A week before the Republican National Convention was set to kick off in Tampa, Fla., CEO Michael Howe and his staff at onPeak had their eyes on the weather. Tropical Storm Isaac was churning through the Caribbean and appeared to be on course to hit the Sunshine State right around the time of the RNC, scheduled for August 27–30. There was a real possibility that all the preparations could be scattered to the winds. So onPeak (the RNC’s official housing bureau), along with the planning staff at the Republican National Committee, gathered to craft a contingency plan and get ready for whatever nature might throw at them.
All eyes on Tampa
For a lot of reasons, the RNC is not your typical convention. Not only is it large—this year, 15,000 delegates were spread across 103 hotels in the Tampa Bay/St. Petersburg area— it’s also extremely high-profile. Delegates from all 50 states would be coming to Tampa to nominate Mitt Romney as the Republican candidate for president, and with them would come thousands of journalists. Every major television network, newspa- per, and national media outlet in the country, as well as local and regional media, would cover the convention. For four days in August, all eyes would be on Tampa.
OnPeak is no stranger to politi- cal conventions. The Chicago-based company handled housing in 2008 for both the RNC in Minneapolis and the Democratic National Convention in Denver. What was different in Tampa was the number of hotels needed. The room block was spread across 103 hotels, includ- ing some in the neighboring cities of St. Petersburg and Clearwater. Many were resort properties unaccustomed to hosting convention delegates, so onPeak staffers had to educate them on how to accommodate the needs of convention guests, says Howe, onPeak’s president and CEO.
OnPeak used its proprietary system, called Compass Reservation System®, to make managing the massive room block fairly simple. Inventory was loaded into the sys- tem and could be easily changed to accommodate guests’ special requests—whether that meant changing dates or hotels. The more difficult part was figuring out which delegation would stay where. It was like putting together a puzzle. Among the objectives: keeping delegations together in the same hotel, determining who would stay downtown, and being considerate of which delegations shouldn’t be in the same hotel with each other. Working with the RNC’s Committee on Arrangements, which planned the convention, onPeak was able to piece it together and send out confir- mations to all the delegates.
A staff of nine from onPeak, including Howe, had traveled to Tampa a week in advance to get ready for the arrivals and handle any questions, changes, or concerns. But as Isaac gathered strength and turned from a tropical depression into a tropical storm, it looked as if Tampa might be in its path. “We didn’t know where it was going because it was still quite a ways out, but we knew we needed to have some contingency planning because if it comes into Tampa, we’ve got a big problem,” recalls Howe.
The plan to relocate attendees
As Isaac blew through the Caribbean on a path toward Florida, onPeak had a series of meetings at a hotel near Tampa to consider the options. Teams were appointed to handle different aspects of the situation— housing, transportation, communi- cation, and more.
At this point, Isaac was a tropi- cal storm, not a hurricane, but there were indications that it could reach hurricane status. OnPeak came up with an attendee relocation plan based on the strength of the storm. The stronger the storm, the more attendees would be relocated away from the beach and low-lying areas. One scenario called for evacuating all the hotels near the beach and on the inner harbor because of the potential for a storm surge. That amounted to 53 hotels and would require moving almost half of the 15,000 attendees.
But where would the attendees go? The RNC was already taking up just about all the hotel rooms in the area. OnPeak started making calls to hotels in Orlando, about 90 minutes to the northeast. “We know those properties because we do a lot of business there,” says Howe. They secured 5,500 rooms in Orlando, enough to accommodate the uproot- ed RNC delegates. Because the hotels are much larger in Orlando, they wouldn’t need nearly as many as they did in Tampa. OnPeak had even inquired about availability at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando in the event that the worst-case scenario should occur and the entire convention would have to be moved from Tampa.
The RNC was able to work with the transportation company to have shuttles run to and from Orlando, explains Anne Stewart, director of delegate services for the Committee on Arrangements for the 2012 RNC. The RNC, in concert with federal and local officials, would also work with the hotels on the timing and execution of an evacuation plan should one become necessary.
