's not going to do you much good.

So my thought process was:

FIRST: Determine what our goals were.
SECOND: Determine how much that's going to cost.
THIRD: Determine what sort of apparatus we need to put in place in order to do that.

JAN10_INAUGURATION_SECURITY_POST01.jpg
Photo Cred: Greg E. Mathieson/REX/Shutterstock

When you were working on those goals, did you have anything to reference from years past?
You have a general understanding of the numbers from past inaugurals. The second inaugural was a lot easier because we could scale up or scale down based on previous budgets. We were also able to look at the public reports of the Bush inaugurals. 

However, now that I've done two, it can be deceiving to look at past numbers (depending on whether it is the first term or second term) because in the second term, you end up hiring a lot more staff because you've got people in the administration who aren't leaving and staff you want to hire later, so you need to put them someplace. Initially I thought, why did George Bush's second have 200 more people than our first? Then I found out why, when we did our second.

How did you break out the core responsibilities?
In the first inauguration we had thirteen senior staff members: Finance Director, Head of events and ceremonies, Director of Media, Director of logistics, Head of communications, Head of talent/entertainment, Housing director, etc.

We looked at the different buckets of needs and built the the senior staff from there. Which having had the convention experience, made things easier for me. The convention is a lot more analogous to the inaugural than a campaign trail, so it's a lot of easier to look at it from that level.

Planning Map High Res.jpg
Photo Cred: Department of Defense (article)


It ended up being the largest planned event in the history of the country. We're the only inaugural to break more than 2 million people. Until this year's Cubs world Series Parade, there's never been a planned public event to accommodate that high a number of people. 

The papal masses that are outdoors are usually under a million people. The largest inaugural until the President Obama was Lyndon Johnson's in 1964 with 1.25 million people.

HOLY CRAP!

One interesting note from a capacity standpoint: the inaugurals used to face the Supreme Court until Ronald Reagan. He wanted it facing west, because he wanted to look toward California. Which was great for us, because it freed up the entire mall to put people on.

Before:
The Mall and Main Stage Planning (Boston.com).jpg

During:
The Mall 2 (The Atlantic).jpg
Photo Cred: Rob Carr/Getty Images

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How big was the team working on the inauguration?
In the first inauguration we had about 450 paid staff. In the second we had close to 700. We had about 17,000-18,000 volunteers. There are also tens of thousands of folks in the military who begin inaugural planning a year before the election, because they're in charge of the inaugural parade and all the military elements with the inauguration.

Over the course of the week, we hired dozens of caterers and other event planners to help with dinners and events. One of the catering companies had 700 or 800 wait-staff alone.

There are also a number of folks who work within the Capitol on the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies. That's a smaller crew, but still a critical part because they build the platform on which the swearing in takes place.

AP Alex Brandon - Inauguration Podium Construction.jpg
Photo Cred: Washington Top News

How did you manage the internal communication?
I believe in a very strong senior staff structure, setting very clear goals and empowering them. I don't believe in micromanaging and getting in the weeds, but I will if I have to. I've been really lucky to have incredibly talented senior staffers.

I believe in having regular senior staff meetings, (preferably daily when it comes to an inaugural), where each person gives an update on the critical top line items that they're dealing with. The senior staff meetings are critical not just for me to hear the information and to give guidance, but for the rest of the team to understand, because if we're moving at lightning breakneck speed the other 23 hours, it's important for folks to hear what other people are doing. Even if it's a 20,000 foot view of things, I think it's critically important that the whole team be on the same page.

Production Schedule (Boston.com).jpg
Photo Cred: The Kerrigan Production Binder - Hopefully this run of show isn't classified.

What was one or two stats that just blew your mind?
The number PORT-O-JOHNS!.

I'm not kidding. And the placement thereof. What we learned from 2009 to 2013 on port-o-johns was critical. I remember flying back into National Airport and they had already placed up the port-o-johns on the mall. It was amazing to see them from a plane, there were thousands and thousands of them. We had them in really long lines, but what we learned was that we needed to break them up and create little squares and put them in different areas for a better experience for everybody. That was a staggering piece for me.

potties2.jpg
What it takes to produce a presidential inauguration you ask: A shit-load of porto potties. Pun intended. 

Secondly in '09, we had no idea what to expect, and we had no deaths and no arrests at an event that had 2.25 million people. Experts tell you, the city of Washington can really only handle about 1.6 million people coming in and out of it on any given day with their mass transit infrastructure. We were holding our breath the entire day. But there's a certain amount of planning, and then there's a certain amount of holding your breath and hoping for the best.

Hooooly Crap!

 

"There's a certain amount of planning, and then there's a certain amount of holding your breath." twitter-128.png  


When it comes to security, are you on a need-to-know basis or are you privy to everything?
That's a good question. I did not have any level of clearance, certainly. We were assigned by the President-elect to create the Presidential Inaugural Committee, so that was given a lot of deference by the Secret Service who is the agency in charge of providing security. There was a Multi-Agency Command Center, or a MACC, that was set up at a location in Washington where all of the different agencies engaged in inaugural planning, all the different security elements, all the different military and operational infrastructure were all there in that one room.

