Politics Is Big Tourism Business in Iowa and New Hampshire

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By the time Iowa and New Hampshire citizens count their first-in-the-nation presidential-nominating votes in February, they and their fellow Americans will have enjoyed (or endured) a dozen televised candidate debates, complemented by a stream of formal dinners, state fairs and small-town diners packed with opinionated locals. The one-liners, one-upmanship and late-night comic skewering of all this is decidedly familiar. Less so: the behind-the-scenes efforts by local hospitality pros to ensure the debates and entire primary process run seamlessly. In the end, the elections are an economic boom. The U.S. Travel Association finds that the average hotel occupancy in New Hampshire is 78,400 room nights higher than years prior to the primary, representing $8.9 million in politics-generated revenue. A BALANCING ACT “We always view [the caucuses] as an opportunity and try to capitalize on it, but the reality is you don’t have much control of that,” says Vicki Comegys, CSEE, vice president of Conventions, Sports and Services for the Greater Des Moines (Iowa) CVB. For Comegys, a CVB employee since 1986 (President Reagan’s second term), 2016 marks her eighth go-around with the caucuses. Her experience has helped greatly in tackling 2016’s challenges in Iowa’s booming state capital: last-minute cancellations; candidate security; traffic issues amid downtown Des Moines’ ongoing construction; low inventory/higher rates; and juggling meeting space among her regular and seasonal clients. Last year, for example, Comegys worked extensively with two big agri-client shows (totaling 19,000 attendees), trying to free up the Iowa Events Center for the 2016 caucuses’ expected horde of 1,600 reporters and crews. “We went back and forth with executive directors and planners who were so helpful, but there were points where they couldn’t change,” she says. Luckily, the media found a better home nearby: Capital Square’s stylish atrium. (The Iowa Events Center, meanwhile, will host the agri-groups, plus a final Republican debate.) On the plus side, the major candidates (notably Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump) bring large entourages, especially Secret Service, which pump room nights and revenues today and provide resume boosters for the future. “When we go after business we can show we’ve handled the caucuses—the candidates, the traffic, the security—and people are impressed,” says Comegys, citing Des Moines’ winning bid for the National Governors Association Summer Meeting this July. CONTROLLED CHAOS Given its premier primary slot, New Hampshire is no pushover for presidential aspirants or local hoteliers. The actual voting takes place Feb. 9, but the run-up, from booking guest rooms and restaurants to planning debates and fundraising events, is a monthslong affair. “We’ve been inundated—Christie, Cruz, Bernie, Hillary—they’ve all been up here quite a bit,” says Maurine Bowman, director of sales and marketing at Radisson Hotel Manchester, who’s in her fourth and “most exciting” primary season at the 248-room downtown property. Bowman’s major concerns thus far involve neither the candidates nor finding staffers to serve them. “People like working these events. It’s fun and exciting with all the celebrities,” she says. Rather, her biggest challenge is New Hampshire itself, which waits to confirm its own voting date until all “first primary” challenges from rival states have been squelched. This year, that meant keeping January/February clients in limbo contractually on final guest room and venue commitments until Christmas, when the state made things official. Regular clients understand, says Bowman, adding that few groups want to brave a meeting during primary-week frenzy. “It’s a very different hotel then,” she says, teeming with reporters, politicians, cameramen and security. “Exciting, yes, but chaotic.”