The eyes of the world will turn to Boston this summer as the Democratic National Convention unfolds in the city's FleetCenter, where delegates will choose presidential and vice presidential candidates to take on the Bush/Cheney ticket in November. It's a big moment for the nation, and for Boston. The convention is its largest ever, and it's a great opportunity to showcase the city. It's also the first national political convention since 9/11. And that, says the city's key convention planner, makes all the difference in the world.
Outside her Copley Place office in downtown Boston, Julie Burns squints into the bright sun. She doesn't often escape outdoors in the afternoon. The wind whips down the avenue as she graciously submits to a half-hour photo session for this article. But it's clear with each click of the camera that Julie Burns finds it hard to cool her heels. Inside the Boston 2004 office, headquarters for the Boston host committee, there's an LED display blinking the number of days until the Democratic National Convention: 77. It's a countdown that began more than two years ago for Burns.
That's when Burns, who was at that time Boston Mayor Thomas Menino's deputy chief of staff, teamed up with Menino, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, and other Massachusetts luminaries to woo the Democratic National Convention Committee. After the city won the bid, Menino appointed Burns the executive director of Boston 2004 Inc., the nonprofit, nonpartisan agency charged with organizing Boston's preparations for the convention. Burns oversees community outreach, and hospitality, coordinating city services, recruiting and training 13,000 volunteers, and fund-raising nearly $50 million to pay for convention-related activities. With a paid staff that has grown from 12 to 20 as the convention nears, she is responsible for pretty much everything that happens during the convention, except for the programming inside the convention hall — the domain of the Democratic National Convention Committee.
It seems like a lot for a 35 year old. But in many ways, Burns has been training for this job since she was a child. She remembers growing up in Lowell, Mass., where she put fliers on cars for next-door neighbor Paul Tsongas during his congressional campaign.
After graduating in 1991 with a degree in political science from the Virginia Commonwealth University, Burns worked as a legislative aide and then went on to serve at the 1996 Democratic National Convention in Chicago as special assistant to the CEO of the DNC, managing the office staff and the CEO's activities during the two years prior to the convention. Earlier with the DNC, Burns was scheduler and special assistant to the executive director. She then served as director of the chair's office. So it wasn't surprising that Menino turned to his deputy chief of staff when the city got the bid to host the DNC July 26 to 29, winning over Miami, Detroit, and New York.
What's different about this convention from a planner's perspective? Burns says it's the same planning experience, “just a different city.” But while other DNC conventions may have had fund-raising challenges and logistical nightmares, there can be no question that, just seven weeks before the big day, Boston is grappling with huge issues.
Glitches include unsettled city laborthat could lead to picket lines outside the convention — and higher costs. The Boston 2004 committee will raise $50 million to fund the convention, but some reports indicate that it might cost as much as 40 percent more. Burns is not panicking. For the 1996 Chicago convention, costs exceeded fund-raising efforts, but the DNC stepped in and helped, she points out. She says that the McCain-Feingold Act, however, would prevent the DNC from directly raising funds for the convention this year, but she is confident that the fund-raising issues will be resolved.
“We're charged with raising nearly $50 million — a colossal amount of money — but don't forget that we raised $20 million of that before we even got the bid to host the convention,” she observes.
No issue is more paramount, however, than security. In late May, the Secret Service and the Boston Police Department dropped a figurative bombshell on the city: For the first time, officials detailed the full extent of the transportation lockdown that would be necessary during the four days of the convention.
The measures include closure of some 40 miles of roads, a vehicle-free zone around the FleetCenter, extensive parking bans, the shutdown of the train service running beneath the FleetCenter, and closure of tunnels to and from Logan International Airport. Acknowledging that all of central Boston would be affected, city officials were urging business owners to give workers flex-time, telecommuting, and vacation options during the convention.
That same day, Burns' office launched a public awareness campaign — “Let's Work Around It” — to help people figure out travel options during the convention. Updated information on transit and road conditions would be available on Boston 2004's Web site (www.boston04.com). Even as Burns and city and state officials worked to assuage concerns about the unprecedented travel restrictions, it did not help that two days later New York City, which won the bid to host the Republican National Convention in late August, announced that there would be no major transportation closures in the city.
