Tuesday, January 23, 2007

HOW-TO TUESDAY # 1 - US Capitol and White House Appointments

How to Make Group Appointments for the
U.S. Capitol and White House

Recently, a number of teachers who had been traveling under the auspices of other companies or on their own, and who were traveling with me for the first time, did not understand how to make their own appointments for the Capitol, White House, Bureau of Engraving and Printing, National Archives Program, or Kennedy Center.

Many had complained that they did not get the appointments that were promised or advertised by tour operators or travel agents.

To be perfectly honest, no one can guarantee appointments with any part of the federal government. Account representatives with tour operators and travel agents do make the initial effort with a generic request (which should be on your school letterhead and faxed to your two U.S. Senators and U.S. Representative), but there is usually no follow-up and simply a shrug of a shoulder, if the appointments fall through.

The Congressional offices are not as responsive to tour operators as they are to bona fide constituents. Some offices I work with actually resent the large companies because they feel their services are being ‘sold’ by the company’s package.

The services of these offices and tours are free for everyone.

So if these appointments are important to your group, then you need to be the proactive one!

I like to start in August. (Yes, I do 'gently nudge' my teachers and then monitor the progress, but then I'm not personally responsible for 50+ groups as many tour account respesentatives are!) All appointments should be made at least six months in advance. No kidding!

Immediately, after you have settled on a date for your Educational Tour Program (ETP) and know exactly when your group will be in Washington, DC, call 202-224-3121, the U.S. Capitol operator (switchboard), who will connect you to the respective offices. Ask for the name of the scheduler of each office for all the Capitol appointments and the White House (the White House scheduler is usually a more senior person than the one who schedules the Capitol appointments etc.).
Be sure to get the correct address and fax number for the DC office.
DO NOT SEND ANYTHING SNAIL MAIL! (I cannot emphasize that enough!) And do not fax anything through your local offices; deal directly with the Washington, DC one.
Write at least three separate letters on your school letterhead to your two Senators and one or two Representatives attached to your school district (sometimes parents and teachers live in a different congressional district from the school.) and fax the letters to them. Call each office to make sure the fax has gone through!

While you should look up the websites for your Senators and Representatives, it is best not to email the request. An initial phone call followed by a fax and follow-up call will get more immediate results and respect, and they will have a hard copy on your letterhead in their hands.

The websites for the Senators and Representatives will also give you direct phone numbers, lists of sights, as well as other tour information, The White House security information is extremely important. Encourage your students to visit these sites to learn more about their legislators and current issues.

Make friends with the schedulers! (You might get a flag that has flown over the Capitol donated to your school!) It is a nice gesture to bring something from your school as a ‘gift’ to thank the the scheduler for his/her time and effort on your behalf! Your students should also send a thank you note after the visit! These people work very hard, and for many, it is their first job after college.

You can also request a meeting. Some of them (i.e. both the Senators from California) even have a morning coffee (coffee and bagels) photo op when Congress is in session.

It’s important to list the sights you want to visit, the exact dates and times (be realistic here, don’t schedule something two hours after your plane is supposed to land!) your group is available. You need to give an indication of the number of participants (Teachers, students, parents, tour guides) that need to be accommodated and in this case a liberal estimate is better than an conservative one as they normally cannot add extra people, but they can subtract!

Call the offices at least once every two weeks to check up to see how things are progressing. As soon as you find out that you have the appointment, please let your ETP provider in on this and fax or send a copy of the confirmation letter or email to them. Do not send the original document; carry the original with you during the trip because in some cases a fax or copy is not accepted!
A good account executive should also follow up on the progress. I've been in the business long enough to know the old-timers on The Hill, so I frequently enlist their aid when the ball has been dropped on my teacher's end and there has been no word two months before the ETP. I'm also not above visiting the congressional office, if I feel they haven't been responsive on that end.
Ask for House and Senate gallery passes! (Not a timed letter pass, but the actual passes.) These are good for the entire session. And here’s a real secret: Anyone can visit the galleries when they are in session (unless it is a closed session for national security). My favorite time is in the evening; when the lanthorn (light) is on under the Statue of Freedom (which is on top of the dome),one can go in and see government in action. If a flag is still flying on the House and or Senate side, that’s where you head to. There are usually no crowds. Call the Capitol operator (202-224-3121) and ask for the Senate and House Democratic or Republican cloakrooms for information as to what is happening. I’ve seen the best debates and votes that way!

A tour of the Capitol can be tricky:

Your group could get up at the crack of dawn and stand in line from 6:00 AM until they start to give out timed tickets at 8:15AM. There is one ticket given out per person, so having only part of the group there, doesn’t cut it. There are no shelters from foul weather or restrooms at the waiting area. The area where one lines up is at the foot of Capitol Hill (west front) on the House side, on the corner across from the US Botanical Gardens, and across from the US Grant Memorial, which faces the National Mall. You need to return to the waiting ‘staging area’ at least 15 minutes before the time on the ticket.

You can get an appointment through your Senators or Representative for a ‘Red Coat’ tour, which is the in-house Capitol Guide Service.

If your request is turned down by the Capitol Guide Service, don’t fret. At that point you need to be firm and charming and work out something with the schedulers. This needs to be done the first and second week of February! They have the ability to ‘pool’ legislative aids from other delegations in order to take care of your group. There is a 15:1 ratio, though, for this; that’s about 4-5 legislative aids per bus group. At Easter/spring break, there is a great deal of competition! If you have a multi-bus move, you would really need to do some fancy juggling!
Someone connected with your school or group has some influence and can pull strings! (My personal favorite!)

You and your students need to pay attention to all the security rules. One of the most important ones is NO LIQUIDS and NO POWDERS. This is non-negotiable. The White House has a much longer list; it's best not to bring ANYTHING in, leave purses etc. on the bus.

After you've done all that is humanly possible on your end, there is the waiting game; it is not unusual for a group to find out one way or another two to three weeks before the ETP! (This is where I make my big bucks!) Dependent on the priorities of the group, I usually keep the days on which appointments have been requested, open, so that there is some flexibility if the appointments do come through at the last minute. (The White House, is particularly famous for this!)
Keep the mornings open. Schedule an early breakfast scheduled for these days. Visit sites like the Smithsonian, Library of Congress, Supreme Court of the US., the Folger Theatre, etc. which are in the immediate area. There should be only two appointments per day otherwise you'll just be stressed out trying to make them all and disappointed when the timing doesn't work out the way it's supposed to on paper.
And then, after everything is set and confirmed, there is always the last minute cancellation due to governmental business and official visits from Heads of State etc.
Ah! Welcome to the wonderful world of Washington, DC!

These sites can be requested through your Senators and Representative:
The White House
U.S. Capitol Tour
Bureau of Engraving and Printing
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
The Library of Congress
The National Archives - Special Program

Sights not able to be scheduled by Congressional offices:
The US Supreme Court
The United States Holocaust Memorial
The Pentagon
The FBI – closed for tours until further notice
Good luck!
The Educational Tour Marm

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