Religious conferences and events — represented by the “R” in SMERF — are among the least well-known or appreciated segment of the meetings industry. In a number of ways, faith-based meeting planners face a number of the same challenges and concerns as their corporate and association counterparts.
But there also are certain factors that make religious meetings unique and interesting.
“One thing that makes the religious meetings market unique is that it is not affected by a lot of outside forces, whereas you see in the corporate market, for example, that when the economy tanks, companies start canceling events,” says Dean Jones, director of conferences and events at the Religious Conference Management Association (RCMA) in Indianapolis.
“In the association world, if membership is declining, they might not do an event here or there. But in the religious market, you see consistency and loyalty. And, if anything, in bad times — whether that’s economic or because of some crisis going on in the world — religious groups want to meet more rather than less, so they can discuss how to survive and thrive during periods like that.”
“In the religious market, you see consistency and loyalty. And, if anything, in bad times — whether that’s economic or because of some crisis going on in the world — religious groups want to meet more rather than less, so they can discuss how to survive and thrive during periods like that.” — Dean Jones
Another factor that distinguishes religious meetings is that one of their foundational pillars is large youth meetings, such as student retreats in the summer that can draw several thousand attendees or even more, Jones says. “And in addition to the summer, now you also see a lot of youth events between Christmas and New Year’s because they are all out of school,” he says.
“And hotels are looking to book business during that period, so you can get some great rates.”
Family-friendly meetings are yet another cornerstone of the faith-based market. “And those groups are looking to incorporate local activities into their meeting, so they’ll look for an amusement park or a great museum and build a half-day into the agenda for the students to experience that,” Jones says.
Frequently, families arrive a few days early or stay a few days after the meeting and treat the experience like a family vacation. “And that’s nothing new,” Jones says. “I’ve seen that happening for the last 20 years.”
Contributing even more to that characteristic is the fact that most religious meetings are held in destinations to which attendees can drive within a day. “And that means that attendees are more mobile when they reach the destination, so they often do more exploring than a typical attendee at a corporate or association meeting,” Jones says.
One of the most interesting characteristics of religious meetings is their duration. They often last for five or six days or even longer. And the formal agenda often runs from as early as eight o’clock in the morning to as late as 10 o’clock at night.
Such long days are the norm for the annual five-day meeting hosted by Chris Douglas, director of the conference office at Church of the Brethren in Elgin, Illinois. The meeting draws 2,500 attendees and uses 250,000 sf of meeting space. This year’s meeting in Columbus, Ohio, was headquartered at the Hyatt Columbus and used the Columbus Convention Center as its meeting venue.
Compared to most corporate or association meetings, faith-based conferences are far more intensive.
“That’s especially true of the meetings I’m involved with,” says Deborah Davies, CMP, coordinator of meeting services at the Louisville, Kentucky-based Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which has 11,000 U.S. congregations. “And for us, part of that is just the Calvinist work ethic. Our attendees who come to the meeting really feel like they should make the best use of the time. And meeting from morning until night means we can pack as much as possible into fewer days so that the trip is more affordable for attendees.”
For many religious groups, making the best use of time includes detailed discussions of legislative and political trends and issues.
For example, Douglas says, at her meeting this year, a topic of hot debate was climate change. “The discussion was about how the church could be more responsible in our stewardship of the Earth’s resources,” she says.
Another timely discussion among Douglas’ attendees was the kidnapping of 200 Nigerian schoolgirls by a terrorist group. “That school had actually been started by Church of the Brethren in the 1940s,” Douglas says. “When Nigeria nationalized all of the mission schools, it became a government school. But most of the families who send their children there attend Church of the Brethren. So it was really our girls that were kidnapped. And it was very dramatic for us to hear what the church is going through in Nigeria right now.”
Other important issues that are deliberated and decided at her big annual meeting, Douglas says, include how ministers are recruited, trained and ordained, along with congregational ethics. “We talked this year about why it’s so important today for a church to practice the highest possible ethical standards, even if that is as simple as always getting copyright permissions for things we publish,” she says.
