The DNC’s Biggest Winners and Losers in Business
The DNC dust has mostly settled, and on Monday, we determined that the convention was, without a doubt, a Philadelphia success story. Hillary Clinton is the first woman ever nominated by a major political party for president, and that happened here. We also managed to make it through the blockbuster week unscathed by news of Philadelphia being a shoddy convention host.
But we would be remiss to ignore the evidence that shows that the convention wasn’t a big win for everyone. And in business, some players say they really took a hit, and others said their establishments were completely unaffected by the estimated 50,000 visitors who sprawled across the city. We’re not so sure that’s a good thing.
From local restaurants, to merchandise providers and cab drivers, here is our list of the DNC’s biggest winners and losers in business.
1. Merchandise Vendors
In March, we reported that the Philadelphia host committee tapped the local consulting and creative marketing firm, Impact Dimensions, to be the official merchandise provider and manger of the DNC. By the end of the week’s activities, the company was sure that the deal was a huge success for them and the seven local designers it brought on board. On Friday, the company’s COO, Norbert McGettigan Jr., told Philadelphia magazine that they raked in a little over $150,000 from their online store and three pop-up shops around the city located at the Comcast Center, 30th Street Station, and the Pennsylvania Convention Center. “When we first started we questioned whether we’d be left with a lot of inventory or whether things would go as planned,” said McGettigan. Adding, “Feedback has been terrific and the ability to work with city leaders and engage our local artists was a great idea. As a small business it has all really helped us.” McGettigan said a last-minute approval from George Norcross to sell merchandise at the Camden Rising concert gave the organization an unexpected windfall. Throughout the week, the shop at Comcast headquarters was the most successful, with workers needing to reorder and restock merchandise whenever it sold out and at the end of each day. LisaBeth Weber’s pins and buttons, Dan Duffy’s word art, and Brett Bender’s donkey-in-heels designs were the biggest hits, McGettigan said. Though the shops at the Convention Center and 30th Street shut down last week, the Comcast location will be open until Friday, August 5th, and online stores will be open with discounted merchandise through the end of the month.
The feud between Uber and the city’s cab drivers came to a boil again last week. Cab drivers with the advocacy group Fair Ride Philly protested outside of an Uber party for delegates and criticized the ridesharing company for monopolizing the parking lots at the Wells Fargo Center. While the cab drivers protested Uber for legitimate reasons, we’re calling the ridesharing company the victor here. Despite the seemingly ruthless tactics competitors say it used to shut them out, its plan last week helped it stay on top. Uber reported record-breaking demand for its service during the convention and even said that it saw the most drivers hit the road in Philly, ever. Guests took to Twitter to complain about the hours-long wait for vehicles each night, but things reportedly got better each evening. Guests waited for their rides in the air-conditioned Uber Lounge, where Uber representatives were apparently very helpful and understanding of their customers’ needs. It is important to note here, though, that UberX had been operating illegally in Philadelphia. A 90-day reprieve that took effect at the start of July gave the company permission to operate, but they’ll be back in court for a final verdict in early October. Will Uber still be a winner then?
Philadelphia hotels were above 95 percent occupancy during each evening of the convention, according to Ed Grose, the executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association. Grose said any big convention will do the same thing, but the difference with the DNC was all the entertaining and parties happening at hotels throughout the day. The DNC committee contracted out each hotel separately, assigning each delegation a hotel, Grose said. “Hotels were booked as far as Lansdale,” said Grose, adding that the average daily rate was north of $500. Each hotel was fully staffed and the convention brought more hours for front-line employees like bellmen. “These workers saw a bigger payday from the week,” Grose said. With taxes on hotel rooms, liquor, parking, and additional wage taxes and a sales taxes on food and beverages Grose said, “It all added up pretty quickly.” The industry did see some falloff on shoulder nights, the nights leading up to the convention and the nights following. Some parties did cancel reservations — a blow to food and beverage preparations, but overall, the influx of visitors was positive for hotels, Grose said. While exact numbers on the economic impact to Philadelphia’s hotel industry haven’t been released, Grose is confident they’ll show that Philadelphia hotels did really well.
