Q & A

Planning the 2004 Republican National Convention

By Greg Lindsay February 15, 2006, 1:33 PM EST

The stage for President George Bush's speech at the convention put him on the floor—not too far above the party faithful—with the presidential seal below him, a not-so-subtle reminder of his status as the incumbent.

Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Bill Harris, C.E.O. of the Republican National Convention, talks about facing New York's logistical challenges, showing off the city to outsiders, and dealing with those pesky protesters.

Bill Harris
What He Plans: Since 1992, the quadrennial Republican National Conventions, which consist of more than 50,000 guests and are instrumental in the election campaigns of Republican nominees. This year’s big event took over New York with plenty of parties and protesters—and a nice bump in business for the city’s event industry. When not planning the conventions, Harris is vice chairman of Global USA Inc., a Washington, D.C.- based lobbying and consulting firm.
Staff: 155 full-time staffers for planning purposes
Budget: The 2004 convention had a final estimated cost of $154 million.
Career Path: Raised in Alabama, Harris became involved with the Republican Party in his home state, eventually becoming the party’s chairman there. He was a sergeant-at-arms at the 1984 Republican National Convention, and then became director of dome operations at the 1988 convention, held in New Orleans’ Louisiana Superdome. He has been C.E.O. of the past four conventions.
Age: 55
Where He Lives: Fairfax County, Virginia
Where He Grew Up: Birmingham, Alabama
Where He Goes For Ideas: Harris says an event of this magnitude borrows as many ideas from military (especially security) and strategic planning as it does from party planning.
Biggest Challenge: “Every convention is different. Different conventions will present different challenges and different opportunities. I anticipated at the start this would be the biggest challenge because of New York as a venue, in addition to being a Republican in New York.”
Favorite City: New York—“the greatest city in the world.”

How successful was the convention? And how do you define success in the context of this event?
I thought it came across extraordinarily well. I think everybody was a winner in this. Certainly, I wanted a successful convention on behalf of my party and my president. But other than that, New York came across so well to a lot of people who had never been to New York—who went there and were extraordinarily impressed—and I think the people who watched this event were a little surprised that an event of this magnitude and complexity would come across so well.

What was the toughest part of planning this convention?
Not only were there logistical issues, but also the security challenges and difficulties posed by the protesters.

Was any piece more challenging than the others?
I went into New York concerned about the relations we would have with labor and the cost of doing business there and difficulties posed by being in New York—the congestion and everything else. Then you throw the security and protesters on top of that. It’s very difficult for me to single one out. But we prepared for a lot of eventualities, and through a combination of planning and luck—who knows?—no piece went particularly bad on us.

How many different vendors, agencies, and bureaus had to work in tandem during the convention? How did you handle them all?
There were more acronyms of various agencies involved than I think I knew about. My job, I always saw, was to have a vision of what the convention could be and keep all these different entities moving down a single production schedule and in a single direction. This was the most expensive convention ever—the final cost was $154 million.

How close was that figure to preconvention estimates? Did you purposely set out to hold the most expensive convention ever, and one much bigger than the Democratic Party’s in Boston?
We were very close. I think the host committee is actually going to give some money back to the city. It wasn’t a conscious effort to do bigger, but there was to do better than ever before. Security added to that—New York is a trifle more expensive than some other venues around the nation, so I don’t think the costs were extraordinary given that fact and the security concerns.

Did you speak with the president after the convention? Did he give you his critique?
Well, the president is a little busy right now, but I had the chance to chat with him briefly after the convention, and I think he was pleased. [This interview was conducted a few weeks prior to Election Day.]

What did you think of the media coverage?
There is a school of thought that how the convention comes across on television is far more important than the reality of the event. I see it as a vehicle to bring to the American people a vision of the president and his party. And what we try to do, in terms of media operations, is make sure that the broadest number of news media possible can get access to what’s going on. And that’s based on the belief that if we can get our message out, the majority of Americans will agree with us. We feel there was certainly broad coverage and that the access afforded worked.

When the president gave his speech from the floor, some commentators noted that a cross appeared to be designed into the podium. Who made these design choices?
I saw the stories about the cross, and that was just somebody with an extremely active imagination. You can’t give credit for the design to any particular person. We had a team of designers and contractors who started from scratch—although I don’t like the term “zero-based budgeting”—to make sure we could capture attention long enough to get our message out.

What took you and your team by surprise during the convention? How did protesters gain access to the floor? Did you have to adjust on the fly to prevent them from getting in again?
We always assumed they would get in. We feel like the process was handled in such a way that there was minimal interruption. You can only carry democracy so far in a free society. You assume that people are going to come in and you make contingency plans to deal with them. People tried to play it up because they like to write about that stuff, but it was handled within our planning process. We had anticipated it, took care of it when it occurred, and thought very little of it at the time.

Did anything take you by surprise?
No. I don’t mean this to sound the wrong way, but you expect there to be more problems than actually occur. My motto, when I put these things together is: The convention is something you make extremely detailed plans for, but you’re not known for your planning; you’re known for how you react to the crisis that will occur. And we just didn’t have a crisis.

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