Philadelphia Prepares for the Democratic National Convention

Philadelphia CVB president and CEO Julie Coker Graham on what goes into hosting a national political convention and the benefits it yields for future groups

philadelphia DNC

When it comes to political meetings, you could say that Philadelphia has a little experience: The city hosted its first political convention (of sorts) 242 years ago. During the First Continental Congress, delegates from the American colonies met to discuss their grievances with the British crown, culminating two years later with the signing of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia.

Now, two centuries later, Philadelphia once again will make history as the site of the 2016 Democratic National Convention (DNC), during which Hillary Clinton will become the first female presidential nominee of a major U.S. political party.

Taking place July 25-28, the DNC is a major undertaking, expected to draw approximately 50,000 people -- including roughly 20,000 members of the media -- to the City of Brotherly Love. In advance of the event, Successful Meetings spoke with Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau president and CEO Julie Coker Graham, who discussed how Philadelphia is preparing for the convention, what it means to host such a high-profile event, and what benefits the experience will yield for future groups. (Coker Graham was recently named one of Successful Meetings' "Most Influential People in the Meetings Industry.")

The Democratic National Convention Committee (DNCC) chose Philadelphia to host the DNC over Brooklyn, NY, and Columbus, OH. How did you win the convention?

Our involvement started in summer 2014. The local host committee was formed in May or June, and they reached out to us to provide information for an RFP. The DNCC schedules site visits to all the competing cities, and our city was sited in August 2014. During that visit, you have 24 to 36 hours to show all of your city's great assets. We were able to do that in a really compact way. We highlighted our state-of-the-art facility, the Wells Fargo Center, which also was home of the Republican National Convention (RNC) when we hosted that in 2000; the Pennsylvania Convention Center, which is the 14th largest convention center in the country; Dilworth Park, which has been renovated; new enhancements we have done along the waterfront; Benjamin Franklin Parkway; and all of the museums that we have. The DNCC was very concerned about the delegate experience, and Philadelphia plays really well to that. So, we took them on a tour of what the delegates would experience should they choose us. That and the fact that we have a little over 11,000 rooms river to river in a very small, easy-to-to-navigate footprint, plus our convenient location on the East Coast, led to us being awarded the contract in February 2015. And that's really when the planning begins.

How was the process different from courting a traditional meeting or convention?

Our city has always resonated really well with convention attendees. They like the fact that they can walk out the door of their hotel and find cultural attractions, restaurants, and tax-free shopping steps away from the front door of their hotel. That's the reason why we are chosen to host large events like the DNC and the papal visit, which we hosted in September 2015 along with the World Meeting of Families Congress. What I would say is different about the DNC is that its decision is made by committee. So we had to make sure we weren't just playing up to the meeting planner, but to everyone on the DNCC, because many of them had not been to Philadelphia for a long period of time.

How do you prepare for an event of this magnitude?

An undertaking like this requires a partnership between the civic and business communities, and we've certainly had that here. It's all about teamwork, collaboration, and putting the asset first. We want to make sure we put on a successful convention not only for the DNC, but also for Philadelphia. Our contribution has been lending our destination expertise. So, we've focused on all the areas that we focus on for other large conventions, such as transportation and housing. We have several members of our team who are on the transportation committee, and we have an outstanding relationship with our hotel partners, who we've worked very closely with to put together a 15,000-room-on-peak room block that extends not only to Center City, but also to the airport and Valley Forge. We've been a great communication resource for them. In fact, we recently held pre-convention meetings with all 96 of our hotels to lay out a day in the life of a delegate, making sure they have all the information they need to best service their guests.

We also have supplied our great knowledge of offsite venues throughout the city, which is really important to the delegations as well as the companies coming in to do parties.

We also have worked very closely with volunteers. There's about 10,000 volunteers that have signed up for the convention who are going to be placed throughout the city, and we have a member of our team who's working with them to make sure they have all the information they need to direct our visitors to where they need to be.

Lastly, we've worked very closely with the Pennsylvania Convention Center, which is going to be used for the larger caucus meetings -- the LGBT Caucus, the Women's Caucus, the African-American Caucus -- as well as offices.

In addition to logistics, has programming been a major focus?

Yes. The primary goal for the DNC, obviously, is nominating their candidate. In addition, however, there are a number of activities in and around the city that we're planning not only for the delegates and their families and allied groups, but also for our residents. For example, we recently kicked off Donkeys Around Town. There are 57 territories represented at the DNC, and they each submitted a design to a local artist here who painted 57 fiberglass donkeys located around the city. There's also Political Fest, which is taking place at six different locations where you can learn the history of the government. There will be a media party on Saturday and a welcome party on Sunday. And then, of course, we'll do watch parties throughout the city on Thursday, when the candidate is announced.

It sounds like a lot of work. What's the payoff?

First and foremost is the economic impact. Everything we do is focused on putting heads in beds, and this convention is no different. There's close to 70,000 hospitality-related jobs in our city, so the families, delegates, media, and allied members coming to our city put Philadelphians to work.

Also, this puts Philadelphia on a national and international stage. The fact that this convention will be coming to you "live from Philadelphia at the Wells Fargo Center" is really great PR. There's going to be hundreds of thousands of stories that reporters are going to write for their local newspapers about Philadelphia, so folks who haven't had an opportunity yet to visit Philadelphia will get a taste of what we have to offer.

Those are the two main reasons we're hosting this. The other thing, however, is that Philadelphia is the birthplace of the nation. Democracy and freedom were founded here. So there's no better backdrop for the nomination of the first female presidential candidate in our nation's history.

As you mentioned, the eyes of the nation will be on Philadelphia during the DNC. Among those watching will be meeting planners. What do you hope they see?

Meeting planners are looking not only for destinations that support their educational goals, but also for destinations where their attendees can enjoy themselves during their free time. I think they definitely will see that during the Democratic National Convention.

Speaking of meeting planners, how will your experience hosting the DNC help you serve future groups?

The big thing we've been able to do for the DNC is be a connector. We have more than 900 members, and we've been able to demonstrate that we can bring them all together at the touch of an email to offer the resources a meeting planner needs.

The other thing that's important to know is: Having this size convention dropped into your convention calendar just two years out is unheard of. We've demonstrated that we have an outstanding relationship with our existing business because we did have to shift some things around to accommodate the DNC. There was a lot of maneuvering we had to do to make sure all of our groups' needs were met, and that everyone felt their convention was the most important. That's where our hotel partners really stepped up. Maybe there was a room we needed at the convention center that we didn't have, so the Marriott or the Loews offered it. Or maybe there was a lunch that should have been at the convention center that we were able to move to an offsite venue. In the end, we all worked together to make sure everyone was taken care of, and I think that's the biggest takeaway for conventions coming in after the DNC: They'll be able to see that we really do partner with groups to make sure everyone's needs are met.