Religious meeting planners come to the industry in very different ways. Some stumble into it by chance; some find it by circumstance; still others pursue it by design. For Thomas Keown, CMP, lead event coordinator, children's training and events at LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention, the path to the profession came through music.

Thirty years ago, Keown was working for the Alabama Baptist State Convention in Montgomery as the associate state music director. An accomplished pianist and musician, he was the music specialist for the organization, consulting on church music and working with the choir.

But part of his responsibility was to plan music events, festivals, and camps in the region.

“It was part of the job. I sort of backed into it and learned by doing,” Keown says. Planning events wasn't something in which he had specific training, but he soon recognized it was a vocation that he enjoyed and was good at. “One of my strengths is my organizational abilities,” he says. “Any good meeting planner needs to be well-organized, so I think that's what my boss saw in me when he began to give me those responsibilities.”

Planning As Profession

It wasn't long before Keown decided to pursue meeting planning as a full-time profession. In 1982, he joined LifeWay, a Nashville, Tenn.-based provider of Christian products and services, including Bibles, books, music, church supplies, and other products that operates 148 LifeWay Christian Stores across the country. He has been there ever since.

And he still finds time for his music, serving as a choir director and pianist at his church.

Negotiating the Challenges

As lead event coordinator at LifeWay, Keown plans 12 to 15 events a year that range from 300 to 1,500 attendees. LifeWay hosts enrichment events, but the majority of the meetings Keown plans are leadership-training meetings or education-oriented conferences. He also negotiates supplier and venue contracts for 25 to 30 other LifeWay events each year for part-time planners throughout the organization.

From a negotiating standpoint, Keown says it's a good time to be a meeting planner. “A lot of places are very anxious for our business — venues that perhaps two years ago would not have been as interested in us are interested now. They're very open to talking to us and helping us work something out to see if their venue may be acceptable for our meetings.”

However, times are tough, and cost is critically important to Keown and his attendees. “We have seen a decline in attendance for some of our events — not all, but some, and it's directly related to the economy,” he says. The challenge is to deliver a quality venue within his budget at a price that attendees can afford. So when it comes to site selection, he now scouts destinations that he hasn't looked at before in search of the best possible deals.

For example, he recently booked a meeting in Tucson. Price was the deciding factor. He is also looking at other ways to save money, such as alternative venues. He recently shaved expenses by booking a university arena for an event instead of a downtown sports arena.

Staying in Tune

Keown joined RCMA in 1991, and up until that time, he hadn't heard of the association. His supervisor encouraged him to join, and since then he's been to all but three RCMA annual conferences.

“I always enjoy the networking opportunities, and I have developed some really good relationships with folks in the industry through the years,” he says. He also praises the quality of the education. “I always benefit from the tutorials, and I genuinely enjoy the speakers. They are varied and challenging, and they give you different perspectives on things.”

Badge of Honor

Two years ago, Keown earned his Certified Meeting Professional designation. Why, after 25 years planning meetings, did he decide to pursue his CMP? For the knowledge that comes with it and the weight it carries in the industry, he says.

“You are looked at it with a new degree of professionalism,” he says. “When people see that CMP designation, they know that you are knowledgeable about meeting planning and have the ability to talk to them in terms that they understand. It's been amazing to see the difference in how people look at you and respect you with an even higher regard when they see that CMP designation after your name.”

Words to Work By

He offers three bits of wisdom from his many years in the field.

One: Be flexible. “Things are not always going to go as planned, so you've got to always be ready to step back and go to a plan B.”

Two: Surround yourself with people who can help you to do your job. Just as importantly, he adds, allow them to do their jobs.

Three: Be organized. “If you are well-organized, half the battle is won.”

Bulletins:

  • The Green Meeting Industry Council is growing. The nonprofit organization has launched its first official affiliate organization, the GMIC Oregon Chapter, led by Megan Rooksby, American Express Corporate Meeting Solutions. Chapters are also being organized in Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Florida, and Northern and Southern California. GMIC is also exploring international development in Canada, Mexico, and Europe.