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Religious conventions: Tending big flocks

Courtesy Lynchburg Regional CVB

It’s rush hour in Albany, New York’s state capital. A mass of motorcoaches — public buses and private shuttles — pull to the curb at the Empire State Plaza as thousands of people, mostly state workers headed for home and attendees of a faith-based convention headed to their hotels, pour out of the state office and convention complex.

The confusing scene would make any convention planner cringe. It seems likely that a convention attendee will land on the wrong bus.

That’s where the Albany County Convention and Visitors Bureau steps in.

“The last thing we want is someone going to Saratoga who is supposed to be going to the Holiday Inn,” said Deborah Goedeke, convention services manager for the Albany County CVB.

When a convention’s adjournment coincides with rush hour at the Empire State complex, the CVB has called an “all hands on deck,” enlisting bureau staff to stand outside the convention center and direct delegates to the correct coaches.

And before most large faith-based conventions are held in Albany, the CVB convenes a transportation committee, made up of reps from the New York transportation department, the Albany police, the state police, the fire department and the local transportation and parking authorities.

The committee ensures that traffic runs smoothly and confusion is minimal when large groups come to town.

“We don’t have a large budget; we don’t have a large staff; we don’t have a large bag of money to throw at a group,” said Goedeke. “What we do have is unique problem solving.”

Large conventions have concerns
Large faith-based conventions find much to like about smaller cities. Delegates, typically on tight budgets, find ample affordable hotels and restaurants. Smaller towns seem safer, so delegates, who often range from young to old, feel more comfortable.

Still, bringing thousands of people into a smaller city raises legitimate concerns. Will restaurants be overwhelmed? Will there be enough hotel rooms? Will it be hard to shuttle meeting goers scattered about town at multiple hotels?

“They are concerned,” said Goedeke. “They wonder is the destination going to service the business? Have we [the city] done this before?’” said Goedeke.

Using past performance as proof
Like job seekers out to prove their skills, CVBs present examples of their past experiences.

“We give them real-life examples of business we’ve handled,” Goedeke said. “If they need a testimonial, we will give them the person that we worked with. I tell them, ‘Call them and ask them all the questions you have.’ They will believe the planner before they will believe us.”

The Little Rock [Ark.] CVB staff does likewise, compiling information about groups of similar size and format to assure faith-based planners. “We have to establish confidence,” said Joshua Townsend, the bureau’s director of faith-based, state and military associations.

But examples of past business do not have to be faith-based events. As CVBs point out, many of the issues created by an influx of thousands are the same, whether the visitors are sports enthusiasts or members of a state association.

Eugene, Ore., for example, can tell faith-based planners how it handles the crowds for the many sporting events held there.

More than 60,000 fans flood the city for seven University of Oregon Ducks home football games each season.

“We definitely know how to work with the traffic, the logistics, getting people into the restaurants,” said Juanita Metzler, convention sales manager for Travel Lane County. “This week we had the Clash of the Titans, a tennis event with 12,500, at our arena on a business day, and the community flowed on without interruption.”

For decades, Branson, Mo., has deftly handled millions of leisure visitors; last year, 8 million visited the live-music destination. So, a convention of 4,000 faithful doesn’t make the town of 10,000 flinch.

Lynchburg, Va., is another small town with an oversize ability to handle large faith-based gatherings. About 40 percent of the group business in the city of 72,000 is faith-based, largely because it is the home base for the late Rev. Jerry Falwell’s continuing ministry. His sons now oversee Liberty University and Thomas Road Baptist Church, both of founded by their father.

New venues open new opportunities
The opening of new meeting venues has propelled a number of destinations into the realm of larger religious conventions. After the recent opening of the 12,500-seat Matthew Knight Arena at the University of Oregon, Eugene began pursuing conventions in the 10,000-delegate range. It is in talks with three of those groups now.

“We have had some groups of up to 1,200 in the past, but now we are able to book in to the 10,000 range because of the Knight Arena,” said Metzler.

When the Branson Convention Center opened in mid-2007, the lakefront facility segued quite naturally into the business of large faith-based groups. Religious groups were the largest segment represented at the center last year, when a total of 65,500 people attended religious conferences there. The center accommodates groups of 2,000- to 4,500 people.

Faith-based business wasn’t new to Branson, long known for its family shows, many that encompass gospel music.

“Branson has always been a great market for faith-based business,” said Bill Tirone, assistant general manager of the Hiltons of Branson, which operates the convention center and adjacent hotels. “Now that the convention center has been built, it is being used as a means to grow attendance for these groups.”

Workable layouts for large groups
The layout of a smaller city’s meeting facilities can play favorably in its pursuit of large religious conventions.

