Convention Austerity: Partying Like It's 2012

Tight money and bad optics are cramping the style of some groups that used to party hearty at conventions
Courtesy Fillmore
The Distilled Spirits Council is hosting the “Spirits of Charlotte” at the North Carolina Music Factory. The event is expected to attract 750 guests for specialty cocktails as well as high-end whiskeys, cognacs, and cigars. But not everyone is entertaining to that level, due to the tight economy.

Money was definitely a concern when GOProud, a conservative gay advocacy group, set out to plan Republican convention festivities in Tampa. So executive director Jimmy LaSalvia went big on the revelry and skimped on other expenses. He snagged the Honey Pot nightclub in Tampa’s hot Ybor City neighborhood for a party and booked himself into the Holiday Inn Express for $115 a night.

La Salvia said it's worth the tradeoff: “There’s business to take care of at the convention, there’s networking that will happen, but there’s also a place for fun — and that’s important too.”

In an era of crunched budgets and with Republicans in particular broadcasting a message of economic gloom, party planning and the all-important schmoozing it facilitates have gotten trickier for the droves of Washington organizations that want a presence at the end-of-summer conventions in Tampa and Charlotte. There are signs that there will be less revelry this time around, and what there is will in some cases be less decadent.

Some organizations, like the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association and the American Chemistry Council, are staying home this summer. A number of other groups have committed to smaller shindigs.

The Bipartisan Policy Center is scaling back from large receptions as they did in 2008 to smaller dinner and meetings with their members — a move a spokesman said is solely a product of BPC being better-known now than they were four years ago. The Human Rights Campaign, another gay-advocacy group, is doing luncheons and a reception in Charlotte instead of the marquee concert the group held in Denver in 2008 — although this group, too, called the decision a matter of strategy rather than austerity.

Something Classic, a Charlotte catering company that just scored a contract to feed 15,000 journalists at the Democrats’ media welcome party, said many organizations are on what company President Jill Marcus refers to as a “Bud Lite” budget.

“You know, I thought it was going to be busier … that there would be big events every night,” Marcus said. She said organizations “are being very modest in their entertaining and smart with their money — they’re feeding their guests but certainly not wining and dining them.”

Living it up in the midst of down times sends the wrong message — making over-the-top partying less likely this time, said Democratic strategist Don Foley, the manager of the 1996 Democratic convention in Los Angeles. “The days that you could put on an event without any regard for cost — those are long gone,” Foley said. “Nobody wants to make the mistakes of the past and I think because of tighter budgets, most of the sponsoring organizations are mindful of the bottom line and the optics of these events, especially if you have members of Congress and other elected officials attending.”

Nancy Watzman, a consultant to the nonprofit Sunlight Foundation, documented the excesses and the creative ways organizers found to flout ethics rules in 2008 in St. Paul and Denver for the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, respectively. The 400 parties and events at the two conventions included a Kanye West concert, luxury Porta Potties and Caesar salad served in shot glasses (under ethics rules, members of Congress and their staff are only allowed to eat finger foods at receptions thrown by lobbyists). 

“The real business of the convention and the main purpose was to party,” Watzman said. “It was almost incidental what was happening in the halls of the convention itself.”

Though unemployment is stuck above 8 percent, many of the conventions’ corporate sponsors are doing just fine and lobbying firms too have bounced back with relative ease from the Great Recession. Some are still planning to party like it’s the 1990s dot-com boom.

The Distilled Spirits Council, for instance, is hosting the “Spirits of Tampa” in the Florida Aquarium and the “Spirits of Charlotte” at the North Carolina Music Factory. Each event is expected to attract 750 guests for specialty cocktails as well as high-end whiskeys, cognacs, and cigars.

“George Washington was the largest distiller in his day at the time of his death,” points out Mark Gorman, senior vice president of government relations at the Council. “We like to feature that connection between politics and a good cocktail.”

Americans for Tax Reform meanwhile is throwing a Back to the Reagan '80s fundraiser. The Save the Date features Ronald Reagan dressed as Marty McFly and is rated RG for “Reagan’s guidance missed.”

Not to be outdone, the American Conservative Union is hosting “Nuestre Noche: Midnight in Ybor City” — a speakeasy-themed soiree with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush serving as emcee, and a number of other Hispanic officials as guests, including RNC speaker and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.

“It reflects the energy and excitement of the conservative movement,” said ACU spokeswoman Laura Rigas. But the message that the country is in dire economic straits — “That remains the same,” she said.

This article originally appeared in the National Journal.

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