WASHINGTON -- To see the nation's capital, not everyone crams onto subways, waits on sweaty lines outside monuments and dodges stampeding children in packed museums.
Every spring, the city fills with a different kind of out-of-towner -- the corporate guest on a power tour.
Money and influence move these folks beyond the red-roped barricades, past the impatient crowds and behind the scenes of official Washington.
Consider the last time up-and-coming CEOs from the Young Presidents Organization made a group trip here.
Members of Congress took them to private meetings on Capitol Hill. The Navy gave them rides on an aircraft carrier. The National Archives staff showed them documents normally hidden in the basement.
The Washington Symphony Orchestra came to their hotel and conducted a sing-along in German. Mount Vernon opened after the gate closed. Exclusive golf courses offered up tee-times.
This is the VIP view of Washington. By opening their wallets, tapping political connections and making fat donations to public institutions, corporate guests can glimpse a side of the city that tourists packed on sticky tour-bus seats can only imagine.
"It is a whole different level of experience," said Dana Smith, director of sales for the Washington office of USA Host, which organizes events and tours for corporations. "It's phenomenal."
Outsiders tend to crave a touch of insider access. They can reserve Smithsonian museums for evening bashes, turn embassies into private stomping grounds and even arrange some appearances by White House hotshots.
Such high-octane tours have become increasingly popular. Aside from offering a crowd-free view of the city and its leading players, they provide business people with openings for networking and corporate dealing.
And they keep dollars flowing into the city: Many say they would never plan a major event here without the promise of star treatment.
"Everyone thought, 'Washington, D.C.? No one will come,' but then we really showed them the Washington they couldn't see," said Michael Collins, who organized a conference two springs ago for the Young Presidents Organization, a group of corporate CEOs under age 50. "Leverage and access together [provide] these special opportunities."
These events cost big money. The visit to what Collins dubbed the "hidden Washington" cost the 500 members a total of $2.75 million.
An entire industry has flourished around securing coveted access to public places and people. Businesses called destination management companies pull strings for invitations, arrange private tours and decipher the protocol for elite functions in the city.
Just last month, WashingtonInc., one of the best-connected destination management companies, helped a German pharmaceutical company romance a slew of doctors by throwing its bash in the Russian Embassy, a highly sought-after locale.
"This site is a real draw," said Mame Reiley, general manager of WashingtonInc. "You have to do somersaults just to get a room."
Sure enough, doctors ditched the other parties thrown by rival bTC medical supply companies. Physicians were clearly intrigued by the embassy setting, which, at $6,000 a night, carries plenty of cachet and is opened only to those with the right credentials.
Many corporate guests and their families want a closer look not only at political Washington, but also at normally jammed tourist attractions in the area. Some travel as far as Baltimore, where they can take over attractions such as the National Aquarium for about $2,500 per evening.
Even more groups flock to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, where they get free run of the museums after closing time for a pricey -- and mandatory -- donation.
"I'm planning an event at the Air and Space Museum for a Fortune 500 company where we'll have the museum all to ourselves, with a movie in the IMAX theater and an entire seated dinner," said Smith, the professional event organizer. "That's quite a bit different than going in there with 50,000 kids running around in the middle of the day."
Sometimes, even modest business groups seek museum space as a perk to their members. When the International City/County Management Association met here last year, the Air and Space Museum requested a $25,000 donation as a price of admission.
That fee was half the price the museum normally charges, but the association could still not afford it. So the association let WMX Technologies Inc., a waste management company, cover the cost -- even though WMX was seeking business from the same municipal workers who were throwing the party, said Nancy Thomas, the association's conference planner.
Despite internal protests about conflict of interest, the management association accepted $40,000 from WMX for the party, Thomas said. The party -- with actors slathered in blue paint, roaming among the exhibits as space aliens -- was too enticing for members to resist, she said.