Holding a meeting downtown can make your job as a religious meeting planner both harder and easier. Easier because these destinations are often more conveniently located than resort areas, and typically your attendees will not want for plenty of nearby activities and attractions. Harder because you may have to give more thought to negotiating hotel space, working with CVBs, cutting shuttle costs, researching interesting special event venues, and considering safety issues. Here's some valuable help in all these areas.

Offbeat Venues

Most cities can offer backdrops to suit any type of group. Here are a few that you might not have considered.

Seattle's Experience Music Project, or EMP (www.emplive.com), adds architectural drama to the city and, not surprisingly, offers a departure from the standard museum experience. Groups can host events in the building's breathtaking Sky Church, a soaring central hall with a 70-foot ceiling, the world's largest indoor video screen, and a 48,000-watt surround-sound system. Groups of up to 2,000 can buy out the building for an evening of interactive music fun.

Besides galleries and exhibits, the EMP houses an interactive sound lab where visitors can try out a drum set, guitars, and keyboards, or experience the recording process firsthand.

More and more groups are using San Francisco's National Maritime Museum (www.maritime.org). With its spectacular setting on San Francisco Bay at the tip of Fisherman's Wharf, and its remarkable design — an art-moderne replica of an ocean liner, with classic terrazzo floors, murals, and chrome detailing — the museum offers one of the most memorable experiences in this one-of-a-kind city.

Washingtonians consider The National Building Museum (www.nbm.org) to be one of the most beautiful attractions in a city of remarkable architecture. The museum has long drawn high-profile events to its breathtaking public spaces. The Great Hall of the grand 19th-century structure can accommodate 200 to 2,000 people for a sit-down dinner or as many as 2,500 for a reception, and the facilities boast catering and AV departments. Groups can be part of history, spending an evening in the historic spaces that have hosted inaugural balls for U.S. presidents.

Also in Washington, consider Washington National Cathedral (www.cathedral.org/cathedral/). Elegant spaces, conference rooms, and a modern auditorium can be reserved after hours for receptions, dinners, and events. This Gothic-style cathedral offers an unusual setting with spectacular architecture and works of art: stained glass windows, wood and stone carvings, wrought iron works, tapestries, and more.

Los Angeles provides two options for a quintessentially Hollywood experience: Warner Bros. (www.wbspecialevents.com) and Universal Studios (www.universalstudios.com) give meeting attendees a peek into the movie-making process at back-lot parties. At Warner Bros., guests can choose from seven exterior sets, and customized tours of the studios can be arranged.

The 66-acre Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden (www.dallasarboretum.org) is a welcoming oasis in the shadows of the city's towering skyline. Adjacent to White Rock Lake, the grounds feature breathtaking year-round horticultural delights as well as statuary, fountains, and two historic mansions. Last year, the American Association of Museums created an elegant evening in the garden, with harpists and guitarists serenading 600 guests.

Make Friends with the CVB

Convention and visitors bureaus are excellent sources of help for planning and executing a city convention. These days, many CVBs consider themselves to be the religious meeting planner's partner, promoting not only an association's event but the city as well.

The Denver Metro CVB, for example, has software that can send e-mails to an organization's membership, a Web site and CD with more than 50 photos, and other tools to help lure potential attendees to the city.

The Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau offers planners a digital resource kit: a CD-ROM and floppy disk with photos, area maps, floor plans for McCormick Place, articles about Chicago, and more. This year, the bureau will roll out a similar CD-ROM with sample advertisements that groups can customize by dropping in their own information. “They'll save on the creative side because they won't have to reinvent the wheel,” says spokeswoman Rachel Crippin Clark.

A number of CVBs also offer high-tech lodging assistance. “We can help with site visits, room blocks, reservations, and an online inventory,” says Vikki Kelly, CMP, director of convention services for the Denver Metro CVB. “We're also up to speed on attrition issues and on how to help planners manage room blocks more effectively.” That includes helping with more accurate forecasts and tracking the reservations process as the event approaches.

Managing a group's housing needs also means being able to accommodate different tastes, and cities such as New Orleans are happy to provide variety. “If we're working with a convention and they want to include bed and breakfasts [in their room block], we'll absolutely do that,” says Beverly Gianna, a CVB spokeswoman.

Some bureaus go out of their way to stress the personal touch. In New Orleans, convention services staff will help meeting planners assemble attendee goodie bags with Big Easy signature items such as hot pepper sauce, coffee, and Mardi Gras beads.

And the Los Angeles CVB doesn't simply set up site visits. Representatives will collect meeting planners at the airport and accompany them on their calls. “That way, they're able to take advantage of the relationships we have with the venues,” says Madeline Kruzel, CMP, assistant vice president of client services for the organization.

Six Tips for Better Deals

Religious conference planners should expect a warm reception from hotel and convention sales departments. But there are ways to improve your position:

  1. Shop around. Considering multiple destinations — and not keeping that a secret — provides leverage. The result might be a more competitive package.

