Conventional Wisdom: Preparedness Lessons from the 2016 Political Conventions


This presidential election year in the United States may be marked by political turmoil, but, from an event planning perspective, the 2016 political conventions in Philadelphia and Cleveland this summer went remarkably well. Thanks to months of detailed planning, thorough preparation and strong communication, both cities boasted successful gatherings with minimal disruption to business as usual—much to the relief of local commercial building owners, property managers and tenants.

This year’s Republican National Convention (RNC) and Democratic National Convention (DNC) could be considered two positive case studies in how to hold a major event. Property professionals in both host cities praised local officials and convention coordinators alike for making these events as easy as possible for workers and residents to navigate, and relatively few incidents occurred. Building teams spent months gathering information and providing feedback to planning committees. They worked to strike a delicate balance: preparing for worst-case scenarios, while calmly hoping for the best.

Any major metropolitan area in the U.S. may end up hosting a political convention in the future—particularly if it’s within a swing state—and knowing what may be in store can prove a tremendous advantage. Additionally, lessons learned by the commercial real estate community from these two political gatherings can be applied to all manner of events.

Putting the Civil in Civil Government

Not every political convention goes smoothly. Many property professionals in Philadelphia had flashbacks to the tumultuous 2000 Republican National Convention when they first heard their city once again would be hosting a major political convention. Back then, hundreds of people were arrested in clashes between protesters and police. “For anyone trying to move around the city, the 2000 convention was a nightmare, frankly,” says Don Haas, RPA, FMA, SMA, LEED Green Associate, assistant general manager with Brandywine Realty Trust, who manages multiple properties in downtown Philadelphia. “Protesters seemed to be everywhere, and tensions were running high.”

Understanding the history of similar events is critical to predicting how something might unfold, but that doesn’t mean history is destined to repeat itself. This year, Philadelphia learned from the lessons of 2000, taking additional measures to prepare the city and its occupants and focusing much more on containment and de-escalation. Protests were confined to certain areas where permits were strictly enforced. Perhaps more importantly, Philadelphia chose to decriminalize many low-level offenses—such as littering or drinking in public—ahead of the convention, allowing police to issue civil citations without arresting anyone. In fact, Philadelphia police didn’t arrest any protesters during this year’s convention—though federal authorities did arrest several who breached a Secret Service perimeter fence. “This year could not have gone more smoothly, which was a big relief to downtown building owners, and city officials and the local police did their jobs incredibly well,” Haas says. “Authorities were endlessly patient and polite with the protesters, and that made a huge difference in making everyone feel safe and at ease.”

Cleveland also saw little drama and relatively few arrests during the RNC. Nick Sislan, property manager at JLL who oversees two properties in the Tower City complex in downtown Cleveland, was impressed. “Everything was organized and civilized,” says Sislan. “All the demonstrators obtained permits to protest well in advance, so we knew exactly who was going to be where throughout the convention.” In fact, both host cities provided local businesses and property teams with a wealth of information regarding the timing, location and nature of events. Last fall, before election primaries had even begun, local authorities hosted monthly meetings to facilitate planning and help local leaders prepare. Larger, more chaotic events that had brought thousands of guests into the area loomed in each city’s recent memory: three games of the 2016 NBA Finals were held in Cleveland—as was a celebratory parade honoring the victorious Cleveland Cavaliers—and Pope Frances visited Philadelphia during his tour of the United States. “The papal visit was much more of a challenge for Philadelphia, because there was less local control during the planning process and more people around the city generally,” Haas explains. In contrast, convention activities and surrounding protests were kept in designated areas. Maps and schedules were available well in advance of the event, allowing locals to plan their schedules accordingly. Both cities also provided updates, sent out as e-mails or text messages, throughout the convention to anyone who signed up for them to ensure as few surprises as possible.

Batten Down the Hatches

As city officials were figuring out traffic patterns and road closures, property professionals were busy preparing themselves and their buildings for every eventuality. Gathering as much information as possible in advance of an event allows property teams to adapt their procedures accordingly—whether it is politicians, basketball players or the Pope himself descending upon their city.

Forging pre-existing relationships with local authorities can help building owners and managers stay in the loop on major activities planning. However, property professionals without these contacts can still tap into resources available through their BOMA local associations to find out how to get the information they need. BOMA/Greater Cleveland and BOMA/Philadelphia both hosted preparedness meetings for the commercial real estate community and shared real-time information, such as the number and types of demonstrators, convention schedules, transportation updates and even weather forecasts.

