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.
BEANTOWN'S HOME RUN
Now that the Democratic National Convention is history, will Boston ever be the same? According to Pat Moscaritolo, president and CEO of the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau, the DNC made the city even better especially for meeting planners.
Moscaritolo points out that nearly 1,600 new hotel rooms were opened in the last two years, as properties readied themselves for the big event. Also, he says, about $300 million was spent refurbishing area guest rooms and meeting space.
He adds that local destination management companies hired by delegations and convention-bound corporations gained a wealth of experience by putting on showstopping events at venues around the city. Also, the DNC’s host committee compiled a directory of suppliers that will continue to be available to meeting planners through the GBCVB.
Then there’s Fenway Park. Normally open to groups only one day a year, the stadium made an exception and hosted events for DNC visitors. It all went so well, says Moscaritolo, that Red Sox and stadium executives want to open the venue to future group events. “If we can’t win the World Series,” jokes Moscaritolo, “at least we can talk about Fenway as a business opportunity.” - B.M.
In the middle of it:
Avoid transit nightmares
Big-city events can easily snarl traffic and leave local
commuters fuming behind their steering wheels. So, with a
300-vehicle motor pool and a shuttle-bus system serving more than
10,000 guests around Boston, DNC organizers paid close attention to
To make sure local residents could continue their daily
routines with some regularity, organizers reached out to local
municipalities and police departments to coordinate a plan allowing
attendees to scoot around Beantown without disrupting traffic.
“One thing you learn is to be patient and have a clear
understanding of the environment,” Garcia notes. “In the end,
coordination with local authorities will help ensure a successful
event. Especially since transportation is the first and last thing
you will see, it will have a strong impact on a guest’s
Let them walk
For attendees at this year’s DNC who also experienced the
2000 convention in Los Angeles, the two cities differed in more
ways than just their time zones. Some delegates at the L.A.
convention were housed as far as 17.6 miles from the Staples
Center. And in a city where walking is uncommon, many attendees
resented being stuck in L.A. traffic.
That all changed when the DNC headed to Boston. Organizers say
one of their reasons for choosing the city was that it is a great
walking destination. “The total number of rooms within the radius
of the center made it much easier than in L.A., where we had to go
out and search for hotels to add to our block,” recalls Garcia. “In
Boston, we had hotels to the north, south, east and west of
Without having to search for hotels, the DNC was able to
quickly assign delegates to rooms. In fact, Rod O’Connor, CEO of
the 2004 DNC, said organizers were able to match state delegations
with their hotels in record time “nearly three months before we did
at the 2000 convention,” he says.
Considering the DNC was the first political convention
held since 9/11, it is no surprise that security was a top-line
item among organizers. In fact, in May 2003, the DNC was designated
a National Special Security Event, giving the Secret Service the
lead role in fostering a safe convention.
Although the Secret Service has handled security at past
conventions, the agency took steps to understand the challenges
unique to the DNC and to Boston. Over the course of a year, service
employees designed and implemented a plan with the help of the DNC,
the host committee, FleetCenter, the FBI, the Federal Aviation
Administration, the Transportation Security Administration, and
other federal and local agencies. A spokesperson with the Secret
Service says re-evaluating security plans is important, since
concerns have changed since 9/11 and each event and venue demands
its own specific approach.
At the DNC, for example, where many participants require
varying degrees of access, the security plan required attendees and
all credential holders to walk through security checkpoints before
entering FleetCenter. “We use credentialing as a tool to identify
where an individual has a right to gain access,” says Ann Roman,
spokesperson for the Secret Service.
Come early, stay late:
New York City is urging
RNC delegates to extend
their visits, says Bill Harris,
CEO of the mammoth event.
Aug. 30-Sept. 2, Madison Square Garden, New York City
To raise President George W. Bush’s chances of capturing a
second term, the GOP’s convention must run like clockwork. Scores
of Republican planners have labored for many months to ensure that
a tightly controlled event plays out amid the protests, security
efforts and traffic snarls expected to beset Midtown Manhattan
during the politically charged event. Some lessons to be
Use the CVB
When announcing that New York City would play host to the
Republican National Convention in 2004, the GOP cited the city’s
efficient mass transit system, its heavy concentration of media and
its ability to provide airtight security as reasons for selection.
