It's Political

For the organizers of the Republican and Democratic national conventions, every detail counts. Here are some lessons in planning with eyes on the prize

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.

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:
Boston’s FleetCenter

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 transportation plans.  
    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 experience.”

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 FleetCenter.”
    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.

Address security
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.

The Republicans

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 learned:

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 local draws.
    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 mammoth event.
    “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.”

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.

Madison Square Garden



Temporary GOP headquarters:
Madison Square Garden

Spend locally
“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 Manhattan.
    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 reservation process.”
    “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.

Get sponsored
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 presidential candidates.
    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.