Such internal debates raise another issue that Douglas believes set religious meetings apart from their corporate and association counterparts — and that is the tone of the discussions.
“There’s always the challenge, in any business meeting, about how do we disagree on things and still be respectful of one another?” Douglas says. “We might come out with different views on a particular issue, such as climate change. However, within the church, we really do try to maintain respectful relationships, probably a little more than a corporate group sometimes does. So we take the view that we might disagree on things, but we are still brothers and sisters in our faith.”
In other words, there is often a level of civility at a religious meeting that might not exist to the same extent at a corporate or association meeting where equally controversial and explosive issues are being discussed.
One thing that religious meeting planners share with their corporate and association counterparts is concern over mounting budget pressures as the pendulum has swung back to a seller’s market for hotels.
However, costs are particularly important to faith-based meetings because attendees generally pay their own way and often bring their entire family. “And always being able to make the meeting affordable is one of the challenges we face, especially for families,” Douglas says.
From his perspective at RCMA, Jones agrees that budgetary concerns never go away. “The topic that is always on the mind of our members is whether the economy is up or down,” he says. “For years, we had a great buyer’s market. Now we’re back to a seller’s market and rates are trending up, which causes concern to our members. Faith-based planners, for the most part, are always looking for economy. And in turn that means you’ll often find them using second- or third-tier cities, as opposed to first-tier.”
Affordability for attendees also is always on the mind of Davies. “That’s always the big issue for religious meetings,” she says. “Now that we’re back to a seller’s market, it’s getting hard to find good deals, even in second-tier markets. It’s not impossible, but it’s not as easy as it was a few years ago.”
A related issue that Jones hears about anecdotally from RCMA members, he says, is “that venues are not willing to lock in food prices until six months before the meeting. So for budgeting purposes, that can be tricky for a lot of faith-based organizations.”
F&B costs — and their sharp increases over the last 12–18 months — are a key concern of faith-based planners, Jones says. “F&B is often a huge expense for any meeting. But what you often see is faith-based planners picking locations where there is an abundance of affordable restaurants within walking distance. From my days as a faith-based planner, one of my events still holds the record for one-day sales at a downtown McDonald’s restaurant. And that was because a lot of my attendees were students, and they had a five dollar bill in their hand, and they were looking for a place to have lunch or dinner.”
Further exacerbating cost concerns is the fact that registration prices and other onsite costs can have a negative impact on attendance. “For religious meetings, the attendees are usually just down-to-earth, salt-of-the-earth people who are paying their own way. They’re not being taken care of in someone else’s budget. They don’t have a corporate credit card. Many times, they have saved up the money to travel to the meeting, and they treat it like a summer vacation. So sometimes there is fluctuation in attendance when the economy is bad or unemployment is up. That means you might indeed see a dip in attendance. But in the religious market, on the other hand, that doesn’t mean the meeting is going to be canceled because of that,” says Jones.
However, Douglas says, economic pressures in recent years and budget constraints that exist even in a healthy economy for religious meeting planners have motivated planners to increasingly look at second- and third-tier destinations, especially since the recession.
“We do that primarily because of the value proposition,” Douglas says. “And we generally work very hard to find places where we can get complimentary meeting facilities, which we have been able to do in a number of destinations in recent years.”
In order to optimize attendance, Church of the Brethren also promotes its annual meeting as a sort of a “family reunion,” Douglas says. “And that’s because many of our attendees are entire families. So we do activities by age group, from babies through young adults. And all of those age group activities run simultaneously while the business meeting is going on.”
Next year’s meeting is going to Tampa, Florida, because Church of the Brethren wants to push the family vacation selling point even further. “We’ll be marketing that meeting even more as a family vacation and encouraging families to treat it like their summer vacation,” Douglas says.
