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Washington lobbyists, trade groups scaling back on Tampa convention

Republicans aren't living up to their moniker — the Grand Old Party — at this summer's national convention.

Pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca, Time Warner and United Airlines aren't on hosting duty. Trade groups like the American Chemistry Council, the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association and the International Franchise Association are planning on staying home as well.

Many of the K Street outfits that are going plan to cut back from years past — hosting lunches instead of blowout parties, for instance.

The combination of tight corporate budgets, ethics rules and unappealing weather — the average high for Tampa in August is 90 degrees — and it's a recipe for trade groups and lobbyists to spend time anywhere but Florida. Plus, Mitt Romney is anything but a creature of Washington, making him less of a draw for the inside the Beltway crowd.

The strict Democratic convention rules, which don't allow corporate contributions, are also dissuading companies from getting involved in Tampa because they are concerned about maintaining parity among Republican and Democratic activities.

Image also plays a role; splashy parties filled with high-end booze and late night revelry is an awkward fit with the austerity message the Romney campaign and congressional Republicans are spreading in their quest to win the White House and control of the Senate. And it's hard to justify spending thousands of dollars on parties when money is tight elsewhere.

AstraZeneca, for one, has been facing enormous financial pressure and recently underwent a large round of layoffs.

The Solar Energy Industry Association is also cutting down its presence. In 2004, the association threw major parties at both the Democratic and Republican conventions. SEIA President Rhone Resch told POLITICO the group is trying to be more strategic in 2012.

"This year our members are looking for more targeted events both breakfast briefings or with specific delegations as opposed to the big party that you hope to get as many delegates as possible or staff," Resch said. "With each convention we are continuing to refine our approach to see what works best. Ultimately with any trade association [the goal] is to assist our members with convention activity."

Convention spokesman James Davis said organizers have received hundreds of requests for official venues but acknowledged that things aren't what they used to be.

"The economy is in a bad place, while people want to have a presence, maybe they are being more strategic in some of the initiatives and events they are planning," Davis said.

"It's going to be more of a working convention," said Darrell Henry, a Republican convention planner affiliated with Conventions2012.

The American Chemistry Council is skipping because it believes it's hard to break through the noise at the party conventions.

"The conventions are always very dense with messaging and information and reaching your target audience in a situation like that is difficult," ACC spokeswoman Anne Kolton said. "It's difficult to break through the clutter. Neither of the conventions would be a venue where we would get a clear opportunity to connect with our targets and advance our advocacy that would reflect the amount of resources it would take."

The International Franchise Association is also not sponsoring any events in Tampa or Charlotte.

"Our members, similar to others, are looking for return on investment, which is difficult to do in a convention setting," said IFA's Matt Haller.

The Bipartisan Policy Center is in the same boat. In 2008, the group threw a large reception at both conventions, but this time the nonprofit is opting for small dinners and meetings with its senior fellows.

Some entities have been dissuaded — especially from throwing expensive events — because of the ethics rules that require staffers and lawmakers to pay for their tickets if high-profile talent perform.

Corporate government relations operations are more closely scrutinizing the costs and benefits of engaging at the conventions in tough economic times. Many in-house Washington offices' budgets have been slashed over the past several years and have not yet rebounded.

In part, plans have been delayed because the committee on arrangements is still solidifying its convention packages. Organizers are expected to start assigning companies and trade groups venues in early June.

Republican National Committee spokesman Sean Spicer said that demand for hotels, credentials and packages is extremely high.

"The enthusiasm to be a part of the Tampa experience is tremendous," Spicer said.

Some of the big party throwers — including associations like the Distilled Industry Spirits Council and the Recording Industry Association of America — are still expected to underwrite major evening events.

Companies like Johnson & Johnson are also expecting to have a presence at both conventions, scheduling a reception before the opening of the GOP event.

The U.S. Travel Association and the National Marine Manufacturers Association are both hoping to use the conventions to help push their public policy platforms. U.S. Travel top lobbyist Blain Rethmeier said the trade group will distribute items like themed hotel key cards with travel facts for delegates to "tell the story and shine some light on how our industry makes events like this possible — from the hotels, to the convention space, restaurants."

The marine manufacturers group, meanwhile, is looking to highlight its economic impact with a daytime event, which will include boat rides to demonstrate the greener technology for engines.

The group's manager of state government relations and legislative counsel Nicole Vasilaros said "people just think wealthy yachts" when they think of boating and the group is trying to get beyond that misconception.

And while K Street may be skittish, there are some new entrants to the scene. Maverick PAC, a federal political action committee geared towards young professionals under 45, is hosting a party at the Florida Museum of Photographic Art for about 500 people on Aug. 29.

"What a better time to promote our national expansion," said Pasha Moore, the executive director of Maverick PAC. The group, which is now in eight states, has gotten interest from several potential sponsors.

"They are so glad that we are putting on an event that is really geared to young professionals and young Republicans. It's a little bit different than what you usually see at a national convention."

POLITICO and the Tampa Bay Times have partnered for the 2012 presidential election.

Washington lobbyists, trade groups scaling back on Tampa convention 05/28/12 [Last modified: Monday, May 28, 2012 9:26am]
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