Meeting Management

How the D.C. Convention Center Planned a 5,000-Person Dinner Practically Overnight

The D.C. convention center was maxed out with Delta Sigma Theta’s annual meeting. How could it plan practically overnight to host an additional 5,000-person dinner for the sorority?

Samuel Thomas found out about the impending water-service outage in Prince George’s County, Md, the same way everyone else did – on the local news. And as the senior vice president and general manager for conventions and meetings at Events DC, which runs Washington, D.C.’s Walter E. Washington Convention Center, he knew what kind of ripple effect it might have.

Delta Sigma Theta, the largest African-American sorority in the world, was holding its hundredth-anniversary National Convention at Walter E. Washington on July 11-17, drawing more than 45,000 attendees, with a sizable contingent staying at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in Prince George’s County. On Monday night, July 15, a damaged water main led county officials to announce they might have to temporarily shut off water service to parts of the county – including the Gaylord National, which on Wednesday night was slated to host a 5,000-person dinner for Delta Sigma Theta.

First thing Tuesday morning, Thomas met with Delta Sigma Theta staff at their show office in Walter E. Washington. At that point, everything seemed fine, but “about 1 p.m. we started getting word that the Gaylord was contemplating shutting down on Wednesday, the night of the dinner,” Thomas said. “From that point, one o’clock on, it just became a blur, because all of us had to sit down – that included our in-house caterer, Center-plate, my staff, and show management for Delta Sigma Theta.”

The goal was to accommodate the 5,000-person dinner at Walter E. Washington, but the center was already maxed out with sorority programs all day Wednesday, including opening and closing plenary sessions for 14,000 attendees and a 13,500-person plated dinner. Eventually, at 9:30 p.m. on Tuesday, the teams worked out a solution: When Wednesday’s first plenary was over, the convention center would break down about half the room and reset it for a high-end reception – in lieu of the formal 5,000-person dinner.

“And everything had to start from scratch,” Thomas said. “For an event that size, we would begin the operational process at least three months out in terms of arranging staff, ordering food, and so on.” Centerplate called in 125 additional servers and bartenders and 25 cooks, along with two executive chefs, from Dallas and New York, each of whom brought a sous chef, Thomas said, “because our team was already maxed out, knowing we had to serve 13,500 for a sit-down dinner that night.”

There was also the question of what to do with attendees who wouldn’t be able to stay at the Gaylord National. “Not only were they now not able to have their gala there,” said Elliott Ferguson, president and CEO of Destination DC, “but they also had to physically move out of the hotel.” Destination DC and its partners helped place them at hotels throughout the city and in Virginia.

Everything went off “without a hitch,” said Gregory O’Dell, president and CEO of Events DC. “So much so that the sorority is looking to change their [dinner] format [to a reception] because they enjoyed that format.”

Christopher Durso

Christopher Durso formerly was executive editor of Convene.