March 01, 1999
Meetings & Conventions The Philadelphia Story March 1999 Current Issue
March 1999

Philly’s biggest fan: Rendell poses among his mayoral predecessors in portraiture in City Hall’s reception room.

The Philadelphia Story

Urban renewal and a hopeful mayor bring the GOP to town

By Carla Benini

Philadelphia Mayor Edward G. Rendell’s “regular guy” charisma is startling. If it weren’t for the uniformed guard outside his office, one could easily imagine him as some giddy Phillies baseball fan cheering wildly in the next seat.

Many credit the native New Yorker with authoring Philly’s urban success story. He turned a $200 million structural budget deficit in 1992 into a $169 million surplus in the fiscal year ending June 1998. He has forged public-private partnerships that have made more than 400 recommendations to the city on how to better manage itself. Now, Rendell can finish his term and script the last chapter of this rags-to-renewal story with a particularly happy ending, as Philadelphia will host the Republican National Convention in 2000.

This, perhaps, is the biggest coup for the 54-year-old mayor and for the city’s convention and tourism industry. Economic impact of the 2000 convention is estimated at $100 million. The six-day event attracts close to 40,000 visitors, who sleep in an estimated 20,000 hotel rooms, line up at the city’s major attractions and sate themselves at local bars and restaurants. With a projected 15,000 journalists in town, the media exposure is priceless. “There’s no better vehicle to unite a community,” says Karen Buchholz, executive director of Philadelphia 2000, the organization that assembled bids for the Republican and Democratic conventions.

What’s more, any city that successfully wins a bid for a national political convention receives an almost automatic stamp of approval in the eyes of convention planners. Says Mike Gamble, senior vice president, sales and marketing for the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau, “We moved up a notch as a convention city.” As soon as word got out about Philadelphia winning the bid, Gamble instructed his sales staff to call every potential convention client. “I want them to hear it straight from you that we got the RNC,” Gamble told them.

Daydream believer
In 1996, Rendell was about the only person who believed Philadelphia could pull it off. The idea was born when he attended the 1996 Democratic convention in Chicago. “I was struck by how the city of Chicago was totally immersed in the convention. They wanted the world to see the new Chicago,” says Rendell, in between sipping the last droplets of a 32-ounce soda. “I didn’t even wait to see the economic impact figures. That was enough for me.” He began plotting a course for how to lure either the Republican or Democratic conventions, holding meetings with an inner circle of business and political leaders over the 10 days following his return from Chicago.

His audience was skeptical. “When I got people together and said we’re going to make a bid for both conventions, they looked at me like I’d lost my senses.” Tom Muldoon, president of the convention and visitors bureau, attests to that.

“With the Democrats, we thought maybe there’s a chance,” Muldoon says. “But why would Republicans come to an overwhelmingly Democratic city with a Democratic mayor?”

Rendell had his work cut out. For one thing, Philadelphia suffered from a poor self-image, despite its steady recovery. Here is where a billboard in the 1970s proclaimed, “Philadelphia isn’t as bad as Philadelphians say it is.” Its convention industry was still in its infancy, having hosted its first citywide (groups using 2,000 hotel rooms on peak nights) in 1992. As a convention host, “We weren’t even on the radar screen,” says Gamble. And, its hotel infrastructure couldn’t support the demands of a major political convention. In 1996, the CVB’s hotel members had 6,300 rooms in Center City, the city’s downtown core, among 17,000 within a 30-minute drive. Site selection committees needed 20,000 commitable rooms to even consider Philly. As for its ability to raise the millions it takes to host a convention, Philadelphia was just emerging from its own financial quagmire.

Build it and the politicos will come
Philadelphia faced some intimidating competition from New York City, New Orleans, Chicago and Los Angeles, all of which had hosted conventions in the past.

First, Philadelphia had to address its hotel shortage. “From the outset, the perceived weakness was the number of hotel rooms,” says David Cohen, the mayor’s former chief of staff and appointed co-chair of Philadelphia 2000. To get to that magic number of 20,000 hotel rooms, the CVB’s Gamble knew he needed a base of 25,000 to 30,000 rooms.

The CVB got lucky, sort of. It realized it was only counting member hotels. So, Gamble and Buchholz set out to recount the region’s hotel rooms, visiting 120 properties in five days. They came up with 26,000 acceptable rooms throughout the greater Philadelphia area.

