by Bruce Myint and Brendan M. Lynch | August 01, 2004

Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote that politics is perhaps the only profession for which no preparation is thought necessary. Organizers who prepared this summer’s national political conventions might disagree.
   The Democrats have just had their convention; when the confetti falls on the Republicans next month it will cap a season of hard work by both parties’ planners, an effort highlighted by the forging of hotel contracts, the readying of fleets of shuttle vans, the training of legions of volunteers and the publicizing of endless messages of policy and polemics.
   As with all huge undertakings, the conventions provide plenty of opportunities to bump up the learning curve, and this year’s events offer a complete curriculum of dos and don’ts. M&C asked meetings professionals from both sides of the Beltway to share the lessons they learned from planning amidst all the pandemonium of American presidential politics.

The Democrats

“What happens within the walls
of the FleetCenter in four days
has a profound effect on the future of
this nation,” says the DNC’s Alice Huffman.

July 26-29, FleetCenter, Boston

“Planning an event of this magnitude for 35,000 people presents a different set of challenges in different cities,” says Alice Huffman, chair of the Democratic National Convention Committee. “Therefore, it was critical that we placed the appropriate staff in certain positions to help our event succeed. What happens within the walls of the FleetCenter in four days has a profound effect on the future of this nation.” 
    For Huffman, the proof is in the numbers. This summer, an estimated 5,000 delegates, reporters and other guests booked 109,000 room nights at 63 hotels and three universities around Boston, all part of the crush to attend the Democratic National Convention. A majority of the reservations were made during the final 30 days leading to the event, all of which brings us to lesson number one:

Harness hotel bookings
For past Democratic conventions, attendees had to dial in or fax hotels their reservation requests, a process requiring a tornado of paperwork which sometimes led to errors. What’s worse, the manual process made it difficult for organizers to quickly determine whether or not room blocks were being filled.
    This year, for the first time, convention attendees were able to book rooms through a customized event portal provided by Passkey International Inc., a Quincy, Mass.-based company. The change allowed organizers to eliminate paperwork and see room blocks materialize in real time. That meant planners could work proactively with hoteliers if blocks did not fill up as quickly as they had expected. 
    Another advantage of the technology was that it simplified the “sub-blocking process,” according to Greg Pesik, president and CEO of Passkey. “If you have a 7,000-room event, you might want to send VIPs to suites and exhibitors to rooms with special rates,” says Pesik. “By having an online inventory, you can automate that process, so when participants go to the booking page they can input what type of attendee they are, and they will see only the inventory specific to that group of people.”

Enlist volunteers
When DNC organizers sent out a call for convention volunteers, more than 10,000 applied from around the country and many were willing to pay for their own flights to Logan International Airport.
    In the end, 8,000 men and women were chosen to aid in such tasks as assisting with hospitality services, lending a hand at special events, shuttling VIPs and staffing volunteer headquarters.
    The planning team tried to select applicants with skills appropriate to their role at the convention, says a DNC official. Many of the volunteers swarming around the DNC press office, for example, were media veterans from the Beltway or public-relations pros from Boston.
    One of the biggest misconceptions about volunteers is the belief that they all want to play key roles such as being in the thick of the action on the big night. Not so, says Lina Garcia, spokesperson for the DNC. She says organizers had people applying to do “whatever it took to play a role or contribute in the overall success” of the event, even if that meant handing out flyers two miles away from the convention center.