The National Association of Free Will Baptists Inc., based in Antioch, Tenn., wrapped up its annual convention last summer in Cincinnati with a total registration of 5,834. That was just slightly lower than projected, and considering the effects of the ongoing economic downturn, not a bad showing for a meeting drawing a large family attendance. Even so, NAFWB ended up paying $12,000 inpenalties at one of its downtown hotels.
That hurt, says Ryan Lewis, NAFWB's executive administrator. “In 75 years, that was the first time we've had to pay attrition fees,” he says. But not the last.
The annual meeting in Oklahoma City this summer drew 6,550 registrants, making it one of the top three best-attended meetings in NAFWB's history. Attrition penalties this year: $24,500. Too many attendees stayed in hotels outside the negotiated room block (in downtown Oklahoma City), finding cheaper rates at outlying, limited-service hotels, Lewis says.
He stresses that downtown hotels involved in both cities worked with NAFWB to mitigate the impact of the group not filling its room block. “Fees would have been much worse if they had not,” he says. “They were sympathetic to us, but they had rooms sitting empty and we had made a commitment to fill them.”
Attendees' booking outside the room block is a perennial problem in the convention industry, surfacing especially when the economy puts a crimp on discretionary dollars. The question is, what to do? Here's how NAFWB is tackling the issue of its “blockbuster” meetings:
Shorten the booking window
It made sense to book NAFWB's annual convention as much as 10 years out because “cities were making all sorts of concessions to get the business on the books,” Lewis points out, but that's not the case anymore, when there's so much economic uncertainty. “We're looking to shorten our booking cycle to six or seven years out,” he says. Currently, the group's annual meeting has been booked through 2018.
Renegotiate pickup terms
NAFWB no longer signs hotelwith 90 percent pickup requirements, aiming instead for 80 percent or lower. The group is currently re-evaluating existing contracts and their pickup requirements and hoping to renegotiate some of the terms.
Shrink room block. NAFWB is looking to book 900 to 1,000 rooms peak night downtown versus 1,200 as was more typical in the past. “We'd rather deal with the angry people [who can't find a downtown room in the block] than deal with budget issues from penalty fees,” Lewis notes.
Let attendees know the economic effects of booking outside the block
Keith Burden, NAFWB's executive secretary, stood up at the 2009 annual convention and spelled out for attendees “how it's not helping our convention at all to book around the block,” Lewis recalls. “We need to build awareness.” Like many religious organizations, NAFWB does not charge a registration fee to attend the annual convention. Convention expenses are funded by a church fee paid by individual churches.
Try Different Solutions
NAFWB had worked with a housing bureau but found that attendees overwhelmingly liked the ability to book their own rooms at their preferred properties. The group also tried nonrefundable deposits on hotel rooms, but that simply resulted in many people canceling their reservations just prior to the cutoff date for a refund. Clearly, some strategies work better for some groups than others.
Don't make it easy to book around the block
This was a lesson learned the hard way last year for NAFWB. Because the group could secure only 900 rooms downtown, it ran free shuttles to outlying hotels/motels. That ended up backfiring somewhat, as more attendees stayed in the cheaper properties and left the group with fewer pickups in its downtown block.
Get credit for rooms booked outside the block when possible
NAFWB does ask hotels in its room block for an audit of guest registrations to check against the meeting registration list. However, the group sees no way of doing that for attendees booking outside the block, especially in outlying hotels.
Not being able to document actual pickup of hotel rooms is not a great thing, Lewis admits. “We know, for instance, more than 6,000 people attended our meeting in Oklahoma City. And even accounting for the large number of drive-in attendees, we know that our group used a lot more hotel rooms than those accounted for in our negotiated block.”
If you see a problem coming, get out in front of it, Lewis says. “If you have 50 or 200 rooms it looks like you're not going to fill, meet with the properties as soon as possible and try to work out solutions. Find out what you can do. We were told [by hotels and CVBs] that being proactive was the best thing we could have done to head off the problem.”
To deal with rising convention costs, the group voted at this year's convention to raise church fees, which fund the convention budget, from $100 to $150. NAFWB has also taken measures to trim expenses. These include resorting to a “bare bones” AV budget and cutting some meal functions.
Sidebar #1: 3 Conventions in One
“We're trying to leave no stone unturned. We're going to reconsider our entire housing process and find a way to satisfy room pickup requirements while still keeping rates attendee-friendly,” Lewis says. “We recognize we're not the only ones running on a tight budget.”
Part of what makes the annual convention of the National Association of Free Will Baptists such a durably well-attended event is that it is actually three conventions taking place at the same location: a youth conference, a women's conference, and the NAFWB business meeting. This kind of “hybrid” meeting may help mitigate the negative effects of the economy on any one segment of attendance.
Further, the meeting in Oklahoma City this year had a strong international component, as it was a celebration of the Free Will Baptist International Missions' 75th year. International attendees included more than 50 guests who were honored for their mission work. The 2,500-mile “Go10 Walk for the World,” in which nearly 2,000 walkers retraced the steps of pioneer missionary Laura Belle Barnard across 14 states, culminated at the Tuesday evening National Youth Conference, with a throng of walkers joining the final leg of the journey through downtown Oklahoma City. The walk surpassed its $1 million fundraising goal for the group's international missions.
In keeping with an annual meeting tradition, volunteers from all three NAFWB “conventions” logged in nearly 3,000 hours of community service through 21 local organizations and ministries by the time the Oklahoma City meeting had ended.
“When we come to a city for our meeting, we're committed to leaving it a better place,” says Ryan Lewis, NAFWB's executive administrator.
Here's how registration figures broke out for this year's meeting in Oklahoma City:
NAFWB/MAIN MEETING: 4,185
WOMEN'S CONVENTION: 988
YOUTH CONFERENCE: 4,119
*THE TOTAL IS LESS THAN THE SUM OF ALL THE ATTENDANCE FIGURES BECAUSE SOME ATTENDEES REGISTERED FOR MORE THAN ONE CONVENTION.