The communications team came up with a plan to let attendees know where they would be relocated if the storm hit. They would inform the head of each affected delegation where the group would be staying and then confirm those reserva- tions with each of the guests. They would tell attendees where the shut- tles would pick them up and how frequently they would run to and from the Tampa Bay Times Forum, the site of the convention. Further, hotels would be informed of the attendees’ schedules so they would know, for example, that attendees would be around for breakfast, but probably not lunch or dinner.
Hurry up and wait
“At this point, it was the hurry-up- and-wait game,” says Stewart. All the precautionary measures were in place by Saturday morning, August 25, as Isaac made landfall in Cuba. At this point, RNC officials made the decision to move the start of the convention from Monday to Tuesday, August 28. Even if the storm didn’t hit Tampa, it was the right call to be sensitive to other areas of the country that might be affected, explains Stewart. “We didn’t want our delegates from Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas in sessions when a hurricane was get- ting ready to hit their area.” (And the decision was not unprecedented: The RNC canceled day one of its 2008 convention in Minnesota as Hurricane Gustav made landfall in Louisiana on September 1.)
By now the potential disruption of the RNC was a national news story. In the week leading up to the convention, the RNC had made a conscious decision not to send out communications to delegates advis- ing them on what to do, simply because they didn’t know which path the storm was going to take and they didn’t want to unnecessarily alarm delegates, says Stewart. “We actually let everything happen as normal, because with delegations coming to an unfamiliar area for a week or two weeks, they already have anxiety about being away from home,” she says. Organizers didn’t want to add to it with frequent updates on the potential for bad weather when they weren’t even sure it would be a fac- tor. However, behind the scenes, they handled delegate questions as they came in.
Meanwhile, Stewart and her staff at the RNC continued to watch the storm. An official from the Federal Emergency Management Administration was assigned to the RNC and sat in its command post, keeping the organization constantly updated on the status of Isaac. And the RNC planning staff was in fre- quent contact with state, county, and city officials to determine at what point they would need to pull the trigger on the contingency plan and evacuate delegates. Since the room block encompassed three counties, the RNC had to be in touch with all three in case one of them issued a mandatory or voluntary evacuation of an area.
By Sunday morning, the day before the convention was origi- nally scheduled to begin, it became clear that the storm would not hit Tampa and was veering to the west toward the Gulf of Mexico (where it would eventually make landfall in Louisiana on Tuesday, August 28).
Soon thereafter, the backup plans were halted. There would be no evacuations and no attendees relocated to hotels in Orlando. The shuttle bus company was told there would be no need to change routes and schedules.
The RNC was also fortunate that just about all of the attendees had arrived by Sunday, so few were affected by flight cancellations or delays due to the weather, says Stewart. Everything was back on track and ready to move full speed ahead—but with a one-day delay to the start of the convention.
On with the show
The delay caused some crunching of the schedule, as all the major Monday speakers had to be moved to other nights during the week. All the side events held by affiliate groups, corporations, associations, and other groups not directly associ- ated with the RNC made their own decisions as to whether or not to hold an event that day.
While RNC activities were can- celed for Monday, the Tampa Bay Host Committee did hold its sched- uled welcome party at Tropicana Field on Sunday night, featuring some 400 performers on three dif- ferent stages. The production team, Dallas-based Corporate Magic, had just 21 hours from the end of the Tampa Bay Rays game on Saturday evening to get the field ready. Throw in the extra layer of security con- cerns—including the Secret Service’s three-hour post-game sweep of the stadium—and that window was even smaller.
As for the convention itself, the RNC had been in the arena for a full six weeks leading up to the con- vention, so the general contractors, production teams, and all neces- sary vendors had long been on site and had the facility ready to go. In the end, the convention went off smoothly and generated an estimat- ed economic impact of $175 million to $200 million for Tampa.
“We’ve never had a scenario like this,” says Howe. Certainly, there have been situations where attendees have had to be relocated, but not on this scale and on such short notice. “It was definitely an interesting challenge.”