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Donkeys, Elephants, and Rubber Chickens

What the crazy world of political-campaign events can teach meeting pros

2020 has been an election year like no other. The coronavirus pandemic has forced thousands of political events—from rallies to fly-ins to fundraisers—to be canceled, put on hold, or recreated virtually. And both the Democratic and Republican parties are finding every aspect of their national convention
planning upended by thevirus. 

As unprecedented as these developments are, political-event planners are tough to knock off their game. “On the campaign trail, you have to brace yourself every day for the unexpected,” says Derek Newton, a public relations consultant who ran political campaigns for more than 20 years and managed Democratic candidate John Kerry’s presidential run in 2004. “It’s just part of the job.”

How “unexpected” does it get? We spoke to event pros in the political space to see how they’ve navigated the biggest challenges of their careers. Here, they share war stories—and five crazy truths—from the wild world of political-event planning.

1. Lead times can be insanely short, like tomorrow.

Many political events, including press conferences, campaign rallies, and meet-and-greets, are “often planned in less than 24 hours,” says Newton. “A campaign moves at lightning speed and, as a result, so must we.” Tight lead times, however, can lead to disaster, especially when working with venues unaccustomed to hosting events on the fly. 

Newton remembers booking a hotel for a Senate candidate’s press conference set to take place the following day. He’d hurriedly arranged the event with the hotel’s night manager, who neglected to pass on the space reservation and details to the property’s daytime manager. “We weren’t on the books, so when we showed up they didn’t know what we were talking about,” he says. As the press was arriving and Newton was getting ready to welcome the candidate, “the hotel was calling security and trying to evict us.” In the end, Newton got the problem ironed out, but unfortunately communication blunders aren’t out of the ordinary. 

Another time, he booked a hotel ballroom just a few days in advance of a press conference for a city council candidate. Again, the details didn’t get relayed to the venue’s facility manager. When Newton and his team arrived, the hotel’s maintenance staff was in the midst of shampooing the ballroom’s carpet. The hotels manager “had to yell at everyone to stop,” Newton says, leaving half of the room dry and the other half dripping wet—with attendees walking in the door. The solution: “We stopped people as they entered the room and ushered them to the dry side if they expressed concern about getting their shoes or pant legs wet.” 

To prevent communication snafus, Newton recommends, if possible, working with a short list of venues, caterers, and other suppliers who are accustomed to working on tight lead times and know how to cater to political groups. “These places understood that you didn’t have time to spend a day doing a site inspection or sitting down with a caterer to decide whether the scallops should be poached or steamed,” he says. “They just handled it for you.”

2. The food isn’t (usually) fancy.

Unless you’re organizing a $1,000-a-plate fundraiser, food is considered more of a necessity than an attraction at political events, says Amaia Stecker, managing partner of Pilar & Co., a meeting planning firm in Washington, D.C., that specializes in planning political events, including “fly-ins” that bring constituents to Washington to lobby legislators and agency officials. There are several reasons F&B is modest. One is that elected officials have to adhere to ethics rules that prohibit “gifts of service,” including transportation, lodging, and meals over a certain dollar amount. Also, government meetings and events often have strict per diems to follow. In addition, “Politicians have to be wary of the optics of enjoying, say, a dinner of steak and lobster while his or her constituents are filing for unemployment,” Stecker says. 

The rule of thumb: Keep food and beverage minimal. A simple menu saves on time, too. During the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Stecker worked with an organization to plan breakfast, lunch, dinner, and nightcaps for delegate groups from 10 states. “We worked with five different venues to host the meals. To simplify things, we rotated the groups around to the different venues, making simple tweaks to the menu depending on the group,” she says. For instance, at one of the breakfast venues, every attendee got the same fruit platter, eggs, bacon, and potato hash, “but the delegates from Louisiana also got shrimp, and those from Montana got bison.”

But finding venues to host these types of “rip and repeat” events outside of Washington, D.C., can be challenging. On a site visit in advance of the RNC, Stecker remembers a venue manager who wanted an 18-day lead time to order F&B. Stecker says she laughed and told the manager, ‘This is not a wedding. Go buy three vegan meals, three kosher meals, and any meal with any other dietary rules you can imagine and stick them in the freezer.” In other words, just make it work. 

Some venues, she says, simply aren’t prepared to adapt on the fly. In one case, a guest needed a meal that was both kosher and dairy-free but was told she couldn’t get one. A member of Stecker’s staff coached the chef on how to whip up a simple gnocchi with olive oil. “In the end, you’re not going to be able to address everything, so you just hope that you’re working with a venue that’s able to be creative,” she says.

A note about alcohol: Politicians on the campaign trail sometimes go to six or seven events in a day, including a string of cocktail gatherings. “Often he or she might politely sip a cocktail while mingling with constituents,” Stecker says. She always ensures there is sparkling water or a virgin cocktail available for those who don’t want to overindulge. “Anything you can do to help them feel more comfortable is usually appreciated.”

