Advance Team Magic: a Roll of Tape and a Prayer

Have you ever been to an event in some dark, depressing banquet room with terrible 1970s carpet, musty curtains, and a disco ball that had been transformed into something so infectious you didn’t even notice the drab backdrop? That’s the magic of the advance team, and today I want to share some secrets of the trade with you. Though you might not be a seasoned political veteran, these tricks can be helpful in all manner of circumstances, from sprucing up an office party to making your grandparents’ anniversary shine.

On any campaign, the members of the advance team are the unsung heroes, the invisible ones who make events happen. For the big, national campaigns, they will travel ahead of the candidate, arranging details, setting up venues, building a crowd, then hopping ahead to the next place once the body people show up. For smaller-scale campaigns and town hall style events, your regular campaign or government staff handle all the nitty-gritty details. These dribs and drabs of skills are learned over time, absorbed from the veterans over hours of setup. And if the advance team has done its job right, the event will run well without attendees realizing they’ve done anything at all.


There are a few things that no good advance man or lady should be without. I never head out to a fundraiser without a good roll of gaffer’s tape. Scotch tape has its uses, but it’s not very good for hanging things. Masking tape is often not strong enough for heavy canvas or vinyl signs. And duct tape will leave marks, which is not ideal when you’re renting out a space. Gaffer’s tape is strong, but it doesn’t leave a residue. It’s a little on the expensive side, but you can use it for pretty much anything. Hanging signs, taping off a press area, securing cords so people don’t trip on them, whatever you need. Gaffer’s tape is the stuff of the gods.

Another perennial favorite are zip ties. You can use them to fasten banners (more on that later), keep ugly cables or wires out of sight, even make mock bunting out of the curtains in a pinch. I actually keep a bag of zip ties in varying sizes in my trunk at all times, along with a roll of masking tape, rubber bands, a pair of scissors, and a few signs with Bossman’s face on them, just in case. You’d be surprised how often these things come in handy.

You always want to bring with you a sign-in sheet (for mining email addresses and adding supporters), plenty of pens (they have a tendency to walk away), and some instant hand sanitizer. (So many hands to shake. So much money to handle. So much trash to pick up at the end of the night. Hand sanitizer is your friend.)


First things first, let’s talk about banners. I’m going to share with you all the single greatest piece of advice anyone has ever given me about banners. You are probably thinking, “Who the hell has volumes of advice about banners?” But you’d be surprised at how much effort goes into a banner. Are you ready? Here it is. If you’re going to purchase a canvas or vinyl banner (go for the vinyl, by the way), spring for one that has strings or straps attached at each of the corners, especially if you’re planning multiple uses or don’t know the exact setup of the venue. It’s usually much, much easier to find things to tie your banner to with straps that are attached than wrestling with twine or some such. And if you don’t need them, they can easily be secured out of the way with gaffer’s tape.

Another thing about banners is to make sure you get a good spread of grommets around the edge. If your banner just says “VOTE,” one in each corner is sufficient, especially if you can pull those straps taught. But if there’s nowhere for the strings to go, and you’re using zip ties, you’ll want good coverage so it doesn’t droop in the middle.

Finally, and this is especially true if you plan to use your banner on multiple occasions, always store it by rolling it face in. That is to say, start at one end and roll it so the letters are on the inside and the empty vinyl is on the outside. This protects the face of the banner from dirt and grime over time, and it also keeps the letters from sticking to each other and otherwise marring the clean look of what you’re going for. And roll it, don’t fold it! If your banner is going to sit in a closet for some measure of time, you don’t want a giant crease through the middle when you take it out to use it the next time.

Enough about banners; let’s talk about flags! My other favorite trick was taught to me by John Kerry’s advance people back in 2004. I scoured the internet looking for some information about this one to link you, but all I could find was that brief mention I made in my post the other day, so I had to take a photo myself.

demonstrating how to make a flag drape nicely

Here’s what you need: a flag, a standing flagpole, a coat hanger, and some tape. Pull the flag back out of the way. Tape an upside down coat hanger to the pole. Drape the flag over the coat hanger. Voila! A wide drape for all of your patriotic staging and photo-taking needs. The lower down the pole you place the coat hanger, the less dramatic the effect. I did this one as high as I could to demonstrate.

