How the Philadelphia CVB Helped Coordinate 10,000 DNC Volunteers

When the 2016 Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Philadelphia opened on Monday, July 25, at least 20,000 hands were on deck to ensure the event ran smoothly. With more than 4,700 delegates in attendance, 91 hotels in the official DNC room block and security detail on ultrahigh alert, to say the convention was a giant undertaking for its host city is an understatement. But it’s nothing Philly couldn't handle: After all, the City of Brotherly Love hosted the Republican National Convention in 2000 and, more recently, the massive World Meeting of Families (17,000 attendees, including Pope Francis) in 2015. Though the Philadelphia CVB, Discover Philadelphia, assists the DNC staff in an advisory capacity, its small staff can’t do it alone—which is why they recruited thousands of volunteers in the months building up to the DNC. “The benchmark of 10,000 volunteers has been a signature target number for many large civic events,” says Philomena Petro, CMP, vice president of convention services for the CVB. Weeks after the volunteer registration portal opened, well over that number had signed up. “There has been a great deal of interest in the 2016 DNC, and we very much wanted to honor the enthusiasm we’ve received,” she continues. About 60 percent of registered volunteers are from the Greater Philly region—meaning at least 4,000 from out of state were planning on coming to town on their own dime to chip in. Petro says some hail all the way from Europe. The biggest trait the city’s looking for in a volunteer is passion for promoting the area. “We are looking for folks who can be fantastic cheerleaders for the Philly region,” says Petro. Petro is quick to point out that the CVB’s role was not to manage the volunteers, but to recommend the best allocation of them, in terms of timing and location. That includes determining what positions and time frames would be needed. Points of entry—the airport, train stations, hotel lobbies, etc.—at which to set up welcome kiosks were also important. Starting the Saturday before the convention, July 23, and continuing through Friday, July 29, all 91 hotels had a welcome desk set up in their lobbies from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., staffed with volunteers and information manuals on the agenda and transportation schedules, as well as what’s happening elsewhere in Philadelphia. Volunteers also were stationed throughout South Jersey, King of Prussia and Valley Forge. So what does it take to coordinate the efforts of 10,000 volunteers? That’s where Hannah Tran, volunteer director for the Philadelphia 2016 Host Committee, comes in. The first step was creating the registration portal, in which volunteers create a profile, upload their resume and detail personal things like accessibility requirements. Then they chose which events they were interested in helping with and what times work for them, broken down into four-hour shifts. Criminal background and sexual offender background checks are done for all volunteers prior to being accepted. The 10,000 deployed volunteers received webinar-style training to give them a synopsis of their responsibilities as well as a bird’s-eye view of what it means to be a volunteer for this event, says Tran. Those in specialized volunteer leadership roles were required to attend an in-person training session as well. In the event a volunteer gets ill or is a no-show, Tran has a group of “renaissance volunteers” on deck who can be deployed as needed. In light of recent tragic events around the county, security was at an all-time high, with many Secret Service officials stationed around town. “Every department touches on security,” says Petro, noting the goal is not only to make Philadelphia a safe place to be during the DNC, but also enjoyable. “The exposure you get from an event like this lends credibility to what you can accomplish [as a city],” says Tran. “It speaks to your ability as a destination.”