The competition among city Convention and Visitors Bureaus to attract high-profile conventions and events is best exemplified by the wrangling that’s been going on nationwide to land the most coveted of America’s citywide convention heavyweights — the Republican National Convention and the Democratic National Convention, both of which take place next summer. These are momentous occasions indeed as the parties choose their nominees for U.S. president and vice president. As a result, target cities under consideration have gone above and beyond, ramping up their meetings infrastructures and services to demonstrate that they can handle the influx, not to mention the media scrutiny. Association meeting planners are paying close attention, too, as their own conventions could reap the benefit of all those improvements for years to come. Doubtless, the bidders know that hosting such a high-profile convention would most certainly win them new convention business.
The decision on where to hold the 2016 Republican National Convention already has been made, with Cleveland landing the winning bid, thanks to a rapidly growing meetings infrastructure (see sidebar). David Gilbert, CEO of Destination Cleveland, recently told the Cleveland News-Herald, “Right now, Cleveland is enjoying a renaissance along with the benefits of billions of dollars in new public and private development and improvements. The city is stronger and healthier than it has been in a long time, and these new hotels capitalize on a growing tourism and meetings market here in Cleveland.”
Site selection for the Democratic National Convention (DNC), to be held in the summer of 2016, is still underway. The city that hosts the convention will bask in media visibility and enjoy a significant economic boost, thanks to the more than 50,000 visitors expected, including 5,000-6,000 delegates. On the short list are Birmingham, Alabama; Columbus, Ohio; New York, New York; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Phoenix, Arizona. At this point, all of the contenders have personally made their case to the Democratic National Committee, which has completed site visits to each city, the last one being Phoenix in mid-September.
“The site visits include a Technical Advisory Group who evaluate the various aspects of a bid,” explains Lily Adams, deputy communications director with the committee. “They will at some point in the near future report back to the chair and the CEO of the committee (Amy Dacey), who led the site visits, (providing) their analysis and findings for each of the cities bidding, and we’ll go from there. The final decision will be made late this year, or very early 2015.”
Numerous factors are weighed in a proposal, including convention infrastructure (e.g., number of hotel rooms, meeting venues, transportation), political considerations (e.g., battleground state status, presence of key constituency groups), security and fundraising ability. While the mayor’s office typically presents the bid, “certainly on each of these site visits we’ve met the relevant folks from the CVB,” notes Adams.
Julie Coker, executive vice president with the Philadelphia CVB, recalls the site visit to the City of Brotherly Love as “a whirlwind 36 hours to showcase our city as best we could, but I think we really did a great job with giving them good information. We were very well prepared with our bid, so there were very few questions that came back. And then we had an opportunity to showcase some iconic sights in Philadelphia that their delegates would experience and enjoy.”
Hosting the DNC would showcase the city within the association meetings market, Coker affirms. “Landing the DNC would provide huge visibility for the city of Philadelphia, so those customers who have not used the city in the past would have a great opportunity to see us on a national and international stage,” she says.
While Philadelphia hasn’t hosted the DNC since 1948, it was a more than capable host for the Republican National Convention in 2000, a precedent that is certainly a plus. In general, a strong track record with major conventions is seen as valuable experience, but that is far from the only factor. “Hosting big events teaches cities certain things and that’s obviously helpful, but each bid is evaluated on its merits,” Adams says. “So I wouldn’t say it gives a city an advantage or it doesn’t, but certainly I know that for cities like New York and Philadelphia that have hosted many large conventions before, they have taken lessons from those events and incorporated them into their bid.”
“Landing the DNC would provide huge visibility for the city of Philadelphia, so those customers who have not used the city in the past would have a great opportunity to see us on a national and international stage.” — Julie Coker
A more salient factor in the selection process is the kind of delegate experience the city can promise, including entertainment, culture, hospitality and “easy transportation, whether walking or otherwise, from hotels to the convention center,” Adams says. “Much of (the process) is not science; it’s sort of putting together what the whole package of the delegate experience would look like.” A DNC in Philadelphia would allow attendees “to experience the Barnes Foundation, the National Constitution Center, the new Comcast Tower, plus all the outdoor cafés and restaurants in and around downtown. It would make for a great delegate experience,” Coker maintains.
In addition, Philadelphia will have an opportunity to demonstrate its event security proficiency when the World Meeting of Families takes place in the city next September. “Should we be fortunate enough to have the Pope attend, then obviously that would be a great dress rehearsal for Philadelphia for the DNC in 2016,” says Coker.
Also weighing in the city’s favor is its solid convention infrastructure, including a nationally recognized public transit system (Septa) and two formidable venues. The main venue would be the Wells Fargo Center with larger caucus meetings being held at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. About 11,500 hotel rooms are within a 15-minute walk to the PCC, which expanded in 2011 and more recently came under SMG management. “Announced in the last two months, we have a new customer satisfaction agreement and the work rules will be much more favorable to exhibitors as well as show management,” says Coker. And while the PCC could have accommodated the DNC before the expansion, the extra 935,000 sf of space “just gives you more flexibility,” Coker says.
