Event Design

When Elephants and Donkeys Meet

The Republicans built the political show of the future. The Democrats welcomed everyone to the party. Convene was on site for both of their national conventions - and came away ready to vote for the meeting professionals who helped launch the country toward this month’s big election.

‘A Better Future’

2012 Republican National Convention
Tampa, Fla., Aug. 27–30
By Molly Brennan, Contributing Editor

When Mitt Romney took the stage at the 2012 Republican National Convention (RNC) in Tampa this past August to deliver his acceptance speech, he relied heavily on the convention theme of “A Better Future.” In fact, he repeated the word “future” 13 times in his 37-minute speech, and invited Americans to join him to “walk together to a better future” and “forget about what might have been and to look ahead to what can be.”

Standing on a striking, Frank Lloyd Wright–inspired stage of what looked like wood flooring (actually vinyl laminates), backed by 13 giant LED screens trimmed in the same warm tones, Romney made his case for the presidency. The speech framed tradition and Norman Rockwell Americana within a window into brighter days ahead.

Whether you believe in Romney’s vision for America or not, and whether you’re a Republican, a Democrat, or none of the above, Tampa 2012 likely will influence the form and function of political conventions going forward. That’s because the RNC was, in many ways, the convention of the future – from the omnipresent thumbprint of technology, to the strategic packaging and delivery of messaging across multiple platforms.

“I think we set the bar for future political conventions,” said James Davis, communications director for the RNC, speaking from the near-empty, mostly shuttered Tampa offices of the Committee on Arrangements (COA), a subcommittee of the Republican National Committee in charge of all convention planning and logistics, the week after the show wrapped. “We wanted people around the country to feel like they were a part of the nomination and a part of this historic event. And we did a great job.”

They Built This

While the GOP demonstrated that the political convention of the future is within reach, it also suggested that it doesn’t come cheaply or easily. The Tampa Bay Host Committee, the nonprofit, nonpartisan group charged with raising money for the 2012 RNC, wasn’t scheduled to release its full financial report until mid-October, but previous estimates placed the total cost for the mega-event at $73 million. The Federal Elections Commission kicked in $18.2 million – with an equal amount going to the Democratic Party for its convention – while the rest was raised by the Host Committee through corporate sponsorships and individual donations.

Long before the 2012 RNC was gaveled into session, preparations were under way to transform the Tampa Bay Times Forum – home to the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning – into a media-friendly coronation hall. Nearly two years ago, Dallas-based general services contractor Freeman, which has managed design and installation services for the past eight GOP conventions, began working with the COA. On July 15, Freeman, along with COA’s staff of 150, took over the Forum and the nearby Tampa Convention Center, which served as the media center, for full-time preparations.

Over the next six weeks, a Freeman crew of about 250 removed ceiling panels and bolted-down stadium seats so the media seating, stage, and production platform could be installed. They covered floors with plywood, installed carpet, and suspended nearly 250,000 pounds of lighting, audio, and video gear from the building’s roof. The crews also remodeled skybox suites into media studios and transformed hospitality areas into clubby, U.S. Capitol–style “cloak rooms”— complete with deep leather chairs – for members of Congress. Powerful back-up generators were put in place in case of weather-related electrical outages; it’s a standard precaution for any political convention, but in fact a major storm – Hurricane Isaac – ended up threatening the Gulf Coast during the 2012 RNC.

The week prior to the convention, Convene visited the Forum for an all-access, behind-the-scenes tour hosted by Tampa Bay & Company. During our visit, crews were putting the finishing touches on the stage, testing lighting and laying down the floor. Lumber pallets lay stacked throughout the arena “bowl” (the area that normally holds the ice rink), and the site was filled with the sound of hammering, saws, and forklifts. With just six days to go, the venue looked far more in progress than ready, which spoke to the huge amount of work that went into the build-out.

“On the logistics side, I don’t think the basics of the build are that different from what we do for anybody else,” Greg Lane, national project director for Freeman, said in a phone interview from the convention floor at the Forum after the RNC, as his crew worked to dismantle everything by the Sept. 15 exit date. “It’s just there’s so much more of it.”

