With the Democratic convention about to get under way, many organizations are on what one caterer calls a "Bud Lite" budget.
"You know, I thought it was going to be busier ... that there would be big events every night,” said Something Classic President Jill Marcus, whose company has a contract to feed 15,000 journalists at the Democrats’ media welcome party. Organizations “are being very modest in their entertaining and smart with their money,” she said. “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, so over-the-top partying is less likely this time, said Democratic strategist Don Foley, the manager of the party’s 1996 convention in Los Angeles. “The days that you could put on an event without any regard for cost—those are long gone,” he said. “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.”
Money was definitely a concern when GOProud, a gay-advocacy group, was planning 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.
“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,” said LaSalvia.
In an era of crunched budgets, when Republicans in particular are broadcasting a message of national economic gloom, party planning and the all-important schmoozing it facilitates have gotten trickier at the conventions. The overall trend this year points to less revelry and less decadence.
Some organizations, such as the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association and the American Chemistry Council, are staying home this summer. A number of other groups have planned more-modest shindigs this time around.
The Bipartisan Policy Center scaled back from the large receptions it put on in 2008 to smaller dinners and meetings with its members, but a spokesman said that the change is solely because the center is better known than it was four years ago. The Human Rights Campaign, a gay-advocacy group, is hosting luncheons and a reception here instead of reprising the marquee concert it held in Denver in 2008—although this group, too, called the decision a matter of strategy rather than austerity.
Nancy Watzman, a consultant to the nonprofit Sunlight Foundation, documented the excesses and the creative ways organizers found to flout ethics rules during the 2008 conventions. The 400 parties and events at those events included a Kanye West concert, luxury Porta Potties, and Caesar salad served in shot glasses. (Under ethics rules, members of Congress and their staffers are allowed to eat only finger foods at lobbyists’ receptions.)
“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.”
Although unemployment is stuck above 8 percent, many of the conventions’ corporate sponsors are doing just fine, and lobbying firms have also bounced back with relative ease from the Great Recession. A few are still planning to party like it’s the 1990s dot-com boom.
The Distilled Spirits Council, for instance, hosted the “Spirits of Tampa” in the Florida Aquarium and will follow up with the “Spirits of Charlotte” at the NC Music Factory. Each event is expected to attract 750 guests for specialty cocktails, high-end whiskeys, cognacs, and cigars. Not to be outdone in Tampa, the American Conservative Union hosted “Nuestre Noche: Midnight in Ybor City”—a speakeasy-themed soiree with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush as emcee and a number of Hispanic officials as guests, including New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
“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.