Alumna’s event planning firm brings holiday spirit to White House

For the fourth year in a row, the White House contracted Gabrielle Martinez ’93 and her Chicago-based experiential and event marketing agency to decorate the home of the President and the First Lady for the holidays, a site viewed by 100,000 live and online tourists each December.

No pressure, right?

Speaking with Martinez, you wouldn’t think so. After 14 years since founding agencyEA and working with clients such as Oprah Winfrey, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and Lurie Children’s Hospital, when it comes to planning memorable experiences at an extremely large scale, it’s clear she’s a pro.

Martinez’s work for the White House starts at the beginning of the year, when she takes about a month to develop theme possibilities and let them marinade before sharing them with Michelle Obama and her team in the summer. This year’s theme, “Gather Around,” celebrates the coming together of people to share stories of the season, of First Families of the past and how they spent their holidays, and of the country’s heritage. 

“I’ll start with the seed of an idea or have an instinct about a message,” she said. “The whole process is an evolution.”

Always at the forefront is whether her idea is in tune with the First Lady’s spirit and tone. She also strives to achieve a nice balance between a classic, traditional feel and the forward-thinking mindset of the First Lady.

In addition to pleasing the First Lady—Martinez’s first goal—she also concerns herself with heightening the experience of the 85 or so volunteers who join her and her team for five days to bring the concept to life, starting at 7 a.m. the day after Thanksgiving. The volunteers come from nearly all 50 states and apply for the opportunity. Working with them is a “rich experience,” Martinez said.

Martinez, an economics and Spanish double-major while at Lake Forest, first encountered the Obama family and their top officials during a 2008 campaign event Oprah hosted at her California home. Recognizing Martinez’s capabilities at that event, the White House decided to call upon her to help their team with logistics and production for holiday decorating. Martinez also helped to plan a birthday party for President Obama and fundraising events when he was running for his second term.

Now a veteran at the White House, Martinez appreciates the challenge of trying each year to be more efficient and more frugal with time and resources than the last. She also tries to be fresh and creative. 

“Inspiration for my creative can stem from anything around me — the elegance of a vintage book, how my children express their gratitude, or even the simple construction of a hand-crafted felt flower. I seek to always be in tune with my surroundings and not miss the seed for a great concept.”

Her favorite part of the job, she says, is offering White House-goers a reminder of the simple feelings and sentiments of the holidays. 

“It was a true labor of love to produce a project of this magnitude within the historic walls of the White House and on behalf of the First Lady,” she said.