Wired for Sound

The most noticeable change from past convention prep, according to Lane, was the focus on technology, and the subsequent need to increase the bandwidth and wireless capabilities at both the Forum and the convention center. To meet the demands of the 15,000 media and 35,000 smartphone-toting, tweeting, and texting attendees, the Forum underwent an estimated $20-million technology overhaul, including an electrical-power upgrade and new fiber-optic infrastructure.

Bright House Networks, the RNC’s official provider of video, high-speed data, and wireline voice services, installed 48 miles of data cabling at the Forum and the convention center, and also added 90 miles of fiber optics to the existing cable network in downtown Tampa. The beefed-up downtown network is now capable of sending 250,000 emails or 37.5 million tweets per second, according to Bright House.

Meanwhile, AT&T, the official “mobility provider” for both the Republican and Democratic conventions, invested an estimated $15 million in technology infrastructure for the 2012 RNC, including the launch of 4G LTE mobile Internet service, new cell towers, and more than 200 “hot spots” for expanded network capacity. Verizon Wireless also expanded its 4G LTE network throughout Tampa, and installed cellular base stations at the Forum and the convention center.

With the exception of a few portable cell towers, all of the technology upgrades will remain in place – a welcome leave-behind for Tampa’s meetings and tourism industry, which now can boast free Wi-Fi and expanded cellular coverage throughout its venues. “We don’t anticipate having a need for expanded wireless in this building ever,” said Bill Wickett, the Forum’s senior vice president of communications.

The Convention Without Walls

All those upgrades reflect the increasing influence of mobile technology and social media on both convention-goers and political campaigns. Davis refers to the 2012 RNC as the first political convention in the “mature social-networking era.” Early on, the GOP determined to capture the mobile momentum, heralding this year’s fete as the “Convention Without Walls.” “Only so many people can be here during the actual convention, but this is a national conversation that guides the direction of our country,” Davis said. “We wanted to provide an engaging experience so people everywhere could be a part of the action.”

The COA had a dedicated digital staff that pushed content via a variety of social-media platforms, including Facebook, Google+, and Twitter. In addition, a “digital green room” located directly off the stage at the Forum provided a space for speakers to update their social-media channels, conduct interviews via Skype, or hold a Google Hangout with constituents. “We did more than 30 Google Hangouts,” Davis said, “and that’s something that literally wasn’t possible four years ago.”

The COA and the Host Committee also jointly released a mobile app that gave users the ability to watch live convention coverage and share their experiences via social-media networks. The app also contained maps, weather updates (especially relevant as Hurricane Isaac approached Florida), and tourist information about Tampa.

At the heart of the COA’s digital strategy was a customized YouTube channel that live-streamed (and cataloged) all the convention speeches. It also hosted the video pieces and non-primetime speakers the TV audience didn’t see, as well as a number of “Convention Insider” videos. From the YouTube channel, viewers could share videos to other social-media platforms, and post comments to YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter.

“In the past, people have focused on driving numbers and viewers to their website, but the people consumed the information and left,” Davis said. “We said, ‘What if we used that same information, but we made it dynamic and incorporated it into a very social platform?’ We created this YouTube page that houses all this information, there’s a lot of video, a lot of images that support the message, and it’s a place to bring conversations all into one place.”

With more than 300,000 hours of streaming video viewed over the course of the three-day convention, more than five million total video views (at last count), and more than four million tweets, Davis said the digital strategy proved to be more than successful.

Packaging the Message

In addition to exploring new distribution channels for its convention message, the COA invested heavily in the packaging of that message. For that, it turned to former network news executive Phil Alongi, who was brought on in 2011 as executive producer of the 2012 RNC.

Alongi, who spoke with Convene while en route to his home in New Jersey after eight months in Tampa, said that the COA was seeking someone who could craft a compelling program with an insider’s eye. “When I was approached by the COA about coming to work on the project, they visualized that I would bring the perspective of someone who’s been on the other side,” he said. “Having covered every convention going back to 1980, they wanted me to think about what I would like and what would appeal to me as a producer of the nightly news.”

Wearing those two hats – insider and outsider – Alongi worked with the COA and Freeman on everything from camera sight lines to packaged pieces and timing. One of the most important and earliest tasks was the stage design. “The COA was looking for tradition, but also something progressive,” Alongi said. “We knew we wanted to make it inviting, but also something that would stand out. We came up with the idea of combining the warm wood, which is very Americana, with all the video screens, which are very progressive and high-tech.”