  2. Stay flexible, if possible. “Cities like group business in ‘needs’ periods,” says David Lutz, chief operating officer with Twinsburg, Ohio — based Conferon. “Those are defined in a number of ways: It could be January in Cleveland, or a weekend in August. Hotels and cities would like to see more groups have the flexibility to fill the holes that they have.”

  3. Demographics talk. Hotels want to maximize overall revenue, so they might look more favorably at groups likely to spend more on F&B and other profitable add-ons. “Demographics can really play into deal-making,” Lutz says.

  4. Think hard about ways to reduce the potential for attrition. Instead of blocking all the group's rooms at large convention hotels, it might make sense to spread the risk around to properties at different price points. “Most groups have people willing to pay a premium and be where all the action is, but others want to come and are on a shoestring budget, so it's always good to have a mix of room types and rates,” Lutz says. He also recommends comparing a hotel's in-house registration list against a list of registered attendees, to spot any guests who might have made reservations outside the official room block. It's a lot of trouble, he admits, “but it's much better than paying a large attrition bill.” And if the hotel is sold out, a group should not have to pay any attrition fees, regardless of whether it fell short of its room commitment.

  5. Visit a destination and its hotels and try to develop relationships, advises Richard Green, vice president of association sales and industry relations with Marriott International, Washington, D.C. “Spending time understanding each other's business is time very well-spent,” he explains. It also allows the planner to make sure the hotel or convention center fits his or her group's needs best.

  6. Do your homework. “In this day and age, a savvy meeting planner always does Internet searches, not only for the facts on space but also to see what kinds of rates are quoted to the public,” Green observes.

In the end, Lutz says, getting the best terms is a matter of posing a simple question: “When is my business most important to you?”

Prepare for Emergencies

If a good religious meeting planner should be ready for virtually anything, then mounting a city meeting, with multiple venues and accommodations, poses a true test of one's resourcefulness. Knowing whom to contact in the event of medical, security, and other emergencies is crucial.

At the convention center and at individual hotels, a planner should be familiar with the emergency contact assigned to the meeting; that person will know how to reach police, fire, and medical emergency personnel. Don't assume dialing 911 on the telephone will produce the needed response. It's also wise to have the director of security's name and contact information.

In case of emergencies, “it's always good to get a list of hospitals nearby that will accept patients,” says Claudia Wehrman, CMP, regional director of sales for PRA Destination Management in San Diego.

Wehrman also suggests familiarizing yourself with the facility manager who is on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That's the person she would contact for “anything that goes on at that center — from the lights going out to a small fire starting somewhere.”

Companies providing shuttle service for a citywide convention should be tracking potential street closures along their routes, but it doesn't hurt to have access to that information yourself.

Events of recent months have pointed up the need to be prepared for what once seemed remote possibilities: airport shutdowns and biohazard threats. Knowing how to reach airport management authorities is a good idea so that you can keep meeting attendees informed about a closure, and thinking in advance about ways to help stranded travelers is advisable.

Charles Slepian, CEO of the Foreseeable Risk Analysis Center, New York City and Portland, Ore., had to deal with a perceived biohazard threat at an October military convention for which he served as a security consultant. After some of the delegates expressed concern about a powdery white substance in program materials, Slepian and the security team opted to shut down the convention center and call in a hazardous materials team from the local fire department.

Until the fire officials determined that the substance was harmless, the security staff had to prevent anyone from entering or leaving the building. They also had to answer questions as best they could. “Until you know for sure, it's better just to say there's been an emergency,” Slepian advises.

In general, because of the heightened awareness of terrorist threats, Slepian says that beefing up security measures — at a venue, for a guest speaker, along a shuttle route — isn't a bad idea, if for no other reason than to make attendees feel safer. So being able to contact local security providers quickly makes sense.

“You never know what's going to appear while you're having your conference, what's going to pop up in the paper that day,” Slepian says. “So you have to be prepared.”

Keep Transportation Costs Down

Convention shuttle bills can add up quickly, but there are ways to manage these costs. Ellen Proxmire, president of PGI Washington, a Washington, D.C. — based events management company, offers these suggestions:

  1. If you book enough volume with one transportation company, you can often negotiate a lower per-hour cost. “The hours add up very rapidly if you have 30 buses on a shuttle,” Proxmire says. “If you can lower your per-hour cost by even $10, it makes a difference in the long run.”

  2. Schedule more buses only during the busier times in the schedule, such as at the beginning and end of the day. And offer less frequent service in the middle of the day.

  3. If the meeting includes a spouse or companion program, coordinate it with the regular shuttle service. “If you integrate the bus orders, you won't be paying for a four-hour minimum because you'll be using the same buses,” Proxmire notes.

  4. Signage can be expensive, so consider buying a computer software graphics package and creating signs yourself.

  5. Look for corporate sponsors to help underwrite the shuttle cost in exchange for posting banner ads on the sides of the buses. Often the banners must be reinstalled every morning of the convention, since the buses may be used for other purposes in the evening. That can get tedious, “but it's worth the trouble to defray the cost,” Proxmire observes.