The Political Circus Is Coming to Town(s)

How Philadelphia and Cleveland bid, won, and will run this summer's Democratic and Republican conventions.

Election Day 2014 - Democrats and Republicans in the campaign
Election Day 2014 – Democrats and Republicans in the campaign

You may think the political circus is in full swing already, but the real big top is coming to two cities this summer: Cleveland and Philadelphia will welcome the Republican National Convention (RNC) at Quicken Loans Arena on July 18–21, while Philadelphia will host the Democratic National Convention (DNC) at the Wells Fargo Center on July 25–28.

Destination Cleveland and the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau (PHLCVB) were heavily involved in their cities’ bids, from serving on host committees to organizing site visits, and now are busy helping set the stage for the conventions. Recently we checked in with David Gilbert, president and CEO of Destination Cleveland, and Julie Coker Graham, PHLCVB’s president and CEO, to see how things are shaping up.

Why did your city want to host one of the national political conventions?

GILBERT National political conventions are the Super Bowl of meetings and conventions; it doesn’t get any bigger and better than this for a meetings and conventions destination. In addition to the estimated $200 million in direct spending, hosting the more than 50,000 attendees offers us an opportunity to change the conversation about Cleveland by providing a superior experience to those who are here while showcasing the new Cleveland to a national and international audience through the 15,000 credentialed media who will cover the convention.

GRAHAM We really saw it as a big win for Philadelphia for a variety of reasons. The economic impact that it means for the city. We also know that it’s going to be extensive exposure for us nationally and internationally. And the DNC really solidifies, as we see it, the infrastructure that Philadelphia has to offer large conventions.

What was your CVB’s involvement with the city’s bid?

GILBERT The bid process started in January 2014, when the Republican National Committee sent an RFP to a number of cities, giving each city the opportunity to bid on hosting the 2016 RNC. Cleveland was one of those cities. From the onset of the site-selection process, collaboration among public, private, and civic organizations was the cornerstone of Cleveland’s effort to attract either of the 2016 political conventions. Destination Cleveland was the point organization in the bid process, and provided a variety of services to the Cleveland 2016 Host Committee, leveraging the expertise and insight of all Destination Cleveland departments.

GRAHAM We were part of the host committee, so we worked closely with our fellow civic leaders to put together a bid response and RFP, and then we were a big part of the destination site visit that happened in August 2014. We were responsible for putting together information about the hotel package that we would offer the DNC. We also worked closely with our member venues, because there are special events that will be held in and around the city, so we worked closely with our special-event venues. And then of course, the convention center — the convention center is going to be used for caucus meetings; it will also be used for staff and office space.

How did your destination make the case that it should host the convention?

GILBERT In addition to addressing all of the critical requirements (fundraising, hotels, facilities, and transportation) of the [RNC’s] Site Selection Committee, the Cleveland 2016 Host Committee stayed true to the region’s history of risk-taking, collaboration, and grit — emphasizing Northeast Ohio’s distinct personality, rich assortment of eclectic venues and hotels, a walkable downtown, and a quiet but powerful urban renaissance in the bid. The committee focused on the region’s successful track record of hosting national and international events such as the International Gay Games and National Senior Games, our ability to provide a best-in-class visitor experience, and our unwavering community commitment to hosting the best RNC.

GRAHAM I really think it comes down to what we sell every day. It’s a very compact hotel package with a lot of diversity in the hotel package, and by that I mean a variety of price points. The other thing I would say is, Philadelphia is a very diverse and inclusive city, so our ability to work very closely with the DNC to help them reach their diversity and inclusion goals was also a part of our bid process. Our cultural attractions and the exploding food scene, the fact that we are attractive to the Millennial population — what they do in the city in the evenings, the over 400 outdoor cafés we have. The other thing I would say is, the partnership we have in the local host community — we really came together and put together a very competitive bid, which is what we at the bureau do for every convention. 