The design theme was “America’s living room,” and merged traditional American Prairie style with modern technology. Different versions of the stage were drawn over the winter, and once Romney became the presumptive nominee, the designs were presented to his campaign. They chose the boldest one. “I applaud both the COA and the campaign for being very open and progressive,” Alongi said. “As we presented various options to them, they would say, ‘These are all great, but what if we wanted to do something really different and really out there?’”

In the end, the stage, which was estimated to cost $2.5 million, didn’t look like any past convention stage – and that was exactly the idea. “As people were switching channels or scrolling through apps and they came upon this program that had a completely contemporary look, they might say, ‘Oh, “American Idol” is on,’ and you get their attention for a moment,” Algoni said. “By combining tradition and modern, we didn’t lose the traditionalists, and we hopefully brought some new people aboard.”

Throughout the convention, the video screens at the back of the stage were used to adjust the backdrop and mood to fit each speaker. All 13 screens – the largest of which was nearly 400 square feet – could be used to form an unbroken, panoramic image; they were also used individually to create a collage effect. Rather than distracting viewers from the message, they served to reinforce it. “Regardless of the event, people in the room need to be embraced and they need to feel a part of it,” Algoni said. “By design, the stage embraced them and the video screens made them feel a part of what was happening on the stage.”

Indeed, with so much of the conversation taking place online and via video, not to mention with broadcast coverage increasingly curtailed and the first day of the four-day event canceled due to Hurricane Isaac (with seemingly minimal impact on the production), it makes you wonder if the political convention of the future might involve a live event on a much smaller scale. Lane, who has worked on the past seven GOP conventions, doesn’t think so. “Going forward, I think we’ll adapt to whatever the latest technology is, and we’ll keep pushing ahead on that front,” he said. “But political conventions truly are a part of our democratic way of government and how our country is run. I think the tradition of having the convention with the delegates on the floor casting their votes for the nominee – I don’t see that changing.” 

‘Americans Coming Together’

2012 Democratic National Convention
Charlotte, N.C., Sept. 4-6
By Christopher Durso, Executive Editor

Word came down on Wednesday morning, the second day of the 2012 Democratic National Convention (DNC), that things would not be proceeding as planned. Rain had been coming off and on throughout the week, and Thursday night’s forecast wasn’t looking good. Which meant that the culmination of the entire program, the centerpiece production in which President Obama accepted his party’s nomination, wasn’t just going to have to be moved. It would need to be downsized. Drastically.

The idea had been to echo Obama’s triumphant acceptance speech at the 2008 DNC in Denver, when he bucked tradition and took the stage outside, before a crowd of 84,000 people at Invesco Field at Mile High stadium. In Charlotte, N.C., this year, the Democratic National Convention Committee (DNCC) was going to use 74,000-seat, open-air Bank of America Stadium for the big speech, until the threat of rain necessitated a relocation to the 20,000-seat Time Warner Cable Arena, which had been home to the 2012 DNC’s proceedings throughout the week.

For the DNCC, it was a high-profile decision with potentially major political ramifications, because the organization had repeatedly promised to make the 2012 DNC the most “open and accessible” political convention in history. But for the meeting professionals working behind the scenes, it was just another day at the office. “There was always a Plan B if [the acceptance speech] were to stay within the arena,” said Ron Bracco, executive director of business development for events for Hargrove Inc., the 2012 DNC’s general services contractor. It was Thursday night, a few hours before Obama’s speech, and Bracco, the Hargrove executive in charge of the DNCC contract, was sitting with Convene in his company’s hospitality lounge at Time Warner, relaxed and smiling.

Yes, smiling. “There was always the sense that if rain was an issue or weather was an issue, that the third night would be kept here,” Bracco said. “A lot of the assets were planned to move from Time Warner Cable Arena on Wednesday night to the stadium. The fact that we are not moving those – we are not doing the fast transitions, the fast changeovers – made the process a little easier.”

An Open Invitation

In some ways, the modern political convention is a planner’s dream, because, as an event that’s designed and built for prime-time television, it’s rigidly scheduled and ruthlessly scripted. While the ostensible purpose of the DNC is to officially nominate the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, there hasn’t been an actual contested vote – in which the candidate being nominated wasn’t locked in before the convention – since 1980, when Jimmy Carter was challenged by Edward Kennedy. Today, the true purpose of the convention is to launch the candidate’s final, two-month push to Election Day with as many telegenic moments and as few surprises as possible.

