The GOP Stampede
By Ron Donoho
DEVI, SUMITHI AND TEMBO seem immune to the escalating excitement. Don’t the San Diego Zoo’s elephants care that the Republican National Convention is coming to town? Since 1884, the elephant has been the mascot of the Republican Party. The zoo’s pachyderms are going to be quite popular this summer. Hey, Tembo! Drop the peanut, it’s a photo op.
It was political cartoonist Thomas Nast who first linked the elephant with the Grand Old Party. For a Harper’s Weekly political cartoon, Nast chose elephants because they were considered “clever, steadfast, easily controlled until aroused, but unmanageable when frightened.” Wow, Nast never even saw Oliver Stone’s Nixon.
Republicans also are picky. That’s what Bill Evans is explaining. Oops, wait a minute. “That may not have come out right,” says Evans, president of the board of directors for the San Diego Convention Center Corporation and managing director of Evans Hotels. “The final product is broadcast all over the free world. They have to be picky. I don’t mean to say they’re hard to work with.”
Of course not. This is big business. The four-day Republican National Convention at the San Diego Convention Center August 12-15 is only coincidentally concerned with partisanship or ideology. The Republicans are clients. They don’t come cheap, and they promise a big payoff. The real reward to hosting Bob Dole, Newt Gingrich and 20,000 of their closest friends comes long term. This is an investment, a chance to show off the city to the world. Let’s not piss anybody off.
Let’s ask Brad Gessner, events services director at the Convention Center, if the Republicans are picky. He knows the center inside and out, and he’s in constant contact with the party’s advance team. Gessner muses for a moment. “They’re high maintenance,” he concedes. Carol Wallace, the center’s general manager, was working at the Dallas Convention Center when it hosted the 1984 Republican Convention. “Detail oriented” is how she describes the group.
“The Republican National Convention has a long shelf life,” adds Evans. “Once you’ve hosted it, you’re prequalified to host any major convention. Huge groups like the AMA [American Medical Association] look at this event and say, ‘If San Diego’s good enough for the Republicans, it’s good enough for us.’”
That’s what’s at stake for the Host Committee, the Convention Center staff and the folks at the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau: a long-term payoff. So, in concert with the Republican National Committee—which has had an office here since the end of last year—local officials are spending a heck of a lot of time, and raising multimillions of dollars, in preparation.
As is the case for most large conventions, planners have to worry about setting up the meeting facilities, housing people, feeding and entertaining them and arranging for transportation. But if and when the AMA decides to convene in San Diego, it won’t require assistance from Secret Service agents. There won’t be more than 700 convention-related parties thrown in four days. The leading medical professionals will not be on TV every night. It’s highly unlikely 8,000 to 12,000 microphone-bearing, camera-wielding members of the media will be on hand, with 200 to 300 cable-carrying, satellite-beaming equipment trucks parked in every downtown nook and cranny. And there’s no reason the AMA would require Harbor Drive, the main drag in front of the Convention Center, to be closed off for two weeks.
For the quadrennial GOP get-together, however, those are just a few logistical considerations. As of this writing, many details are still being formulated. It’s a work in progress. But the clock is ticking. With San Diego up on the artist’s easel, there’s not a whole lot of time to contemplate the brush strokes.
IT’S A RARE RELAXED MOMENT for Fred Sainz. He’s spooning cornflakes in Lael’s, the first-floor restaurant of the downtown Hyatt Regency. Sainz, deputy assistant convention manager for political and public liaison, has been here since last Labor Day. He’s barely had a spare moment to memorize his title.
Since the first of the year, a dozen RNC worker bees have been ensconced in a hive-like downtown office at 750 B Street. But in the beginning, Sainz—who answers to convention manager Bill Greener and the chairman for the Committee on Arrangements, Michael Grebe—was a one-man team. Sainz has a mantra: “The convention starts August 14, whether we’re ready or not.”
A former advance man for President George Bush, Sainz worries about everything. That’s his job. “I’ve spent many midnight hours in hotel ballrooms, setting up events for the next day.” He has inspected each and every one of the 110 hotels in San Diego County that make up a 19,200-room block for the convention. Sainz has also checked out most of the restaurants. Will he recommend that RNC Chairman Haley Barbour do lunch at Dakota Grill? Fio’s? Royal Thai? Sorry, that’s classified.
So far, so are the sites and dates for most of the convention-related parties. The media’s bash will take place August 10 at the Embarcadero. The RNC’s welcome gala will be August 11, and sources say the likely site will be among the elephants at the zoo. There will be several corporate parties thrown on yachts behind the Convention Center, says Cheryl Irwin-Tesmer. Her Carlsbad-based event-planning company has lined up corporate clients like Philip Morris Company, Tenneco Inc., Miller Brewing Company, AT&T and Kraft Foods. She plans to use specialty yachts, the San Diego Museum of Art and the Del Mar Racetrack, among other venues.