Does the bid commit your destination to adding anything to its event infrastructure specifically to accommodate the convention?

GILBERT Before Cleveland bid on the RNC, the city was already experiencing nearly $3 billion in visitor-related infrastructure development, including a new convention center, multiple new hotel properties, and the redevelopment of Public Square. Landing the convention helped to accelerate the construction timeline of certain projects, including Public Square and the opening of the 600-room Hilton Cleveland Downtown by providing a new deadline for completion. All of these developments will continue to help position Cleveland as a leading visitor and business-travel destination well after the convention is over.

GRAHAM Because we hosted the World Meeting of Families and a papal visit in September [2015], there was a lot of beautification and infrastructure that was added that will have a lasting effect on attendees going forward. The Pennsylvania Convention Center is doing capital work to the building in terms of technology projects they’re working on that [benefited] not only the World Meeting of Families and [will benefit] the DNC, but will impact meeting attendees going forward.

How did your CVB participate in site visits?

GILBERT In June 2014, the Cleveland 2016 Host Committee hosted two visits by the RNC’s Site Selection Committee. The first, which occurred in early June, included the entire committee. Later in the month, a portion of the RNC Site Selection Committee, including Chairman Enid Mickelsen, conducted a brief second visit to take a deeper look at Cleveland’s facilities and hotel packages. For both visits, Destination Cleveland was the lead organizer of the Host Committee’s effort — designing the experiences and helping to showcase to the Site Selection Committee not only the city’s attractions, convention venues, hotels, and entertainment districts, but the overall rebirth of Cleveland.

GRAHAM We refer to Philadelphia as the city of neighborhoods. The main priority of the DNC is to get their candidate chosen, and for that to happen, the delegate experience is really essential. Through the bid process, they really drilled that home to us. It always came back to the delegate and what the delegate was going to experience. One of the days [of the site visit], we showed them how easy the package is to maneuver. The other thing we showcased was Wells Fargo, which is where the evening events are going to take place. [Delegates are] typically down there from gavel to gavel; they typically go down there at 5 p.m. and they’re there till 11. Wells Fargo was the site of the 2000 RNC and a lot of the staff members are still there, so the experience is there.

We showed them, while they’re at Wells Fargo conducting business, their family members can take advantage of tours. We took them to Independence Hall. We took them down to the Penn’s Landing area. We have hotels on the waterfront and the Spirit of Philadelphia. And we tried to show them off-site venues where their delegates could hold events. We showed them the Philadelphia Art Museum and the Franklin Institute and the African American Museum — museums that are ideal spaces whether they’re having a reception or a dinner. We also showed them the ease of transportation, and took them out to the Valley Forge area, where some of the delegate hotels are going to be, and how it’s very easy to get back into the city from there. We did a lot!

What’s the biggest challenge for your destination when it comes to hosting this convention?

GILBERT One of the more challenging aspects of preparing to host the convention was working with the hotel community to secure the more than 16,000 hotel rooms pledged to the Republican National Committee. We experienced some challenges with a small group of hotels that held out on their commitment to provide rooms at a contracted rate for the convention. Negotiating hotel contracts is part of a long process when hosting an event of this magnitude, and this challenge was not unique to a political convention. Ultimately, we were able to resolve the issue and secure the rooms needed.

GRAHAM Fortunately for me, I’m on so many of the committees, I’ve really been able to be a big part of the process. I have to tell you, we are very confident in delivering the convention. Our city has truly matured in the last 16 years, especially since we hosted the RNC in 2000. It was a huge advantage for us to host the World Meeting of Families and papal visit in September. It really gave us the opportunity to put committees together that will benefit the DNC. I feel like we’re very well prepared. We’ve thought long and hard about how we’ll move delegates throughout the city. For us, it’s probably managing our own individual expectations and enjoying the moment.

Christopher Durso

Christopher Durso formerly was executive editor of Convene.