Leading Meeting Professionals

Professional Convention Management Association

November 2012

When Elephants and Donkeys Meet

By Christopher Durso, Executive Editor and Molly Brennan, Contributing Editor

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

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