Religious Meeting MeccasAugust 1, 2016

Diverse Locales Attract Faith-Based Organizations By
August 1, 2016

Religious Meeting Meccas

Diverse Locales Attract Faith-Based Organizations
A religious meeting at Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis. Credit:

A religious meeting at Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis. Credit:

What makes a great meeting location for a religious organization? As with other groups, that depends on the circumstances.

“For the most part there is no difference between religious and non-religious conferences,” says Mary C. Ruth, a partners in service volunteer with the United Church of Christ, a Connecticut native now living in Tennessee, who has had extensive experience in planning meetings. “The big issue is whether staff can understand and respect different religious beliefs and attitudes.”

In some cases the latter leads to special considerations.

“It’s sometimes a good thing to have no televisions in rooms,” she says. “Quaintness and simplicity are fine.” She adds that good food is always in demand, and dining tables should be conducive to conversation among participants. Areas for small group gatherings, especially if cozy, are always a plus.

“For the most part there is no difference between religious and non-religious conferences. The big issue is whether staff can understand and respect different religious beliefs and attitudes.”
— Mary C. Ruth

Also desirable for some groups are places for attendees to find solitude such as hiking trails, wooded areas or deserted beachfronts. “A chapel is very handy,” Ruth says. “And wide-open outdoor spaces are better than cramped quarters.”

Of course you can make an argument for almost any city or meeting venue in terms of at least some desirable features. But all may not be a good fit for the typical religious organization. It’s hard to envision a gaming resort as the ideal location for representatives from a fundamentalist Christian organization, for instance. Or a smaller market may not easily handle a meeting with 5,000 delegates.

Conversely, some locations offer just the right combination of features that many religious groups find attractive. A family atmosphere, for instance, can be an important factor. Attendees with conservative social values may prefer what they consider a wholesome environment, and may lack interest in a robust night life or other features that appeal to a more general audience.

The potential to limit expenses is another consideration. Staffers in religious organizations may have limited travel budgets, and it’s not unusual for some attendees to be volunteers who wish to keep costs for accommodations and meals to a minimum.

“Most faith-based groups are open to any facility as long as they can stay in budget,” says Vickie S. Ashford, director of travel media for the Greater Birmingham Convention & Visitors Bureau. In addition to meeting in hotels and other standard venues, she adds they also may hold meetings in churches, parks or other locations.

Some groups, such as attendees of the United Methodist event Resurrection where youth congregate every winter in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, meet in the same location every year. Others rotate locations among a few favorites or experiment with new locales. That’s the case with the North American Christian Convention, a non-denominational group that held its most recent event in Anaheim, California. Over the past five years, it has held meetings in Kansas City, Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Orlando.

Similarly, the National Worship Leader Conference sponsors two-day events in several locations. For 2016, they include Centreville, Virginia, San Antonio and Lenexa, Kansas. And the Islamic Society of North America has held recent events in Anaheim, Detroit, Tampa, and Houston.

Special Appeal

A venue that places a special focus on religious groups is Green Lake Conference Center in Green Lake, Wisconsin. It hosts about 300 religious groups per year, representing more than a dozen denomination/faith backgrounds. This constitutes 80 percent of the annual conferences and other events held there, according to Jason Kauffeld, the center’s director of group relations.

Situated in 900 acres of forest and prairie, the center offers 60,000 sf of meeting space along with 300 lakeside rooms. The World Mission Conference meets at Green Lake, and participants at various conferences come from nearly 100 countries. Visitors enjoy features that include an outdoor cathedral, a tower that plays hymns on the hour, lakeside beaches and prayer-climbing towers.

Anaheim is a popular location with religious groups, according to Erin Ramsauer, PR manager with Visit Anaheim. The city hosts the Archdiocese of Los Angeles annually, and along with the North American Christian Convention will soon welcome Bible Study Fellowship International.

All hold their meetings at the Anaheim Convention Center, which completed a 100,000-sf expansion of exterior space in 2013 and is currently adding another 200,000 sf of event space and a parking structure with 1,400 spaces. With these additions the complex, which already stands as the largest convention center on the West Coast, will top 1 million sf.

With the many hotels and other businesses that serve visitors to the local Disney parks, the area has much to offer. Ramsauer says a factor making Anaheim an ideal destination for religious meetings is an abundance of hotels offering suites or rooms with bunk beds that can accommodate four to six people. Many hotels also include free breakfast, parking and Wi-Fi, making for an economical stay. Anaheim also has affordable dining options within walking distance. Too, smaller groups sometimes take advantage of meeting space offered by area churches.