Other useful things to rent (or keep around, depending on how frequently you do this sort of thing) are pipe and drapes. Pipe and drape is a fancy term for curtains on a movable rod. If your room or space is awkwardly shaped, you can set up a pipe and drape to block off an area. For example, if the room is much bigger than the crowd you’re expecting, you might want to consider blocking off a portion of it to make it seem like the room is full.* If there are excess chairs or whatnot that you don’t have storage for, pipe and drape can hide it. If you want a private staging area for the man or lady of honor or behind-the-scenes folks, pipe and drape can make that happen. Really, pipe and drape is the solution for most problems that gaffer’s tape can’t fix. I can’t recommend it enough.

Lastly, the most important rule of advance work for dressing an event is to use the hell out of what you have. Were there flyers for the event? Take a brightly colored Sharpie and draw arrows on them to direct people to the appropriate place instead of making brand new signs. Is the room looking drab or the walls bare? Cut lawn signs in half and tape them up for extra coverage. Speaking of signs, if you’re organizing a rally, always bring extras. There will inevitably be people who show up without them, and under the same philosophy as a room looking full, you want the crowd to be peppered with as many signs as possible. If you’re doing this stuff regularly, you should pick a color theme and stick to it; then you can use excess streamers and balloons time and time again.

While most of you might not be planning a major rally or fundraiser any time soon, these tips and tricks might come in handy for those of you out there who I know are trying to DIY your weddings, and plenty more everyday events you might not have thought about before. And at the very least, it gives some insight as to how the sausage is made, so to speak, when you attend events. Have fun spotting them when you’re out there in the world!

*Always remember, it’s much better for a room to be too crowded than too empty. You want people to walk away thinking about what a popular event it was, not that “nobody” showed up. Better to squeeze 60 people into a room for 50 than to have them scattered around a room for 100 with half an empty room. Or, you know, use pipe and drape.

By BaseballChica03

Political hack. Word nerd. Stays crispy in milk. Oxford Comma user. Blogger since 2001.

9 replies on “Advance Team Magic: a Roll of Tape and a Prayer”

Ha ha ha, did that seriously happen? I must hear that story.

What I meant was that people will just “show up” to stuff and expect signs to magically appear. Standard, pretty, pre-produced signs are nice, but they’re a) not as snarky and b) less likely to get on the tee vee than a clever one.

I knew there was a reason I liked you :)

I too have gaffers tape and zip ties squirreled away for emergencies. The only thing I would add is, if you have to deal with pipe and drape on a regular basis, you need a stash of those big black paper clip things for when the drape isn’t in the mood to cooperate.

OMG word to all of this. Earlier this month I was in a certain northern state planning some rallies. The stuff about banners and grommet placement is spot on. That trick with the flag and the coat hanger? I will totally be using that.

If I may add – defined entrances and exits are key for successful events of all kinds. Whether you’re hosting a graduation party or a rally one must consider how people are going to get in, what is the first thing they’re going to see, what’s the first thing they’re going to need to do (put coats away? put down gift? put down their e-mail address?), and how are they all going to leave?

The coat hanger thing was one of the greatest discoveries of my work life. Even though I was never a Kerry fan, I love his advance people for that.

You know who had totally crazy advance people? Eliot Spitzer. I went to his inauguration on January 1, 2007, and it was a pretty crummy day in Albany with terrible, looming black clouds. His team had bought golf umbrellas – all the same size, shape, model with those alternating white panels + a variety of colors – and was handing them out to the crowd. Just in case it started to pour during his speech. Then the aerial shots would look pretty instead of some people having umbrellas, some people not, all different sizes, etc. It ended up not raining until way later in the day. I still have my Eliot Spitzer umbrella, although it’s seen better days. I will never forget that, though. Can you imagine working on that team, the night before or the morning of the inauguration having to somehow get thousands and thousands of umbrellas to make your crazy boss happy? Oh. My. God.

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