Charlotte’s hospitality industry still clings to hope for an RNC boost

Charlotte’s hospitality industry still clings to hope for an RNC boost
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The Republican National Convention was supposed to draw up to 50,000 to Charlotte and provide an economic impact of about $163 million. At a time when the city’s hospitality industry has been pummeled by coronavirus-induced revenue declines, several businesses owners were counting on the convention to provide a boost.

Now, the RNC is moving all of the big festivities from Charlotte to another city — likely Jacksonville, the Washington Post reported late Tuesday.

That means that President Trump’s acceptance of the Republican nomination — the one with all the pageantry and the red, white, and blue banners and the nearly 20,000 people packed together in an arena — won’t be in Charlotte. And it’s not clear what, if anything, will be. The RNC has said that the “official business of the convention” will remain here.

What that means, we don’t yet know. We don’t know how many people that “official business” will draw to town, though by several reports it’d be fewer than 400 delegates. We also don’t know how much money they’re likely to spend when they get here.

For local businesses hoping for a convention bump, the uncertainty is frustrating. But they’re still holding out hope.

For the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte in 2012, Rose Chauffeured Transportation made about $1.7 million in revenue, shuttling delegates around Uptown and transporting convention officials to parties throughout the area.

“A normal political convention is probably one of the biggest demand events there is,” says Andy Thompson, the company’s president. Since the coronavirus outbreak began locally, revenue has nearly dried up for Rose, a business reliant on big events like concerts, professional sports, and school trips.

For the week of the RNC, Thompson is still banking on shuttling delegates to and from Uptown hotels to the Spectrum Center. RNC officials haven’t told him anything that would make him plan differently, he says.

For the RNC week, Rose has 15 56-person buses scheduled to transport delegates. He may have to reduce the capacity of the buses to allow for social distancing, and that would probably just mean using more buses, he says.

Not accounting for the last night of the convention, Thompson projects his company will do about $1 million in business over the RNC. Normally, he’d consider that a “very good month.”

“My hope is they don’t scale that back and have fewer people,” Thompson says. “I’ve been numb lately waiting for the final decision.”

Charlotte restaurants don’t know how to plan, either.

A number of convention attendees have reached out about renting out Haymaker for the week. Chef William Dissen says that would be a blessing.

He’s waiting to hear back from RNC coordinators about what to expect, so he hasn’t signed any contracts yet. Ideally, he’d like four weeks to plan for full-restaurant takeovers.

Like other area restaurants, Haymaker has been closed to dine-in customers for the past three months. Revenue has plunged, though Haymaker is now doing takeout.

The RNC, Dissen says, presents the opportunity to recoup lost revenue. Haymaker could do in one week during the RNC what the restaurant normally does in revenue in a month.

“Political views aside, it would be a huge economic boost for our city,” Dissen says.


Bar at the Haymaker

Frank Scibelli says he probably would have done up to $1 million in revenue during the RNC at his restaurants, which include popular spots like Yafo and Mama Ricotta’s.

It’d be a similar boost as the one from the DNC, when “we did great,” Scibelli says. Back then, he did catering for a number of large groups that came to town, including the Bloomberg Network and representatives from the state of California.

Now, he has no idea what to expect. He just knows that it’s a loss all around for businesses.

“It was going to be a game changer for the city,” Scibelli says of the RNC. “Regardless of political views, it would have been a shot in the arm economically.”

In an emailed statement, N.C. Restaurant & Lodging Association CEO Lynn Minges cited the economic impact of the RNC and other large-scale events in North Carolina.

“We are optimistic that leaders will work together to agree on a plan that allows the convention to proceed while still protecting health and safety,” Minges said.

This week, convention officials are touring Phoenix, Savannah, Dallas, and Jacksonville. And they say no final decision has been made about a new host city.

But if hotels bookings are any indication, it looks like Jacksonville is already preparing like it is hosting.

The “largest, most prestigious downtown hotels” in the city are completely booked the week of August 25-28, when the RNC takes place, reports Florida’s First Coast News, an NBC-affiliated TV station. A spokeswoman for the city of Jacksonville did not respond to a request for comment.

In Charlotte, convention attendees needed more than 15,000 room nights for the convention, according to the Charlotte Regional Visitor Authority, the city’s tourism arm. That means the majority of hotels in the Charlotte region are in the convention room block.

The 146-room Ritz-Carlton in Uptown is “completely committed” to the RNC, says Jim Moss, the hotel’s director of sales and marketing. The hotel hasn’t had cancellations yet, Moss says. But he thinks proximity to the Spectrum Center may be an advantage for the Ritz, assuming the convention’s presence at the arena is scaled back. “I think we would suffer less reduction in our block because we are closest,” Moss says.

A few other large Uptown hotels — the Westin, Marriott Center City, Omni, Aloft — would not respond to questions about RNC-related losses. But the Secret Service has already canceled at least some rooms around Charlotte. WSOC’s Joe Bruno reported that they canceled about 200 rooms at Maya Hotel properties in Charlotte this week.

The big events at the convention would have taken place at the Spectrum Center. To start preparations, the RNC was supposed to take over the building in mid-July. Among other changes, the RNC had planned to raise the arena floor by 10 feet to make room for more delegates on the convention floor. Those preparations haven’t started yet.

How we got here: The back-and-forth about the RNC has been ongoing since Memorial Day, when President Trump tweeted that he wanted a full convention.

North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper, however, would not guarantee that a full convention would be possible by August, given the uncertainty around the pandemic.

On top of that, none of the communication from the RNC has outlined strategies for masks or social distancing. Those are two measures public health officials have pointed to as crucial for limiting the spread of the virus.

On Wednesday, City of Charlotte officials released a statement acknowledging media reports about the convention moving to Jacksonville. But they said the RNC had not informed them of its intent to relocate the convention.

“An immediate discussion with the RNC and our partners regarding contractual obligations and remedies resulting from this apparent decision is required,” the city’s statement read.

Charlotte’s city attorney Patrick Baker has been meeting with RNC officials about what a scaled-down convention would look like. Another one of those meetings will be Friday, to understand what a “business-only” convention looks like.

On Wednesday, the RNC host committee put out a strong statement saying that a move to Jacksonville would be “in clear violation” of agreements with the city.

“Unfortunately, this action most directly impacts our hospitality and tourism partners, small businesses, and vendors counting on the economic impact of the promised events,” the committee said.

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