Paulette Smith, associate director/congress event coordinator for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, reports that her organization has been holding the annual Los Angeles Religious Education Congress at the Anaheim Convention Center since 1970. Average attendance is just under 40,000, including sessions for high school students attended by 14,000 youth.

“We have people attend from almost every state in America, as well as 22 countries from around the world,” she says. “It continues its original objective of offering in-service education and spiritual formation to those in the catechetical and related ministries.” The event includes more than 300 workshops over a four-day period on topics such as spirituality, music, personal development and biblical studies. More than 250 exhibitors fill approximately 500 exhibit spaces.

Smith says the long history with the Anaheim Convention Center has proven advantageous.

“As the convention center grows and expands, it provides space and opportunity for our expansion as well,” she says. “Our participants feel safe, and the price point of the surrounding hotels remains an attractive asset.”

She lauds staff at Visit Anaheim staff, the convention center and client services, as well as the vendors and the surrounding hotel personnel.

“They are all professional and a joy to work with,” she says. “Next year will mark our 47th year in Anaheim,” she says. “Enough said.”

Louisville is another popular destination for religious organizations. What the CVB calls a “possibility city” has recently hosted meetings for groups such as the Unitarian Universalist Association as well as the Festival of Faith, a one-day festival of music, poetry, film, art and dialogue with well-known spiritual leaders.

Along with a rich selection of hotels, Louisville offers a number of attractive meeting venues. Closed for two years for construction, the Kentucky Exposition Center will undergo a $180 million expansion, beginning in 2016 that, when completed in 2018, will allow Louisville to recapture its competitive stance as a major meeting, convention and events city. The expansion will add a minimum of 200,000 sf of exhibit space and a 40,000-sf ballroom without expanding the outer walls of the building.

Other area venues range from Churchill Downs to the Frazier International History Museum.

“We like the close proximity of all the meeting space to hotels and overall price points for families to attend, as well as the geographical position of Louisville,” says Sharon L. Lee, director, convention services group of the General Council of the Assemblies of God. “We have a lot of attendees drive in.”

The Council sponsors an annual Fine Arts Festival that attracts approximately 10,000 to 12,000 students from junior high to college age. It includes varying categories of competition ranging from the visual to the performing arts as well as an outreach that takes place throughout the week. The church’s General Presbytery, a governing body, meets during the same time.

After meeting in Louisville in 2012, church members are returning this year using the same space. Daily activities are held in the Kentucky International Convention Center, Hyatt Regency Louisville and Galt House, which is connected to the KFC Yum! Center. Evening sessions convene Monday through Friday. The final session on Friday is a culmination of the week’s performances with an awards celebration.

“A lot of our consideration to return this year was our positive experience before,” Lee says. “The ability for attendees to walk to various restaurants is huge on our list, as well as affordability to travel to the city. The CVB is excellent in working with us on all aspects of our ventures.”

Lee adds reasonable cost to attend is a key. “Many of our summer, citywide events are attended by families that make it a vacation getaway,” she says. “So affordability is crucial.”

Indianapolis also is an excellent location for religious meeting meccas, says Michael Neises, senior director of events and publishing at Revive Our Hearts, a ministry based in Niles, Michigan.

His organization holds two major meetings annually, a general conference attended by 6,200–8,400 participants, and a leadership conference, which most recently attracted 2,200 attendees.

The Indiana Convention Center (ICC) has flexible space to accommodate large general sessions, along with breakout rooms, ancillary meeting space requirements, and exhibit and resource sale space, Neises says.

“We’ve had a good experience in Indy,” he says, noting that the staff at ICC is professional, knowledgeable and interested in knowing what our specific needs are, and they work hard to meet them.

“As a women’s conference, having hotels that are connected along with a walkable downtown district is important from a convenience and security standpoint,” Neises adds. “When a session ends at 10 p.m. on a Friday night, it’s good to know that most of our attendees can return to their hotel without having to go out on the street. In addition, the proximity of restaurants along with variable price points is an asset.”

Another plus cited by Neises is geography. Indianapolis is centrally located and is within an eight-hour drive of a large segment of the population.

