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.
“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.”
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
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.