Let’s be honest, we’ve all done it: RSVP’d to a reception and then, when life gets in the way — work, family or the perennial party pooper, a rainy D.C. night — we don’t show up. Or we’ve forgotten to RSVP, or just waited until the last minute to do so.
Amanda Downes and Diane Flamini have seen it all and handled it with the consummate grace and meticulous attention to detail that comes from having nearly half a century of experience between them.
Downes recently marked her 24th anniversary as social secretary for the British Embassy in Washington, while in November, Flamini will celebrate her 25th year as social secretary and protocol officer for the Spanish Embassy.
In those two and half decades, the two longtime colleagues and friends have planned countless luncheons, meetings, intimate sit-down dinners, large receptions, high-profile fundraisers and other myriad functions. They’ve each worked with seven different ambassadors; coordinated a steady stream of visiting delegations and dignitaries; and established themselves as gatekeepers to some of the most coveted events in town.
They’ve also seen the rules of party planning and protocol evolve drastically in an era of tight security and even tighter budgets, moving with the times while having to constantly stay on top of every detail to avert a diplomatic faux pas.
“It’s a wonderful job. I love my job,” Downes told The Diplomat, echoing Flamini, who said she never would’ve thought that she’d be working at the Spanish Embassy for as long as she has.
In fact, neither woman ever planned on becoming a social secretary. In November 1989, Flamini and her husband Roland, who’d just retired as bureau chief for Time magazine, were living in London when they happened to have dinner with the ambassador of Spain. She mentioned that, with her children now a bit older, she was interested in living in the United States.
“And he proposed that if it was going to be Washington, which it was because my parents at that time were living here, that they were looking for a social secretary,” she said. “And I proceeded to ask them what the heck was a social secretary?”
The duties — entertaining, organizing, planning — sounded much like what she’d been doing for years as the wife of a magazine bureau chief, so she interviewed for the position and was promptly hired for what she thought would be a three- or four-year posting.
Likewise, Downes was in Britain, where she’d trained and worked as a cook for 13 years, when she stumbled on an old family friend whose mother happened to be married to the British ambassador in Washington.
She mentioned that they were looking for a social secretary. “And I said, ‘What on earth is a social secretary?’ And she said, ‘You are!’ And that honestly is how it went,” Downes recalled.
“I mean it was being in the right place at the right time,” she told us. “I was supposed to be here for 22 months and I thought that was the end of the world — I’d never lived abroad.”
She certainly never anticipated staying in the United States for 24 years. “No way. I would not have got on that plane,” she joked. “But it’s been the most wonderful experience.”
Downes’s cooking background helped prepare her for her new, unexpected role, “because with cooking you can tell no lies. It is what it is,” she said, explaining how critical timing is to both jobs. “You have to be ready, and also you are juggling many different things and you have to produce them at the right moment.”
And there’s plenty to juggle each day. Downes said her main duties include organizing events at the ambassador’s residence, “inviting guests, following up with guests, reconfirming with guests. I do the seating plans. I do the place cards and the escort cards. And on the evening I’m there to greet people and help out.”
She also helps coordinate outside events at the residence, either hosted by a charity or other group, or by a separate department in the embassy, and she assists with visiting ministers and other officials. Similarly, Flamini is the go-to person for the ambassador’s social calendar.
“My general obligations are primarily to keep the schedule of the ambassador in order, make his appointments…. And apart from that there’s also arranging if he has meetings with others. I have to write the letters to request the meetings because, for example, the State Department is usually quite particular,” Flamini explained. “If we have a delegation arriving, it’s making sure that whatever and whoever they wish to see has been previously arranged.”
Then, of course, there are the events. Flamini recently coordinated fundraisers at the Spanish ambassador’s residence for the Washington Performing Arts Society and WETA public radio station. “So we formulate the email invitations, put together the guest lists, send out the invitations. If it’s a dinner, we choose a menu with the chef, do seating arrangements, then we present the arrival of the guests, making sure that the guests who’ve accepted have come.”
On that note, there’s plenty that can and does go wrong throughout the process — party-crashers, missing plus-ones, late RSVPs, weather problems, sick ambassadors and, of course, no-shows.
“I have to be sure that I do the seating following protocol and of course at the last minute if someone does not arrive, you have the annoying, necessary rush down to change tables,” Flamini said.
Another pet peeve? Flamini said the assistants of high-ranking officials occasionally ask her to send them a guest list prior to their RSVP. “That I find extremely annoying,” she said, laughing. And she has a standard reply for such requests: “Unfortunately until the day of the event, we’re not allowed for security reasons to release the names,” she said. “But it’s not terribly often that that happens. I think at this point people probably know that’s going to be my response.”
For sit-down dinners, if people haven’t responded, “I sort of just continually call or email and say that we need a reply by such and such date, usually 48 hours prior to the event,” Flamini said. But she understands how the invite decision-making game goes in a city as busy as Washington. “A lot of people have so many commitments that they tend to leave it to the last minute before responding, either because they have travel plans or perhaps are even waiting for a better invitation. You never know.”
Downes told us that she’s learned to take the hiccups in stride over the years. “I remember being very concerned if I had a lot of people that still hadn’t answered for a reception. But one of my ambassador’s wives said, ‘Please don’t spend your time chasing people on a reception,’” she recalled.
But for sit-down events, she “will keep going until I get every single answer. So receptions now I’m a bit easier on people, but I don’t like seeing 300 names on a list that people haven’t answered because who knows who’s going to come out of that, and you simply don’t know how to look after them — that’s the thing.”