The simple reason, she says, is that the organization wants to increase attendance. “And we’re doing that saying, ‘Hey, there’s lots to do in Florida. So plan and come for a family vacation, then attend our conference.’”
For Cory Cooper, event coordinator at Anderson, South Carolina-based NewSpring, which operates 10 religious campuses in the state, a key consideration is that the 3,000-plus middle school and high school students who attend the organization’s annual summer meeting have fun and feel as if they’re enjoying a getaway that refreshes them and invigorates them for the new school year in the fall.
Given that goal, for the past five years the meeting has been held in Daytona Beach, Florida, with the Ocean Center convention facility as the event’s meeting venue.
Never before has NewSpring used the same destination for five years running. But Daytona Beach is the perfect destination for its meeting, Cooper says.
“We really love the Ocean Center facility,” she says. “For us, it’s the perfect size. And it’s also a great venue for the kinds of sessions that we do. We can also provide a good meal right in the same building. And they are very accommodating. The staff is just wonderful to work with. They meet all of our needs and requests every year. We also like the fact that it’s across the street from the Hilton hotel, which serves as our headquarters hotel.”
Cooper also uses The Plaza Historic Beach Resort & Spa, which is within easy walking distance.
Because of the nature and timing of the meeting, free time is built in for young attendees to have some fun. “So we offer free time at the beach and other activities,” Cooper says. “We also want there to be time for students to meet up with others from other parts of the state.”
Davies is equally enthusiastic about Louisville, the headquarters city of Presbyterian Church (USA). She uses the Kentucky Derby city for multiple meetings each year.
“Louisville is a very good destination for any meeting,” Davies says. “But it’s an excellent location for religious meetings. For one thing, it’s pretty affordable. For another thing, it’s pretty centrally located, so it’s easy to get to. The downtown area has really been improved over the last several years, with new hotels and a convention center that is going to be renovated. There are also a lot of attractions, including family-friendly attractions, located downtown. So when families do attend together, there is a lot for them to do.”
She also gives high marks to the Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau. “They are excellent,” she says. “We get great support from them.”
The Louisville CVB and its counterparts in other destinations she has used in recent years also help Davies with another issue. As a result of the budget limitations most religious organizations face, hotels often say they want them to book when other, more lucrative groups typically do not host meetings. And being treated as a sort of second-class meeting can sometimes be frustrating, Davies says.
“And even more true if we’re going to need the local convention center,” she says. “So for our major meetings, we rely very much on the local CVB. And we find that often, because the CVB understands the value of religious meetings, they will work to make sure the hotels understand that, too. And that helps us get the dates we want.”
Jones also understands the conflict in perceptions — and the opportunities — that can arise between a religious meeting and a corporate or association group that wants the same dates.
“If a hotel is given two pieces of business to bid on for the same dates, they’re going to look at the bottom line for both of them and determine which is the best one for their hotel,” Jones says. “And in that sense, one of the things that makes religious meetings popular is that generally speaking, when it comes to dates, they are flexible. They are also willing to meet at obscure times that allows them to fill in gaps for hotels. So in that sense, religious meetings have an advantage for both the planner and the hotel.”
Another factor that plays to the advantage of many religious meetings is loyalty. Religious groups are very loyal,” Jones says. “If they find a city or a hotel they like, they will remain very loyal and go back regularly on some sort of rotation.”
In other words, NewSpring’s five consecutive years in Daytona Beach are not an unusual occurrence.
Meanwhile, Jones says, out of economic necessity, religious planners also have learned the best way to build and maintain attendance at their major meetings.
“We have seen our attendance be consistent and grow over the last few years,” he says. “And one reason for that is that we have been more attuned to and more accommodating of our membership, and we have really moved away from the idea that I think a lot of conferences adhere to. And that is, if you build it, they will come. We really focus on our membership and what their needs are. And then we program the meeting to make sure we meet those needs. And that is a significant change that we’ve followed through on over the last few years. And it has paid off for us, as it has for many other faith-based planners.” AC&F