The religious meeting market is often said to be recession-proof. Now it appears to be terrorism-proof, too. Planners across the country say that they are considering changes, especially regarding security, but that meeting attendance is unlikely to be affected in 2002 by the attacks against the United States.
“Individuals are being cautious, but they're going forward, and we're not seeing any decreases in attendance,” says Mike Baker, director of communications for Church of God International, Cleveland, Tenn. “We don't see any significant alterations in our meetings.”
The Church of God International canceled one meeting, scheduled for September 14-16, and one meeting was rescheduled from October to March, but no other changes are anticipated, Baker says.
Linda de Leon, CMP, meeting planner for the General Conference Seventh-day Adventist Church, Silver Spring, Md., was forced to react quickly after September 11 because her organization's annual meeting was being held September 25 in Silver Spring. The decision was made to have only essential personnel attend; as a result, 175 people were at the meeting instead of 500.
The Philadelphia Church of God's an annual meeting takes place at 20 locations around the world, with four locations in the United States, according to Melody Thompson, the organization's convention planner.
The meeting is biblically mandated, Thompson says. This year's meeting was scheduled for October 1-9, and it went ahead as planned. Attendees, primarily those who had planned to travel to a meeting location that was not the one closest to their home, did experience some flight complications. In many of those cases, attendees switched to the location nearest them. Changes in airline schedules also caused complications for speakers who were supposed to speak at multiple meeting locations on consecutive days.
“Other than the travel inconvenience, it was not a huge effect,” Thompson says. “The attendance was unaffected. We're mindful of the events of September 11 and how it affects our travel and safety, but we don't focus and dwell on the negative aspects.”
Melinda Mitchell is meeting manager for the Christian Medical and Dental Association in Bristol, Tenn. “The majority of our members are not giving in to the fear,” she says. Her organization sponsors mission trips abroad for doctors and dentists, and Mitchell says many have said that they now feel compelled to go on mission trips.
New Security Realities
More than 40,000 people attend the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's Youth Gathering, which is held every three years. Parents and congregations expect their children to be safe, so Heidi Hagstrom, director of youth program for the gathering, has to focus on security.
“We're thinking far beyond what we have before,” Hagstrom says. For example, the gathering usually gives all of the youth backpacks to use during the week. Now organizers are questioning whether it is wise to provide backpacks to 40,000 people.
Also, organizers of the youth gathering have taken pride in the fact that they have not had to use metal detectors for anything except the largest events. Now, however, metal detectors are being considered, Hagstrom says.
The next ECLA youth gathering is scheduled for 2003 in Atlanta, and plans are well under way. “We had a meeting last week with the planning team,” Hagstrom says. “One question is are congregations going to be willing to send their young people? We're a target. But we're going to proceed in faith.”
Aside from the event's size, Hagstrom's concern stems from the event's location in Atlanta, a high-profile, internationally recognized city.
Thompson has no such concerns about the four U.S. locations for Philadelphia Church of God's annual meeting. The organization signs multiyearwith the locations, which are Niagara Falls, N.Y.; Chattanooga, Tenn.; Edmond, Okla.; and Ogden, Utah.
Even before the recent events, safety has been an important issue, Thompson says. With families encouraged to attend, the organizers have always looked for locations with low crime rates that are conducive to family activities. “It's a family reunion type of atmosphere,” she says.
As a result, they chose Chattanooga instead of Atlanta, Niagara Falls instead of Toronto, and Ogden instead of Salt Lake City. The event's U.S. attendance numbers of approximately 3,500 also are insulated by the fact that 75 percent to 80 percent of attendees are within driving distance. Thompson says the locations have been chosen so that there is one within a day-and-a-half drive of almost every attendee.
More religious organizations may consider locations that are perceived to be out of the way, and thus out of harm's way. Mike Baker of the Church of God International believes that first-tier cities will be affected by the specter of terrorism. He's hearing from first-tier cities that he hasn't heard from in years, cities that ignored him during the sellers' market of recent years. “It's a buyer's market again,” he says.
Baker sees another security ramification, especially for his citywide events, which attract more than 20,000 people. “Registration will have more value,” he says. In the past, they have welcomed unregistered people who wander in. He says the group still wants to share its faith, but they will have to strike a balance with security concerns.
“We'll have an increased budget for security,” Baker says. “We'll have more uniformed officers than we used to, and we'll probably require that people who ride buses wear a badge.”
When the Seventh-day Adventist Church decided its annual meeting on October 1 was still on but would include only essential personnel, Linda de Leon was faced with the daunting task of getting the word out to people in 92 countries.
“Faxes and e-mails were flying everywhere, and it didn't go as smoothly as we would have liked,” de Leon says. Her challenge is to develop a system of rapid communication. The problem is that much more difficult because many attendees live in parts of the world without access to e-mail or fax machines.
Another challenge for the Seventh-day Adventist Church is that attendees are having difficulty securing visas to enter the United States. She has 10 to 12 international meetings each year, and all the 2002 meetings are scheduled for the United States.
Because of the visa challenges, “We're looking to see if there are other ways to do business,” de Leon says. She is investigating using videoconferencing for some meetings so that international attendees who cannot get to the United States can participate.
Some meeting planners, such as Mitchell of the Christian Medical and Dental Association, are investigating event cancellation insurance. Mitchell also said that she has had inquiries from association members who want to know if the trip insurance offered through the association covers acts of terrorism or acts of war. It does not.
Religious meeting planners are resolute in their opinion that they must be sensible about safety issues, but they realize that their organizations have a special purpose and that they must carry on.
“It's incumbent upon the religious community to fulfill its mission,” Baker says.
Hagstrom says records from the ELCA's predecessor Lutheran organizations, which go back to 1895, indicate that the Lutheran youth gatherings have been undaunted in difficult times.
Attendance for its large youth gatherings has increased every year, even during World War II and Vietnam. “It's never, ever been canceled,” Hagstrom says. “There's been no decrease ever, but is this different? We don't know. We're optimistic, given the history of our event.”
“We're going ahead as always,” de Leon says. “You don't know what is going to happen day to day. I don't know how else to do it.”