“Our job is to really build that framework for the campaign to forward its message into,” Theo LeCompte, the DNCC’s chief operating officer, said in an interview a month before the 2012 DNC. “Some of the things that we have to do each cycle provide some of that framework, but I think that you’ve seen by what we were able to do in Denver that there is this ability to go completely outside the box and invite so many more people into the process and do something that’s so new and so different [but] still in a structure that’s been around for a long time.”

The theme of the 2012 DNC was “Americans Coming Together,” and the DNCC was determined to make that as literally true as possible, with a variety of programs that involved Democratic Party volunteers and the general public, in addition to party delegates and officials. “We engaged Americans in conversation about what we could do to make this their convention,” said Comelia Sanford, the DNCC’s director of convention operations for the Charlotte Convention Center, which served as the media center and also hosted caucus and council meetings. “The response from the public was emphatic, that they wanted more ways to participate.”

The 2012 DNC’s organizers heard them. Convention week kicked off on Labor Day, Sept. 3, with CarolinaFest 2012, a free, “family-friendly celebration” presented by the Charlotte in 2012 Convention Host Committee in the heart of downtown, along a four-block stretch of Tryon Avenue right next to the convention zone. About 30,000 people attended CarolinaFest, which included music performances by James Taylor and Jeff Bridges, food vendors, games and crafts, and free admission to the museums falling within the event perimeter.

During the official run of the DNC – Tuesday, Sept. 4, through Thursday, Sept. 6 – access to the venues was carefully controlled via a system of pedestrian barriers and security checkpoints, but still there were numerous opportunities for the general public to participate. The caucus and council meetings at the convention center were open to anyone who registered in advance, space permitting, and each night there were “watch parties” along Tryon Avenue, with wide-screen TVs broadcasting the action happening on stage at Time Warner.

Inside the arena – which hosted the bulk of the convention’s business, from platform amendments to roll-call votes – the DNCC made sure that the live program itself was more accessible. Whereas at past conventions it placed the stage in the center of the floor, “sort of the equivalent of the hockey middle-ice line,” LeCompte said, “this time we’ve put the stage down in the end zone, much more similar to the way you would for a standard concert. This allows us to preserve more seats and allow more people into the facility.”

Until the weather forced a change in plans, the 2012 DNC’s open-arms approach was going to culminate on Sept. 6 in a full-day program at Bank of America, with “performers, speeches, and everyday Americans all part of the program,” Alan Fitts, the DNCC’s director of stadium operations, said about a month before the convention. “So programming will go on throughout the day. I don’t have a start time yet, but we expect crowds to be flowing in from early in the morning all the way until the president speaks.”

The rain that washed those plans away actually dogged the 2012 DNC throughout the week, including during CarolinaFest. But it did nothing to dampen the inclusive, festive atmosphere of the convention. Wednesday morning offered a typical scene: The sky was cloudy but still bright, and crowds flowed steadily along College Street, from the convention center up toward Time Warner and back. Delegates, campaign workers, politicians, activists, volunteers, media people, police, and, it seemed, everyday citizens of Charlotte bumped past each other on the sidewalk, where vendors hawked t-shirts, posters, pins, buttons, sunglasses, caps, and other Obamanalia. A lanyard swung from almost everyone’s neck, inside and outside the venues, which only deepened the sense of being at a reunion where a fair number of the attendees just happened to be meeting for the first time.

The only discordant note came from a vigil of antiabortion protesters broadcasting a steady harangue at the entrance to the convention center, but even that didn’t seem terribly out of place. Nor did a group from Code Pink situated farther up College Street late that afternoon, wearing hot-pink feather boas and black top hats, chanting: “RNC! DNC! It’s all part of the oligarchy!” Because of course there would be protesters at a political convention determined to welcome everybody.

“There are about one thousand special events that go on during the convention – corporate parties, delegate events, that sort of thing,” said Mike Butts, executive director of Visit Charlotte, sitting at a window on the second floor of the convention center, overlooking the hustle and bustle on College Street. “Typically, if you work with a major convention, you might work with two or three different venues. This is working with hundreds of venues. That took active work in getting them engaged in the process, asking them to hold onto their space while the DNC started to collect requests from different entities on wanting to be able to do special events. That was a little unique and something different.”

