Religious Conference Manager interviewed planners who specialize in teen meetings, plus representatives of cities that frequently host teen events of all sizes and types. We asked, “What's working?” in the areas of site selection, cost-control, staffing, marketing, contracts, food and beverage, programming, transportation, and room setup. We found a lot of common ground among the respondents. But as you read and consider these best practices, beware: What works in teen meetings can change quickly. Don't assume that what works today will work five years from now. There's no room for complacency in these meetings.

Site Selection

  • One factor trumps all others for site selection: Go to a city that will support your meeting. “Support” means the local population will help provide:

    • Attendees
    • Volunteers, and lots of them
    • Marketing, to help spread the word about the meeting

    The simple truth is that meetings are very expensive and difficult to pull off, especially if a supportive local and regional population isn't already in place.

    “We need 25 to 30 churches that will say, ‘We want to make this work,’” said one planner who is based in Denver. “We can't buy our way into a city.”

  • Remember the music. Make sure you select buildings that will work well for the loud music that goes hand-in-hand with teen meetings.

  • Understand the personality of your group, and consider your programming schedule. Will they have time for extracurricular activities? If they will, does the city have things to do in close proximity to the meeting location?

  • Safety. Bad things can happen in the “safest” cities and locations, so the true safety of a city can be difficult to determine. One thing is certain, though: Cities and locations with reputations for being safe are easier to sell to mom and dad.

Costs

The perfect facilities scenario for a teen meeting would be a downtown convention center that is surrounded by discount hotels. Unfortunately, that scenario doesn't exist in reality. That means that you need to negotiate a way to make the downtown hotels affordable for your attendees.

  • Just like meetings for adults, if you can have flexibility with your dates, you stand to get a better deal on facilities. Shifting your meeting by even one day can make a difference.

  • If you think you can't possibly afford that first- or second-tier city that would make your meeting a success, then consider booking four in a room, instead of two. That can make a higher-priced city viable.

Staffing

  • Find trusted partners. One planner has a volunteer who organizes many aspects of the meeting, from programming to room setup to finding volunteers. She provides her service free of charge because she is from a college, and she uses the meetings to identify students who might be a good fit for her school. That might not be possible for your meetings, but the point is to find staff members who understand teens and who enjoy the work.

  • Designate one chaperone in each hotel to be the point person for that property. This works extremely well if there are any problems regarding attendees (behavior, illness, etc.) that need to be dealt with quickly. A chaperone who is not on-site at the hotel would take much longer to deal with a situation.

Marketing

Everybody has a great brochure and a snazzy Web site. Those are mandatory. Marketing for teen meetings requires more.

  • Remember that you need to sell your meeting to the youth directors and youth pastors. They are the ones who in turn will sell the meetings to their teens and who will bring them to your meeting. But remember, too, that the meeting is for the teenagers, not for the youth pastors. Be careful to strike a balance in your marketing and programming between what appeals to the youth directors and what will resonate with the teens.

  • Sell to your attendees. If yours is an annual meeting, then market your next meeting at your current meeting. For example, if you're holding a meeting in 2006, then do enough planning in advance so that you can begin your 2007 registration at the 2006 meeting. Publish a brochure, complete with headliners, program theme, and rates. Give discounts for those who register at your 2006 meeting.

    Working two years in advance does many things: It gives you better rates, it gives you more choice when booking speakers and performers, and it allows you to get a big jump on registration.

  • Partner with key organizations, but choose your friends carefully. You can't create a successful teen meeting alone. Success requires mutually beneficial alliances with people and organizations. Build on those relationships by treating your partners well.

  • Make this your marketing mantra: “Nobody is going to get a better deal than my existing customers.”

Contracts

  • Add language that guarantees there will not be incompatible groups sharing the facility space.

Food and Beverage

  • Don't fight fast food. If you choose to fight it, you will lose. One of the first things to look for in your site selection is the proximity of fast food. Is it convenient to the hotel and/or the convention center? It needs to be.

  • For late night, pizza has to be available. Again, don't fight this, because you will lose if you do. There are two ways to provide pizza: either have the hotels ramp up their pizza production and sell the pies at a reasonable price, or make an arrangement to have an outside pizza vendor provide the pizzas, with the hotel receiving a small fee for every pizza brought into the building.

  • Educate the hotels. If the hotels want F&B revenue from your teen meeting, then they are going to have to change a few things. For breakfast, the hotel will do very well if they provide “grab and go” food options.

Programming

  • What's working today for programming might be much different from what worked even 10 years ago.

One planner said: “You have to recognize that teens are teens. There has to be energy, fun, and excitement. But I believe that this generation wants depth, framed in authenticity. They can smell stuff that's phony. Genuineness is a given. Nobody can read from a TelePrompTer. Kids can't have the sense that it's scripted. We assume too little of kids. Challenge them. Give them credit.”

Transportation

  • To eliminate the need for ground transportation, make sure there are enough hotel rooms that meet your needs close to (within three blocks) of the convention center. If you negotiate well on hotel rates, attendees won't be tempted to stay at low-cost hotels that are farther away.

Room Setups

  • One large room for worship and gathering is a given.

  • A room dedicated to games and activities (air hockey, basketball, perhaps a casual stage) has worked well for many groups.

  • In a convention center or hotel, use an auditorium with seating for 400. Use the space during meals and other open times. Open up the auditorium stage for 20-minute performances by amateur performers, and have grab-and-go food or one-choice menus available. This is a great way to give attendees an option for meals; it also gives your teens the opportunity to perform.

  • If you want interactive breakout sessions, place the stage in the middle and the kids in small groups surrounding the stage. This creates intimacy and is conducive to learning. (Do not use theater-style seating for an interactive program.)

  • Designate one room for the creation of items for needy people. For example, set up a woodworking area for teens to make cabinets for an area charity.

Take Care of the Youth Leaders

Here"s one piece of advice that perhaps will do more than any other in making your meeting successful:

In everything you do and in every decision you make, take good care of the decision makers (youth leaders, youth pastors). Consider giving them food freebies, T-shirts, anything that will be meaningful to them.

“Youth leaders and those in ministry aren't thanked enough,” one planner said. “If you can make them feel genuinely appreciated, it will go a long way.”