Last week, I visited Cleveland 11 days ahead of the 2016 Republican National Convention to see what’s happening behind the scenes at Quicken Loans Arena, which will host delegates from July 18-21, and the Huntington Convention Center of Cleveland, which will serve as the base of operations for some 15,000 members of the press during the four-day meeting.
“It’s estimated that there are about 50,000 people coming in officially related to the convention,” said David Gilbert, president of the non-partisan 2016 Cleveland Host Committee, an Ohio nonprofit corporation founded to manage the process of bringing the RNC to town. I caught up with Gilbert on in his office at Host Committee HQ in downtown Cleveland. “That doesn’t include people who may be political tourists that stay an hour away, but just come downtown to hang out every day or protesters who come into town,” he said.
Is Cleveland ready? “The devil’s in the details. What seems like minutia two years out is now a reality,” said Colette Jones, VP of marketing for Destination Cleveland, when I interviewed her in the CVB’s rock-and-roll-themed conference room, which looks out on thriving Euclid Avenue. Her team is working around-the-clock to ensure that visitors to Cleveland will have the best possible experience. “It definitely helps that there had been so much investment in the city, and it also helps that we really have amazing attractions anyway.”
I was also able to tour “the Q,” where convention setup is already underway, during my visit. Audrey Scagnelli, the Republican Party Committee on Arrangements’ (COA) national press secretary, briefed me on how preparations are going. During my visit on July 6, workers at the Q were busy installing some of the highest-resolution screens available to supplement a “Humongatron” screen hung from the arena’s ceiling. Another cool feature — the stage set will change colors. Special effects like these mean that some 140,000 pounds of lighting and equipment had to be trucked in to the Q ahead of the convention.
Presumptive nominee Donald Trump has promised to add “showbiz” elements to this year’s convention. Politico has reported that the Trump children will be featured in the speaker lineup, but no one associated with the production of the RNC is permitted to confirm or deny these rumors. Whatever his team is planning will be kept under wraps until the convention is well underway, which presents a unique challenge for the content and communications teams.
Veteran producer Phil Alongi leverages his news background to roll with the punches. His team is working with Freeman A/V and AT&T to make sure all the cables and wires are in place before production on the digital and graphical elements of the in-house presentations and what will be broadcast by news outlets are in place.
“The first thing we have to remember, especially for an event like this, is that you are trying to keep 20,000 people in an arena interested,” he said from a back office at the Q. “I’m hoping when I’m working on a political convention that the takeaway is they’re learning about the convention. They are learning about the party. They are learning about the nominees. They are learning about the speakers so there is something they can say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know about that.’ It’s going to pique their curiosity and they’ll look further.’”
The COA, too, must serve as the liaison between the party and the public without giving too much away. “There’s a process that is always a struggle in terms of who has the information that’s going to be given on that stage and at what time do we start embargoing that for delivery, but to give people enough preparation time to be able to report on it the way that we need them to report on it, so those are conversations that are happening right now,” said Kirsten Kukowski, the COA’s communications director. That said, the role of the COA is to, essentially, as they say in Cleveland, get ready to rock. “Our job here is more infrastructure. It is putting in the piping so that whoever it is that our nominee is we put on a show. We look at it a little more procedurally infrastructure-wise.”
With just under week until the RNC opens, the COA, Host Committee, and Destination Cleveland team are feeling confident. “Fifty thousand people coming here, it’s a lot of people, but there’s a lot of conventions. We hosted the National Senior Games for 20,000 and the Gay Games for almost 20,000 people. It’s also who they are. I mean, 15,000 are credentialed media. You have significant influencers,” said Gilbert. “Those are the kinds of people that have the ability to change the community for years to come for future investment, future partnerships. That’s really exciting.”