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Delaware officials hope to capitalize on unexpected DNC spotlight

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Delaware tourism officials are hoping to capitalize on the unexpected arrival of the 2020 Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Wilmington. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

WILMINGTON – Turn on any of the major TV news networks this week and you will likely see the words “Live from Wilmington, Del.” plastered on your screen at some point.

Media teams from around the world have come to the city this week to cover the unexpected – and technically unofficial – arrival of the 2020 Democratic National Convention to the Chase Center at the Riverfront.

With travel restrictions still advised amid the COVID-19 pandemic, former Vice President Joe Biden and his vice-presidential nominee, California Sen. Kamala Harris,  have been basing their operations in the First State, holding meetings in downtown Wilmington, giving speeches throughout the state and planning the campaign from Biden’s Greenville home.

Former Vice President Joe Biden will accept the Democratic presidential nomination Aug. 20 in Wilmington. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

When Biden accepts the 2020 Democratic nomination for president Thursday night, he will do it in front of a few dozen reporters and TV cameras, but no public crowd. Meanwhile, the city of Milwaukee, which won the rights to the 2020 DNC, has been largely devoid of party officials this month.

The media attention has helped fill Riverfront hotels and restaurants, but without the party delegates and adoring crowds, the DNC won’t make a long-term dent in the pandemic-stung city economy. It will, however, prove to be a substantial marketing windfall that the city and state weren’t expecting when 2020 began.

Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki said the national attention was a “fantastic opportunity for Wilmington and the state of Delaware at large.” He noted that while Delaware has earned a reputation for being the home of chemical companies like DuPont and credit card companies like Chase, the DNC’s presence allows for focus on other city amenities like the Riverfront and Chase Center – an area he helped revitalize as the former executive director of the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC).

“This is clearly elevating our stature, and it’s also making Joe Biden the face of Delaware. His name is on train stations and pool facilities and people are going to start looking at us because of his Delaware connection,” Purzycki said. “It’s a point of pride and it’s very gratifying.”

Planning comes together quickly

A national convention is typically planned out years in advance with a host city in order to produce a well-choreographed event. Like much of 2020, however, this was an atypical event.

The majority of the DNC has been “virtual,” with speeches and roll call votes livestreamed online from locations all over the country. The RDC, which owns the Chase Center, was approached by Democratic Party officials just a few weeks ago about the possibility of holding Biden’s and Harris’ acceptance speeches here. Word began spreading among officials in late July as hotels began receiving an abnormally large amount of bookings during the pandemic.

A camera crew sets up at the 2020 Democratic National Convention outside the Chase Center in Wilmington. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

For Megan McGlinchey, the current RDC executive director, the hectic pace of planning an international event in just a few weeks has been a welcome change from the doldrums of the pandemic. The Chase Center, home to annual state events like the Delaware Auto Show and large corporate meetings, has been empty since March – a consequence of the pandemic-spurred restrictions on large gatherings.

“Typically, we see about 160,000 to 180,000 people a year, but we’re down 50% to what we would normally have in a year. This is the first event we’ve had since March,” McGlinchey said.

The arrival of the Biden campaign also meant the convergence of national media, with at least 27 outlets set up in the Chase Center’s parking lot to broadcast live coverage from Wilmington. Those reporters and production teams, along with Biden campaign staff and security, have filled all three Riverfront hotels to capacity, McGlinchey said.

Giving a Delaware experience

Sarah Willoughby, executive director of the Greater Wilmington Conventions and Visitors Bureau, said that her office has been working in overdrive to prepare resources for the media suddenly arriving in town.

She prepared packets for the national media on other amenities in New Castle County worth their coverage. They were given free admittance to those local highlights with their press credentials, and officials hoped they utilized them during downtime spent before the convention’s action began each night.

“It may not be they can get away today or tomorrow, but maybe they when they come back they will do a feed from Hagley Museum or the Delaware Art Museum or Winterthur,” she said, noting that they are also brainstorming a must-see list of places that Biden is known to frequent. “Word of mouth is our best marketing.”

With reporters doing live stand-up reports around downtown Wilmington and the Riverfront, the city is getting TV coverage that would typically be outside of the tourism bureau’s budget, Willoughby said.

Tents from outlets like the Associated Press, Telemundo and NBC line the parking lot of the Chase Center in Wilmington. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

“Most of what we do today, even before COVID, has been digital advertising” she said. “We can do a little bit [of TV advertising] but it’s not the big reach like national is. They pretty much stay in the regional footprint of Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Washington, D.C.”

Last year, the bureau’s marketing efforts produced an estimated impact of about $3.2 million, or about $128 per every $1 spent, underscoring the importance of getting Delaware in front of potential visitors.

Carolyn White Bartoo, a senior marketing and public relations instructor at the University of Delaware and a former state tourism director, said the value of TV exposure cannot be overstated.

“The reason that TV is valuable is not just because it has the broadest reach, meaning it has more eyeballs on it, but also because it’s so seductive, so emotionally transportive,” she said, noting that the convention-ending fireworks display over the city was a particularly captivating made-for-TV moment that benefitted the Biden campaign and the city as well.

While most party conventions do not take place in the nominee’s home state, the unique circumstances allowed more of Biden’s history with Delaware to take center stage during the multi-day event, Bartoo noted. With conventions largely a time to expound upon a candidate’s positive traits, this allowed Delaware and Wilmington to benefit from its storytelling.

“We were getting pulled along in the riptide of that,” she said.

 What’s next

Earlier this year, the RDC was eyeing a potentially breakthrough year with some of its largest events yet, only to see that confidence scuttled by the pandemic. A five-night conference originally scheduled for September was to be the largest convention in the Chase Center’s history, bringing nearly $775,000 in economic impact. The DNC’s arrival won’t offset the year’s worth of losses, but may help draw new attention to Wilmington.

McGlinchey said that RDC officials were focused on running a smooth operation this week, but planned to begin discussing next week how to amplify the newfound attention.

“Back in 2016, Hillary Clinton’s speech drew about 300 million views at all, and obviously we’re expecting the same levels of people watching this,” she said. “The DNC told me that there’s about 16 facilities in the United States that have hosted the event like this, and now the Chase Center will be the 17th. We’re going to take advantage of that huge honor and an exciting opportunity.”

Willoughby said that many of the county’s events originally planned for this year have been postponed to 2021 or even 2022.

“It’s just going to be one of the long slow processes that we’re going to deal with,” she said.

McGlinchey said that some creativity may be needed to resuscitate the convention industry, perhaps using a hybrid model for events that used to see hundreds of people over several days.

“For example, where you might have a 500-person, two-day conference, you may have 150 people at the Chase Center for breakout sessions and the rest online,” she said. “Meetings can be flexible, and as an industry we’re looking to be creative about this.”

By Jacob Owens & Katie Tabeling


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