The Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church has added significance this year for event coordinator Nancy Patton. That's because part of the conference will be dedicated to raising money for a cause that could save thousands of lives.

The cause is called Imagine No Malaria, and its goal is to eradicate malaria by 2015. The United Methodist Church, the United Nations Foundation, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation launched the program, and the UMC is seeking to raise $75 million to buy bed nets for people in Africa, where 90 percent of malaria cases occur. The church is asking each of its 63 jurisdictions in the U.S. to raise money for the cause, so that will be a major focus of the Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference when it meets June 1-4 at the Peoria Civic Center. Great Rivers' officials have set a goal of raising between $2.3 and $3.5 million.

The church has already created T-shirts that say “Imagine No Malaria Swat Team,” each with a picture of a fly swatter. They will be sold to attendees with proceeds going to Imagine No Malaria. The conference will also feature a 5k run and a dinner, where speakers will talk about the global effort to stamp our malaria and the church's role in it. Attendees are encouraged to wear their T-shirts and create a “sea of green” to show their support for the cause.

It's just another reason that Patton loves her job as event coordinator for the Great Rivers Conference. She came to the organization six years ago from the corporate world, where she planned meetings for an accounting firm. “My spiritual gift is hospitality, so when this job became available, I felt as though it was something that God was leading me to,” she says. She found the world of religious meeting planning to be more fulfilling than her corporate job. “You just know that you are working for a higher being than your everyday bosses,” she says.

Playing in Peoria

Patton plans six to 10 meetings annually, ranging from meetings of 10 people to the annual conference, which attracts around 2,000. The group's annual meeting has been held at the Peoria Civic Center for the past eight years. Patton likes to sign multiyear contracts with venues because she finds that she gets better rates that way. “I work very closely with the [Peoria Area] CVB — and that's one of the reasons I like RCMA,” she says, because it gives her the opportunity to strengthen industry relationships.

As the event coordinator for the annual conference, she pretty much plans and oversees the entire meeting process — from contracts to planning to logistics. Typically, the biggest challenge is dealing with hotels — some hotels. Some properties, she finds, are not as flexible as others. “If they could be a little more user-friendly, it would make our job as event planners a lot easier.”

She adds that it's important for planners to show hoteliers the value of their meetings, particularly the amount of revenue the group brings to the venue and to the city.

Fortunately, the recession hasn't been as big a challenge for her group as it has for others. Through the economic downturn of 2009 and 2010, attendance at the annual conference didn't dip but remained virtually flat.

RCMA'S Value

Patton became an RCMA member several years ago at the suggestion of RCMA members Robin Barnes (with the Peoria Civic Center) and Julie Bushell (formerly with the Peoria Area CVB but now working in the hotel business). “My first RCMA meeting was Orlando in 2007 and I have attended ever since,” she says.

What Patton likes best about RCMA is the opportunity to network with other meeting planners. “It's nice to have all denominations there, and to share the different things we all try to do and the end results we achieve, because we are all event planners,” she says.

Patton also appreciates the tutorials and the excellence of the speakers. “I go away feeling like I've gained some more knowledge. Plus, it's a good time. I've made a lot of friends through the association.”

Her advice to other planners is simple: Love what you do. Her love for the job was recognized earlier this year when she received the Steve Kouri MVP Award from the Peoria Area CVB, an honor bestowed on the meeting planner of the year.