As to the Clinton and Biden family ties to Pennsylvania, “I wouldn’t necessarily say that puts us ahead,” she adds. “We’re relying more on the fact that we’ve done large events before and do them extremely well, mainly the RNC.”
Philadelphia’s rival in the East Coast DNC bid, the Big Apple has been a strong performer in the meetings market in recent years. The city’s tourism marketing organization, NYC & Company, reports that delegate visitation is up to 5.9 million in 2013 — from 5.6 million in 2012 — and delegate spending is estimated at $5 billion — up from $4.7 billion in 2012. In addition, there are 34 new hotels opening this fall and winter, which will take the five boroughs to approximately 104,500 rooms by year end. Brooklyn and Manhattan, however, are the relevant boroughs for the DNC, whose delegates would be lodging in Manhattan and commuting to Brooklyn’s Barclays Center.
On August 11, Barclays Center hosted members of the Democratic National Committee’s Technical Advisory Group for a tour of the arena. They were greeted by U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, Barclays Center majority owner Bruce Ratner and senior members of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s staff. The tour included everything from a demonstration of the center’s technological capabilities to sampling food from the center’s Brooklyn Taste program, which includes 55 Brooklyn restaurants and vendors.
In his speech, Schumer urged the committee to “take a close look at the endless benefits and amenities that could come from this multipurpose arena. It’s brand new. It opened in 2012. It makes this complex state-of-the-art all around in technologies, amenities, and more.” As to the attractions of his home borough, “for potential guests of the DNC they’re endless. From a thriving restaurant scene, to historic sites, museums and parks, to sports and entertainment and more, Brooklyn and New York City have it all.”
He also addressed the concern about transportation ease from Manhattan to Brooklyn: “Barclays could not be more accessible and connected to all the other boroughs, Long Island and beyond, thanks to New York City’s top-flight transit system. The transit hub right below us has 11 subway lines, a commuter rail line, and it’s going to be a key asset for this convention.” Schumer said he had “no doubt” that New York City’s Department of Transportation “will put a great plan in place to ensure a smooth flow of delegates. They’ve already arranged no-traffic alleyways and designated ferries between Brooklyn and Manhattan.” On the security issue, he emphasized that New York City is the safest “of the 25 largest metropolitan areas in the United States,” with the lowest crime rate.
On August 26, Mayor de Blasio spoke to the local press about the DNC bid, summarizing the value of winning it: “It’s indisputable that this convention will be a great boost for our city. The last time we had a convention in New York City, about a decade ago, it brought in over a quarter billion dollars into the New York City economy. This convention will bring in even more. It will be a great boost for Brooklyn and for the outer boroughs all together.”
Andre V. Bittas, head of planning, engineering and permits for the City of Birmingham, reports, “The city has satisfied all convention complex requirements stated in the RFP” sent by the Democratic National Committee. There was an issue regarding the number of suites available at the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Complex (BJCC). However, “The city provided a plan to add additional suites per their requirement,” Bittas notes. “In addition, they requested staff offices and related workspace to be accessible from the arena floor level. The city developed a layout and a plan to satisfy this requirement.”
Birmingham is no stranger to accommodating the needs of thousands of conventioneers. A case in point is the Ripon, Wisconsin-based National Speech & Debate Association’s National Tournament, the largest academic competition in the world. In 2009 and 2013, the tournament brought 7,000 participants, including 4,000 middle and high school students along with teachers, coaches, judges and parents, to the BJCC over eight to nine days. “We’re so pleased with the way Birmingham can host a convention of that size for that long of a period of time that we’ve committed to going back in 2017,” notes Scott Wunn, executive director.
“We’re so pleased with the way Birmingham can host a convention of that size for that long of a period of time that we’ve committed to going back in 2017.” — Scott Wunn
A key feature for the tournament, and one that is also important to the DNC, is the AV capabilities of the convention complex. “We put a lot of pressure on the host city being able to provide a venue and an appropriate AV company that can do the finals,” Wunn says. “It’s obviously really important to us that the quality of the sound is great. (The BJCC’s) concert hall is fantastic, and we’ve worked with Alabama Power each of the previous two nationals so the sound quality for our recordings and our DVDs, etc. is just spectacular.”
Birmingham also offers room rates that are among the most affordable of the cities bidding for the DNC. “We have a lot of high school programs that have to raise the money to get there, and even the highest price point for us is very affordable and the low price points are just fantastic,” says Wunn. In addition, the 757-room Sheraton Birmingham Hotel, where one of the debates is held, has demonstrated the ability to handle large meal functions. “We’ve been able to work out good situations for mass feeding on menus. The Sheraton has to feed in one hour over 500 competitors, and they do it without a glitch.” The hotel is connected to the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex, which offers more than 385,000 sf of meeting and exhibition space.