It’s a matter of making sure guests are happy, Downes adds. “We want guests to have a good time and enjoy themselves and so you need to know how many people are coming and you need to know how to look after them properly.”
Downes said she knows her guest list “inside out,” so when someone appears at the front door without their name on the list, she usually knows who’s been genuinely invited and who hasn’t.
Sometimes, tragedy and crisis sideline the best-laid plans. Right after the July 2005 London bombings that killed more than 50 people, Downes had to personally call dozens of guests to cancel a dinner in Washington that evening.
But most cancelations are far less dramatic. Flamini recently had to reschedule an exhibit-related reception because of snow, contacting 140 guests to make sure they didn’t head out in the frigid temperatures. She also had to reschedule a series of meetings in New York after the ambassador fell ill. “So you have to be on top of practically everything at every moment,” she said.
Yet both women say the rewards far outweigh the headaches. Flamini recalled that a highlight of her nearly 25-year career was an elaborate sit-down dinner shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks attended by then Spanish President José María Aznar and Vice President Dick Cheney.
“[T]hat was one of the most impressive dinners I had to organize and to survive,” she said. “We don’t have VIPs as often as my colleague Amanda does, who seems to have them all the time,” Flamini quipped. “The relationship between Great Britain and the United States is slightly more VIP’d than Spain and the United States, although we’re slowly getting there.”
Downes has indeed welcomed her fair share of VIPs from both sides of the pond over the years. The memory that stands out for her is the 2007 state visit of Queen Elizabeth II.
“And working with Buckingham Palace, it really is an extraordinary experience. They are so detailed and one learns so much from them and you know you are in the hands of true professionals. And nothing is left to go wrong,” she said. “And also when [South African] President [Nelson] Mandela came here in the ’90s, that was a very exciting evening.”
It was also an instructive evening. Downes reflected that it was a mistake to hold the cocktail reception before the dinner because when it came time for everyone to be seated, no one wanted to leave.
“And if I lived my life again, I would have strongly recommended we did the dinner first and then invite people to join the after-dinner reception rather than trying to ask 300 people to leave, which was not easy,” she said. “There simply physically was not enough room to have everyone, but everyone wanted to be here to see the great man for just a short time.”
Demand to get into an illustrious gathering at the British Residence located off Observatory Circle is, not surprisingly, high. So are requests from outside organizations and charities to host events there.
Downes said it’s extremely difficult to vet through worthwhile requests because “everything is a good cause.”
The key, say both Downes and Flamini, is for the group to have a connection to their home countries and promote them in some way.
“It’s limited in the sense that if we do dinner for anything cultural or promoting business, it has to be directly related exclusively to Spain,” Flamini said. For instance, when WETA approached her about hosting an event, “We said fine, we’ll do a dinner for you with a performance, [but] the performance must be a Spanish performer and it has to showcase Spain in one way or another, and so they will be having on the radio new Spanish music for a couple of days. So that it’s continually an exchange that can be justified in Spain as we are spending but it is promoting Spain.”
Downes says the biggest misconception people have about her work is that she has no budgetary constraints. “People probably think that we do have a bottomless pit of money, which we don’t,” she said. “And I am brutally honest I’m afraid and just say I am terribly sorry but we just don’t have the money to be able to give a reception…. There is this role of austerity and we have to cut the cloth accordingly.”
Another modern-day reality embassies must grapple with is security, which has dampened some of the traditional formality of party planning. Perhaps the biggest change is that after the 9/11 attacks, which were followed by the anthrax scare in D.C., many U.S. government agencies demanded that invites be sent electronically, not by snail mail.
“I was appalled that invitations were responded to by telephone when I first arrived. Can you imagine? And that was just the first shock,” Downes said. “I hate to say that I didn’t think I would ever do it but I do email invitations.”
Both women have also seen people at the embassy come and go over the years, including ambassadors.
“Seven of them — all dear friends, all completely different, which is extremely helpful because then they’re not trying to outshine one or the other,” Flamini said.
“Well it keeps me on my toes,” Downes said of the turnover, “which is a good thing, and I like to think that any nasty habits or bad habits that I’m forming and complacency get knocked out of the window. And so it is very similar to starting a new job.
“Nearly all of the ambassadors I have served have been in America before so that helps hugely,” she added. “And also they have a lot of contacts from their time when they were here.”
Flamini said she works with each ambassador to tailor the guest list for events, gathering any business cards he’s collected and filing them in a database by profession. “I’ve got a master list. So if I’ve got a dinner because the secretary of commerce of Spain is coming and he wants to meet important business-oriented people or people who are interested in investing in Spain, I will automatically go into my [list], choose a couple of names and run them through with the ambassador,” she explained.
“Oftentimes people think it’s only just partying what you do, but it’s also a lot of diplomacy and getting answers,” she said. “So you have to sort of sweep a lot of nonsense out of the way before it hits the ambassador’s desk.”
The job is exciting — neither woman would probably still be at it for nearly 25 years if it weren’t — but it’s still work.
“I mean they all say it must be very interesting and great fun, which it is,” Flamini told us. “It’s also exhausting and … you have to be continuously on your toes. I find I have to check and double check and triple check many times the same thing, because you shouldn’t be too sure — because the minute you’re too sure, there’s bound to be a mistake somewhere. But on the whole, it’s pretty much what most people think it is, which is organizing special events to promote Spain in the United States.”
About the Author
Anna Gawel is the managing editor of The Washington Diplomat.