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by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | June 01, 2014
In late February of this year, 26 cities submitted bids -- in response to an exhaustive 29-page request for proposal -- to host the 2016 Republican National Convention. By May 22, the RNC's site-selection committee had whittled down the list of hopefuls to the final four. Along with perennial top-tier destinations Dallas and Denver, the other two, surprisingly, are mid-tier cities: Cleveland and Kansas City, Mo.

Also in the running until they respectfully withdrew on May 22 were Las Vegas and Cincinnati. In a statement regarding the newly narrowed field, Enid Mickelsen, chair of the RNC's site-selection committee, noted, "Today the committee determined that Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, and Kansas City will receive official visits from the full RNC site-selection delegation. All [six] cities excelled in nearly every aspect of their bids and presentation this year, but these four cities stood out from the field from the start of this process and deserve a deeper look by the full committee." Official site visits to the remaining cities are expected to take place this month.

Why do the two smaller players believe their cities have what it takes to face off against two power hitters? "We relish being the underdog. When we win big things, it's because people don't expect a lot from us, and that works to our advantage," says David Gilbert, president and chief executive officer of Positively Cleveland, the destination's convention and visitors bureau. "It just makes us work that much harder."

The winner gets a week in the national spotlight during the summer of 2016, and so much more: An influx of $50 million in federal money will be earmarked for security and various logistics, and the convention is expected to have an economic impact of at least $427 million, thanks to 40,000 or so convention delegates and visitors, including 15,000 media reps. It's a marketing platform most cities dream of riding, if only once.

The challenges, however, are equal to the opportunities. For starters, the chosen city will have to raise $55 million in private funding to host the convention, ready a convention hall that can seat 18,000 and be able to provide 16,000 "first-class" sleeping rooms, plus another 1,000 suites. (For more details, see "What It Takes to Host a Presidential Nominating Convention," page 38.)

In 2012, Tampa, Fla., which last played host to the RNC, was plagued with transportation problems, leaving delegates sitting for hours on buses as they attempted to shuttle between outlying hotels and the Tampa Bay Times Forum in the city's downtown, where the convention was held. And in Charlotte, N.C., the Charlotte Observer reported that the Duke Energy Co. took a loss on a $10 million credit line extended to the 2012 Democratic National Convention held in that city, after fundraising efforts fell short. Another caveat: For the first time, the RNC is considering moving up the dates of the convention to either June or July, which is considerably earlier than recent cycles and could get in the way of sports teams and other scheduled events using arenas that would be needed for the convention.

Win, or lose, the mid-tier contenders have succeeded in putting their city's names in front of thousands of potential groups that might have passed them over for consideration in recent years. "Going through this bid process has made us a stronger convention destination," says Jon Stephens, interim president and chief executive officer of the Kansas City Convention & Visitors Association. "This project allowed us to gain more awareness on the national scene. People want cities that offer something different, and we feel we have it."

A final decision by the RNC is due later this year. (The Democrats will not begin to determine their next national convention city until next year.) Meanwhile, here are profiles of the Two Destinations That Could, including what they've been doing to ramp up their attractions for the RNC -- and beyond.