Moving in, Building Out

For Visit Charlotte’s fellow meeting professionals at Hargrove, the 2012 DNC was also something unique and different. The Latham, Md.–based company has worked on plenty of high-profile events – including every presidential inaugural since Harry S. Truman’s in 1949, and this year’s NATO Summit in Chicago and G-8 Summit at Camp David – but this was its first political convention. And it was as hugely complicated a job as you’d imagine: Hargrove literally built the “framework for the campaign to forward its message into” that LeCompte described, managing construction at Time Warner, Bank of America, and the convention center.

“In the build-out of [the three venues], it is really looking at how we retrofit space for the needs of the DNCC as well as the media, and the production needs as well,” Bracco said, speaking by phone from Charlotte during an interview before the convention. “We are looking at how we pull cable through the space, how we brand the buildings, how we design signage in a way that the attendees can easily get around the space and such.”

Walking through Time Warner with Bracco during the DNC two weeks later, you could see just how involved all that was – and why previous conventions have tended to use construction companies to run the process. It was Wednesday night, and we were on the Founders Level, whose ring of private suites was mostly occupied by news networks and other media organizations. The DNCC had received the keys to the arena on July 16, and, working with construction and architecture companies, Hargrove had spent the month and a half since then refitting the entire facility. A track with row upon row of data cables was bolted into the hallway ceiling; sharp corners were capped with hard foam bumpers; power cords were taped down everywhere. Inside some of the suites, cabinets and countertops and seats had been taken out to make room for broadcast equipment and anchor stations.

“Back in December,” Bracco said, “there was a media walkthrough: ‘Here is the arena. Here is what we are proposing would be positions for cameras and studio suites, and here is tentatively the location of the stage.’ And three months later, there was another media walkthrough: ‘Here is what we have learned, and here are the services that we may be able to provide. Here is where your support satellite trucks may be,’ and such.”

And that was just at Time Warner. At the convention center, the lower-level exhibit halls had to be outfitted to accommodate about 15,000 media professionals, which meant a veritable city of temporary office space. “In a construction mindset, you need to build a wall,” Bracco said. “That means steel goes up and drywall goes on, and it becomes a construction site. Some of that is absolutely necessary, but in our scenario [as an event-services company], we thought through a blend of services, so that we are not actually building every little wall or corner or masked area that is not necessary. This convention is a blend of pipe and drape, modular wall systems that you see in convention services, and, only where necessary, stud walls, ceilings, and fireproofing and sprinkler systems – when the rooms needed to be secure and soundproofed.”

Work at Bank of America started much later, at the end of August – and, it turned out, would be for naught, thanks to those rains. Hargrove started breaking down the stadium on Wednesday, as soon as the decision was made to move the final program to Time Warner. On Thursday night, with Hargrove’s hospitality lounge filling up with clients, staff, and guests, Bracco was philosophical. “I think the biggest thing for us, and we are working through it now, is there was a request for additional cabling – fiber – to run from here to provide a feed to the convention center,” he said, “so [the DNCC] could do large watch parties at the convention center [for people who had tickets for Bank of America]. And most of the tracks were already laid, so it is a mad dash to run cables. And even that was not terribly surprising or difficult.”

Breakdown at Time Warner would begin that night, after the convention was over, and the DNCC would turn the building back over to the city of Charlotte on Sept. 26 – completely restored to its former state. Bank of America needed to be back in shape for a Carolina Panthers home game on Sept. 16. And at the convention center, Sanford said, there would be “three or four days” to move out. It takes four years to build a political convention, and a few weeks to unbuild one.

“It’s always a challenge to put together an event where you have so many different groups of people coming in,” LeCompte said. “You’ve got the media, you’ve got delegates, you’ve got folks from the campaign. Balancing the different needs to different groups is always a challenge in any setting. And it’s certainly one we embrace here at the convention. We spend a lot of time focusing on making sure that we get all the convention attendees exactly what they need in order to do their job or to have fun. Whatever their goal happens to be.”

More Resources
  • To learn more about the 2012 Democratic National Convention, visit demconvention.com.
  • For more information about the Charlotte in 2012 Convention Host Committee, visit charlottein2012.com.

Christopher Durso

Christopher Durso formerly was executive editor of Convene.