reps from prior convention host cities offer tips on how best to leverage the big show

When the Republican National Committee earlier this month selected Cleveland to host its 2016 convention the general consensus was that the event heralded nothing but good news for the city’s coffers and reputation. But as the news sank in, so too did the reality of just how many people will descend upon our city, and how much preparation will be required to get us ready for the big event.
Will residents avoid the city? Will road closures cause countless traffic snarls? Will locals feel like outsiders looking in as conventioneers hijack our city?
Terry Egger, executive chair of the host committee, assures Clevelanders that the city already is prepared and that locals are being considered at every turn. “We’ve been really focused on a game plan,” he says. “There will be opportunities for everyone to get involved as much as they want to.”
Tampa Bay successfully hosted the Republicans in 2012, and Denver hosted the Democrats four years before that. Fresh Water decided to reach out to representatives from each city to see if our fair city could glean some best practices on how to pull off a successful -- and inclusive -- convention.
Community Involvement in Tampa Bay and Denver
Maryann Ferenc, who as board member of Visit Tampa Bay and Visit Florida, was on the RNC host committee in Tampa Bay at the time, recalls her emotions when she first heard the news that her city would be hosting the 2008 Republican National Convention. “This is absolutely awesome,” she remembers thinking. “The amount of short term and long term benefits this brings would be like nothing we’ve seen before.”
But the preparation wasn’t easy, she admits. Ripping a page from the Beatles songbook, Tampa organized itself to the tune of “Come Together” -- and it was an apt choice. “Come together is the best thing you can possibly do to prepare yourself,” advises Ferenc. “Having a very strong community agenda to get behind forces you to work together. If you do that, it benefits the community in the short and long term.”
Denver refers to itself in terms of “B.C.” and “A.D.” -- Before the Convention and After the Democrats. “The awareness level of Denver after the convention just skyrocketed,” says Rich Grant, communications director for Visit Denver. “It’s great, but it’s a lot of work. The whole world is coming.”
Embrace the Chaos
Coming together means involving the community -- the local businesses and residents who might feel like the convention does not affect them. The reality is, in fact, that there are a number of things outside of the convention proper geared toward getting residents involved in the event.
“The number one thing is you have to engage the local citizens,” stresses Grant. “Our convention would not have succeeded if the locals stayed away because of fear of things like road closures.”
Instead, both Grant and Ferenc stress the importance of tailoring events that actually draw locals downtown. “We had over 100 events taking place for free,” says Grant. “We invited the citizens to come. There’s a lot more to it than just what’s going on in the arena.”
In Denver, CNN had the largest outdoor studio -- broadcasting alongside historic locomotives. “The key is to publicize that,” says Grant. “Make the locals realize that it’s media from around the world.”
Ferenc agrees. “Relationships have to be built,” she says. “What surprised us was there’s tons of up-front work to educate the community on what’s about to happen. If you really get the community engaged and prepared then you really get lots of opportunities.”
Media Scrutiny? Act as Ambassadors
Egger stresses that Cleveland’s image is dependent on the local support. And the whole world is going to be watching. “Think about the scale -- the Super Bowl issued 5,000 media credentials,” he says. “This will have 15,000 media credentials. The ability to change and improve the impression of what Cleveland is actually like is huge. But in order to do that, we have to engage the local people.”
With all that media attention, Grant says it’s critical for the city’s residents to project a positive image. “It’s really a chance to showcase the city,” he says. “Make the media impressed by the city, impressed by the people and talking about how Cleveland is completely endorsed by the local community and everyone’s having a good time.”
Cleveland has had some recent experience in the spotlight with the Gay Games and the Senior Games. Not only was the visitor feedback positive, Egger says that the experiences make for great preparation. “Every time Cleveland hosts one of those big events, we learn more about how to do it,” he says.
Tips for Better Local Turnout
Although the convention still is two years away, city and regional organizations already have stepped up to get involved and host events. “We have tremendous support from organizations like Cleveland Plus, Positively Cleveland and Downtown Cleveland Alliance,” says Egger. “They’re all fully geared toward both visitor and local experiences. With facilities like Progressive Field, Quicken Loans Arena and the universities, we can do just that.” Egger says there’s also talk about creating a strong youth experience around the convention.
Additionally, convention organizers have had “very preliminary” conversations with area universities about what they can contribute. “It really lets us be able to provide as much as people want,” says Egger. “There’s been amazing outreach.” For instance, Cleveland State University already has offered involvement through perhaps a convention-related exhibit.
Ferenc regrets that Tampa’s academic institutions didn’t organize more events related to the convention. “Things like that have gotten national attention,” she says. “A speaker series or a group of students organizing something that mirrors what happens in the RNC would have been great. You have to make an agenda of what you want to accomplish.”
Another thing Ferenc wishes Tampa would have done is a discount program to encourage locals to patronize local businesses. “It would’ve been cool to say ‘you’ll get a discount’ so residents come out and fewer people feel left out,” she says. “People are out doing things and putting their best foot forward.”
The same goes for small businesses. “Small, local, independent businesses have to get together early so they can coalesce and have a voice,” Ferenc says. “The sooner the communication starts to flow among small businesses, the sooner they’ll understand what’s behind hosting the convention. Getting involved and understanding how it all works is really important.”
Ferenc also regrets that the city didn’t do more self-promotion. “One of the things I wish we did a bit more of is ‘We love Tampa Bay,’” she says. “I wish we did more ‘we love ourselves’” promotion.
Focus on the Positive, Enjoy the Ride
However, Ferenc says Visit Tampa did highlight the city’s assets. She advises Cleveland to do the same. “You want people to say, ‘I never thought about Cleveland but now I want to go there,’” she says. “Talk early and get together to see that impact.”
Grant urges Clevelanders to focus on the positive, and not get too caught up in the negative. Denver, for instance, lined closed streets with food trucks. “People will be talking about the convention in Cleveland for the next 40 years,” he says. “So even if you’re inconvenienced with parking, it’s worth it. Don’t focus on the inconveniences when it’s a once-in-a-lifetime event.”
Egger is confident Cleveland will have tremendous support and involvement from the locals -- and they will have a good time doing it. “We want people to go away safe and full and thinking, ‘I need to tell other people about Cleveland,’” he says. There’s nothing more fun than having a successful party in your own home.”

Read more articles by Karin Connelly Rice.

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.
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