Virtual conventions are almost lobbyist-free, and some of them are OK with that

‘This is the least involved K Street has been in conventions in history,’ says one lobbyist

Mosaics of people cheering parts of the 2020 Democratic National Convention have been shown occasionally, but the traditional side events that drew thousands of K Street lobbyists are missing, and some of them do not mind. (Screenshot/Democratic National Convention/Getty Images)
Mosaics of people cheering parts of the 2020 Democratic National Convention have been shown occasionally, but the traditional side events that drew thousands of K Street lobbyists are missing, and some of them do not mind. (Screenshot/Democratic National Convention/Getty Images)
Posted August 20, 2020 at 11:09am

The quadrennial political conventions usually offer K Street lobbyists a sleep-deprived whirlwind of in-person schmoozing, from bleary-eyed morning meet-and-greets to concerts late into the night.

This year’s virtual gathering because of the COVID-19 pandemic has made for a totally different experience for the influence set.   

Some lobbyists are embracing the relaxed schedule of an online convention and opting out of breakout sessions for donors and policy panels. Others are logging in all day, seeking out political intelligence to pass along to clients in an attempt to recreate the networking opportunities of in-person events. 

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“I would say that this is the least involved K Street has been in conventions in history,” said John Feehery, a Republican lobbyist and partner in the shop EFB Advocacy. Feehery said he hadn’t received solicitations and planned to do nothing “other than watch it on TV.”

Model for future conventions?

Ditto for Democratic lobbyist Steve Elmendorf, a regular donor to his party who is a partner at the firm Subject Matter. He’s spent the past three nights watching the main show from his bed, he said. 

“I’ve been to no other events around the convention, and hopefully this is how we do this in the future,” he said. 

To be sure, some advocates on issues the Democrats wanted to promote, especially gun control and climate action, appeared during the two-hour prime time part of the program. But absent was the behind-the-scenes action that fills hotel rooms and restaurants in convention cities every four years, as trade groups and their representatives try to get clients and policymakers together, usually over food and drink.

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Some lobbyists are looking to replicate the experience of being there this week. The party committees and other organizations have put together numerous Zoom panels, watch parties and other events that have prompted lobbyists to log on. 

At this week’s Democratic convention, lobbyists huddled remotely with lawmakers and other lobbyists at such events as an environmental session, whose listed participants, according to an invite obtained by CQ Roll Call, included Reps. Joe Cunningham of South Carolina and Kendra Horn of Oklahoma, as well as executives from PepsiCo, ConocoPhillips, General Motors and Duke Energy.  

A similar corporate-themed event this week on technology policy included Reps. Sharice Davids of Kansas and Max Rose of New York, among others, as well as executives from Comcast and Microsoft, according to an invite circulated on K Street.  

“As a lobbyist, I miss the networking part of it,” said Cristina Antelo, a Democratic lobbyist and founder of Ferox Strategies. “I get a lot out of being able to interact personally with members, clients or potential clients”

Still, Antelo said, she’s been logging on to events with party leaders, including sessions featuring House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California. “I’m RSVP’ing to every event, and what I find is I’m taking notes and reporting any intel for my clients.”

Multiple updates sent daily

Antelo's firm is sending out updates to clients multiple times a day throughout the convention, she added. 

Antelo’s business partner, Republican Mark Williams, said he is looking out for any virtual events tied to next week’s Republican convention.

“Right now, it doesn’t seem there’s going to be a robust virtual schedule,” he said. “It’s probably still coming together.”   

Some longtime convention devotees, though, say they’re already looking at booking events for next year’s inauguration and skipping the summer conventions. 

“For the first time since 2000, Magnum Entertainment Group Inc. will not be executing any live or virtual music events at the GOP Convention,” said Republican lobbyist Jeff Kimbell, whose Magnum group had planned to produce concerts this year. “However, we do plan on hosting events during inaugural week in January.”