Brian Cappelli, vice president of Operation at Forest City Realty Trust, operates two office buildings in downtown Cleveland, and many of his preparations were informed by meetings hosted by BOMA/Greater Cleveland. “We heard cautionary tales from previous conventions about what could be possible here—riots, fires, property destruction—that really made me sit up and realize that we needed to be at the top of our game,” Cappelli explains. Cappelli and other property professionals throughout the city took a number of precautions, including stocking up on additional emergency supplies, rescheduling vendor visits and deliveries, adding additional security guards onsite and having building staff take shifts to maintain a presence in the building around the clock.

Renee Evans, RPA, general manager for Harbor Group Management Company, manages 200 Public Square, a 1.3-million-square-foot building in downtown Cleveland, located just a few minutes’ walk from several of the major protest sites. She and her team went into “St. Patrick’s Day mode,” mimicking the preparation and heightened vigilance they adopt for the city’s annual St. Patrick’s Day parade, which goes right by the building. They secured each of the entrances and checked the badges of those entering. Her building stocked up on everything from the supplies needed to board-up windows to hazmat suits. “We were prepared for the worst, which means we ended up overpreparing,” Evans admits. “But I wouldn’t have done it any differently, because I’m glad we were ready for anything.”

Many property teams in the area restricted access to a single entrance and stood ready to lock down the building completely if necessary. Tenants typically made their own arrangements about whether to maintain regular business hours, with some choosing to work from home during the event days and others working a modified schedule to avoid event traffic. Communication between tenants and the building team is particularly key during high-stress periods. In some cases, property professionals were surprised to learn that their tenants had made plans to participate directly in the DNC or RNC. Some tenants even requested permission to sublease their spaces to visitors, while others hosted special guests. Evans communicated closely with her tenants about the event and the necessary preparations, but nonetheless was surprised to learn just weeks ahead of time that several high-profile guests were expected in the building—including several state governors. “Everything went well, but there was definitely a little extra stress while we were working out security details,” Evans recalls. She recommends asking tenants for their guest lists well in advance. Of course, different types of tenants can be affected depending on the nature of the local event. Building managers who are more familiar with their tenants and the work they do will be more likely to anticipate their possible involvement, but it may not always be intuitive.

It also can be wise to have policies in place around a building’s involvement in political activities. One of Cappelli’s buildings features a large LED display that will light up in different colors and patterns to celebrate certain holidays or raise awareness about a local charity. His property team received requests to display political messages during the RNC, but they were able to point to building guidelines already in place allowing them to remain politically neutral.

Stormy Weather, Quiet Crowds

After months of anxiety and preparation, the actual conventions seemed downright anti-climactic. “In retrospect, more businesses could have gone about business as usual, since the convention didn’t cause any major disruptions,” Cappelli says. “Residents and visitors went about the entertainment district easily, so it was hardly an apocalypse.” Rather than being disruptive, large city events even may provide a boost to the local economy, allowing city habitants to go about their day, while bringing in additional revenue to restaurants and retail tenant and providing newcomers with a positive impression of the city.

Richard Kenwood, CRX, CPM, CSM, RPA, FMA, general manager at Madison Marquette, oversees two buildings in Philadelphia’s Center City, just a few blocks from City Hall, where many of the demonstrations occurred during the DNC. He says that his experience was similarly positive. “The city was very quiet, actually,” he shares. “You could have avoided the convention entirely, if you cared to.”

He and others attributed some of this relative calm to the weather. A combination of nearly 100-degree heat, high humidity and thunderstorms kept a lot of people inside during the DNC. “We were worried about some of the protesters—particularly those who were camping outdoors—but everyone in the city was focused on making sure people stayed safe,” he recalls. “In fact, I saw many commercial buildings open their doors to visitors to help people cool off or stay dry.”

Some building managers also chose to open their doors to local authorities, offering them a place to cool down, rehydrate or even have something to eat. Harbor Group’s Evans hosted local officers several times throughout the convention. “We realized during the RNC that we could be an important resource, and we started inviting local police working near us to use our building as a breakroom,” she says. She recommends reaching out to local authorities in advance to offer shelter and stocking up on additional water and supplies to share. Not only does this help foster better relationships with first responders, Evans explains, but it also adds an additional layer of security to the building. These lessons would apply to any event that involved a local police presence.

A willingness to help seems to have been shared throughout both cities. Careful planning, strong communication and general cooperation made this year’s conventions resounding successes to the local communities that hosted them. If only our national politics could go as smoothly.

This article was originally published in the September/October 2016 issue of BOMA Magazine.