Location: Elgin, Ill.

RELIGIOUS ORGANIZATION: DIRECTOR OF CONFERENCE OFFICE, CHURCH OF THE BRETHREN.

Making the transition from planning youth events to those for adults was more of a challenge than Chris Douglas imagined.

When Douglas took over as the director of conference office for the Church of the Brethren last year, she came to the job with decades of experience planning youth events as the director of youth ministry for the church. But when she took charge of the church's annual meeting, she quickly learned that there are some major differences between planning events for kids and for adults. “Even though I had done a lot of meeting planning over the last 25 years, there was a learning curve for me.”

For starters, since the youth events were all held at universities or retreat centers, she had never worked with hotels or convention centers before. She had never had to deal with unions or to understand how labor might affect the budget.

There were also differences in the attitudes and behaviors of attendees. “One of the things that makes youth events harder is the chaperoning,” says Douglas, who has planned the denomination's 4,500-attendee youth conference since 1986. (It is held every four years). “You are literally responsible for other people's youth, so there is a lot of energy expended around setting curfew times and doing bed checks to make sure people are in their dorm rooms on time,” she says. “At our conference for adults, I was amazed that we could just lock the office at 10:30 at night and go to bed. At youth events, I was never back in my dorm room until 2 or 3 in the morning.”

Another difference is that kids are more laid back than adults. “With young people, as long as they are together, they can deal with whatever things might not be perfect for them, whereas adults are much clearer about what they want. Whether it's the sound system being too loud or the air conditioning running too high, “adults will register their opinion a lot more about preferences.”

But Douglas is a quick study. In just over a year in her new position, she has a firm grasp on the job — and the challenges.

“Understanding what's negotiable with hotels and learning to be very clear about our priorities has been brand-new for me,” she says. While there's been much written about the hotel market turning the corner after a tough couple of years, Douglas finds that hoteliers are still willing to negotiate.

However, it's the contracts already signed that have presented some challenges. Because the church books five years out, it is now coming up on some contracts that were signed when the hotel market was flying, Douglas explains. Given the economy today, these are not contracts she would agree to now, she says. The per-room rates for the 2012 conference in St. Louis will be the highest the church has ever paid. She is trying to renegotiate the rates or to get some other concessions from the hotel. She fears that if the rates don't come down, it will have a profound impact on attendance.

“If we get a lot of people there, it helps everyone in the city — the CVB, the hotels, and the restaurants, so I'm hoping they will make some concessions.”

These are the hazards of booking long-term. “When you negotiate five years out, it is so hard to even imagine what the world might look like, much less what the church and membership might look like.” Mainline Protestant churches are affected by the economy just like any other organization, she notes, but it goes beyond the economy.

“We are certainly a very polarized nation right now, and that's bleeding into churches, so there are a lot of issues that have become divisive in the life of the church. “What happens when you sign a contract five years out and then find that theological debates in the church have zapped your attendance? “It hasn't happened to her group, she adds, but it's something to consider.

Focus on Cost Containment

The other big challenge is cost containment. “The complaint I hear more than any other about our conference is that it's too expensive. Attendees don't understand why meal prices or hotel rates have to be that high.” However, she knows that the hoteliers have to make a profit, so it's always a goal to negotiate the best package possible.

“I have tried to work hard at understanding what their reality is in terms of what's negotiable,” she says, and to balance those considerations against her attendees' needs and requirements. Her advice to meeting planners is to be clear about your needs and don't be afraid to ask for concessions if they are not in the contracts.

For example, one recent contract didn't mention anything about Wi-Fi connectivity. Since many attendees bring laptops, Wi-Fi is very important to the group, so she asked the hotel to include free Wi-Fi. The hotel agreed. “It was an additional perk that I was so grateful for, but I don't think it would have ever happened if I hadn't asked for it.”

Traveling and Hiking

Douglas has been an RCMA member for about eight years. “I heard about it from Duane Steiner, who held this job before my predecessor, Lerry Fogle.” With the conference planning Douglas was doing in the youth ministry at the time, Steiner thought RCMA might be a good resource — and it was. The exhibit hall at the annual conference proved to be particularly helpful. Douglas found many new potential venues for her youth events.

When she's not planning meetings, Douglas spends much of her time devoted to the Church of the Brethren, where she is ordained and was former pastor. She also likes to travel. This year, Douglas and her husband traveled to Glacier National Park and the Smoky Mountain National Park, where they did some hiking.

“We got a chance to hike Glacier National Park after the conference,” she says. “That was the major treat of the summer.”

Bulletins:

  • Washington Marriott Marquis broke ground in November. The hotel site is adjacent to the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in down Washington, D.C. The 1,175-room hotel is expected to be completed in 2014.

  • Spirit Airlines will begin twice-daily nonstop service between Dallas and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and between Dallas and Las Vegas, starting in May 2011. The low-fare airline will be the sixth for the DFW International Airport in Dallas.

  • After two years of retrofitting, the Anaheim Convention Center has achieved LEED certification, awarded by the U. S. Green Building Council. The California center boasts 813,000 square feet of exhibit space.

  • JW Marriott Marquis Hotel Miami opened in downtown Miami in November. The 313-room hotel offers more than 80,000 square feet of meeting space, a full-service spa, and two entertainment levels that include a 10,000-square-foot basketball court.