The train bombings in Madrid and the war in Iraq have fueled security concerns, Burns acknowledges. “Security is in the forefront of everything we do, every decision.” When asked to give an example of a mundane convention detail affected by security issues, Burns can reveal nothing. “I just can't comment,” she says. Contingency planning simply cannot be discussed, except to say that her team has been working with the Secret Service and the Boston Police Department for more than two years on security issues around the convention.
“We meet weekly with the Law Enforcement Executive Committee, made up of federal, state, and municipal authorities,” she says. “There are 17 subcommittees,” she notes. She's also on the phone “a thousand times a day with the Democratic National Convention Committee.” Obviously, this is a meeting planning environment with an enormous emphasis on contingency planning.
The city asked the Department of Homeland Security to designate the DNC a National Special Security Event (as did New York City for its convention), in order to qualify for federal security resources — not as a result of any threat, Burns is quick to point out. Basically, she says, the Secret Service is in charge of the FleetCenter and its perimeter, and for the protection of Sen. John F. Kerry, D.-Mass., the presumed Democratic presidential candidate and resident of Boston's Beacon Hill. The city police department is in charge of everything else. Burns says the city also got a $25 million grant from the federal government to cover security costs, as did New York City.
What Burns can talk about are the parties that the city will throw that week, and how they are designed to highlight its history, diversity, and cultural richness. The 56 delegations will be put into 30 groups (small delegations, such as those of Virginia and West Virginia, will be combined), each of which will be feted at a welcome party at a venue that is “not a ballroom or function hall,” says Burns. “We really want to showcase the city, and we've picked 30 very unique locations.”
The Democratic National Convention Committee assigned state delegations to individual hotels. Most of the delegate hotels are within walking distance of the FleetCenter, with the farthest hotel about 3.5 miles away. (At the 2000 convention in Los Angeles, the farthest delegation hotel was 17 miles from the Staples Center.)
These hotels will serve as the base of operations for state delegations. Each delegation will host a breakfast at its hotel to preview the day's convention activities. Delegates will also use their hotels to host receptions and luncheons and conduct official business, including meetings and press conferences.
The Boston 2004 team chose the venues and then bid out the party-planning services to area contractors (except for those venues that have in-house catering). Burns says her team tried to pick a venue for each state delegation party that was relatively near the hotel for that delegation. For example, the Massachusetts delegation is housed in Copley Plaza, and its party will be held at the Boston Public Library, which is across the street. The California delegation is at the Marriott Long Wharf, and its welcome party will be just down the street at the New England Aquarium.
“We're trying not to add buses to the roads if we don't have to,” she says. The Boston 2004 team will also run a shuttle bus system involving 150 buses running on loops 12 hours a day, transporting 10,000 riders among 60 hotels and the FleetCenter. Boston 2004's director of operations, reporting to Burns, is in charge of convention transportation.
There is also a two-person team in charge of getting and coordinating volunteers. The original goal was to get 8,000 volunteers. Burns points out that 13,000 volunteers had signed up and that Boston 2004 was cutting it off there. She clearly is proud of the success of this part of the operation.
Boston 2004 board members, and some of the volunteers, will be at each of the delegate parties to function as surrogate hosts. Delegates pay their own hotel and transportation bills, but Burns jokes that “a smart delegate could eat and drink for free for the entire week.”
Boston 2004 is also planning about a half dozen other official events that will not be publicized for security reasons. These involve lunches and receptions with the mayor and other political dignitaries. The biggest single event that the city will throw is the party for 15,000 media people at the new Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. (See sidebar, page 22.)
Interestingly, although she is overseeing these parties and transportation logistics, and is intensely involved in security planning, Burns does not see herself as a meeting or event planner, and no one on her staff has that title or direct responsibility. “I'm not a meeting planner. I'm the executive director, with much broader responsibilities. Our structure and setup is very unlike a meeting planner's organization; we're more like a political organization,” she says. Even so, with an event such as this, one wonders why there wouldn't be a meeting planner on staff.