4. Caterers, Food Trucks, and Center City Restaurants
A number of restaurants with catering services were hired last week to cater the many delegate gatherings scheduled nearly back-to-back each day beginning the weekend before the convention’s start. One catering service that hit it particularly big was the Philadelphia-grown STARR Catering Group, formerly a part of Stephen Starr’s STARR Restaurants. The group was hired by CNN to cater at the exclusive CNN Grill at both the Republic National Convention and the Democratic National Convention. Celebrities, high-ranking elected officials, and well-known politicos including Don Lemon, Ashley Judd, Elizabeth Banks, and David Schwimmer all dined at the CNN Grill last week, where the menu was tailored to provide a generous taste of Philadelphia staples. A Philadelphia cheesesteak breakfast sandwich, cheesesteak eggrolls, a Reading Terminal Market hoagie, and butterscotch Krimpet Tastykake shakes all created by Ashley James, the culinary director of STARR Catering Group made the list. The Grill also featured local Philadelphia eats like Federal Donuts, Little Baby’s Ice Cream, La Colombe Coffee and Geno’s Steaks. “People were delighted to get a taste of something local,” said STARR Catering Group’s CEO Simon Powles. And according to James, Stephen Colbert kept telling the staff how much he enjoyed the menu. Here’s Colbert showing off one of STARR Catering Group’s dishes:
Food trucks also got their share of attention. On the Wells Fargo Center grounds, six food trucks were selected by Aramark and Philadelphia’s food truck consulting group FoodFellasLLC, to serve convention goers and workers. Among the group of trucks dotted around the media tent and walkways surrounding the convention was Lil Trent’s serving up cheesesteaks, Hai Street Kitchen with sushi burritos, Grubaholics with jerk chicken cheesesteaks and Delicias bringing Costa Rican fare. “With an event that size, with such influential people, you never know who you’ll serve,” said Dan Pennachietti, founder of FoodFellasLLC. “This was a historic event and now these small businesses can say they were a part of it. And they all did very well.” The food vendors worked from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. each day and paid a $500 fee to be at the Wells Fargo Center. The “Philly Feast, United We Eat” festival in Old City on Monday, organized by The Food Trust and the campaign group Plate of the Union, also brought together hundreds of people eager for treats from a wide variety of vendors including Taco Mondo and Foolish Waffles.
And let’s be clear — the convention was in no way the kind of curse that stifled Philadelphia during the papal visit last fall. In September, restaurateurs experienced some of their worst deficits and blamed the Michael Nutter administration for building up expectations for an economic boost. While many restaurants this time around say they experienced a positive impact last week, many restaurants outside of Center City haven’t been able to point to a boost. See the loser’s list for their story. Center City restaurants, though, are the victors here, with some reporting complete buyouts on almost every day of the convention. This was the case at SOUTH Kitchen & Jazz Parlor, for example, which even opened up on Monday, a day it’s normally closed, to host large parties. “The convention was very positive for us,” said Alex Reyes, a manager at Tinto, a Spanish restaurant part of the Garces Group, in Rittenhouse Square. “We definitely saw more people than normal.”
5. Museums and Attractions
Political attractions popped up around the city and brought together more than just the average political junkie. The Truth to Power large-scale pop-up art exhibition at 990 Spring Garden Street, organized by Philadelphia’s Little Giant Creative, and sponsored by Cut50 and Rock The Vote, brought artists, delegates, celebrities and politicos together to view hundreds of art exhibits and engage in over 25 hours of programming around activism and social justice. Every wall of the exhibit, including the bathroom stalls, were covered in an artist’s expression of truth that made it impossible to not feel the power of social action. Tayyib Smith, the founder of Little Giant, says that from Monday to Wednesday, when doors were open, about 10,000 visitors stopped by, and as of Thursday, July 28th, there were over 300 million social media impressions for the event. And Smith estimates that about 2,300 to 2,500 guests attended Truth to Power’s closing event at The Fillmore, with Ty Dolla $ign and the Black Eyed Peas headlining. “We feel proud that everything we did from opening to closing was free and open to the people of Philadelphia,” said renowned entrepreneur and activist Michael Skolnik, one of the producers of the event, “We heard from people in the city that they felt included in the DNC with this event.” About a third of the featured artists were from Philadelphia.
