If you are going to master the fundamentals of religious meeting planning, it's important to keep in mind this question: What makes planning a religious meeting different from any other meeting? Here are a few distinctions:

Multiple decision-makers

Religious meetings tend to work through committees more than corporate meetings do. More decision-makers are involved, and that usually makes planning more difficult.

Budget-minded

Enough said.

Inflexible dates

The bylaws of the organization often dictate when the meeting will be held.

Reputation

This is hard to define, but religious meetings often have a poorer reputation, based on the inexperience of the planner. Sometimes, people are chosen to be the meeting planner for an event because they weren't at a meeting. It sounds outrageous, but it's true. You rarely see that in nonreligious organizations.

Professionalism

Many meeting planners are not paid for their work. Because of that and because many religious planners don't have much time to plan their meetings, religious planners sometimes appear unprofessional. RCMA is a wonderful way for people to become more professional.

Goals and purposes

Religious meetings approve budgets and elect board members, but we do a lot of other things that are different from corporate meetings: Not many corporate meetings begin in prayer or include hymn singing. Not many other meetings do the things that are done at religious meetings.

Goal-Setting

The goals and objectives of your meeting should reflect those of your potential attendees. Plan with the end goals in mind.

Often, our goals are set by leadership that isn't thinking of the attendees. Here's a tip: If you have ideas for your meeting, run them past potential attendees. If they don't think the ideas are exciting, then ditch the ideas.

Goals determine your meetings' details. For example, if the meeting's goal is to help your pastors become more fit, it makes sense to hold the meeting at a location where they would have ample opportunity to engage in physical activity.

Share your goals with the meetings' stakeholders: staff, committees, site staff, convention services, suppliers, vendors, speakers, and attendees. Making your goals known to the CVB, for example, would help the CVB work for you.

Demographics

Get to know the demographics of your potential attendees.

  • How old or young are your people?

  • Where do they live?

  • How much money do they make?

  • How long will it take for them to get here?

  • What is their education level?

  • Why are they coming to meetings?

  • What are their opinions of past meetings?



Budget

Who will pay fees and expenses? Are attendees paying their own way? Pastors typically are paid by their churches, but for a family conference, attendees often pay for it themselves. This is a big factor in determining the nature of your meeting: the type of hotels, food arrangements, etc.

Plan for the unexpected. For example, labor/union costs sometimes are not explained explicitly. Ask for detailed explanations, in writing, of the labor costs. Do this, even if you think you know a city well, because labor contracts change.

Every budget should contain a “miscellaneous” line item for the unexpected. It should represent 5 percent to 10 percent of your budget (the larger the budget, the smaller the percentage).

Speakers

  • Determine your audience needs and wants. Do your people need to be encouraged, motivated, taught, consoled?

  • Determine dates, times, and budget.

  • Speakers can break your budget if you're not careful.

  • Travel: Some speakers only travel first-class. Some won't fly on a prop plane. Some don't want to drive. Some want to eat only at the hotel.

  • Don't ever hire a speaker whom you have not heard in person, seen on videotape, or who has not been recommended by at least one colleague.

  • Convey the message. Let the speaker know exactly what is needed and wanted, well in advance.

  • Speaker sales. Is the speaker going to sell books, tapes, or other materials on-site? If so, will the convention center charge a fee? Who pays that cost? Make sure to address that issue. Who will be at the table selling the product? Will it be a member of the speaker's staff? If so, who's paying for that person's trip? Will it be a member of your staff at the table?

  • Use your speaker. If you're going to be paying for a speaker, make sure that you get that speaker to do more than just speak for an hour. Have the speaker teach a few classes, make a personal experience with a group of people. But make sure to reach agreement on these things in advance.



Programming

Develop the format. Typical formats include audience-reaction, buzz groups, debate, seminar, and lecture. Alternative formats:

  • The hands-on experience. Community service projects such as blood drives and volunteering at homeless shelters often fit well with the goals of religious groups.

  • Music concerts.



Equipment Rental

On your initial site visits, ask the facilities for an equipment list (chairs, pianos, microphones, staging). You might be told, “Nobody has ever asked for that before.” That's OK. Knowing that information can help your budget, and it might force the facilities to perform a long-overdue inventory of equipment.

Merchandising Fee

Many facilities charge a fee for the right to sell merchandise in their buildings. Sometimes nonprofits can receive an exemption, but not always. If you don't receive an exemption, you will need to decide who pays the fee — the exhibitors, the speakers selling books and tapes? You need to decide.

Site Selection

Don't forget these important site-selection factors:

Seating and staging

Does the facility have the kind of seating that you require? Does the facility even own chairs? (Believe it or not, some convention centers do not own their own chairs, and you have to pay for rental and setup and take-down.)

Sleeping arrangements

Will your attendees be staying overnight? Will they be bringing their families? Most downtown hotels were designed for business travelers, not families attending a religious meeting. If families attend your meetings, you will need to find out if there are enough sleeping rooms to accommodate your group.

Catering

Not everyone is willing or able to offer what you need, or to work within your budget. You need to make sure to ask those questions.

Accessibility

Many attendees drive because they're bringing the family, and it's cheaper to drive. How accessible is the meeting location to the interstate highways? For those who are flying, how far is the airport from downtown? How far is the convention center from the hotel? Is 15 blocks too far away?

What does the location offer?

Will the presence of special attractions (such as the Rocky Mountains for Denver) boost your attendance, even if attendees don't visit those attractions until after the meeting?

Cost

Don't exclude a location based on perceived cost, because everything can be negotiated. But you should ask, “Who is going to give the best deal?”

Personnel and personality

It's very important to ask whether you can and want to work with the people involved from a city or facility. Do the people want to work with you? Do they understand your group and the religious market? Compatibility can trump many of the other site-selection considerations.

Perception

What do people think of the location? For example, are they afraid to go there? If so, they probably won't go.

Develop checklists

They keep you organized and decrease stress and worry.

Insurance

Be sure you have liability insurance. Consider purchasing nonstandard insurance riders for your unusual activities.

Forms and Documents

Draw pictures for your room configurations

Do whatever is necessary to accurately convey information to the people who need to know it. If that means drawing pictures, do it.

Contact person

For each piece of your meeting, list the name and contact information for the person in charge.

Setup chart

This is a minute-by-minute planning guide that explains what is happening everywhere during the course of your meeting. Give a copy to your key staff and to key personnel at all facilities.




This article was adapted from a tutorial given at a past RCMA by Dean Jones, convention manager, Free Will Baptist Convention, National Association of Free Will Baptists, Nashville, Tenn.

Budget Helpers

Budgets are comprised of three main pieces:

Indirect costs. These include salaries and overhead.

Fixed costs. On-site expenses, no matter how many people show up for the meeting.

Variable costs. Costs that change, depending on how many people attend the meeting. Examples are food and registration supplies.

Here are two valuable formulas to help you make better decisions:

Break-even units. The number of people required to attend in order to break even. To calculate, take total fixed costs and divide by the contribution margin (registration fee, minus the cost of having one person attend). This number is very important, as it helps you determine if and when to offer registration discounts to boost attendance.

Registration-fee formula. Use this formula to determine registration fees. To calculate, take your total fixed costs, divided by the number of attendees, plus the variable costs per attendee.