Back at the offices of Boston 2004, overlooking downtown Boston, you walk into a reception area and then a warren of cubicles. Except for a couple of posters, including a vintage-looking JFK campaign poster, the walls are bare, and the atmosphere is surprisingly quiet. The few staffers who come and go all look to be in their 20s and 30s. We head for an empty conference room.
What will her days be like during the convention? Burns says that depends upon what is needed. “But I can speak to what happened in Chicago. We each had our assignments for the day. We'd meet back at headquarters at 1 or 2 in the morning for a debriefing and to get our marching orders for the next day. Then we'd be up at 5 to start all over again.” She laughs about the lack of sleep. Been there, done that. There will be plenty of time for that afterward, she says.
During our interview and photo session, Burns is accompanied by Karen Grant, deputy executive director, communications, for Boston 2004. Grant listens intently to our conversation. As the interview is wrapping up, she reminds me of a question that I had forgotten (so far) to ask: What does this event mean for Boston? It's a question that Burns is eager to answer, given the negative publicity surrounding the city's transportation woes.
“This convention is a one-week opportunity to get our message out to the world: Come here to live, come here to work, come here to vacation, bring your events here,” Burns says. “It's our chance to highlight Boston's culture, its diversity, and its livability.” She obviously has a lot of passion for her work, and a long history of working for the Democratic Party. Is it a commitment to the Democratic Party that motivates her?
“For me it's about the city of Boston, not the Democratic Party. I grew up here, and when I came back here and began working for Mayor Menino, I just knew that Boston was the place to have this convention,” Burns says. “I sincerely believe it. And I think the 13,000 volunteers working this convention are going to help prove it.”
All in the Numbers: DNC in Boston
35,000: number of anticipated visitors
$150 million: revenue expected to be generated by visitors
13,000: Number of volunteers coordinated by host committee.
1,000: estimated number of events to be held during the week itself
17,000: hotel rooms reserved for delegates, alternates, party officials, and activists. A total of 6,201 of those rooms will be reserved specifically for state delegations and territories.
3: months ahead of time (compared to the 2000 convention) that the Democratic National Convention Committee finished matching up state delegations with their hotels
10,000: number of riders expected on the shuttle buses provided for the convention by the host committee
150: number of shuttle buses running on 12-hour loops
19,000: number of seats in the FleetCenter, home of the Boston Celtics and the Boston Bruins
Source: The Greater Boston CVB
New Center Hosts The World's Media
Talk about a great promotional opportunity. The Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, which opens near the South Boston waterfront in early July, will host 15,000 media representatives July 24 for a welcome party to kick off the Democratic National Convention. The very first event at the center will be Macworld, another high-visibility event for the city's long-awaited new center.
Boston 2004, the DNC host committee, put the party out to bid among area event planners. Four companies, working together to handle different aspects of the event, were selected. Michael P. Wasserman Inc. will manage the logistical planning and execution and serve as the coordinating office for the project. MPWI, a full-service meeting and special-event planning company, has orchestrated many high-level Boston events. Kortenhaus Communications Inc. will develop a theme and message to portray the city of Boston to the media, and causemedia inc. will manage brand development for the event and produce collateral materials. MacDonald & Associates will design and oversee production elements.
Few details about the party's theme and program were available as we went to press. “All I can say at this point is that our planners are working really hard to make this a highly interactive event,” Burns says, “as much as possible with a group this large.”
Some locals, including Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, were pushing earlier in the year to move the DNC convention from the FleetCenter to the new convention center, saying that the event would be less disruptive to the city's transportation at that location. But Burns points out that the DNCspecifies that the host venue must be an arena, and that transportation would be equally affected were the event to be at the BCEC, given its proximity to Logan International Airport and other major roads and train stations.
Hosting the world's media will nonetheless give the new convention center plenty of exposure. It's a stunning facility, with a sweeping metal canopy over the entrance, among other striking architectural features. The exhibit hall offers 500,000 square feet of contiguous space, with daylight coming through window strips along the roof. There are 86 meeting rooms, including a 41,000-square-foot ballroom.