By Christopher Durso, Executive Editor and Molly Brennan, Contributing Editor
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.”
Sidebar: Host City: ‘Let Folks Know What We Can Do’ Mike Butts, executive director of Visit Charlotte, on courting, welcoming, and leveraging the 2012 Democratic National Convention: Why Charlotte?
We also bid on the RNC at the same time. But the politics of the state, just having elected a new Democratic governor for the first time in a while, and [with Charlotte having] a Democratic mayor, that really set things in a political direction so that we would be able to have a more successful