Diverse Locations

Known for its shows featuring country music stars and other entertainers, Branson, Missouri also is a destination favored by religious organizations. With a capacity of up to 4,500 delegates, the Branson Convention Center is a popular venue for groups of varying sizes. The two-story facility has 220,000 sf of flexible space including a 47,000-sf exhibit hall and 23,000-sf ballroom. Located within walking distance of a newly developed shopping and entertainment district, the convention center is connected to the Hilton Branson Convention Center Hotel and the Hilton Promenade at Branson Landing.

Branson also features the Chateau on the Lake Resort, Spa & Convention Center, which along with 301 guest rooms boasts 43,500 sf of event space including a 32,000-sf Great Hall, 19 conference rooms and a 14,000-sf spa. Also available for meetings is Big Cedar Lodge, which overlooks the 43,000-acre Table Rock Lake. Featuring lodges, cottages and cabins, it offers 20,000 sf of meeting space accommodating groups from 10–1,000 persons.

Especially appealing to many religious groups is Sight & Sound Theatre, which, like its sister theater in Pennsylvania, offers large-scale Christian productions that bring classic Bible stories to life.

Located in the Tennessee mountains, Gatlinburg is a year-round destination for meetings including church youth conferences and other groups. A leading venue is the Gatlinburg Convention Center, with 148,000 sf of meeting space. This includes a great hall accommodating 6,000 people and 18 meeting rooms. The W.L. Mills Conference Center, which adjoins the convention center, offers an additional 50,000 sf of event space, including a 17,000-sf ballroom.

In adjoining Pigeon Forge, the LeConte Event Center, opened in 2013, is a 232,000-sf facility serving groups from 1,500 to 12,000. Situated just a block off the parkway that bisects the town, the center boarders the Little Pigeon River and Riverwalk, which offers pedestrian access to a variety of shops, restaurants and entertainment venues.

In Lafayette Hill, Pennsylvania, Chubb Hotel & Conference Center hosts groups from a variety of church denominations, according to Katie Schultz, director of sales. Many participants attend from within the state or nearby states. She says that events are typically held on a weekend, with guests arriving on Friday evenings and leaving on Sunday afternoon.

Among the features that religious groups find attractive are complete meeting packages with fixed pricing.

“They allow the organizer to communicate pricing to the attendees without any additional add-on costs,” Schultz says. “This is key for this market.”

She notes that the number of breakout rooms at Chubb is a plus, since religious groups tend to require several breakout rooms for their sessions.

“Offering conference dining with buffet menus for breakfast, lunch and dinner is a benefit as these groups like variety,” she adds. “Also buffet menus can afford the organizer with the flexibility to accommodate special menu requests without worry that all guests will be satisfied with all their meals.”

Southern locations such as Atlanta are appealing destinations for church groups and other religious organizations. Facilities operated by the Georgia World Congress Center Authority include the Georgia Dome, Centennial Olympic Park and Georgia World Congress Center, with the latter ranking as the nation’s fourth largest convention center. Along with 1.4 million sf of exhibit space in 12 exhibit halls, it boasts two grand ballrooms and 105 meeting rooms. The area offers a large selection of hotel and dining choices, and is served by Atlanta’s transit system, MARTA.

Birmingham, which touts itself as the most affordable city in the south, meets the needs of religious groups not only from a cost perspective, but also in the breadth of offerings to visitors. Its centerpiece is the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex, offering 220,000 sf of exhibition space along with more than 1,000 adjoining guest rooms. The facility has 74 meeting rooms totaling 100,000 sf as well as a 3,000-seat concert hall, 1,000-seat theater and 274-seat forum theater. Along with other groups, Birmingham recently hosted the Religious Conference Management Association.

The National Baptist Convention of America met in Birmingham this year, and other recent visitors have hailed from the Church of Christ, National and Independent Gospel Music Association, and National Baptist Congress.

“Two of our best qualities — competitive rates and a remarkable history coupled with Southern charm — keep us in rotation for faith-based conferences and conventions,” says Chianti Cleggett, national sales manager for the Greater Birmingham Convention & Visitors Bureau

Among the many other attractive locations around the country are Blowing Rock Conference Center in Blowing Rock, North Carolina, Ghost Ranch in Santa Fe and Albuquerque, New Mexico, Silver Lake in Sharon, Connecticut, Mo Ranch in Hunt, Texas and Star Island in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Whether a given group’s preference is a large city or a more rural retreat, the standard of “something for everyone” holds true when it comes to locales for meetings of religious organizations.  AC&F

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