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Five Questions with Dori Thornton Waller
Waller explains how her business has adapted to the challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic, provides a few pro tips for staging your own memorable events, and shares her favorite White House story.
Upon completing her degree at the University of Tennessee, Dori Thornton Waller moved to Washington, D.C., to pursue a career in event planning. After two years at a fundraising and event planning firm, Waller landed at the White House, where she became the youngest deputy social secretary in recent history. In 2009, Waller returned to Tennessee and started The Social Office, a Nashville-based firm that plans high-end events for social clients and corporations throughout the southeast. As featured in People magazine, The Social Office has produced more than 200 events for an impressive roster of clients that includes renowned musical artists Amy Grant, Vince Gill and Lady A, legendary quarterback Peyton Manning, and lifestyle magazine, Garden & Gun. From exquisite weddings and milestone birthday soirees, to inspiring fundraising galas and corporate retreats, The Social Office is dedicated to the belief that every event should be flawless. Waller resides in Chattanooga with her husband, Blake, daughter Madolyn and Saint Bernard, Minnie. In this month’s Five Questions With…Waller explains how her business has adapted to the challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic, provides a few pro tips for staging your own memorable events, and shares her favorite White House story.
Q: Can you tell us about your business and some examples of how you apply lessons learned in the East Wing to create distinctive events for your clients?
On January 20, 2009, about 90 seconds after President and Mrs. Bush departed Andrews AFB for Texas, I dried my tears, hugged a few of my closest colleagues, and drove my overloaded SUV straight home to Tennessee.
Three months later, I opened my own event planning business in Nashville, and at the suggestion of beloved BCAers Stuart Siciliano and Steven Levine, named it The Social Office. It’s been 11 years since I left the White House Social Office, but the social office has literally never left me.
In addition to honing a tireless, “show must go on” work ethic and meticulous attention to detail, serving as deputy social secretary to President and Mrs. Bush taught me the importance of honoring efficient logistics while not compromising the guest experience.
As anyone reading this knows, President Bush was insistent about being on time (and by “on time” I obviously mean “early”). He told me one day that he never wanted his guests to think his time was more important than theirs by being late and keeping them waiting. I adopted that philosophy and have quoted the president countless times since then (including to my husband, Blake, who can get annoyed with my commitment to being on time).
Mrs. Bush’s focus was on creating a lovely experience for guests. A big part of the guest experience centers around event design – the aesthetics, the set-up, the way the space looks and makes people feel.
I had the good fortune of working under Amy Zantzinger, a very talented interior designer who came to the White House to serve as social secretary. One of my favorite tasks was working on tablescapes (centerpieces, place settings and overall table décor) with Amy and White House florist Nancy Clarke to present to Mrs. Bush. For most state dinners and other formal events, we created three combinations of linens, china and florals for her review. I always thought all three options were absolutely perfect and that she would have a hard time choosing. But Mrs. Bush has a great eye, and more often than not, she would incorporate elements of each design to create her own tablescape, even more beautiful than those presented. I learned so much in those sessions. I was an apprentice watching three masters of their crafts.
Q: How has the pandemic affected your business and what adjustments have you made?
Like so many businesses in so many sectors, COVID-19 continues to be a tremendous challenge for the event planning world. A profession typically defined by planning has become a profession defined by pivoting and postponement. We canceled and rescheduled a very busy spring season of events. Most of those weddings and events were pushed to the fall, only to be delayed again to spring 2021 or canceled entirely.
This has been a hard year for everyone in our industry, but on a personal level, my heart really hurts for my brides. Having developed a reputation for producing large scale weddings, many people are surprised to learn that my personal preference is a small, intimate gathering. I only had 75 people at my own wedding. My current pivot for brides is to hold a gorgeous, intimate wedding dinner now and plan a large gathering for next year.
Q: What pro tips can you share with your fellow BCAers for hosting a memorable virtual gathering?
Where there’s a will there’s a way! Determine the real purpose of the event and find a creative way of achieving it or something close to it. Here’s one example that may be helpful: When one of our favorite clients was forced to cancel its annual corporate retreat, we broke the news by sending guests elaborate gift packages with WFH (work from home) and COVID-19 essentials. To connect guests to our corporate client, we divided the 200-person group into 20 smaller teams specific to personal interests. The themes ranged from “Fresh Start Morning,” with yoga class, juice delivery and a custom yoga mat to “Game Night” featuring lessons on duck and turkey calls in preparation for hunting season.
Q: In addition to running The Social Office, you are a mom. How do you balance your personal and professional responsibilities?
My husband, Blake, and I have a five-year-old daughter, Madolyn, and another baby girl due this fall. (And a 110-pound Saint Bernard named Minnie.) I am not sure anyone ever really masters balance as a working parent. And if you have, please call me and give me all the tips!
Before the pandemic, I typically traveled one to two days a week for work. We live in our hometown, Chattanooga, and are blessed with a committed (and adoring) support system of grandparents and an incredible babysitter who has been with us for four years. I couldn’t make life work without them.
Early on I established a practice not to be away from Madolyn for more than three days at a time, so if an event requires more than that, she and our amazing sitter tag along. Madolyn feels right at home at an event site, checking in with all the vendors she has known since she was a baby and “helping” me with set up. When she referred me to her Pinterest board of suggestions for her fifth birthday in July, I knew I was in trouble!
Q: Can you leave us with a favorite story or moment from your time at the White House?
Impossible to name just one!
My very first day in the White House Social Office, May 7, 2007, also happened to be the day of Queen Elizabeth’s historic visit and President Bush’s first-ever white tie state dinner.
I love Christmas. I have always loved Christmas. And nothing compares to Christmas at the White House. Each year was a dream come true for me, immersed in Christmas decorations and parties and the holiday spirit.
In 2008, a very busy Christmas season rolled right into 2009 and the final weeks of the administration, and the fun and festivities (and work!) just never stopped. In the midst of this, Karen Keller called to invite me and several coworkers to travel with President and Mrs. Bush on Air Force One on one of their final trips in office. I was incredibly honored and dying to go, of course, but we had a reception and a dinner that evening, and I was worried I wouldn’t have time to get everything done if I was gone most of the day. I compromised by going (obviously) but sacrificing sleep the night before. It was a day I will never forget and well worth missing one night’s sleep.
President and Mrs. Bush invited us into the president’s office aboard Air Force One, and as we walked in he greeted me with, “Sweet Dori, it is good to see you. You are doing a damn good job,” and patted me on the back. I beamed, of course. (It still makes me beam!)
When it was my turn for a photo, I walked up and he hugged me and said, “Dori, it looks like you still haven’t recovered from Christmas.” The whole room started laughing, and I said “Oh, sir, I’m working on it, but it’s hard to recover with all of the farewell events.”
I keep that picture on my mantle (bags under my eyes and all), and every time it catches my eye, I remember the President’s words that day and the incredible experience I had working for both of them.
Working at the White House is always an incredible honor, but working in the White House for two people like President and Mrs. Bush is the privilege of a lifetime. People have asked me if I would ever go back. My response: I think I had the very best experience working for two of the very best people who have held the office. It can’t be topped.
I feel so fortunate to have witnessed their kindness, generosity and genuine care for our country and everyone they encountered. I am a much better person, mother, wife, friend and definitely a harder worker because of the opportunity they gave me and the influence they both had on my life.