PoliticalFest, organized by the Philadelphia DNC host committee, was like an amusement park that gave visitors a (nonpartisan) ride of a lifetime through America’s most iconic moments in political history. One room, for example, re-created Ronald Reagan’s Oval Office, and another part of the venue showcased political buttons and pins from as far back as the 1920s. The bulk of PoliticalFest sights were housed in the Pennsylvania Convention Center, but arms of the funhouse spread to the National Constitution Center, The Philadelphia History Museum, The Library Company of Philadelphia, The Heritage Center of the Union League of Philadelphia, and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, too. The host committee says it will release PoliticalFest attendance data on Friday.
The National Museum of American Jewish History, was “abuzz with the energy of the Convention and the city,” Yael Eytan, the museum’s director of marketing and communications told Philadelphia magazine. According to Eytan the museum hosted 15 different events for groups like the Democratic Governor’s Association, the Pennsylvania Democrats, and the SEIU. Bill Clinton, John Podesta, Nancy Pelosi, and New York mayor Bill de Blasio were just a few of the visitors at the museum last week. “Every possible space within the museum was filled on a daily basis,” Eytan said.
The host committee’s “Donkeys Around Town,” project and scavenger hunt was another popular attraction. The committee placed 57 hand-painted fiberglass donkeys around the city, and sent participants on a quest to visit them all. According to information released by the host committee on Wednesday, the eight-day scavenger hunt had a total of 2,213 participants. “The scavenger hunt produced interest well beyond our widest expectations,” said former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, chair of the host committee. The hunt yielded prizes for over 1,360 participants, the host committee said.
1. Taxi Industry
Cab drivers experienced defeat last week when they realized that Uber hogged the game. Some cab drivers told Philadelphia magazine that they had a hard time entering parking lots surrounding the Wells Fargo Center and even found that Uber drivers were parking in their taxi stand lines at hotels in Center City. “We couldn’t even drop people off at the convention let alone bring anyone near there,” said Ron Blount, chief of the Taxi Workers Alliance of Pennsylvania. Adding, “It’s such a shame that [Uber] had some kind of exclusive rights in that area, bossing taxi drivers around and acting like they are the Parking Authority.” And Blount said there was no oversight of the situation from the city or law enforcement officials. When cab drivers submitted a complaint to officials, he said they were bounced around like a hot potato. “The DNC was supposed to be representing the working people,” Blount said, “And people should be able to have a choice instead of there being one service controlling the scene.” Blount said he really likes what Uber has done for the city but wants their behavior to mirror the goodness of their technology. “We want to be able to play by the same rules,” he said. Workers organized a picket line at an Uber party for delegates Monday night to protest the company’s treatment of a particular group of workers. Blount said the Philadelphia Parking Authority failed to organize a system with dispatch companies that would allow them to serve the area around the Wells Fargo Center.
While Lyft reported early in the week that they were seeing very high demand for their app and had a record-breaking amount of drivers working in Philadelphia, the company still fell prey to its more popular competitor, Uber. Were they as bad off as cab drivers? In some respects, yes. Lyft drivers could only pick up passengers miles away from the Wells Fargo Center, some drivers said, and resorted to sulking about Uber’s practices, too. But lawmakers may soon pass a bill to legalize Lyft’s operations, along with Uber’s, in Philadelphia before the reprieve comes to an end on September 30th.
