Peoria, Ill., hosted its largest convention ever in June when nearly 5,000 attendees of the Lutheran Women's Missionary League's biennial convention flocked to the city, generating more than $2 million in economic impact for the area. Headquartered in St. Louis, Mo., LWML is the official women's auxiliary of The Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod.

What would make this meeting a standout in any city is the extent to which volunteers run the show — pretty much the entire meeting is planned and managed without any paid help. And this is no simple meeting to pull off. LWML's Peoria convention involved 25 hotels, a 50,000-square-foot exhibition, a multitiered community service program that engaged 1,500 participants, and complex ground transportation logistics with dozens of buses.

Overseeing all of this is Marguerite Christman, LWML's volunteer convention manager. Christman's professional training is as a teacher (she holds a master's degree in education), and she also has owned a fundraising company for many years. She got her feet wet in meeting planning as Host Committee chairwoman for the LWML convention in Oklahoma City, her hometown, in 2003. She then served as chairwoman of LWML's Convention Programming Committee for the 2007 meeting in Sioux Falls, S.D., and the assistant convention manager for the 2009 biennial in Portland, Ore.

The convention manager position is appointed by LWML's president, who serves a four-year term. When the current president began her term in 2007, she asked Christman to be the convention manager, providing a continuity to convention management that has not always been the case in LWML's 34 years of holding conventions.

“It's been interesting and an ongoing challenge,” Christman says with a laugh, noting that she was still knee-deep in sorting invoices a month after the Peoria convention. “I thought I had a lot of experience in meeting planning, but I am finding out that there are always lots of new things to learn in this business.”

Reaching Out to Convention Workers

As is the case for many other religious conventions, the Host Committee performs a pivotal role, but with an organizational structure that is unusually complex: There are five departments, each headed by a coordinator of various committee chairwomen. It's an intricately organized team of more than two dozen women overseeing hundreds of volunteers who work on everything from registration packets to music arrangements and first aid. (See sidebar, next page.)

A critical role of the Host Committee chairwoman is to get area LWML members to sign up to work the convention, Christman explains. This is done primarily though outreach via district LWML Web sites and area meetings and churches. “We might get something like 700 people signing up 18 months out, but then by the time we contact them, their circumstances and availability may have changed, so we might end up with 500.” Workers fill out applications, which are posted on the Web site of districts hosting the convention. They need to sign up for two four-hour work shifts in order to qualify for a registration discount.

Volunteers are given a $65 voucher as a discount on the registration fee. (The fee this year was $175, which included evening entertainment but not meals.) Some volunteers feel that their registration should be free because they are providing unpaid labor and missing part of the convention as a result. “But when it's explained to them that if everyone who volunteers comes for free we wouldn't be able to meet our convention budget, they generally understand why we have to charge them a fee,” Christman says.

Another way that volunteers are thanked: A front-row seating area in the main hall of the convention is reserved for all Host Committee workers from the previous meeting. “It's a nice place to view the convention and our way of saying thank-you and for everything that they do,” Christman says.

In the 18 months leading up to the convention, the Host Committee meets five times. For the 2011 meeting in Peoria, for instance, the group met in Peoria for a site visit in November 2009, and then again in May 2010. The February 2011 meeting was conducted by conference call as a blizzard was blowing through Peoria at the time. In March 2011, the group conducted another site visit, and met again one month before the meeting.

“Very few of the Host Committee members lived in Peoria and some had to travel two to three hours to get to these meetings, which we held in local churches,” Christman says. She and the Host Committee rely on planning materials from previous conventions, which as much as possible the group shares electronically.

Dozens of volunteer leaders communicating primarily by e-mail and phone to plan a meeting of this magnitude does present some challenges, Christman readily acknowledges. “At times, none of us communicates as well or as frequently as we should, and that can create some havoc.”

Special Challenges, Looking Ahead

LWML members had voted overwhelmingly to hold the 2011 convention in Peoria, even though it would mean using shuttle buses to outlaying areas because there are not enough hotel rooms in the city to accommodate the group. Moreover, a large number of attendees traveled by charter motor coach to the meeting (in part because of the limited direct air service into Peoria). These attendees utilized their charter buses as ground transportation from their hotels to the Civic Center. Those who did not arrive by charter bus were transported with shuttle buses that the Peoria Convention Bureau subsidized as part of the convention package.

The upshot was a complex ground logistics program. “We had 27 charter buses lined up on one side of the Civic Center and 7 shuttle buses on another side of the center to transport attendees to and from the Civic Center and their hotels,” says Christman. She adds: “Even though Peoria was a small venue [for our convention], the city was able to accommodate a group our size very successfully. And I simply can't say enough about how helpful and accommodating the CVB and Civic Center staff were.”

Christman does not anticipate having many charter buses at the Pittsburgh biennial in 2013, as the city's airport provides direct service to many more cities than Peoria's. Ground logistics will not be as complex. Moreover, for the first time, LWML has contracted with a site-selection company to help with hotel negotiations. Another change is that LWML has decided to pick its convention sites six years out instead of eight.

“With the economy so unpredictable and with venues and destinations changing, it makes more sense to commit six years out [to a host city],” Christman explains.

One thing that will not be changing any time soon: Volunteers will continue to be the heart and soul LWML's biennial convention for many years to come.

Continue Reading: Create an Organizational Structure for Volunteers