AIPAC Policy Conference: A Teachable Meeting

The multilevel security and 100-percent koshered convention center were par for the course. What really set this year's AIPAC Policy Conference apart were the 130 meeting and hospitality students who were recruited to staff it.

Did you need something at the 2013 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference? Maybe you had a question about getting into the plenary session with Vice President Joe Biden? Or could use a hand navigating the various layers of security in and around the Walter E. Washington Convention Center? Or wondered where you might grab a bite to eat?

The people who could help you out with those sorts of things were everywhere at AIPAC 2013 — nearly 200 of them in all, some wearing red logo shirts, some wearing blue, some with clipboards and iPads and walkie-talkies, and to a person smiling and helpful. Some of them were freelance event professionals, but most were PCMA student members from meetings and hospitality programs across the country, brought in by AIPAC to serve as connective tissue at a big conference that over the last decade has added a lot of moving parts.

“We decided last year we needed to bring more firepower to this operation and build a much larger event-management team,” said Jeff Shulman, AIPAC’s director of national events, sitting in one of the many conversation areas arranged throughout the sprawling AIPAC Village space on the second day of AIPAC 2013. “…. We’ve been able to mobilize an events team that is on every corner around the convention center, every corner inside the convention center, that’s greeting delegates, that’s well-trained, and that want to be here. Particularly [for] these PCMA students that are pursuing this line of their career, I think it’s been a great experience for them. It’s been a great experience for us to have them with us.”



In The Safe Zone

AIPAC is a political organization — it describes itself as “America’s leading pro-Israel lobby” — and its Policy Conference is a political meeting, beginning with its standing location in Washington, D.C. Plenary sessions at AIPAC 2013, which drew more than 13,000 attendees to Walter E. Washington from Sunday to Tuesday, March 3-5, featured appearances by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, U.S. Vice President Biden, Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu (via satellite), and U.S. Sen. John McCain. Breakout sessions were dominated by panel discussions and town-hall meetings on such topics as “Atomic Armageddon: The Consequences of a Nuclear Iran,” “The Long Kiss Goodnight? The Future of Israel-EU Relations,” and “Missed Opportunities to Reach Israeli-Palestinian Peace.” And on the final afternoon, thousands of attendees went to Capitol Hill to lobby in support of a four-point agenda: the House’s Nuclear Iran Prevention Act, a Senate resolution “backing Israel against Iran,” the House and Senate’s U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Act, and $3.1 billion in U.S. military aid to Israel.

AIPAC closed L Street — which separates the first floor of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center — to car traffic, secured it with metal detectors at each end, and dressed it up to make it a part of the Policy Conference floorspace.

“Our goal is for [attendees] to be motivated, educated, and to go up to the Hill on Tuesday ready to lobby on behalf of the U.S.-Israel relationship,” Shulman said. “That’s what we’re in the process of doing.”

It’s a sensitive mission and a sensitive meeting — a controversial one in some quarters — and that’s reflected in the security woven into the Policy Conference’s DNA. It’s a matter not just of public safety, although that is a major concern. AIPAC works with Washington, D.C., police, the U.S. Secret Service, and other law-enforcement agencies to screen attendees in advance and create a security perimeter around the convention center, and everyone coming into Walter E. Washington goes through at least one metal detector (and then another one to see high-profile speakers like Biden). But just as important to Policy Conference security is creating an atmosphere of confidentiality and comfort. Signs posted outside more than a few sessions on Monday afternoon declared them “Off the Record and Closed to the Press,” including “Congressional Journal: How Members of Congress Experience Israel” and “The Campaign Against Israel.”

“If you’re going to bring this many members of this community together,” Shulman said, “for people to feel comfortable being passionate about this issue, we’ve got to provide a secure environment.”

A lot goes on behind the scenes to make that security feel as seamless as possible — an effect that was smoothed along this year by those ever-present red- and blue-shirted staffers. Peggy Marilley, CEO of Alexandria, Va.-based Precision Meetings & Events, whose work on AIPAC 2013 included recruiting, prepping, and overseeing them, developed a training manual for each staff role and conducted training sessions on site, pulling in Shulman and Noa Rabinowitz, AIPAC’s associate director of national events, as needed. “We did the ‘this is where you need to be and what you need to do,’” Marilley said, “while [Shulman and Rabinowitz] gave the insight into the organization.” She added: “Security was so amazing that you didn’t feel the security. You knew they were there. You could see the uniformed officers. There was a suite for the Secret Service, because the vice president was there. But you didn’t feel intimidated. You just felt that they were doing their job.”


‘It Was Amazing to Watch’

With so much going on behind the scenes, AIPAC couldn’t afford to neglect the front of the house — a space that’s grown increasingly boisterous and complicated over the last 10 years. “When I started this job, I think we were at about 2,500 delegates [at the Policy Conference] in 2003,” Shulman said. “We’ve had growth because AIPAC has opened additional offices in communities throughout the country. We’ve got more boots on the ground reaching people, engaging people about this issue.”

More people means more programs means greater potential for confusion. “We started looking at staff assignments and job descriptions and so forth,” Shulman said. “We realized, if we’re going to handle this size of crowd, we need a big team.” Marilley had a suggestion: students. “I have a real passion for young people,” she said, “and trying to help them and open up opportunities for them in their career.”

The AIPAC Policy Conference is ‘probably the largest kosher event in the country,’ with F&B programs that include the lavish President’s Dinner at the National Building Museum.

At Marilley’s urging, Shulman and his team attended PCMA’s Convening Leaders annual meeting for the first time this year, and while they were there, they spoke at the PCMA Student Union, making a pitch for meeting professionals in training to staff a conference with upwards of 10,000 attendees in Washington, D.C. “It was right over our spring break, so it was perfect,” said Emma Jack, a volunteer in Marilley’s “Precision army” who last month graduated from Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Mich., with a degree in hospitality and tourism management. “We jumped at the opportunity to gain more experience and a free trip.”

All told, about 130 students — from Grand Valley, James Madison University, Virginia Tech, Michigan State, the University of New Haven, and the University of Central Florida — answered the call. They did a little bit of everything at AIPAC 2013 — checking room sets, working donor receptions, and directing attendees around the convention center and on Capitol Hill. “It was really interesting to see Precision work with [AIPAC],” Jack said, “because sometimes it can be difficult to work under a company, but they worked really well as a team.” As an event-planning major, Jack was particularly impressed by how AIPAC and its partners transformed Walter E. Washington’s cavernous underground exhibit space into AIPAC Village. (See “It Took a Village,” p. 83.) “It looked like an outdoor garden,” Jack said.

And then there was the fact that she was staffing a high-profile conference with a significant lobbying component on Capitol Hill. “For students to be able to go out and not only see Washington, D.C., but be a part of an important issue — we didn’t have an opinion on the issue one way or the other,” Jack said, “but to see how many people are really passionate about the cause and what they’re working toward…. It was amazing to watch all these people come together and work toward it.”

For Shulman, the student-heavy Precision army was “a game changer. An absolute game changer.” He added: “This conference sets the tone for this organization, for everything we do throughout the year. The success of this conference is critical for our development campaign, for our legislative efforts, for our political activity, and so forth….

“It’s important, I think, to create the energy here,” Shulman said. “You can see this place is abuzz right now with the energy off of Vice President Biden’s speech this morning, the presence of Defense Minister Barak. Everybody is starting to think about their lobbying efforts tomorrow. But the energy of bringing everybody together under the same roof is what catapults us through the rest of the year.”

Christopher Durso

Christopher Durso formerly was executive editor of Convene.