Specialization vs. standardization; negotiating future hotel rates, and outsourcing of meeting services: Those are the hot buttons for the religious meetings market, and those issues came through loud and clear during a panel discussion on meeting-industry trends at the Religious Conference Management Association’s 33rd Annual Conference and Exposition, January 25 to 28, in St. Louis.

When all things regarding meetings—even the meetings themselves—are viewed as commodities, planners and suppliers are asking themselves: “What’s my future?” said D. Bradley Kent, vice president, national sales, Wyndham International, and one of the RCMA panelists.

“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?’ ” He said it’s vital that meeting planners view hotels, convention and visitor bureaus, and convention centers as partners and leverage the suppliers’ resources in order to create extraordinary experiences and ensure specialized attention.

But what’s a planner supposed to do when vendors don’t want the business? In the improving economy of 2005, some hotels and cities are turning their backs on the religious market because of its reputation for tight budgets.

That’s the marketplace reality, according to Barbara Dunn, attorney/partner, Howe & Hutton, Ltd., St. Louis, who also urged planners to “sell” their meetings. It’s really important to identify and articulate why a hotel should want your business,” she said, adding that using a well-constructed RFP is more important than ever.

On the issue of pricing, meeting planners are striving for pricing certainty for future bookings, while hotels want to maintain flexibility. What’s a middle ground? Dunn believes 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 are also critical.

Regarding outsourcing, the experts said the key words are value and ethics. “The goal with outsourcing is the success of the event and the [good] experience of the attendees,” said Jeffrey Sacks, vice president, Midwest region, Conferon. “What is the attendee getting out of your relationship with an outsourcer? Does the outsourcer deliver value and [deliver] it ethically?”

If the answer is “yes,” then you’ve probably identified a valuable partner, he said.