3. Optics are everything.

While food doesn’t play a starring role at political events, the venue can. The location and the image it projects “should reinforce a candidate or politician’s message,” Newton says. For example, he’s used veterans memorials and a National Guard armory for candidates speaking on military issues. “You certainly don’t want to announce ramping up the nation’s nuclear arsenal from the auditorium of a middle school,” he says. While many political events are held in generic ballrooms and meeting rooms, Newton says venues with props, like American flags, are ideal. 

Another consideration is room size. “Contrary to most events, you want the room to be jam-packed, with standing room only,” Newton says. He remembers an event for a congressional candidate that got so crowded that the hotel manager offered to remove the ballroom divider and double the space. The planner begged him not to, despite a warning that the group might get a fine from the fire marshal. “The story in the press the next day was all about how support for the candidate was overwhelming. If we had opened those doors, the whole tone would have changed.”

The name of the venue and the brand are other factors to consider. Newton once hosted a swanky event at a venue in Manhattan called The India Club.

“It was a very nice, super grade-A establishment,” he says. The problem? The event included a delegation from Pakistan, a country which has been in conflict with India for more than half a century. “We realized it was a bad idea to antagonize our guests, and we switched venues,” he says.

The hotel brand you choose could also come with baggage. “A mayoral candidate might be happy to hold an event in a Holiday Inn, while someone at the national level might prefer a higher-tier brand,” Newton notes. The bottom line: “When it comes to venue selection, optics are everything.” 

4. Who’s paying the bill? Who knows!

Political events—particularly fundraisers—are sometimes organized by people with competing ideas and interests, and those making the decisions aren’t always the ones footing the bill, says Nicole Greene, account manager for Projection, the in-house audiovisual services provider for the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in D.C., which typically hosts hundreds of political events per year. (The center closed in March due to the pandemic.)

Greene once worked with a political group that wanted a Cinderella-themed holiday gala. The person who had been identified as the decision-maker told Greene she wanted guests to arrive in horse-drawn carriages and stroll through the venue on thick white carpets, passing by a grand staircase wrapped with gold fabric. “It was really quite the vision,” says Greene. But a week before the event, the group’s CFO balked at the cost. “The decision-maker hadn’t taken into account that taxpayer dollars were being spent for the event, and the budget was dramatically reduced,” she says. “We had to go back to the drawing board.” 

Greene helped the client scale back in record time. They simulated a horse-drawn carriage with lighting and gobos, so guests who walked in still felt the effect of entering a palace. “Only those of us who planned it knew what it could have been,” she says.

The lesson? “I now lean hard on people to find out who’s paying the bills, and I make sure he or she signs off on what was discussed,” she says. But finding that person is often tricky, especially in the political realm, Greene warns. “If you don’t know who’s paying the bill, you’re going to end up with a big issue.”

5. The program will not go as planned.

Politicians almost always run late, and there’s no way to know how long they’ll linger at an event. “You might get them for 30 seconds or for the full event—but you just won’t know until it happens,” says Stecker, who can sympathize. “It’s easy for people to get annoyed by a politician who is running late and consider them over-demanding or inconsistent, but most will do anything and everything to accommodate anyone.” 

Newton has also seen his share of programming snafus. “We’d often get our wires crossed when it came to what the candidate was supposed to be doing at each event,” he says. He once organized a 400-attendee dinner that was billed as an intimate Q&A evening, with Sen. John Kerry as the guest of honor. “Somebody didn’t get the memo, and the senator delivered an hour and a half speech and took exactly one question,” Newton remembers. “The entire evening was built around intimacy, and attendees were upset that they didn’t get what was promised.” 

Stecker has organized more than a few galas where the guest of honor—usually a member of Congress—has gotten stuck in a voting session. She always creates a loose schedule that’s built to change at a moment’s notice. “You make sure everything is flexible,” she says. For example, if you’ve hired a band, “let them know that their performance times aren’t set. They may have to do a double set prior to a break, which might end abruptly.” She recommends planners pre-produce content “in bite-sized pieces that can be doled out as needed.” When it comes to catering, “work with the staff to make sure they can drop the salad on command,” or delay the dessert as long as you need them to. Also, having a creative MC for a large event is “invaluable.” Her best piece of advice: “When it comes to timing, be able to roll with the punches.” 

Stecker remembers one instance during an event at the RNC when a delegate refused to leave a breakfast until the guest speaker arrived. The speaker was 20 minutes late, and Stecker knew that there was no way the delegate would make it to the convention in time for floor voting. She sprang into action and had a staffer hail an Uber, get a ride as close as possible to the venue, then hand-walk the delegate through security to the arena floor. 

While the challenges of planning political events may be too stress-inducing for some, it’s the opposite for planners like Stecker. “I love the creative nature of having to solve problems on the fly,” she says. “It’s one of the reasons why I got involved in this field.”

READ MORE!  Anatomy of a Virtual Fundraiser

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