Competing for the 2016 Republican National Convention

Why two second-tier cities think they have what it takes to host the Republican National Convention

In late February of this year, 26 cities submitted bids -- in response to an exhaustive 29-page request for proposal -- to host the 2016 Republican National Convention. By May 22, the RNC's site-selection committee had whittled down the list of hopefuls to the final four. Along with perennial top-tier destinations Dallas and Denver, the other two, surprisingly, are mid-tier cities: Cleveland and Kansas City, Mo.

Also in the running until they respectfully withdrew on May 22 were Las Vegas and Cincinnati. In a statement regarding the newly narrowed field, Enid Mickelsen, chair of the RNC's site-selection committee, noted, "Today the committee determined that Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, and Kansas City will receive official visits from the full RNC site-selection delegation. All [six] cities excelled in nearly every aspect of their bids and presentation this year, but these four cities stood out from the field from the start of this process and deserve a deeper look by the full committee." Official site visits to the remaining cities are expected to take place this month.

Why do the two smaller players believe their cities have what it takes to face off against two power hitters? "We relish being the underdog. When we win big things, it's because people don't expect a lot from us, and that works to our advantage," says David Gilbert, president and chief executive officer of Positively Cleveland, the destination's convention and visitors bureau. "It just makes us work that much harder."

The winner gets a week in the national spotlight during the summer of 2016, and so much more: An influx of $50 million in federal money will be earmarked for security and various logistics, and the convention is expected to have an economic impact of at least $427 million, thanks to 40,000 or so convention delegates and visitors, including 15,000 media reps. It's a marketing platform most cities dream of riding, if only once.

The challenges, however, are equal to the opportunities. For starters, the chosen city will have to raise $55 million in private funding to host the convention, ready a convention hall that can seat 18,000 and be able to provide 16,000 "first-class" sleeping rooms, plus another 1,000 suites. (For more details, see "What It Takes to Host a Presidential Nominating Convention," page 38.)

In 2012, Tampa, Fla., which last played host to the RNC, was plagued with transportation problems, leaving delegates sitting for hours on buses as they attempted to shuttle between outlying hotels and the Tampa Bay Times Forum in the city's downtown, where the convention was held. And in Charlotte, N.C., the Charlotte Observer reported that the Duke Energy Co. took a loss on a $10 million credit line extended to the 2012 Democratic National Convention held in that city, after fundraising efforts fell short. Another caveat: For the first time, the RNC is considering moving up the dates of the convention to either June or July, which is considerably earlier than recent cycles and could get in the way of sports teams and other scheduled events using arenas that would be needed for the convention.

Win, or lose, the mid-tier contenders have succeeded in putting their city's names in front of thousands of potential groups that might have passed them over for consideration in recent years. "Going through this bid process has made us a stronger convention destination," says Jon Stephens, interim president and chief executive officer of the Kansas City Convention & Visitors Association. "This project allowed us to gain more awareness on the national scene. People want cities that offer something different, and we feel we have it."

A final decision by the RNC is due later this year. (The Democrats will not begin to determine their next national convention city until next year.) Meanwhile, here are profiles of the Two Destinations That Could, including what they've been doing to ramp up their attractions for the RNC -- and beyond.

Cincinnati: So CLose
On May 22, with the RNC site-selection committee poised to cull its list of cities in the running to host the 2016 convention, both Cincinnati and Las Vegas respectfully withdrew their bids. Just a few weeks earlier, Dan Lincoln, president and CEO of Cincinnati USA, the destination's convention and visitors bureau, was bullish about his city's chances. "Bring it on," Lincoln told M&C. "When we hosted the NAACP in 2008, it had come down to us and Las Vegas, and we won."

Why Cincinnati? With its deep German roots, historic architecture, ornate bridges and rolling hills, the city defies the stereotype of the American Midwest. And, thanks to its geographical perch at the confluence of two other states besides its native Ohio, the city also pulls in resources from Kentucky and Indiana. "Three states for one location. They are all part of our bid," noted Lincoln. "That's a lot of political juice coming out of our RFP."

Over the past decade, Cincinnati has ramped up its revitalization efforts to near warp speed. An injection of $1.4 billion in new infrastructure included a $135 million expansion and renovation of the Duke Energy Convention Center and creation of the $400 million Horseshoe Casino and Broadway Commons District within walking distance of the center. In addition, phase one of development of The Banks, the city's new downtown entertainment district along the Ohio River, wrapped up this past May. That first $600 million installment included a number of residential units, restaurants, retailers and underground parking facilities. The entire project is expected to be completed by 2016.

Meanwhile, new hotel development will boost Cincinnati's inventory to 27,000, with 3,000 rooms within walking distance of the convention center. Recent entries include the 160-room 21c Museum Hotel, with 8,000 square feet of meeting space. A 105-room Homewood Suites by Hilton and a 144-room Hampton Inn & Suites are slated to open by year's end.

The sore spot, which ultimately took Cincy out of the running, is its 40-year-old, privately owned U.S. Bank Arena, with seating for 17,556. The venue hasn't seen a major renovation since a $14 million facelift in 1997. The bid also called for 80 luxury boxes, while the arena has just 38. The Nederlander Entertainment Co., which owns the facility, said a large-scale renovation could cost as much as $100 million, but the company was willing to spend $650,000 to add 1,300 seats and space for larger stages. Further, Nederlander had pledged to invest an additional $4 million in renovations if Cincinnati was to win the convention.

After the decision to withdraw, Dan Lincoln expressed appreciation for the opportunity to bid on the event and for the site-selection committee's constructive feedback. "Cincinnati's bid effort for the 2016 Republican National Convention has been an incredibly positive learning experience that showcased Cincinnati as a premier destination for major national conventions," he said.

