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President Biden’s Inauguration: Designing Guest Experience in Times of Challenge

Like the rest of the world, my eyes were glued to live coverage on inauguration day. I wasn’t just interested in the current affairs angle, I was also keen to see how one of America’s greatest spectacles would work given the restrictions it had to operate within.

I know this is a serious and important event, by no means am I trivialising it, but I know there is an opportunity for learning everywhere, even at a Presidential event. This isn’t a comment on the politics of the day – just the event itself. So, let’s take a closer look at the inauguration as a guest experience and see what lessons there are for us to apply to events and attractions. 

Tony Allen, President of Delaware State University, and Head of the Biden Inauguration Committee, gave an insightful interview on CNN the morning of the event. He said that the restrictions and challenges were seen by him and his team as opportunities to create something new, an event that was purposefully different from the ones that had gone before.

In fact, Tony Allen said that more ideas “opened up because of the restrictions”. So how does that work? Surely limitations stop our creative flow right? Wrong.

Our creative brains love to solve puzzles, and really that’s all restrictions, challenges and limitations are, puzzles to be solved. Sometimes creativity thrives with rules and regulations, think of music for example.

So, what were the biggest challenges of the day and how were they so cleverly designed out?

Narrative

Although the message was a political and democratic one, President Biden made it clear that US citizens were now writing their own American Story. He referred to it explicitly in his speech, which goes to show the power of narrative-led design. This event was planned to maximise the patriotism, credibility and inclusivity of the President’s address.

Photo: Chicago Suntimes

Tony Allen explained that the huge American flag was the first thing the president would see. It was his reason for being there, speaking to the people as the 46th President, and that’s exactly why it was designed that way.

This feeling of American hope and pride ran through both the physical event and the President’s speech, where he called on all, no matter background or beliefs, to join together to overcome the country’s challenges. 

Performers and speakers carried this narrative through in their work with a particularly poignant moment when Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman ended her recital with “…for there is always light. If only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.” Gorman herself had said this poem was about a ‘new chapter’ for the US and describes herself as a storyteller.

We know people need narrative to unify and give meaning to their experience. This was a great example of how that should be done.

Operations

There were huge operational issues to deal with on inauguration day. Social distancing was evident as was mask wearing. The team made them part of the event design, with seating placed almost in a rhythmical visual way, which flowed through into the design for the 200,000 American flags planted to represent people who could not attend.

The amphitheatre outside the Capitol added an inclusive feeling this time round, it didn’t feel like them and us, because there was no crowd trying to look in. Instead, I felt as though I were almost invited in to be a part of a more intimate setting. My attention didn’t have to be split between crowd coverage and the speakers, I could simply focus.

Although the design was necessarily severe and formal, the space never felt empty. The space felt full of atmosphere and energy. The design for filling the space was masterful.

Photo Credit: Yahoo

Elevation

I was waiting for the grand finale, thinking, how can we get the big moment when there’s no real crowd, when everything is restricted? Throughout the day the production of the event had used rhythm and pace to build us up, hold us in quiet reflection, celebrate and solemnise. Despite being impressed with how the day had gone I had to admit to a small worry for the wow moment… 

Enter Katy Perry. A performer known for her larger-than-life performances and style, yet this time the pure and simple staging and musical arrangement of ‘Firework’ was beautifully aligned to the feeling of the whole event.

It didn’t matter that the spectacular fireworks were distant, because Katy Perry acted as the bridge, even seeming to hold them in her hand. I know they were designed to be seen by millions of at home viewers, working in the frame of the camera and with the Washington landscape. Even on a small screen the firework finale elevated me to a joyful place and. And when we are elevated we do incredible things.

Photo Credit: BBC

Whatever your politics, there is a value to the inauguration beyond the obvious. Learning how we connect to people when we have something important to say, when we are restricted, when we are varied, is incredibly powerful for us in the attractions industry. After all, isn’t that what we’re trying to do on a daily basis?

Kelly
Herrick

I work on commercial and creative strategies for our clients, all based around amazing guest experience. I help them develop their business & brand potential, engage with their audience and use insights to drive growth. I develop narrative and storytelling to uncover something new, authentic and unique.