If you're looking for a new way to create a memorable religious meeting, consider a nonprofit venue. Colleges and universities, retreat centers, camps, and cultural and historical venues have resources that can bring a “wow” factor to your site selection and meetings.

“Going to a unique venue allows you to step outside of the box. It's an opportunity to give your meeting attendees a different experience from what they get year after year,” says Charles Salem, vice president of marketing and business development for Unique Venues of Johnstown, Pa. (www.uniquevenues.com). Salem shared information about nonprofit venues in his tutorial, “The Wondrous World of Unique Venues,” at RCMA 2002 in Tampa, Fla.

Nonprofit venues can give you:

An opportunity for thematic planning

Many colleges and universities operate speaker's bureaus, with faculty members who can serve as speakers.

Entertainers and hosts

A ranch, for example, can provide unique entertainment. Colleges and universities have music groups, drama groups, artists, and athletes on campus. “You have access to those people, if you ask,” Salem says.

Affordability

Whether it's a buyer's or a seller's market, nonprofit meeting sites are an affordable option that delivers value. “If I'm going to be attending a religious conference and I'm taking my family, it's going to be coming out of my own pocket, so I'm going to be looking for a place where I can afford to take my family,” Salem says.

When you choose to use a nonprofit venue instead of a conventional meeting facility, be prepared to be peppered with questions from your attendees: “Why are we doing this?” “What will the food be like?” “How will I get there?” To help you answer them, here is an introduction to nonprofit venues, with a special checklist of things that religious meeting planners should ask of a facility.

Camps and Retreat Centers

Camps and retreat centers offer a great getaway experience and provide the opportunity for attendees to escape from busy, hectic lives. These facilities focus on learning and teambuilding and usually are in a secluded environment, free of distractions, offering the opportunity to be contemplative.

“If your attendees are looking for a place where you can get away for a great afternoon shopping trip, then this probably isn't right for your group,” Salem says. “But these are the types of places where you can go into the woods on your breaks.”

Camps and retreat centers also offer a great opportunity for camaraderie. The setting lends itself well for people to come together and to get to know each other better.

The common misconception regarding camp accommodations is that “I'm going to be staying in a cabin and I'll need to bring my sleeping bag, and it's going to smell like a fireplace,” Salem says. “The truth is, many are built like that, but many camps and retreat centers have lodges, dormitories, or hotel-style accommodations. Some, like the YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Park, Colo., have all styles.”

When it comes to dining, many people believe that camps and retreats provide only barbecues. “They might have the best barbecue you'll ever eat, but you can get great family style meals, fine catering, and upscale dining,” Salem says.

Colleges and Universities

Colleges and universities can provide economical rates, locations, and amenities, all in an academic setting. At Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, for example, attendees can enjoy an affordable meeting site and still be able to enjoy the city's famed River Walk. Colleges and universities also can offer your religious meeting:

Resources

Many colleges and universities offer access to faculty speakers and access to the library.

State-of-the-art technology

Interactive television that's usually used for distance education; this provides opportunities to hook up with people who are at different locations.

They also offer science and computer labs, access to e-mail in the residence halls, and access to computer labs that can be networked so attendees can work on the same thing at the same time.

Sports, recreation, and fitness facilities

Tennis, swimming, volleyball, softball, basketball, and more are often available. Many campuses offer fitness centers that are far superior to anything available in the private sector.

Meeting and event facilities

“Not all of the facilities force you to sit in a tablet-style armchair,” Salem says. “You might run into that. But again, you might find the best meeting space anywhere, with state-of-the-art AV.”

Worship centers

Almost every campus has a worship center of some sort. If it's a public university, it will be void of religious symbols, and you'll have to bring those in yourself. But you'll still have what looks and feels like a worship center right there on the campus.

Upscale ballrooms

Some of the most beautiful ballrooms you'll ever see are on campuses — chandeliers, wonderful carpeting and wall treatments, with perfect lighting.

Traditional classrooms

Available in a variety of configurations.

Auditoriums and amphitheaters

Great for plenary sessions.

Student unions

“They used to serve hot dogs and Captain Krunch, but something has happened in the past 10 years. Colleges have wanted to build a stronger sense of community on campus, so they have built lavish, multimillion-dollar student unions with movie theaters, coffee houses, fabulous dining areas, and game rooms. They're unbelievable to look at, and they're an amazing venue meeting and entertainment venue in and of themselves,” Salem says.

Performing arts centers

They can give your attendees a first-class cultural experience.

Accommodations

Some campuses provide a wide range of housing: suites, traditional dorm rooms, apartments, hotels on campus, or hotel-style housing. Many have guest homes operated by alumni associations.

Internet

Most rooms are wired with at least one connection.

Dining

Cafeterias on college campuses nationwide aren't what they used to be, and that's good. Some offer dozens of choices, with wood-fire ovens and chefs who prepare entrees to order. Campuses often have food courts that are open late for evening snacks.

Catering

Most have an outside contractor handle it, or they have a self-operated catering system.

Nonprofit Venues Checklist

Standard operating procedures with nonprofit venues might be different from what you're accustomed to. When dealing with hotel and convention centers, religious meeting planners can take some things for granted. With hotels, for example, everything is negotiable. That's not always the case with nonprofits. Avoid surprises and ask the following questions when you contact a nonprofit meeting site.

  1. Is it one-stop shopping, or will I need to deal with different people? Is there a clearinghouse, or do I have to talk to the caterer, the accommodations person, the AV person, etc.?

  2. Is sponsorship required? In order to use the facility, does someone who works there have to sponsor my group?

  3. Does my group have to be a nonprofit or fit within the mission of that facility in order to use it?

  4. What are the booking requirements and timelines? Can I book far in advance, or do I have to wait until six months prior?

  5. What are the space guarantees?

  6. Is an insurance policy required, or is it built into the rates?

  7. Is security required? Do I need to hire the venue's security staff? Can I bring in my own?

  8. Is master billing accepted?

  9. Are credit cards accepted?

  10. Is AV included in charges, or is it extra?

  11. How flexible is the meeting-room space?

  12. Are rates negotiable? At some nonprofit venues, there is no flexibility.

  13. Is there free or ample parking? Is there a fee for parking?

  14. Are meeting planners commissioned?

  15. Are deposits required?

  16. Are dining and catering services handled internally or by contract with an outside vendor?

  17. Are complimentary rooms available for speakers and VIPs?

  18. Is staff available round-the-clock? At some low-budget facilities, staffers might not be there after 6 or 10 p.m.

  19. How will meeting facilities be set up?

  20. What are the cancellation and attrition policies?

  21. Can my meeting be bumped by an event from within the organization that owns the facility?

  22. Does the facility offer special meeting-planning services? For example, travel arrangements to a remote location, spouse and guest programs, or child-care facilities.

  23. What level of service and professional experience can I expect from the staff?