Where are folks going to lay their heads after these wing-dings? Nobody will know until April or May, says Sainz, because not until then will all 1,900 delegates—and an equal number of alternates—be named. And with campaigns in full swing, Republican presidential wanna-bes like Lamar Alexander and Phil Gramm have yet to turn their attention to what hotel they’ll be staying at this summer. Who knows, maybe multimillionaire candidate Steve Forbes will buy his own hotel for the convention.
This we do know: The 1,335-room Marriott Hotel & Marina, located adjacent to the San Diego Convention Center, has been given over to the media. Its function space—including ballrooms and meeting rooms—will be used by the working press. The network elite, like anchors Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather, will get first shot at bunking at the Marriott. Their cameramen, however, likely will shuttle to work alongside the delegation from Guam.
The 875-room Hyatt Regency, the next-most-proximal hotel to the Convention Center, will be headquarters for the RNC and is the likely home for Barbour and company. That doesn’t necessarily mean any of the candidates will stay at the Hyatt. The Bob Dole campaign staff, for example, is itself a contingent of about 200. The Dole troop may opt for a block at any hotel in the area—and Dole himself may stay in a private residence.
Heard a rumor that cruise ships will dock in the bay and be used for housing? “That’s definitely not going to happen,” says Reint Reinders, president of the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau. “We have perfectly adequate housing available, and we’ve told that to Port of San Diego authorities.” (However, Port spokesperson AnneMarie Gumataotao says two travel agencies have asked about docking cruise ships, and “we’re open to the possibility.”)
Convention delegations eventually will be assigned hotels by the RNC in about half of San Diego County’s 45,000 rooms, including accommodations at Harbor Island, Shelter Island, Coronado and La Jolla. Almost all of the 7,500 guest rooms within a mile of the Convention Center will be called into action. In anticipation, about 275 of the Clarion Bay View Hotel’s 312 rooms are reserved for the event, says director of marketing Mark Wilkinson.
The downtown Embassy Suites has set aside 250 of its 337 rooms for the RNC during the first half of August. Director of sales and marketing Dolores Beddow knows the rooms will be filled; she just doesn’t know by whom. “It certainly would be a great coup to nab the nominee,” she says.
JACK FORD IS CERTAIN who the nominee will be: Dole. Here in a 14th-floor office of the San Diego Host Committee—roughly six blocks from the RNC headquarters—Ford is beaming a toothy, Lettermanesque smile. Stepping slightly outside his role as head of the Host Committee, Ford reveals his favoritism for the senator from Kansas, a longtime acquaintance of his father, former President Jerry Ford.
Jack Ford is a veteran of five of the last seven Republican National Conventions. He’s taken leave as president of Encinitas-based California Info Place to run the daily operations of the Host Committee. His job is to make sure San Diego works well for the Republicans—and, in the process, looks great to the rest of the world.
Ford knows a horse race among several candidates means an additional influx of national media. If Dole cakewalks into the nomination, about 8,000 media are expected. A tight race means more than 12,000 will show up. More media means greater coverage. “One way or another, the eyes of the world will be upon us,” Ford says.
The world will get a glimpse of San Diego thanks to the hundreds of media rigs that will make Harbor Drive look like a highway truck stop. Running cables to and from trucks and the Convention Center will take considerable effort. Successful hookup will be attained by snaking some cables through the ventilation system, according to Brad Gessner. Cable access will be available through the P1 parking level—where some media will work—and run from there up to the arena floor.
The area south of the center, recently approved for exhibit hall expansion, will be completely unusable. Although work on the expansion site is scheduled to start this month, Ford says construction will cease while the convention is in progress.
Seating for 18,000 people will be built and set up on the 254,000-square-foot hall floor. Delegates will be seated on the ground level facing the podium, which will run along the room’s bay side. Mobile, elevated stands—which are being built just for this event—will hold some members of the press and a general audience.
While planning will continue right through the convention, things will kick into high gear after July 7. That’s when a 30,000-attendee comic-book trade show moves out of the center, and the RNC takes over. They’ll have just over a month to build sky boxes, construct the elevated seating, set up electrical capacity for the GOP and the press, stack the press stands, carpet the place, nail together the podium and get sound and lighting in place.
Since September, assistant convention manager for logistics and operations James “Chip” DiPaula has been putting together a “critical path.” It’s a day-to-day, and in some cases hour-by-hour, plan for the entire operation. The critical-path map—a time-planning device used by large corporations—exists on a computer-generated, 8-by-10-foot chart supplied by San Diego’s high-tech Science Applications International Corporation. A multitudinous flow chart of boxes brimming with detail, the critical path is as complicated as Pat Buchanan is opinionated.
