March 26, 2023

In Election-Night Party Planning, Flexibility Is a Must

WHEN empty, the Bristlecone ballroom at the Aria Resort and Casino here is 57,000 square feet of beige carpeting and fluorescent lights. But two years ago, it was briefly the overstuffed epicenter of American politics.

This is where Senator Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat and majority leader, held his election-night party after prevailing in a race that many had predicted he would lose. To Democrats, this was a site for triumph and relief; for Republicans, it was one for disappointment and loss.

For Frank Roskowski, it was something else entirely. “It was carnage. It was goofy,” he said, grinning as he surveyed the room last week.

Mr. Roskowski, whom everyone calls Mustache Frank, is Aria’s director of technical services, and he is reminiscing about the chaos and bustle of Nov. 2, 2010. Democrats lost a bunch of races across the country, not to mention control of the House of Representatives, and in the days before the votes were tallied it looked possible that Mr. Reid would be a casualty. Twenty-two television crews were jockeying for position in the Bristlecone, starting at 4 a.m.

“The TV trucks all were fighting because the thing is, they have to run cable to a connection point,” Mr. Roskowski recalls. “So the guy in the truck, if he gets here early, he only has to run 100 feet. If he’s late, he’s got to run 500. At 3 in the morning, they’re out there, I’m out there, my guys are out there and these TV guys are like: ‘Hey, you want doughnuts? You want beer? 50 bucks?’ I’m like: ‘Whoa. Here’s what was sent to me. You’re here, you’re here, you’re here.”

As a feat of event planning, there is nothing quite like an election-night party. At most festivities that call for banquet halls and cocktails, there is little doubt about the basic contours of the main event. If it’s a wedding, two people are married and the union is celebrated. Organize a conference, and a crowd will mingle and drink. But an election-night party could be an evening of triumph or fiasco, a celebration or a wake. It’s like a trip to the hospital that might culminate with a fatal diagnosis or a healthy baby.

Both tragedy and triumph must be accommodated. It’s fine for politicians to say, “When I’m elected” or “When I’m re-elected,” but the election-night party planner toils in the realm of the possible, not the fondly wished for. If you anticipate an enormous, victory-hailing crowd and you lose, you are looking at not just a defeated candidate but also a tableau that accentuates all the empty space where supporters were supposed to revel. So, what to do? Order a few thousand balloons but don’t fill them until the polls close? Hide the confetti until the victory is certified?

What is far more essential, it turns out, is a room that can be shrunk or enlarged, quickly. Which is why Las Vegas is arguably the greatest election-night city in the country. Expandable banquet rooms are a specialty here, and turning a space that fits 100 into a space that fits 2,000 — and vice versa — is a feat that can be pulled off in places like the Bristlecone ballroom in a matter of minutes. The trick is air walls, huge movable slabs that slide back and forth like pocket doors.

Ultimately, on election night in 2010 here, the space in front of all the television cameras fit a mere 150 people. That was a tiny fraction of the entire room, and it left a tundra of emptiness out of view of all those cameras. But priority No. 1 was making the room look packed.

“When you tuned in at home,” Mr. Roskowski says, “it looked body-to-body tight.”

THE worlds of electioneering and catering will again intersect on Tuesday, as candidates await the public’s verdicts in settings of their choosing. For catering, it is often an evening of modest profit — a typical event with a couple of hundred people will cost $50,000, depending on the quality and quantity of food and drink. For the campaigns, devising these get-togethers can seem both fraught and irrelevant at the same time. Yes, all the stagecraft and planning matter. But what is the point of worrying about the finish line when the race is in the last sprint? Many campaigns contacted for this article would not discuss their plans, or they kept the discussion to a bare minimum.

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