City residents were apparently disinterested in hitting nightclubs on weeknights, and delegates seemed to figure out late-night plans on their own. A number of nightclubs in Center City, including Vango and Coda, stayed open later than usual with deals for delegates and locals looking to mingle. I stopped by Coda Monday evening just before midnight. I counted 13 patrons around the bar. The music fell upon a crowd that seemed to never have plans to stay, and one bartender asked me why so many people were in town. And according to one of the city’s big public relations executives, things never really picked up at any of the locations they promoted all week. “There were a lot of ‘insider’ events that were invite-only, so we wanted to host events that people could go to and feel included, without having to know someone who is ‘in,’” said Sulaiman Rahman, the CEO of the Urban Philly Professional Network, who hosted “DNC Nights with Politicos, Professionals & Cocktails,” a deal that created one guest list for three different nights at three different venues, Coda, Ms Tootsies and Vango. Attendees were admitted for free before 11 p.m. with an RSVP. About 2,100 people RSVP’d for the three events but the “show-up” ratio was only at 20 percent, half the turnout rate Rahman says his organization typically receives. On Sunday, however, the day before the DNC, Rahman experienced some success. At “Afro-LatinX: An Art, Music, and Culture Mixer” held at the African American Museum, 700 of the 1,600 people who signed up showed. “We had a revolving crowd all week because there were so many DNC-related events happening around the city,” said Rahman, “People got out from the convention late, they were tired, and most people in the city had to get up for work in the morning.” He added that the DNC brought an older, more mature crowd that “wasn’t hanging.”
4. Restaurants Outside of Center City
While many Center City restaurants can claim a strong showing on the part of delegates, establishments outside Center City parameters were at the mercy of the more adventurous visitors who dared to venture beyond. At the beginning of the week, restaurants on East Passyunk Avenue in South Philly noted that people weren’t taking the time to explore or simply didn’t have the opportunity to do so beyond the vicinity of their hotels. But restaurateurs were eager to see what the rest of the week had in store. But by Thursday many threw up their hands and accepted that no DNC bonuses would come their way. “The convention had a very minimal impact. It suppressed business a little bit,” said Francis Cratil Cretarola who co-owns Le Virtu and Brigantessa, two popular Italian eateries on the avenue. “Convention goers weren’t really here and a lot of our regulars were out of town again,” Cretarola said, referencing the mass exodus of Philly residents during the papal visit. During the convention, East Passyunk Avenue stayed opened until 1 a.m., three hours later than usual on Wednesday, and advertised widely to delegates on the days leading up to that night, Shanell Verandez, a bartender at Plenty Café told me. But on that big night, the people on the avenue were almost all Philadelphians. Cretarola said, though, that his biggest event that week happened Wednesday evening, when Le Virtu hosted 70 delegates for wine and beer on its expansive patio. “That’s about the biggest bump we saw,” he said.
In the city’s Northern Liberties, Fishtown, and Kensington neighborhoods, the story is about the same. “We were ready,” said Jessica Fox, a general manager at the popular Fette Sau Barbeque Restaurant, a member of STARR Restaurants. “We anticipated seeing an increase in business.” Fox said restaurant even brought on more staff members, but after seeing how slow things were on the first and second day of the convention, everyone returned to their normal schedules. “We did see a tad less business, and definitely no one from the DNC,” said Fox. The restaurant suffered from a decline in business during the Pope’s visit, and Fox said convention week was nothing like what they experienced last fall. “The DNC wasn’t a U-turn for us, but the city did do a better job of not building it up so much by promising a crazy influx of dollars for everyone.” At Fishtown Tavern they were only busier than usual on Monday night when Geraldo Rivera came in for some drinks, said Kristen Shemesh, the manager, and throughout the week, the venue was filled with mostly regulars who watched the convention there. “We aren’t sure if the convention pulled people in, but we do know that it kept people’s attention while they were here,” a bartender at Fishtown Tavern said, describing how people were completely enthralled, with their eyes fixed on the bar’s TV during President Obama’s speech.
Other establishments in the area were also expecting more new faces to show up. Sergio Ruiz, the manager at the Mexican restaurant Loco Pez said they were expecting more patrons, but not too much more. “We got a lot more people during the Pope’s visit, he said. “But we are off the beaten path, nowhere near Center City, so we just assumed that everyone was stuck there or in South Philly,” he said.
In Chinatown, some businesses said they saw fewer people than usual. “We think everyone stayed home to watch the convention,” said Liang Spring, a manager at the top-rated Sangkee Peking Duck House. “Things were very quiet here and we were expecting to see more people.” And business was slower than normal all week at Dim Sum Garden, a waitress said.
Overall, there are more winners than losers here.
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