Ellie Schafer, Director of the White House Visitors Office, may be the most powerful person in Washington that you’ve never heard of.
The White House is one of the few places in the world that serves as both the residence and executive office for a head of state. But the White House isn’t simply a home to first families or reception space for world leaders. It’s also a living museum that’s free and open to the public. Ellie Schafer, special assistant to the president and director of the White House Visitors Office, is tasked with fulfilling the president and first lady’s mission to make this White House the most accessible in history. She is the welcoming face for celebrities, dignitaries, and ordinary citizens.
Schafer’s unique mix of skills—not to mention her megawatt smile and penchant for finding the best in everyone—makes her perfect for the job, which she has held since January 2009. Schafer previously ran her own small business, managing events for the likes of the Dalai Lama and a book tour for then-Senator Barack Obama.
The President embraces Schafer during the annual Easter Egg Roll in 2011.
Originally from North Dakota, Schafer initially stepped foot in the White House on her first day on the job. When she saw that requests for tours were still being handled by fax, she knew it was time to modernize. After consulting with congressional offices that receive the majority of requests for White House tours, she rolled up her sleeves and got to work. The result: reduced wait times and a better overall guest experience. Inspired by a flight to San Francisco, Schafer created a guest boarding pass for every visitor. Tour approvals skyrocketed from 2 to 50 percent.
“Revitalizing the system is a significant accomplishment for our team,” says Schafer. “The president asked us to leave this White House better than we found it, and I’m very proud that we have done that.”
The White House Visitors Office also manages large events at the White House. During her tenure, Schafer has overseen more than 1,500 events with more than three million visitors. But of all of the events, the White House Easter Egg Roll is her favorite. Historically, families waited in line a few days in advance of the Easter Egg Roll in the hopes they would win tickets. Michelle Obama wanted families to know earlier if they could attend the event, so Schafer and her team developed a lottery system.
Mrs. Obama and Schafer in the first lady’s office.
They also changed the entrance to the Ellipse so that they could entertain guests who were waiting with musical performances, family-friendly water stations, and healthy snacks. They re-engineered the entry system—bringing in 5,000 guests at a time, every two hours, in five different blocks. This not only increased the number of people who could attend, but also increased the amount of time guests could spend on the South Lawn, listening to A-list performers or enjoying hands-on fun such as hula hooping, jumping rope, and, of course, rolling those White House Easter eggs.
It’s currently the very busy spring season, and there’s no time for Schafer’s team of five staffers and more than 1,000 volunteers to rest. Four days after hosting 35,000 guests at the Easter Egg Roll, the White House will invite 30,000 more guests to enjoy its spring garden tours.
Schafer in the Oval Office with the president.
Schafer is one of only a handful of aides who has been with the president since the very beginning. She first met Obama when working on his book tour in 2006. “When I started working for him,” Schafer recalls, “there was no doubt in my mind that he was the best person for the job. I was willing to make every sacrifice to help make that happen, including 654 days on the road living out of a suitcase. It was the best experience of my life, and it’s been an incredible journey.”
She continues, “The mystique of this place will never wear off. I still get chills just coming through the gate. Or showing someone around and saying, ‘This is George Washington’s sword.’ I’m like, Washington’s sword! How cool is that?”
But there’s one day that stands out for Schafer. “There was a girl from the Make-a-Wish Foundation whose one wish was to meet the president,” she recalls. “Afterward, as we were walking back to the car, the girl’s father looked at me and said, ‘I haven’t seen her smile this much in a long time. I think you added a few months to her life.’ Those are the moments that take your breath away and make you realize the enormity of your job.”