As of July 8, the RNC will have 140 staffers in town. Gessner expects the Convention Center’s full-time crew of 150 (and 300 part-timers) to be kept awfully busy. They’ll be joined in the facility by contractors hired by the RNC for electrical and construction work. AT&T Vice President Norm Smith says the telecommunications company will install more than a million feet of cable and fiber-optic connections in and around the center.
Pacific Bell Area Vice President Randy Johnson says a broad range of services—voice mail, e-mail, pagers and video systems—will be put into hotels and city venues. It’s likely that between 500 and 1,000 workers from contracted and subcontracted firms will put in time during the five weeks before the big show.
Plans also call for big-screen televisions to be installed in the center’s outdoor sail area. There will be a closed-circuit system for up to 10,000 people to watch the proceedings in the main hall. More huge TV screens will also go up on the Embarcadero, in an area that can accommodate an additional 10,000 to 15,000 people.
Fine and dandy, you say. So how is everybody going to get to and from this hub of mega-activity?
WE’RE OFF TO SEE THE WIZARD—the wonderful wizard of bus. Steve and Pat Weathers own and operate Special Event and Transportation (SEAT) Planners, the company selected to transport delegates and press from hotels to the Convention Center. “If you look behind the curtain of this magical system, you’ll find us,” says Steve Weathers.
Steve Cushman, head of the Host Committee’s Transportation Committee, is confident that SEAT Planners can pull off what it’s promising: that buses will run every eight minutes from each hotel during peak hours of the convention.
SEAT Planners is devising a city bus system in miniature. To use it, conventioneers will have to buy a ticket being called a GOPass (they’re asking for trouble with that moniker). Different scenarios are being mulled, involving anywhere from 90 to 150 to 450 transit buses and motor coaches.
“They used 300 buses in Houston [for the 1992 GOP Convention at the Astrodome],” says Weathers. “I think that’s wasteful. If there’s anything that I get excited about, it’s using as few buses as possible for any job.” His company handled transportation for 39 conventions last year. For a recent 30,000-attendee neuroscience convention here, Weathers used 56 buses. They hit hotels every eight minutes during peak hours, he says, and every 24 minutes during non-peak times.
It’s not uncommon for buses to be called in from Los Angeles for large conventions, and that will be the case for the Republican Convention. Problems can arise, however, with bus drivers unfamiliar with the city. Weathers plans to have a local volunteer in every bus. And Jack Ford says what happened in Houston in ’92—the Ohio delegation’s bus got lost, delaying a floor vote by an hour—will not happen here. Sorrento Mesa–based Qualcomm, a wireless communications company, is providing a mobile satellite tracking system. The OmniTRACS system is commonly used in the trucking industry and on some boats. “If anybody gets lost, we can redeploy them from our hub,” says Qualcomm spokesperson Julie Cunningham.
Weathers—who gets remarkably excited talking about bus routes—says there will be 14 routes set up for the GOP. Most will have three or four stops and represent about 1,000 hotel rooms. The drop-off stops at the Convention Center will be at least two blocks away. That distance is due to a lengthy fence that will encircle the center, the media trucks parked on Harbor Drive and security concerns.
Nary a parking spot will be available near the Convention Center. The fact that the 40,000-square-foot underground lot has been usurped by the media is a blessing in disguise for security officials. In light of car-bomb incidents in Oklahoma City and at New York’s World Trade Center, the thought of having vehicles parking under the possible future leader of the free world was a tad unsettling. During the convention, everyone who enters the Convention Center will be required to pass through metal detectors.
To assist in traffic and security measures, about 614 police officers, dispatchers and special-events staffers will be on duty, according to Assistant Chief of Police Keith Enerson. He says approximately 300 to 400 Secret Service agents will patrol the center’s interior and perimeter.
With every political-party convention—Republican or Democratic—come protesters. The police department will designate areas for protest. At press time, those areas had not been decided, according to Enerson, but he says they will be relatively close to the front of the center, perhaps right across Harbor Drive.
Officials from the RNC and the Host Committee are in agreement about this: They’re planning for everything—and preparing for the unexpected. Chip DiPaula glances warily at me when I ask him if he is picky, high maintenance and detail oriented. Actually, those words could describe convention planners from the AMA, ABC, the ASPCA, Alcoholics Anonymous or any group that holds a large meeting.
“Our job is to build and implement excellent systems,” DiPaula says slowly and deliberately. “Security. Transportation. Everything. We have to cover every detail. Yes, we’re all those things —but in a good way. We’re not going to settle for second best.”
Ron Donoho, a former senior editor at New York–based Successful Meetings magazine, is a San Diego freelance writer specializing in meetings and travel.