But the GOP might as well have added the support of NYC &
Company, the city’s convention and visitors bureau, to that list of
With the bureau’s help, the Republicans booked their hotel
block early and got a fantastic rate: The average cost of a
Manhattan guest room for GOP delegates (who cover their own
expenses) is $156 per night. “The rate was negotiated more than a
year ago,” says Cristyne Nicholas, president and CEO of NYC &
Company. “Remember, things were vastly different then. When we did
the negotiation, occupancy in New York was low, we were gearing up
for the Iraq war and SARS was on the horizon.”
Nicholas, a onetime aide to Republican former Mayor Rudolph
Giuliani, was among a small group of city honchos who initially
traveled to Washington, D.C., to pitch the Big Apple’s hotel
package to the Republicans. And when the GOP sent its National Site
Selection Committee on an inspection visit, the bureau was involved
in most aspects of the trip.
“We helped create the itinerary, escort them to various venues
and create welcome parties,” Nicholas says. “It was terrifically
satisfying when they chose New York City for the convention.”
Since then, NYC & Company has worked hand-in-hand with the
GOP to make the convention a benefit for the city. “We’ve jointly
launched the ‘Come Early, Stay Late’ program, which offers great
discounts and special offers from more than 400 New York City
attractions, museums and stores,” says 2004 Republican National
Convention CEO Bill Harris, the man in charge of organizing the
“The program also offers extended convention rates at all 43
convention hotels from Aug. 22 through Sept. 8, to make it easy and
convenient to turn a visit into a vacation for delegates,
alternates, guests and convention visitors,” adds Harris. “Plus,
we’ve arranged with PRA Destination Management to set up New York
City custom tours specifically for the convention.”
TREAT THE PRESS
When journalists converge in New York City to cover the GOP convention, they will first be fêted at a star-studded media party thrown at the Time Warner Center by the media giant, along with the NYC Host Committee 2004, the organization charged with raising funds for convention expenses. The soiree will feature a photo exhibit from Sports Illustrated. On another night, The New York Times will be sponsor of the “Salute to Broadway” event in cooperation with the NYC Host Committee. Media housing is assigned and arranged via the GOP’s Committee on Arrangements.
Office space, too, will be provided to the press in a big way. The grandiose Farley Post Office Building, directly across Eighth Avenue from Madison Square Garden, will be used by the GOP as work space for press during the convention. The facility will include a media center that will distribute press releases and speech transcripts, a briefing room for press conferences, and a “surrogate operation” that will serve up masters of political spin.
The most talked-about aspect of the press’ accommodations is the temporary, 140-foot-long pedestrian bridge being constructed above Eighth Avenue. The $1 million walkway will keep journalists and camera operators within the convention’s security perimeter and provide a conduit for the heavy cables running between Madison Square Garden and the Farley facility.
Inside the Garden itself, the press will have access to the best camera angles, skyboxes, site lines and stand-up reporting locales, all of which have been carefully pre-arranged to cast the event in its best light - B.M.L.
Temporary GOP headquarters:
Madison Square Garden
“New York City offered to host this convention in 2001
because the city’s civic, business and labor leaders knew this
would be a good development,” says Rori Patrise Smith, spokesperson
for the RNC. “We are committed to serving the economy and
strengthening the community.”
NYC & Company predicts the event will inject more than $150
million directly into the city’s economy, bringing 50,000 people to
New York City. (This includes 15,000 members of the media, but does
not count the many thousands of anti-GOP protesters expected.)
However, last December came word that the Republican house
majority leader Tom DeLay planned to charter the 2,240-passenger
luxury cruise liner, Norwegian Dawn, to both house and entertain
Republican members of Congress during convention week. The ship
would be docked in the Hudson River, off the island of
DeLay’s cruise ship ploy spurred speculation that perhaps
Republicans were unwilling to spend dollars in the city and drew
fire from local officials, including New York’s Mayor Michael
Bloomberg and NYC & Company’s Nicholas. DeLay eventually
retracted the plan.
