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More Than Money, It's Image That's Earned by Convention Host Cities

Impact: Municipalities don't always recover their financial investments, but officials say intangible benefits outweigh costs.


When cities decide to open arms wide to sequined elephants and donkey neckties, funny hats and velvet paintings of past presidents, they're rarely in it just for the money.

Yes, national political conventions bring in the bucks; so do a lot of other expositions, the ones with doctors and sportswear buyers, engineers and plastics professionals.

But what the Republicans and Democrats are able to deliver that housewares salesmen and hairstylists cannot is attention, and that's what this is all about: Exposure. Image. The world's eyes trained on your skyline.

Especially for America's second-tier municipalities, it is about proof that a city has managed to erase past problems and join the big leagues. It also is about tangible costs and intangible payoffs, for not everyone buys into the conventional wisdom that paying hard dollars now will bring a tourism boom later.

"If you're an underrated city . . . a political convention is your chance to get into the first tier of cities, to be seen as the equal of New York, San Francisco, New Orleans, Chicago," said Rick Mansur, president of the San Diego Hotel-Motel Assn.

For San Diego, hosting the 1996 Republican National Convention helped ease the lingering civic hurt from 1972, when the Republicans dumped the city just 90 days before the convention was to open and switched the GOP's big party to Miami.

Atlanta believes that getting the Democratic National Convention in 1988 helped the city land the Super Bowl in 1994 and the Centennial Olympic Games in 1996. Having a successful political convention in 1996 helped Chicago overcome the painful legacy of the violent 1968 Democratic convention.

"The convention gave us a chance to showcase a city that has matured, both in its skyline and its sophistication, since 1972," said lobbyist and former San Diego City Council member Scott Harvey. "San Diego has always been seen as a cul-de-sac geographically and politically. The convention allowed us to show the world that San Diego is major league."

Intangible Benefits Repay Investment

And what did that civic salve cost? More than $13 million, about $6 million directly from city coffers. But that, convention planners and local politicians say, is not the point.

"We're a convention town," says Leslie Fox, executive director of Chicago '96. "I think that at the time the [Democratic] Convention was here, it was No. 8 on a list of size and impact. But anyone who compares it is missing the boat."

Gerald Bartels, president of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, put it this way in his stock speech about why his city wanted the Democrats in 1988: "This event will focus more national and world attention on the Atlanta area than any event in our history, including Sherman's campfire."

In fact, Atlanta viewed the 1988 convention as the first salvo in a decade-long fight to position itself on the world's radar as home to more than magnolia blossoms and Tara-seeking tourists.

"In the short term, this is just another convention with about a $60-million short-term economic boost," Bartels admitted in 1987. "When it's all done, we'll be pleased to have broken even. But the longer term is what's really important."

San Francisco, the West Coast's glamour girl, historically has had less to overcome than other metropolises. Still, many there believe that the successful 1984 Democratic convention is one reason the Moscone Center is just too booked to host another such exhibition any time soon.

Dale Hess, currently executive vice president of the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau, helped arrange the convention in 1984. At the time, the city spent about $6 million just to refurbish the then-new center to house tens of thousands of delegates and journalists.

Those improvements were eventually torn out. The city spent $10 million to $13 million in all on the Democrats, displaced regular tourists during the busy summer season and shoved aside three or four other conventions.

And was delighted to do so.

"It was a fabulous experience," said George Kirkland, who headed San Francisco's bureau at the time. Kirkland is president of the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau and worked to woo the Democrats to Los Angeles in 2000.

"There is an extraordinary amount of hospitality conducted during the period," he said, noting that the Democrats probably brought a short-term economic boost to local business of as much as $70 million. "The other piece that's a godsend is the media."

Not everyone buys the argument that the 30,000 or so delegates and others who descend on a city during a convention provide a publicity bonanza. Heywood Sanders, a professor of urban studies at Trinity University in San Antonio, acknowledges that there is some publicity value.

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