But having the right number of hotel rooms meant little if Gamble couldn’t persuade general managers to commit them. Typically, GM’s are asked for 50 to 75 percent of their inventory for a major convention. This time, Gamble wanted 90 percent from hotels in Center City and near the airport and 80 percent from regional hotels.

Outlying hotels weren’t feeling too generous at first. “The farther out we got, the more reluctant the hotels were to commit large blocks of rooms,” says Gamble. “They were nervous about them actually being picked up.” But by the end of 1997, Gamble had their word. “No one wanted to be the odd man out.”

Even with 90 percent of downtown hotel rooms on hold, Philadelphia needed more. In 1996, Rendell called for 2,000 new rooms by 2000 and offered HUD loans and special financing breaks to attract major chains. As a result, Philadelphia is scheduled to far surpass its goal of 2,000 rooms and expects 4,200. Muldoon says the building boom was also due to the fact that hotel companies were able to convert office space into rooms, as opposed to building from the ground up; 70 percent of new development is former office space.

As for facilities, Philadelphia was in good shape. The First Union Center (formerly the CoreStates Center) had opened in 1996 with a high-tech sound system and multimedia capabilities. The Pennsylvania Convention Center is only five years old, but will undergo an electronic retrofit, says Bob Butera, president and CEO of the center. The project will allow for better quality video output and more Internet hookups, including the ability for wireless connections. The center will also install Internet and e-mail kiosks.

Show me the donations
Some industries took a while to get on the political convention bandwagon. “The hospitality community became true believers quickly,” says Rendell. “The corporate community was harder to convince.”

And yet, corporate donations are one of the most important aspects of a convention bid. This was where Buchholz’s sales expertise came into play. In fact, she was hired in part for her ability in a previous job to sell skyboxes at the First Union Center before its construction was a definite.

The 31-year-old, known for a militant attention to detail and a need for daily doses of chocolate, says almost no one turned down her solicitations. “It was truly a ‘check your agenda at the door.’” She even managed to gather at one table employees from IBM, Comcast and Microsoft corporations to help put together the telecommunications aspect of the bid.

Politics aside?
As money was rolling in and hotels were going up, Philadelphians were beginning to believe they had a shot. The city was able to negotiate a generous transportation package: Delegates would have access to free bus transportation 18 hours a day. Governor Ridge agreed to hand over $7 million in state resources and lend troopers to help out with security.

But many still wondered if, despite a sturdy infrastructure and the fiscal generosity of the private sector, politics would prevent the Republicans from seriously considering Philadelphia as a candidate. After all, Rendell is a personal friend of both Clinton and Gore. He raised $4 million for their 1996 re-election campaign. And, the Republicans hadn’t been north of the Mason-Dixon line since 1980.

Few people seem to agree on the role of politics in the bid process. “I’m not going to tell you that politics didn’t come into play, but no more than for a home builders association,” says Tim Fitzpatrick, deputy press secretary for the Republican National Committee in Washington, D.C. “The bottom line is that the members of the site selection committee know that if the city is a political utopia for your party but the convention goes poorly, they’re going to hear about it.”

Chairperson of the Republican site selection committee, Jan Larimer, believes Philadelphia’s bipartisanship (referring to its Democratic mayor and Republican governor) was an advantage. “We had a certain level of comfort with them because both sides were represented.”

Give me a ‘P’! Give me an ‘H’!&
Rendell took on many roles during the bid process. He lured people like Buchholz and Cohen to spearhead Philadelphia 2000. He took the lead in creating the “delegate experience” and was responsible for imagining the first-ever Political Fest, an interactive exhibit that will allow delegates to do things like videotape themselves giving an acceptance speech.

But perhaps more than anything, Rendell played head cheerleader. “My role was to make everyone believe we could do it,” he says.

And the Republican site selection committee could easily sense the enthusiasm. “With all of the groups we talked to the hotels, unions and corporations they all got it,” says Larimer. “They understand the importance of having this in their city.” For the 104 hotel inspections, committee members were escorted by the general managers of each hotel. Often they were greeted by hotel staffs and local volunteers waving banners welcoming them to the city.

Says Larimer, “Philadelphia’s spirit was incredible. They wanted it, they went out and they got it.”

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