Despite all of the virtues of the city’s meeting venues, the National Speech & Debate Association “would not be coming to Birmingham if it wasn’t for the attention we receive from the CVB,” Wunn says. “We can call that office or email any time and get the information or troubleshooting that we need.” Furthermore, he believes that the Greater Birmingham CVB is “proactively seeking out organizations and groups that really fit the culture that they’re trying to build and their convention repertoire, so to speak.” The DNC would be quite an addition to that repertoire.
According to Megumi Robinson, spokesperson with Experience Columbus, “We had an excellent site visit with the (DNC) Technical Advisory Group on August 6 and 7. While they were in Columbus, we showed off our world-class venues, hotels, shopping areas, walkable neighborhoods, nationally recognized culinary and arts scene, ongoing developments and convention package, which includes the airport, convention center, hotels and the (19,500-seat) Nationwide Arena. …Additionally, they were able to see and experience our city’s collaborative spirit as public, private and civic partners joined together to welcome the team.”
Regarding those “ongoing developments,” the Columbus of 2016 will feature several infrastructure improvements, including:
Overall, Columbus offers more than 4,000 hotel rooms downtown, with nearly 26,000 citywide.
AmericanHort (the consolidation of the American Nursery & Landscape Association and the Association of Horticultural Professionals), with offices in Columbus and Washington, DC, partners with 10 hotels, primarily the Hyatt Regency Columbus and Hilton Columbus, for Cultivate, the largest all-industry horticulture exposition and convention in North America. The show draws more than 10,000 attendees to the city.
Margaret McGuire-Schoeff, CMP, event designer with AmericanHort, notes that one of the main reasons for the site choice is that the (Greater Columbus Convention Center) is “conveniently located to the restaurants and to the hotels, as well as to the Short North Arts District, the Nationwide Arena District.” Other downtown districts — German Village, the Brewery District and the Theatre District — are within 10 blocks.
“Columbus is extremely affordable for our attendees, and we also believe that the city is very accessible. The airport is located about a 10-minute drive from the downtown area,” says McGuire-Schoeff. “And the CVB is a great asset when we’re planning Cultivate. They always go above and beyond to make sure our events run smoothly, helping us with our partnerships with the restaurants and hospitality community. It’s a general attitude of always trying to develop relationships with us and our preferred vendors.”
Like all the cities vying for a convention on the scale of the DNC, Columbus faces certain challenges. Security will reportedly cost about $50 million, a sum that will need to be raised in greater part by the city now that federal grants for conventions have been pared down. In addition, about 100,000 sf of parking at the airport would need to be set aside for the party to set up a communication trailer and park charter buses, which would be the main form of transportation for delegates to the downtown.
The Phoenix Convention Center is accessible via Metro Light Rail from the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. “In terms of logistics for an event like the DNC, Phoenix is second to none,” claimed Steve Moore, president and CEO of Visit Phoenix, in a statement. “Our downtown has a compact footprint that makes it easy to walk between event venues and hotels, our airport is only five minutes from downtown, and our 62,000-room hotel portfolio includes an impressive collection of resorts with tons of meeting and caucus space.” The Technical Advisory Group evaluated those logistical advantages when they visited Phoenix September 9-11. The site visit itself was of considerable promotional value to the city, reportedly generating almost 400,000 print readers and more than 450,000 unique daily online viewers from resulting articles.
Among the five contenders for the DNC, Phoenix has arguably undergone the most comprehensive of downtown renaissances. More than $4 billion in public and private funds have been invested in Phoenix’s urban core since 2006. Completed projects include the light-rail system; the expansion of the Phoenix Convention Center; the construction of the largest hotel in Arizona, the 1,000-room Sheraton Phoenix Downtown Hotel (80,000 sf of meeting space); the creation of a downtown campus for Arizona State University; and a multiuse retail, dining and entertainment district called CityScape. The potential site for the DNC, the 18,422-capacity US Airways Center, is within walking distance of 3,000 hotel rooms.
The strong bids and compelling site visits arranged by the five short-listed cities have required significant work on the part of city officials. For the winner, an entirely new layer of work will begin, as the city ensures it makes good on its promises to the committee come 2016. That includes delivering on fundraising. Cleveland, which won the 2016 Republican National Convention due in part to an expanded and renovated hotel portfolio, must now raise the $60 million promised to the Republican National Committee in order to cover some of the convention costs. Work also has begun on finalizing a transportation plan to move delegates to and from the Quicken Loans Arena. Of course, there is a significant incentive for all of this work, as demonstrated by the previous RNC: The 2012 GOP convention meant an estimated $200 million to Tampa’s economy. And despite the unfortunate rescheduling due to Tropical Storm Isaac, Tampa showed it has what it takes to host one of the largest and most complex political conventions. Cleveland, and the city that will host the DNC, expect to show the same to the association meetings market. AC&F