Preparing for a political convention is a lot like running a campaign.
Just ask the public affairs specialists who founded Conventions 2012, a consulting firm that helps companies and trade associations navigate the political confabs.
Its pitch: The conventions present a not-to-be-botched branding opportunity, as well as a rare chance for corporate lobbyists to hobnob with lawmakers and Capitol Hill staff.
"The name of the game is access and exposure to Members of Congress," said LeeAnn Petersen, who is handling the itineraries for companies headed to Charlotte, N.C., for the Democratic convention. "It's like shooting fish in a barrel."
The firm, whose clients include Novo Nordisk, Motorola Solutions and the National Association of Manufacturers, as well as several state delegations, organizes advocacy-focused luncheons and late-night soirees. It helps arrange transportation, find outside sponsorship opportunities and locate local venues - such as the "intimate, opulent" Martini Republic in Tampa and the "tourist class" Golden Green Hotel in Charlotte, two establishments promoted in firm email solicitations.
In Tampa, Fla., Conventions 2012 is responsible for some 40 buses that will shepherd state delegations to and from events for the GOP's political gathering. It helped Expedia.com, Norfolk Southern and other transportation heavyweights organize a Monday night watch party for members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee at Stumps Supper Club, with tickets from $5,000 to $20,000 a pop.
As far as a year in advance, companies with a stake in Washington policy decisions game out their convention strategies. They have to decide whether to host parties or quietly underwrite third-party events, whether to donate to the host committees or support outside groups, whether to send a cadre of lobbyists or bypass the conventions altogether.
Behind each decision is a careful assessment of the company's needs, budget and - this year more than ever - the political risks. An anti-corporate sentiment on both sides of the aisle, and especially among Democrats, has turned convention engagement into a potential liability - and a challenge for Conventions 2012.
For the first time, the Democratic host committee pledged to reject all corporate, lobbyist and political action committee cash. Individual donations may not exceed $100,000. The self-imposed limits, intended to highlight President Barack Obama's commitment to taking special interest money out of politics, made it harder for the committee to come up with the about $36 million it needed to support the event.
Government transparency advocates say corporations take advantage of a relatively rules-free zone to influence policymakers.
"I really don't think branding is very much of a purpose for companies helping finance or participating in the conventions," said Craig Holman, the government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen. "Almost every company I see has some interest pending before the federal government and they want something out of it."
Darrell Henry, who manages the Republican side of Conventions 2012, advises companies to give to the official host committees, especially if they have a presence in Charlotte or Tampa, regardless of politics.
But the Democrats' rules pose a challenge to companies that like to contribute evenly to both parties. Some companies, such as Coca-Cola Co., made a financial commitment through the Democratic host committee's sister nonprofit, New American City Inc., which decided to accept corporate contributions earlier this year.
At past conventions, corporate lobbyists would receive hotel rooms and credentials in exchange for a contribution, but Democrats aren't offering those perks this year, leaving companies to find space in their budgets for hotel rooms.
"It's a huge problem," said Petersen, who lobbied on behalf of Volvo Group North America from 2003 to 2007. "Thank God that the Republicans didn't change their formula this time around. We know if folks spend money with Republicans, they will try to find a way to give it to us."
Fees range from $5,000 for more modest services such as recruiting attendees for parties to $30,000 for full-fledged itinerary development.
Today, Conventions 2012 employs a dozen people and retains a former Federal Election Commission staffer and former House Ethics Committee counsel as legal advisers. Come the long offseason, the firm strips down to a bare-bones staff of four.
So, why start a business that only sees game day once every four years? Easy. "It is the Super Bowl of politics," Henry said.