"There will be winners and there will be losers." Bill Morrissey of Morrissey Hospitality Cos. in St. Paul, Minn., is not talking about candidates, but rather how local businesses might fare during the 2012 Republican National Convention this August in Tampa. He knows a thing or two about collateral successes and failures at the Republican Party's biggest shindig. His hotels and restaurants were at the epicenter of the Twin Cities convention in 2008, where many reaped handsome payoffs. Others, not so much.
From the 73 official Tampa Bay RNC venues being marketed to delegations, media and other groups, to the hundreds of other restaurants, bars and cafes hoping to service the big influx of visitors, businesses aren't quite sure what the convention will mean for their bottom line. Twin Cities restaurateurs have lots of advice about what worked — and what didn't — during that frenetic week in August 2008.
Phil Roberts, founder and CEO of the Parasole Restaurant group, which includes the fabled Manny's steakhouse, says the most important thing for restaurants is to maintain reasonable expectations.
"Restaurants in Minneapolis and St. Paul had high expectations of the RNC. But it ended up being kind of like kissing your sister. I would caution restaurateurs not to get too juiced."
Out of 14 different venues, only two of Parasole's restaurants saw a bump in revenue. Roberts estimates that Manny's was up $200,000 and Chino Latino was up $100,000 by convention's end.
The key to success, according to Roberts and other Twin Cities restaurateurs?
Location. Too close to the convention center and the security perimeter choked off business. It was restaurants adjacent to hotel-heavy areas, especially in sister city Minneapolis, that reaped the benefits of the influx of visitors.
According to Rick Nelson, restaurant critic and food writer at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, security at the Xcel Energy Center was "so tight that it discouraged people to explore beyond it." He says the convention center was surrounded by barbed wire and 8-foot fences and that delegates and media bussed in from Minneapolis hotels didn't venture out on foot from the convention center.
Morrissey confirms this, saying, "Our St. Paul Hotel was the second closest hotel to the convention. The hotel rooms did well, but our experience was that from a restaurant perspective it was very disappointing. Delegates were in the convention or being entertained at parties — they were being wined and dined and didn't have the time or the need to go out to restaurants. And our regular clientele couldn't overcome the security issues, with police officers on every corner and people with guns. Curiosity seekers wanted to see what was going on, but they were just sightseeing, not spending."
Lucky and smart
Russell Klein, chef/owner of the French brasserie Meritage, was one of the lucky ones on the St. Paul side, located two blocks from the convention center.
"I know a lot of other businesses, especially restaurants, who were really unhappy with the security setup that prevented people from getting to their businesses. And local people stayed as far away as they could. But we had a great experience."
Russell did his homework, calling restaurants in previous convention cities like Boston and Denver to ask what had worked best in that election cycle.
"They said book every private event that you can because there's no a la carte business. We booked CPAC, Congressional Quarterly and a few other groups. We basically had two or three groups booked every day. To Tampa Bay restaurants, I'd say be really aggressive about booking events and being a destination. If you're not, it's a real crap shoot."
Morrissey and Roberts agree, suggesting restaurants pre-sell as much as possible to groups, going so far as to demand deposits and to collaborate with other area restaurants to establish "best practices" about no-shows or acts of god. Morrissey reminds us that nonessential events on the first day of the 2008 convention were cancelled due to the expected landfall of Hurricane Gustav.
"No one wanted to be seen eating and drinking while the country was going through a crisis."
Fish or fowl
Location aside, we asked RNC veterans if there are certain cuisines or kinds of restaurants that are likely to do well.
"Tourists and conventioneers, they go to places they are familiar with," said Nelson, the food writer. "It's not like the James Beard Foundation came here," referring to the country's premiere culinary organization.
He says chain restaurants, steak houses and late-night bars near hotels captured the dollars of conventioneers.
Chef Klein worked on political campaigns pre-restaurant. He says, "Democrats and Republicans eat the same way: a lot of steaks. Bern's will kill it that week."
So, not too close to the convention center; near hotels; steaks and chains? Sounds like, beyond Bern's, restaurants along Tampa's Boy Scout Boulevard, at International Plaza and at WestShore Plaza may "kill it" during the RNC, to use Klein's colloquialism.
Klein adds, though, that even restaurants that don't see convention throngs may benefit from the RNC.
"In the Twin Cities, it's had a positive long-term benefit and improved the national image of St. Paul. It brought great energy to the city. And it was a lot of fun to talk to Tom Delay over my bar."
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293.