In Little Rock, Ark., large faith-based groups appreciate a compact downtown with varied meeting facilities that suit needs as varied as convocations, concerts and on-site bookstores.

The 2,069-seat Robinson Center Music Hall and Performance Theater is attached to the Doubletree by Hilton Hotel Little Rock and its 288 guest rooms. The Robinson Center also has a 14,867-square-foot exhibit hall and seven meeting rooms.

The Statehouse Convention Center is physically attached to the 418-room Peabody Little Rock Hotel. Seven other hotels are within walking distance of the convention center; there are a total of 15 hotels downtown.

The convention center is also city-owned and managed, giving the CVB more leverage. It can evaluate a group’s impact on the city in terms of room nights, and comp meeting space accordingly. “It gives us a competitive edge,” said Townsend.

CVB fam trips open eyes
Part of a smaller city’s challenge can be a planner’s lack of knowledge about the destination. CVB-sponsored familiarization tours can help alleviate a planners’ concerns about a city, as they see venues and get a grasp of logistics.

The Lynchburg CVB hosts fams so that planners can see for themselves “rather than judging from a piece of paper,” that 90 percent of the city’s lodging and 95 percent of its dining are within a mile or so of Liberty University, said Beckie Nix, executive director.

Later this year, the CVB will host a fam for more than 30 religious planners, in conjunction with the Going On Faith Conference in Richmond, Va.

Planners who fly into Eugene learn firsthand that the airport is 15 minutes from downtown and that many of the city’s hotels are across from the new Knight arena on Franklin Boulevard.

“We give them a quick driving tour of the community and show them that being a community of under a quarter million, it is not that hard to navigate,” said Metzler.

An on-site tour also gives Metzler the chance to explain the public bus system, which picks up passengers at hotels and drops them off at the nearby arena. “Once they get to the hotel, they don’t need to move their vehicle.”

Last spring the DuPage CVB in Illinois brought in 19 faith-based planners for a fam tour. DuPage represents 34 communities; it realizes that it can be hard for visitors to get a grasp on the area’s geography.

“All of our cities are so close to one another, within five to 10 minutes,” said Julie Scholle, sales manager. “Once they see the variety of hotels, the shopping and how close we are to both airports, that solves it.”

Feeding and housing the masses
Food and shelter are primary concerns for large religious gatherings. The Amarillo [Texas] CVB is working now with the Baptist General Convention of Texas, which will bring about 4,000 delegates to the city later this year, according to Mindy Bradley, director of convention services.

In addition to supplying such basics as name badges and registration volunteers, the bureau is helping the group streamline its event by paring the number of hotels it uses.

CVBs also come up with ways to keep large groups from overwhelming local restaurants.

During large faith-based conventions, the Branson Convention Center will add hot and cold buffets as an option for those who don’t want to go to Branson Landing, the shopping and dining complex across the street, for lunch. The buffets are a convenience for attendees but also, Tirone points out, a way for the convention center to boost its revenue.

The Lynchburg CVB has set up a restaurant shuttle that runs from hotels to five restaurants that have been preselected because of their ability to handle large groups. The shuttle operates on a continuous loop.

“That way one restaurant isn’t bombarded; it splits the group up,” said Nix.

Community involvement brings benefits
By nature, convention and visitors bureaus are well connected in their communities. Some are a branch of local government, but even those that aren’t typically have close ties to community leaders as well as the local hospitality industry.

Those connections work in myriad ways to aid large faith-based conventions. Small towns find much is gained by getting various aspects of the community involved in large-scale religious conventions.

Communication between the convention center and the businesses at Branson Landing is critical. “We let all of the shops and restaurants on the Landing know that the large groups are coming so they are staffed up,” said Tirone.

The Little Rock CVB is a nonmembership bureau, which means it represents all of the city’s hotels and other meeting-industry suppliers.

“We can communicate with hundreds of hotels, other suppliers and city employees and take a lot of the cumbersome legwork out of it for them,” said Townsend.

In Lane County, the CVB recently gathered local faith-based groups and churches for a ministry outreach fair. The mission, said Metzler, is to bring various groups face to face so that when large conventions do come to town, organizers know to whom they can turn for resources and assistance.

The group has shared information about service projects that convention groups might want to undertake and ideas for outdoor activities for youth groups.

“As people bring events into the community, we will know who to draw upon,” said Metzler.
The Lynchburg CVB has monthly meetings with the hotel community to report on meeting business.

The transportation committee in Albany is among the best examples of community involvement. Godecke alerts committee members that thousands are coming to town, even if the group will have no impact on traffic.

As a result, arriving attendees might see an electronic message board on the highway, flashing a welcome to the group and telling them which exit to take to reach the convention site.

“The state transportation department does this without the CVB even having to ask,” Goedeke said.