When Cleveland made a bid for the RNC in 1976, its lack of hotel rooms thwarted any chances of a win. But that was more than three decades ago, and much has changed in this northeastern Ohio city, which by year-end 2016 will have in place almost $3 billion in new infrastructure. That includes more guest rooms, thanks to nine new hotels that will anchor the city's revitalization and increase its downtown room count, currently at 3,000, by 55 percent.

Among the newcomers is a long-awaited convention center headquarters hotel. In April of this year, the city finally broke ground on the 600-room Hilton Cleveland/Downtown Convention Center Hotel, which will offer 55,000 square feet of meeting space and will be connected to the new $465 million Cleveland Convention Center and adjacent Global Center for Health Innovation, both of which opened in 2013. Combined, the two facilities offer more than 236,000 square feet of exhibit space.

Cleveland isn't just packing new infrastructure -- it's also intent on reshaping its image. In March, Positively Cleveland unveiled a campaign squarely aimed at attracting group business. The general theme is that "Cleveland doesn't follow anyone's rules -- it makes its own," per the bureau's press office.

"Cleveland's manufacturing past, the different ethnic groups it attracted and the challenges we've faced make the city a diverse, creative and authentic place to visit," says Colette Jones, vice president of marketing of Positively Cleveland.  "Because of our experiences, conforming to other city's standards just isn't in our DNA."

David Gilbert, president and CEO of the bureau, adds, "The city has changed dramatically in a handful of ways, and it's time to change the narrative and drive home our renaissance. We have a completely new vibe, one of sophistication and grit. But most of all, there is a real confidence in the community by people in the community, and it shows."

Supporting the renaissance are several major attractions, such as the new Greater Cleveland Aquarium, which opened in 2012, and the new Horseshoe Casino, with 2,000 slot machines and 89 gaming tables. And the Cleveland Museum of Art is in the midst of a multiyear, $350 million expansion, which includes building a stunning new glass-enclosed atrium connecting the museum's original 19th-century neoclassical building with its new wings.

What It Takes to Host a Presidential Nominating Convention
The GOP's requirements for hosting its 2016 convention run 27 pages long and include everything from electrical specifications and medical facilities to security fencing and janitorial services. Here's a look at some of the highlights.

• $50 million to $60 million in seed money required to host the four-day event

• 16,000 first-class hotel rooms, plus 1,000 one-and two-bedroom suites for use during the RNC, plus 1,000 first-class hotel rooms and 100 one- and two-bedroom suites for the two weeks before the convention

• A convention hall, arena or similar facility capable of seating at least 18,000, plus space for another 2,500 on the floor

• Approximately 40,000 square feet of office space located within the main convention area, comprised of 75 rooms and related work space

• 75,000 square feet of function space near the main convention area for meetings and committee sessions, preferably in the form of 12 rooms ranging in size from 2,500 square feet to 15,500 square feet

• For the media, 250,000 to 350,000 square feet of workspace, adjacent to or near the main convention area A 30,000-square-foot construction area adjacent to the convention facility for building and assembling materials, with a paved parking lot to accommodate 40 tractor trailers

• Parking facilities for 2,000 cars and 30-plus buses within or near the main convention area

• Approximately 350 air-conditioned buses to transport convention participants between the main convention facility and their respective hotels

• At least 5,000 volunteers and one dedicated person to train, organize, coordinate and manage volunteer operations

Kansas City, Mo. 
At a meeting of the Republican National Committee held in Washington,D.C., this past January, Kansas City's host committee, which included members of the Kansas City Convention & Visitors Association, wooed RNC members with a gala reception at a local South American grill house, complete with BBQ, Kansas City jazz and even an appearance by former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole.

The romancing didn't end there. Weeks later, a task force delivered its official proposal to the party, which included a video showcasing the city with glitzy production values to rival any miniseries pilot. Created by the CVA and posted to YouTube, the video extols the virtues of the city while using the tag line, "KC 2016. All roads lead to here."

"We are not just a bunch of stats. Our story is a compelling one," says Jon Stephens of the KCCVA. "Anybody can provide X number of hotel rooms and square-footage stats. It's all about conveying your story, and our CVB is very agile, with a strong digital presence that allows us to do just that."

Backing up the tech-savvy presentation is $6 billion in new development, including a $150 million overhaul of the Kansas City Convention Center, which gave it LEED Silver status, and a new 46,484-square-foot ballroom (the facility has a total of 388,000 square feet of exhibit space).

Within walking distance are 2,000 hotel rooms and downtown's newest attraction, the $850 million mixed-use Power & Light District. This eight-block area is the site of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, which opened in 2011 as the new home to the Kansas City Ballet, the Lyric Opera, the Kansas City Symphony and other homegrown attractions, plus dozens of restaurants, art galleries, retail shops and other draws.

Among the city's many attributes, Stephens cites two factors in particular: Raising the required $50 million in private monies is no problem, he says, thanks to a strong civic leadership and financial team. As for the RNC considering moving up the dates of the convention, "We are in a unique position," says Stephens. "We have a great Sprint Center, and we don't have an anchor tenant like a hometown professional sports team. So we have the ability to be flexible."

And, depending on how you look at it, Kansas City might have another leg up on its competitors: It hosted the RNC in 1928 and 1976, which might make a 2016 return a little bit of a nostalgic homecoming, despite the city's dramatically changing skyline.

"A political convention is something that is pretty unique. It allows you to showcase democracy in action," says Stephens. "It's a great opportunity to allow your city to rally around and get put on the world stage."