In a panel discussion Friday at the RCMA World Conference and Exposition, RCMA grappled with the new reality of religious meetings. Panelists said that it's the job of planners and suppliers to make themselves attractive to each other. Why? Because both sides need each other in order to deliver meetings that are valuable to attendees.

According to the panel, the three top hospitality industry trends facing religious meetings are specialization versus standardization; negotiating future hotel rates; and outsourcing of meeting services.

When everything regarding meetings — even the meetings themselves — is viewed as a commodity, planners and suppliers are both asking themselves: “What's my future?” said D. Bradley Kent, vice president, national sales, Wyndham International, to the crowd of religious meeting planners.

“What you do is huge,” Kent said, “but your ongoing challenge is to ask: ‘How do I create a personal experience for each of my attendees?’”

Kent said that it is vital for meeting planners to view hotels, CVBs, and convention centers as partners striving to create extraordinary experiences for attendees. When meeting planners leverage the resources that these partners possess, great meetings result.

But what is a planner to do when vendors don't want the business? In 2005's improving economy, some hotels and cities may turn their backs on the religious market.

That's the marketplace reality, according to Barbara Dunn, lawyer and partner, Howe & Hutton Ltd., St. Louis, and religious meeting planners need to live in that environment. Dunn urged planners to “sell” their meetings, to take the time to explain the value of their meetings to skeptical vendors. “It's really important to identify and articulate why a hotel should want your business,” she said, adding that a well-constructed RFP is more important than ever.

On the issue of price, meeting planners are striving for price certainty for future bookings, while hotels want to maintain price flexibility. What's a middle ground?

Dunn believes that it's reasonable to create benchmarks and to build percentage increases or caps into your contracts. Clauses that call for the “lowest group rates in house and on the Internet” at the time of your meeting also are critical.

“The goal with outsourcing is the success of the event and the experience of the attendees,” said Jeffrey Sacks, vice president, Midwest region, Conferon Inc. “What is the attendee getting out of your relationship with an outsourcer? Does the outsourcer deliver value and do it ethically?” If the answer is yes, then you've probably identified a valuable partner, he said.