The Final Countdown

As Bill Harris stood at the podium on a bright, warm, mid-May morning in New York, you'd have never guessed from his demeanor that the most stressful 96 hours of his life were just 100 days away. The New York media were firing questions at him, and he answered each one with a tone and cadence befitting his Birmingham, Alabama roots.

It was his response to the very last question, however, that finally offered a glimpse of the strain Bill Harris is under this summer. When asked if the bulk of his event-coordination work had been completed after toiling, at that point, for more than a year, he let slip a chuckle and a small sigh before saying, "I wish it were already done, but it's definitely still ahead of me."

A few moments before, he was asked to define his primary mission. Harris, officially known as CEO of the Republican National Convention, responded, "To provide a stable platform for the President and the Republican Party to communicate their message." But he makes the task sound far more bland than it actually is. Most likely, here's what Harris will dream about virtually every night between now and August 30: 14,000 delegates and guests, most of whom have never ventured anywhere near New York, whom he must house, transport, feed, and entertain; tens of thousands of protesters flooding the Democratic stronghold that is Gotham, intent on having their voices heard and faces seen—and many of them bent on disrupting convention proceedings; thousands of print, radio, TV, and Web journalists swarming to cover any and every angle they can find; and—oh, yeah—terrorists who might seek to inflict as much suffering and damage as possible on the largest city in the country, with the President of the United States in the immediate vicinity.

It might help Harris sleep just a bit better knowing that he has unmatched experience in planning huge political events; he's played a major role in every GOP convention since 1988. Even more important, he's getting plenty of help from capable people from all walks of life, and from both sides of the political aisle. This event is so critical, not only to the nation as a whole, but to New York City in particular, that it's made for the unlikeliest of bedfellows. And frankly, there's just no way an event of this magnitude, at this moment in American history, could otherwise be created.

The Odd Couple

As evidence of how strange it is to have the premier Republican event in New York, consider this: Harris' right-hand man in town is Kevin Sheeky, president of the NYC Host Committee—and a Democrat. The limits of bipartisanship, though, have occasionally been evident. For example, when Harris and Sheeky were asked to stand together for a photo at May's "100 Days and Counting" press conference, they declined. They would only shake hands—from about four feet apart—while a drawing of a convention-related construction project separated them. After all, says Harris, "Some who want this to be a successful experience aren't doing it because they want to help George Bush. They want to do it because they see it as a good thing for New York."

Sheeky falls into the latter camp. He's responsible for fundraising and garnering in-kind efforts (such as a local construction firm building for free a foot bridge across Eighth Avenue connecting Madison Square Garden with media headquarters in the huge Farley Post Office building) that will support the event. "The hardest part of any convention? Money, money, money," Sheeky says. "It's my job to raise it, and Bill's job to spend it." All funds for the convention and official special events and tours come from private donations.

Sheeky also oversees the effort to enlist 8,000 volunteers by mid-July, and at 100 days out, he estimated that "we're about halfway there." One nuisance Sheeky will have to account for is the intention of stealth protesters to pledge as volunteers, then fail to show up for convention duty—or worse, start a demonstration around the Garden or the 40,000 square feet of breakout meeting space located in the office building at Two Penn Plaza, adjacent to the Garden.

Another interesting twist: The public cheerleader who is doing television and print ads championing the volunteer drive, and attending dozens of volunteer meetings to fire up the faithful, is none other than former Mayor Ed Koch—another Democrat. Koch concurs that his goal trumps his political affiliation: "We're going to show our guests the time of their lives, and send them home thinking about a return trip to New York. We're going to show the world that New York is back on its feet and standing taller than ever."

Elephant in the Room

There's at least one thing that Harris, Sheeky, and others involved in coordinating major segments of the convention do have in common: They must contend with the RNC's committee on arrangements (COA). Separate from Sheeky's host committee, the COA cannot raise funds; rather, it wields unchallenged power over the day-to-day operations and implementation of the convention. The COA is chaired by David A. Norcross, National Committeeman for New Jersey. As evidence of how much influence the COA holds, Norcross stood prominently on the dais with Harris and Sheeky at the press conference, and the pair thanked him and the COA for their work. Norcross neither spoke nor fielded questions, however.

The COA consists of 14 subcommittees, of 4 to 6 people each, that handle the nitty-gritty aspects of the event that are common to most other conventions. But with the stakes of this event so high, the COA is in near-constant contact with every vendor involved in the event. For instance, housing for the convention is being run by Travel Planners Inc., a third-party provider based in New York. Ray Vastola, president of Travel Planners, pitched the COA in autumn of last year, was notified of his firm's successful bid in January, and has been speaking with the committee at least two dozen times a week ever since.

