Getting There: The ISEPTAPHILLY Blog

Diner en Blanc 2017

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Each year, Diner en Blanc brings a pop-up soiree to one of Philadelphia's iconic landmarks. The annual event takes place in over 70 cities around the world, attracting thousands of white-glad guests to a secret location.

This past Thursday, Diner en Blanc Philadelphia was held at Franklin Square in the Chinatown neighborhood of Philadelphia. More than 5,200 people participated in the event, making it the largest Diner en Blanc event in the US! 

Without SEPTA, Diner en Blanc Philadelphia would be nearly impossible. Since secrecy and timing are key to making the event happen, mass transit plays an important role in getting party-goers to the final destination. This year, group meeting spots were at 30th Street Station on the Market-Frankford Line and Fairmount Station on the Broad-Ridge Spur. Guests were led onto the system, told only when to get off by their group leaders. With no delays or service interruptions, guests were on-time and worry-free for their party in the middle of Franklin Square. 

This year, we asked one of Diner en Blanc's co-hosts some questions about the event's background, planning, and challenges. Check out our interview below:

From where did the concept of Dîner en Blanc come?

Dîner en Blanc began humbly 29 years ago when Francois Pasquier returned to Paris after a few years abroad and held a dinner party to reconnect with friends. So many wanted to come that he asked them to convene at the Bois de Boulogne and to dress in white, so they could find each other. Now an annual event, Dîner en Blanc Paris includes nearly 15,000 people and is held amongst some of the most prestigious monuments in the French capital. Francois’ son, Aymeric, brought the tradition to Montreal in 2008 and then to New York in August 2011. With the success of that event, Dîner en Blanc International was formed to expand the concept throughout the world. The City of Philadelphia was among the first cities to debut that following year.In 2017, the tradition will expand to include 70 cities worldwide across 5 continents.

What was the biggest challenge planning Diner en Blanc Philadelphia, initially?

The challenge we had the first year was really trying to convey the concept of the event. When we started planning in 2012, there had only been one other event in the United States and that was New York City in 2011. So, when we pitched this idea we were met with a lot of “you want me to lug what?”; “Philadelphians won’t do that, we’re not New York”; and “the City will never let you do that here.” Fortunately, when we finally got connected to someone who actually worked for the City of Philadelphia, the response was really great. They have been incredibly supportive and collaborative. And, we have found thousands of people in Philadelphia who are willing to bring their items to a different space each year to enjoy a really great evening out in the city.

A few weeks ago I traveled to Diner en Blanc Baltimore by train - in my white dress and carrying table and chairs - and was stopped by three different people telling me they attend the event in their own cities - one as far away as Auckland, New Zealand! So a lot has changed in 5 years and Diner en Blanc definitely has become a “global phenomenon”!

What proves to be the biggest challenge, continuously each year, in getting the event off the ground?

Each year the first challenge is securing the location. A lot goes into the consideration - size, accessibility, the cost for executing the event there (i.e. what transportation costs are there, how about sound and lighting, etc.). Also, it’s very important that we can tell a great story by having the event there.

What do you believe the secrecy regarding the location adds to the event?

I think the secret location is an element that keeps the event interesting and different each year. Certainly, it’s not the only reason guests attend, but I think they really enjoy guessing where it will be.I think it is also exciting to envision experiencing a space in the city in a very different way than they may previously have been able to.

Is there ever talk of expanding the event to allow more diners, or to happen more than once per year?

Each year the event grows. The first event in 2012 had 1,300 guests and the 2017 event will have close to 5,300 attendees. So, the growth from the first to the sixth event has been substantial! However, we only grow the event each year as much as we think we responsibly can. It is important to us to provide the best possible experience for our guests every year. Each group of 50 attendees (25 tables of 2) are led to the space by volunteer table leaders, so there is a lot of hands on attention and care and we never want to compromise that!

How much of a role does public transportation play in the success of the dinner?

Public transportation is very important to the event. All participants are led to the site - no one drives there or just shows up - so we rely very heavily on guests using public transportation to get to the departure points we choose, as well as from the departure points to the secret location.

Would Dîner en Blanc be possible in a city with little-to-no public transportation?

Diner en Blanc takes place in cities with very little public transportation, but it does make the event more expensive to execute and limits the amount of people who can attend. Chartered buses only fit 50 guests, so getting the number of buses needed for larger groups can be challenging. For instance, our event at the Philadelphia Navy Yard required about half of the attendees to arrive by bus and the company we worked with had to get buses from three different states!

What has been the biggest challenge (or failure) to date?

Each year comes with new challenges, especially because we choose a different location each year - new site plans, new organizations to work with, different rules, etc. The Navy Yard location posed challenges with transportation and lighting. The Avenue of the Arts event was challenging because we had to notify all of the owners/management companies of the buildings in the footprint of the event, etc. It’s always a new adventure, but that keeps it interesting and fun for us as planners, as well! 

Do you have a dream destination for the dinner (and can you share that with us, or give hints, at least)?

We have a long list of locations that we would like to use. We are very fortunate to live in a city with such history, great architecture and beautiful public space. For us, it often comes down to timing and what is happening in and around the space.

However, from the very beginning we had the Philadelphia Museum of Art as our goal for our 5th year, so to see that come to fruition - with 5,000 attendees - was incredibly rewarding and very emotional for both of us!

What is your loftiest goal for the event?

Our loftiest goals have been around the spaces we have considered. We are always looking for unique spaces and stories to tell and some of them have just not been possible (the JFK aircraft carrier is one of them!), but we keep on trying!!!

Is there anything in particular (or something different) that you are hoping for during this 2017 Dîner en Blanc?

We always program to the space. We put a lot of time and thought into highlighting special things about the space, its history, and its significance to the City. This year’s space has an interesting story and we just hope our attendees appreciate that fact.

Any words of advice for those trying to get picked for the dinner?

For next year, there is a lottery we conduct from our wait list, so everyone should sign up there first.

Plus, we always need volunteers, so those interested in lending a helping hand can do so by contacting us [email protected]

Any words of advice for those that are attending for the first time?

Pack as lightly as possible and with maximum mobility in mind! I recently attended Diner en Blanc Baltimore and watched guests struggling with large carts and carrying card tables. I tell everyone to invest in the roll top aluminum table and take only what you can carry in bags over your shoulder. You never know when you have to go through a subway turnstile!

What is your favorite Dîner en Blanc story, moment, or photo?

There are too many great stories and moments to share just one. However, what I think is so special is the community that is created through the event, especially after five years. We have heard so many stories of guests who had their first dates there and are now married and started families. Friendships have started among table mates and the community that has been formed among our volunteers is incredible. This year we have 130 group leaders and table leaders and 40 onsite volunteers and many have been with us for multiple years.

If you attended this year or past years, please share your favorite moment. 

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