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Destinations Ideal for Religious Youth Group Events

Religious meetings are a big business, and a sizable chunk of that business is youth: youth groups, high school students and college kids who are active in their faith and in their church ministries.

For faith-based youth conferences and conventions, which often draw thousands of young attendees, affordability, safety and easy access are key factors in a destination. Rather than flying, most youth groups pack into church vans and pile onto school buses to drive to regional conventions and conferences, so interstate proximity is important. These cities sit at the crossroads of the country, but they’re also affordable, walkable and safe — places where youth ministers, chaperones and parents are comfortable sending their tweens and teens.

Daytona Beach, Florida

Daytona Beach may be synonymous with its stock-car speedway, but it’s also a huge draw for faith-based youth groups, in part because it delivers sun, sand and surf.

“The kids love it,” said Lori Campbell Baker, director of public relations for the Daytona Beach Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We have all kinds of activities tied to the beach: surf lessons, boogie boards, bike riding on the beach.”

The faith-based youth market “is huge for us,” said Linda McMahon, director of group sales. “Because of our location and easy access and affordability and youth activities, it’s been a huge success.”

Student Life’s annual Christian summer camp and conference brings about 7,000 campers to the city and uses more than 22 hotels. Large events such as Student Life also spur “a lot of spin-off groups that come back,” McMahon said.

Like many faith-based conferences in Daytona, Student Life uses the Ocean Center — a 200,000-square-foot convention complex with a 93,000-square-foot exhibit hall and a 9,300-seat arena — that’s only 400 feet from the ocean. Across the street, the 2,500-seat Peabody Auditorium is another popular venue, and the historic 1937 Daytona Beach Bandshell can accommodate crowds of up to 5,000 people. The sandcastlelike amphitheater sits on the beach and is perfect for sunrise devotionals or worship concerts, McMahon said.

In addition to the pier and boardwalk, and the shops, arcades, go-karts, rides and roller coaster, youth groups usually visit Daytona International Speedway, which just unveiled a $400 million renovation and remodel that transformed the famous stock car track into a “motorsports stadium.” Groups also enjoy Zoom Air Adventure Park’s zip line and aerial course in Tuscawilla Park.

Louisville, Kentucky

Louisville is known for the Kentucky Derby and for Louisville Slugger bats, but the city also has a reputation for being youth friendly, making it popular for faith-based youth events, which are “a pretty good chunk of our market,” said Susan Sauer, the Louisville Convention and Visitors Bureau’s senior sales manager for religious and social welfare groups.

The Nazarene Youth Conference usually meets in a different city every four years, but after it came to Louisville in 2011, organizers decided to return in July 2015, drawing 8,000 attendees to the city. The Evangelical Free Church of America’s 2016 Challenge conference will bring about 6,000 students to Louisville in July, and the group has already asked the CVB to submit a bid for the 2020 conference. The General Council of the Assemblies of God expects more than 10,000 high school juniors and seniors for its 2016 National Fine Arts Festival in August; the group held the same event in Louisville in 2012.

“I feel like we’re doing something right for [them] to return,” Sauer said.

Louisville has two convention centers and nearly 20,000 sleeping rooms, so groups have plenty of options. The Kentucky International Convention Center in downtown will close in August to undergo a $180 million renovation slated to be complete in summer 2018. Other downtown options are the 22,000-seat KFC Yum! Center arena and the Galt House Hotel, which has more than 130,000 square feet of function space.

About five miles south of downtown, the Kentucky Exposition Center has 1.3 million square feet of exhibition space, including the 19,000-seat Freedom Hall arena. A couple thousand hotel rooms surround the complex, and Kentucky Kingdom theme park is within walking distance.

Lincoln, Nebraska

Lincoln’s faith-based youth market is rebounding after the 15,000-seat Pinnacle Bank Arena opened in August 2013 and the popular 4,500-seat Pershing Center auditorium closed in August 2014.

“In that transition, people had to go to other places and find other facilities,” said Claire Cuddy, the Lincoln Convention and Visitors Bureau’s sales development manager for the SMERF market. “But in the two years that [Pinnacle’s] been open, it’s circling around.”

Because Lincoln doesn’t have a convention center, planners are using Pinnacle, area hotels and local churches. Dare 2 Share left Lincoln after Pershing closed, but organizers returned because they “found that Lincoln was a better fit for them,” Cuddy said. Its central location, affordability and community support brought Dare 2 Share back to the city in the 2,500-capacity Lincoln Berean Church in February, and it will return next year, possibly to a new venue.

The CVB also works closely with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, which has several auditoriums and function spaces, and high school and college-age groups often use the dorms for summer conferences. Groups can tour the on-campus dairy store and enjoy ice cream made there, visit the International Quilt Study Center and Museum on campus or tour the school’s Lester F. Larsen Tractor Test and Power Museum, wrapping up with a tractor-powered hayrack ride.

The campus is also in the heart of downtown, which is home to three full-service hotels and three new limited-service properties. About $500 million has been invested in downtown over the past five years, Cuddy said, and the area is walkable and safe.

“You see these mobs of high school students, and their leaders are completely comfortable because they know they’re safe,” she said.