"A lot of the COA members were involved in the GOP's 2000 convention in Philadelphia, so they're very astute buyers," Vastola says. "The COA is highly organized, professional, and knowledgeable about the entire process; we were impressed. And though they are very much in control, they're easy to work with, because they have the routine down cold."

Securing room blocks and negotiating rates were tasks for the COA and NYC & Company, the city's convention and visitors bureau. "Also, the COA had to preassign all the rooms—figure out which states will be going into which hotels, and which room types go to which folks, as there are a lot of VIPs to deal with." Vastola says. "So that's a lot of customizing."

From his firm's perspective, implementing a housing program for an event this size "required a high-tech approach, but because of the event's unique aspects, it needed a high-touch component, too," he adds. "So the COA wanted the system largely on the Internet, but also available through other channels. Not everyone wants to book their housing electronically, and even if they do, they want a support system that will answer their questions quickly." As a result, there are paper forms delegates can opt to use, and a well-staffed call center to boot. Travel Planners has 25 people involved full time on the event, and that many more assisting on the periphery, notes Vastola.

High-touch is also necessary because of the short booking window delegates will have. Representatives from each state were chosen in early June, and housing opened right afterwards. Vastola says, "We're handling the deluge pretty well, considering the compressed time frame." When the dust settles, 50,000 attendees will book about 90,000 room-nights, with peak night running at 18,000 rooms.

Movin' and Groovin'

The COA is also in frequent contact with NYC & Company, as the bureau "is responsible for everything that happens outside of Madison Square Garden," says Cristyne Nicholas, president and CEO of NYC & Company. "We're handling the signage and training the volunteer staff for the airports and train stations. Each hotel will have a hospitality desk staffed not only by a hotel concierge, but also by a trained volunteer to help our guests navigate the city. We're creating bus tours that originate from our visitors center on Seventh Avenue. We also want people to get out to the boroughs beyond Manhattan, so we're working with the borough presidents to arrange events in their locales. We're hoping some of the presidents will lead tours and interact with delegates to add local flavor."

On August 29, the day before the convention opens, the usual welcoming parties will be replaced with a night on Broadway sponsored by the New York City Host Committee, NYC & Company—and, surprisingly, the left-leaning New York Times. Nearly 14,000 delegates and their guests will attend eight Broadway performances with special late-afternoon starting times: 42nd Street; Aida; Bombay Dreams; The Lion King; Fiddler on the Roof; The Phantom of the Opera; Beauty and the Beast; and Wonderful Town. Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., publisher of the Times, said when the program was announced that the newspaper "believes in New York, in Broadway, and in democracy." But he couldn't help slipping in a small dig at these particular theatergoers: "We're delighted to be playing a role in bringing all three [elements] together for a night of entertainment, and enlightenment."

Once the convention officially opens on August 30, delegates will be transported in buses and shuttle vans between their hotels and Madison Square Garden, with the New York Police Department securing a dedicated lane on major thoroughfares to keep the vehicles out of the legendary New York traffic. Traditionally, the subway is the fastest way to get anywhere in New York, but with security measures that include police checking every subway and railroad train approaching Penn Station (located directly underneath Madison Square Garden), motor coaches will provide more reliable transportation. When the Democrats came to New York for their 1992 convention, they also moved delegates via motor coach.

As for special events taking place during the convention, Bill Harris is mum on whether the group will use the Brooklyn Bridge or another high-profile spot, though he has ruled out any official event at the former site of the World Trade Center. Harris will say that some large venues outside Manhattan are being seriously considered, such as Flushing Meadows Park in Queens, site of the U.S. Open tennis tournament which will take place at the same time as the convention. On the private-sector side, Wall Street investment banks are set to lavish money on conventioneer parties and other events.

Finally, NYC & Company has secured agreements from more than 245 hotels, retail shops, restaurants, museums, attractions, and transportation companies to participate in a "Come Early, Stay Late" package of discounts, good from August 22 until September 8. "Attendees enjoying New York City's cultural treasures, extraordinary dining, and world-class shopping will spend millions during a traditionally slow period," says Nicholas. The economic-impact figure being touted by Mayor Michael Bloomberg's office is $260 million.

For all the preparation, coordination, and perspiration that's going into creating the 2004 Republican National Convention, Kevin Sheeky boils the experience down to one thought: "We have the same overarching concern as the planners of any other live show: You have just one chance to get it right."