Reggie Powers is director of youth ministries for Pentecostal Church of God Youth Ministries in Joplin, Mo. His main youth gathering, SummerFest, draws 13- to 19-year-olds from throughout the United States. His organization divides the country into six regions, and the event rotates to those regions.
Powers' idea of the perfect site came when the event was held in Santa Clara, Calif.: The headquarters hotel was on the same side of the freeway as a large theme park, and the hotel provided continuous, door-to-door shuttle service to the park throughout the five-day, Wednesday through Sunday event.
The Santa Clara location met Powers' two primary site selection criteria — security and the availability of a theme park — plus many ancillary considerations.
Make no mistake about what tops Powers' list when he is looking for a site for SummerFest — it's security.
“The first thing we look for is a safe area,” says Powers, whose basic needs are a headquarters hotel and a theater with capacity for 2,500. When he books a downtown hotel, he tries to make sure the path from the hotel to the theater will be safe. “We don't want them exposed to potentially dangerous situations.”
Amusements Are a Must
The second-most important item on Powers' site-selection list is the proximity of an amusement park. With his five-day event, not every attendee needs to be present during every portion of the program. As a result, the teens are looking for something to do during the two- to three-hour blocks when they have free time. The perfect diversion is an amusement park.
Dean Jones agrees. Jones, CMP, convention manager for the Free Will Baptist Convention, Nashville, Tenn., plans an annual youth gathering in Tennessee called Winter Blast that is held between Christmas and New Year's. The three-day, two-night event draws 500 to 600 students.
Attendance is best when he offers a site that promises plenty of fun things for teens to do, such as amusement park rides, go-kart racing, and bungee jumping. The most popular destination has been Pigeon Forge, a tourism haven that features all of the above, plus outlet malls and a nearby state park, Jones says. “It's all you can endure” for the kids, and they love it, Jones says.
Angela Dowless, associate director of the Youth Ministries Group, South Carolina Baptist Convention, Columbia, S.C., has had success using theme parks for events that try to reach unchurched youth. Typically, she rents the park and students have its use from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Students then attend a concert, followed by a speaker.
Powers has had success in the past with Branson, Mo., a destination that is similar in many ways to Pigeon Forge: a multitude of entertainment and shopping options in a nonthreatening environment. Locations such as Branson and Pigeon Forge also offer a third important element to youth gatherings: inexpensive lodging.
Dowless says the upper limit she can charge teens for religious events is about $40. That means she needs to find hotels offering great value.
Typically, four or five attendees will share a room, Dowless says, and she tries to choose hotels with complimentary breakfasts.
If Powers has an event being held in an area with few dining options, he seeks a hotel that will serve basic lunch food (burgers, hot dogs, sandwiches) in the same area each day. Similarly, he'll ask the hotel to offer a breakfast cart, with bagels and fruit that attendees can purchase.
But before considering cost and food, there's the all-important accommodations issue: finding a hotel that's willing to host hundreds of teens.
“We have to be able to make a lot of noise and not bother the other customers,” Dowless says.
Jones feels it's critical to carry with him letters of recommendation from hotel managers, in hopes that the letters will ease the concerns of hotels.
“If you walk in cold without any letters of recommendation to a property that hasn't hosted youth … they don't want it,” Jones says.
“I look for a property that's comfortable hosting a youth conference, that's willing to take that risk,” he says. “Bringing in hundreds of young people raises red flags in some people's minds. You can tell them that you have great kids, but they never believe you until it's over.”
Jones meets less resistance when dealing with properties close to colleges and universities, such as Knoxville, Tenn., which is the home of the University of Tennessee.
“Properties there are used to students and are comfortable with having youth groups,” he says.
Jones tries to find hotel properties that will allow his group to bring in its own food. For example, he has found a property that has a cost-effective, convenient arrangement with a national pizza chain. This means Jones can order 300 pizzas for his group's late-night snack, and it doesn't break the budget.
Jones also looks for locations that have secondary hotel properties close to the main hotel, giving an option to students who want to save money on accommodations.
One thing Jones looks for but hasn't found in a hotel is open space right outside — space where the students can run around and expend energy safely. “You can't do that with chandeliers and carpet,” he says.
Most hotels don't require insurance for youth gatherings, but some will want to be named on your policy as an additional insured, Jones says.
Related to insurance is the issue of potential hazards. Jones asks hotels if they will be willing to close potentially dangerous areas such as the hotel swimming pool or exercise space. His experience has taught him that those locations are difficult to control, and accidents can happen quickly.
City Mouse, Country Mouse
When it comes to choosing between a large metropolitan area and a smaller city, Jones says big cities have their advantages, with lots of entertainment options, but first-tier cities often aren't as attractive to an important part of any youth gathering-the chaperones.
“Many of the sponsors [chaperones] are more leery of the biggest cities,” Jones says. “A lot of people are not seasoned travelers; issues like traffic make them uncomfortable. These are people who would much prefer Little Rock to Atlanta.”
“In smaller cities, you tend to not have the security concerns,” Powers says. And when security tops your list for site selection, that's a big advantage for a small city.
Sometimes, big cities can intimidate or frighten people from rural areas who don't spend much, if any, time in large metro areas, he says. “They might love the big city, but they don't like to feel overwhelmed. On the other hand, attendees who live in large metro areas sometimes are not very impressed if the event is held in a smaller community. They say, ‘What is this?’”
Dowless says most of her meetings are held in South Carolina, and centrally located Columbia is a great choice for many gatherings — it's within two hours of everyone in the state. Students will drive one to two hours for a concert, but training is another matter. They won't drive more than an hour for training, so training sites need to be close to the participants.
No Limits for the Physically Challenged
Dean Jones, CMP, convention manager for the Free Will Baptist Convention, Nashville, Tenn., pays close attention to how a property can accommodate disabled students.
Jones feels that even though there might be fewer physically challenged people in the youth demographic, the youth are very willing and eager to participate in events such as youth gatherings.
“They don't want to just observe. They want to be part of everything,” he says.
As a result, Jones tries to consider everything. For example, he checks to see if a hotel has ramps suitable for students who will be part of stage productions.
“It would be easy for other attendees to lift the challenged students onto the stage, but the students want to be able to get on the stage themselves,” he says.