Now that their figurative ship has come in, NYC & Company
has worked to help the GOP throw its money around town for events
surrounding the convention. Recently, Cristyne Nicholas gave a
spiel to 54 RNC delegation heads on local businesses and venues
appropriate for the lavish parties that attach to a national
political convention. “We also created a brochure with services
such as florists, deejays and other extras,” says Nicholas.
The Come Early, Stay Late campaign also aims to bring more
business to the city. “We have a minimum five-night convention stay
for delegates, but we want to expand that to an eight-night stay,”
Nicholas notes. During this time frame, delegates will be treated
to deals at 300 New York venues like Bloomingdale’s and the Museum
of Modern Art. What’s more, 13,373 conventioneers and guests will
enjoy free Broadway musicals.
Work with the experts
The day-to-day work of coordinating bookings between 43 New York
City hotels has been left to locally based Travel Planners Inc., a
25-year-old site selection and housing firm.
Bill Harris explains the process: “We have many excellent
hotels in Manhattan, minutes away from Madison Square Garden. The
housing assignments are based on several factors, including size of
the delegation or group, requirements for function space, and any
special requests. We assign each group to a specific hotel and room
type based on their needs. Travel Planners then handles the
“The GOP’s Committee on Arrangements directs almost every room,
and who is to be placed where, so our function really isn’t
placement,” notes Ray Vastola, president of Travel Planners. “You
have to look at who the attendees are. From each state, it’s the
most important politicians and community leaders. There are three
staff members at the COA with whom we are in touch at least a
couple of times a day, both by phone and e-mail. They’re passing
information along to us, and we’re passing that information along
to the hotel.”
The GOP’s official convention housing block comprises most of
the big hotels arrayed throughout Midtown Manhattan, the area
surrounding Madison Square Garden. President Bush is likely to
maintain the presidential custom of staying at the Waldorf=Astoria,
while the Republicans’ biggest state delegations are booked at the
largest hotel properties. For example, California and Ohio
delegates will be at the 1,946-room New York Marriott Marquis,
while Texas’ delegation is at the 1,980-room Hilton New York.
Groups from smaller states will lodge in hotels deemed
appropriate to their size: sparsely populated Maine is at the
509-room W New York in Times Square, for example.
All summer, New Yorkers have seen their onetime mayor, the
Honorable Edward I. Koch, posing in newspaper and subway
advertisements with an elephant the symbol of the Republican Party.
“The Republicans are coming to town. Make nice,” Koch says in one.
“Delegates will be coming from all over the U.S. to stay in our
hotels, ride on our subways, eat in our restaurants, and spend
their money. Let’s help them do it.”
Koch, a Democrat, has become the most public face of the NYC
Host Committee 2004, a nonpartisan, not-for-profit group organized
to host and finance the 2004 National Republican Convention while
maximizing the economic benefit to New York City. Prominent members
of the NYC Host Committee include Mayor Michael Bloomberg and state
Governor George Pataki, along with businessmen and financial
rainmakers like Jonathan Tisch, chairman and CEO of Loews Hotels;
Sandford Weill, the chairman of Citigroup; Henry Paulson Jr. of
Goldman Sachs; and banker David Rockefeller.
The total budget for the GOP’s 2004 New York City convention is
$91 million it is the most expensive political convention in U.S.
history. The NYC Host Committee 2004 is raising about $64 million
of that total in private donations from individuals and
corporations, to pick up the convention’s bills. The committee’s
contribution will pay for expenses such as the cost of renting
Madison Square Garden, constructing the press’ footbridge over
Eighth Avenue, transporting delegates around Manhattan, laying
carpet and renting portable toilets.
Indeed, private donations to the host committees for both the
Republican and Democratic conventions have become the main avenue
for companies and individuals to drive large “soft money” (i.e.,
unlimited) contributions to political groups supportive of the
As last-minute details for the RNC fall into place, it is clear
the NYC Host Committee 2004 has connected the Republican convention
to the lives and experience of thousands of New Yorkers of all
stripes and economic levels. All of the committee’s planning,
fund-raising and expertise should make the GOP’s nominating
convention an interesting one to watch. It is also worth
remembering: The convention is just one phase in the long,
complicated, messy and majestic process of electing a president of
the United States.