We were given the table in front and they would come to us if there was an issue to determine how to resolve it. They would come to us with any intel on what they heard was going to happen so that we could make as informed a decision as possible on behalf of the President-elect and his family and Vice President-elect.

Command Center Meeting.jpg

Photo Cred: Department of Defense

What is the biggest expense on the overall budget?
Overall, the biggest expense for the entire Inaugural planning would have to be security. That's not something we pay for. The government covers that cost. But to give you a sense, every national convention typically gets about $50 million that’s reimbursable for security. An inaugural is probably a much higher number.

Staff is also a significant expense: Of the $60 million we spent, our staff was probably $9 Million of that. 

VOANews ap_us_inauguration_security_21Jan13-975x650.jpg
Now that's some security. Photo Cred: The Atlantic

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What tips would you give the team responsible for this upcoming inauguration?
That's a very good question.

FIRST: I would say make sure that you think through your staffing structure really, really well. You're always going to have those things you realize in the second week of January. Oh, Christ I was supposed to do this, or we should be doing that, or something would have been added to the schedule. Plan that as best you can. Buffer for it.

SECOND: Be honest about the budget. The finance people, if they're good will raise the money, but you have to be honest with them. A lot of folks come from a campaign and go into something like this. Campaign logic, right, is let's try to save as much money as we can. That should always be I think a smart rule of thumb, but be honest about the budget at the outset. There are 11 weeks from Election Day to Inauguration Day. There's not a lot of time. Including two major holidays. Be honest about it so folks can raise the money as much as possible and as quickly as possible.

THIRD: One thing I told my teams at both inaugurations, and the conventions, but particularly the inaugurations, take time to realize what you're doing. This is the transition of power of the greatest nation on Earth. No matter what your job is on that Inaugural Committee, you're playing a role. I always encourage folks to make sure they pause for a couple seconds on Inauguration Day, because that's probably all they'll have, and realize the role they're playing in that peaceful transfer of power.

"This is the transition of power of the greatest nation on earth." twitter-128.png


It really is one of the most special parts about the United States of America and I encourage folks to remember that while they're doing. I also encouraged my entire staff, and I'll encourage anybody who does inaugurals going forward, that if you can stop and do anything, pause at noon, no matter where you are, even if you're just listening on the radio, and hear the oath of office. It’s something special to behold and to know that you helped make that possible.

Oath rehearsal:
Oath-rehearsal.jpg

Photo Cred: The Atlantic

The Real Thing:
Obama Oath of Office.jpg
Photo Cred: The Atlantic

What were some of the more unique production challenges that you guys faced?
In that first year, we had many more floats than normal, because we were really excited. So in 2013 we scaled back, and we answered the biggest question about the parade, which is, "Why does it always slow down at 15th Street?" It was because it takes the floats a long time to make that turn, and so 2013 we shortened all the floats. So that the turning radius was good so they could keep going and it actually made a world of difference to the inaugural parade. It cut us down. Our parade was done I think in 95 minutes in 2013 because people could approach that turn and just keep going. They didn't have to slow down.

No one had thought to ask that question before. When we finally asked it was like, yeah, I guess we could just shorten the floats.

What was one of those things you just didn’t expect, that caused just a momentary panic?
The second inauguration was about 5 degrees maybe. I don't think I'm much exaggerating. It was really cold that day. I remember going down the parade route about 90 minutes before the President was supposed to go down, because they were going to have the lunch and then come down. No one was in the stands. There was supposed to be about 800,000 people in the stands, and I remember thinking, oh my God, what if nobody comes? I reached out to our parade guy and I said, "What's going on?" He said, "Kerrigan, it's 4 degrees outside. They're not going to sit outside the entire time. They'll be there when they know the parade's starting." They were. It was a huge crowd. That was a bit of a panic.

What's the best piece of career advice you've been given?
My old boss gave me a lot of great advice. One of the things he used to tell me, was to never be afraid to ask a question, never be afraid to raise your hand. Which I think is really important. Particularly in instances like this. You don't want to look like you're not in the know, but a lot of folks don't know.


"Never be afraid to raise your hand." twitter-128.png

 

Secondly, whenever you'd say "It's too hard, I can't do this," my dad used to respond, "If we could put a man on the moon. I'm sure we can do this." I always thought that was great advice, because there is always a way to get it done. If you have a goal, there's a way to accomplish it. 

Inaugural Ball .jpg
Photo Cred: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Parting wisdom?
There's been 57 soon (to be 58) presidential inaugurations in the history of our country. It's something really, really special. I will say this, none of it could get done without event and production professionals. Those of us in politics who are smart enough and have been around it enough, we get that. If you're an event professional involved in this stuff and you feel under appreciated by some of the political people, know that you're holding all the cards in this. You guys are the ones who really make this stuff happen and it couldn't get done without the hard work that a lot of the event professionals do.

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