Republicans Get NYC Party-Planning Lessons

Washington's power players are looking to show heartland delegates a good time at the Republican National Convention in New York City this summer, but it seems the Beltway insiders need a primer of their own about the city's trendiest spots.

To help them plan the perfect parties, two D.C. insiders have brought down representatives from Manhattan-based Saxton Group/A-List Strategic (search) to meet with the would-be hosts and offer some advice about where to go and what to do in the Big Apple.

“[Lobbyists] know Washington, and they know it well, but can’t come into a new city, responsible for an entire company’s presence at the convention and not be prepared,” said GOP media consultant Monty Warner. “I don’t think people realize how close it’s coming on.”

“I think it has a lot to do with people from D.C being intimidated by New York City,” said Matt Keelen, a Washington-based Republican fund-raising consultant.

Washingtonians aren't the only ones with wide eyes while in Manhattan. Republican National Convention officials said they are expecting upwards of 50,000 delegates, media and other attendees from around the country at the four-day political extravaganza, being held at Madison Square Garden (search) from Aug. 30 through Sept. 2.

Observers say the 45,000 people at the 2000 Republican convention in Philadelphia were easier to control, mostly because the events were held on-site or within walking distance of the convention, held at the stadium then known as the First Union Center.

Aside from that, New York City has a whole attitude that many guests may find more intimidating than Philadelphia.

“When you come in with the attitude that the big bad city is going to eat you up, maybe you need the help,” said Democratic consultant Tom King, who laughed at the notion that Republicans could feel lost in the city.

“This is Wall Street for godsakes,” King said. “It’s not like Republicans and Republican lobbyists haven’t been to New York before.”

But planners say it's not so much fear of the city as the ability to navigate it that has them huddling over strategy. Because the Garden is already a tight squeeze and many delegates will be looking for face time with movers and shakers, much extracurricular entertainment -- from intimate breakfasts for 20 with members of Congress to 2,000-strong gala affairs -- will be held at venues located in the wilds of Manhattan.

That's where Sean O'Sullivan, one-half of the Saxton Group/A-List Strategic team, comes in. His group specializes in coordinating, staffing and even pulling together celebrity guest lists for galas, corporate events and benefits.

"You really want to be doing things in places that are going to be compelling in themselves. It's such a big town you really need to know where those places are," O'Sullivan said.

He said party venues will not be too far off-the-beaten path, and the ones that do delve into less familiar territory will be easy to get to and exciting enough to attract even the weariest visitor.

King, however, suggested that planners start with the basics.

"I think a good subway map might be the best friend these planners and lobbyists could have right now," he joked.

An additional element that makes convention planning an even a bigger challenge is the prohibition on soft money, which the national parties used to use in part for big parties and lavish events. The parties thrown during the 2000 convention in Philadelphia were legend, Warner said, mainly because the GOP was still able to raise gobs of soft money and the events were all planned through the convention committee.

"The ban of soft money has really altered the landscape," Warner said. "The committees are very limited in what they can spend now."

With new campaign finance laws barring the collection and use of soft money, the national party is under a tighter budget. That leaves it up to outside groups -- thousands of lobbyists and special interest representatives -- to play host and try to match the success of years' past.

“We know where all of the A-lists hotspots in New York are, we know the things about the city that lobbyists, lawmakers and others outside of New York aren’t going to know,” said O'Sullivan, whose group met with 75 lobbyists in Washington, D.C., earlier this month to help them get organized.

“We provide the city landscape, we know who the players are. We know the things that lawmakers and lobbyists outside of New York aren’t going to know,” he said.

O'Sullivan's firm will craft a guest list of “must” invites for a successful New York soiree. It will also handle decisions on locations, security, transportation, invitations, public relations and even servers.

“From soup to nuts,” O’Sullivan said. “We’re in the middle of proposing a bunch of things for people who have hired us to do what we know how to do, and that’s how to make a big splash.”

Some Republicans admit that their reputation as stiff and formal may make it more difficult to launch a successful event in Manhattan, especially coming from the Capitol, which is known as the base of political power and influence, but criticized as parochial and uptight.

“It’s a different animal — you go outside the Beltway and don’t know what is going on,” said Republican pollster Jim McLaughlin, who is based just outside of New York City. But that doesn't mean they don't know a good time when they see it.

“I was a young Republican once. The joke was we date Democrats but marry Republicans,” he said.

Keelan added that while millions of dollars will be pumped into the main event, the companies and associations holding the hundreds of sideshows and parties are there to make an impression and are counting on their events to succeed.

“You could end up with a lot of egg on your face,” he said.

Aside from the challenge of finding the “it” place and getting the A-list there, Republicans are also looking for ways to avoid union picketers and anti-war protesters, many of whom are likely to be local. O’Sullivan said his firm has a handle on that situation as well.

“We‘re aware that is likely, and in discussions with Mayor Bloomberg’s (search) office,” he said. “New York is familiar with, and knows how to deal with, all sorts of situations”

Democrats are holding their national convention in Boston from July 26-29. King said his party will hardly have to deal with any of the challenges facing the GOP because not only is Boston smaller and a solid Democratic town, but it will be coronating hometown candidate John Kerry as the Democratic presidential nominee.

“I don’t think they will have any problems with Boston,” said King, who grew up in Beantown. “They only problem they may have is the bars there close at 1 p.m.”