What are the fundamentals for planning youth meetings? We asked meeting planners that question and how it applies to site selection, cost control, staffing, marketing, contracts, food and beverage, transportation, and room setup. We also asked about a new consideration for youth meetings: text messaging.

Text Messaging

Texting is integral to the daily lives of many teens. Religious meeting planners report that nearly all attendees at youth gatherings today have cell phones. (This is evident during poignant moments in a program; it's now customary during such times for attendees to hold up their phones. When this happens, meeting planners say everyone has a phone.) So here are tips on how texting can be used (and managed) to enhance youth meetings:

  • Send safety/security alerts (and hope you never need to use it for this purpose).

  • Send schedule changes.

  • Create a location for youth to send pictures and text messages about their growth experiences. Use their insights, questions, and “aha” moments to help plan the meeting content.

  • Have attendees send text responses to questions asked from the main stage.

  • Ask the adult leaders who come with the young attendees to monitor text messaging. Ask the adults to discourage texting during sessions.

One planner says: “We try to teach young people the practice of presence. To really be present to another human means giving them your full attention, listening carefully, and looking for a reflection of God in their eyes. You can't be multitasking when practicing “presence.”

Choosing a Site

One factor trumps all others for site selection: Go to a city that wants and will support your meeting. “Support” means the local population will help provide attendees; volunteers, and lots of them; and marketing, to help spread the word about the meeting.

Meetings are very expensive and difficult to pull off, especially if a supportive local and regional population isn't already in place.

“We need 25 to 30 churches that will say, ‘We want to make this work,'” said one Denver-based planner. “We can't buy our way into a city.”

  • Remember the music. Make sure to select buildings that will work well for the loud music that goes hand-in-hand with teen meetings.

  • Understand the personality of your group, and consider your programming schedule. Will participants have time for extracurricular activities? If they will, does the city have things to do near the meeting location?

  • Safety. Bad things can happen in the “safest” cities and locations, so the true safety of a city can be difficult to determine. One thing is certain, though: Cities and locations with reputations for being safe are easier to sell to parents.

Getting a Deal

The perfect facilities scenario for a teen meeting would be a downtown convention center that is surrounded by discount hotels. Unfortunately, that scenario doesn't exist in reality. That means that you need to negotiate a way to make the downtown hotels affordable for your attendees.

  • Just like meetings for adults, if you can have flexibility with your dates, you stand to get a better deal on facilities. Shifting your meeting by just one day can make a difference.

  • If you think that you can't afford that first- or second-tier city that would make your meeting a success, consider booking four attendees in a room instead of two. That can make a higher-priced city viable.

Personnel

  • Find trusted partners. One planner has a volunteer who organizes many aspects of the meeting, from programming to room setup to finding volunteers. She provides her service free of charge because she is from a college, and she uses the meetings to identify students who might be a good fit for her school. That might not be possible for your meetings, but the point is to find staff members who understand teens and who enjoy the work.

  • Designate one chaperone in each hotel to be the point person for that property. This works extremely well if there are any problems regarding attendees (behavior, illness, etc.) that need to be dealt with quickly. A chaperone who is not on-site at the hotel would take much longer to deal with a situation.

Spreading the News

Nowadays everybody has a great brochure and a snazzy Web site. Those are mandatory. Marketing for teen meetings requires more.

  • Remember that you need to sell your meeting to the youth directors and youth pastors. They are the ones who in turn will sell the meetings to their teens and who will bring them to your meeting. But remember, too, that the meeting is for the teenagers, not for the youth pastors. Be careful to strike a balance in your marketing and programming between what appeals to the youth directors and what will resonate with the teens.

  • Sell to your attendees. If yours is an annual meeting, then get the word out regarding your next meeting at your current meeting. For example, if you're holding a meeting in 2010, then do enough planning in advance so that you can begin your 2010 registration at the 2009 meeting. Publish a brochure, complete with headliners, program theme, and rates. Give discounts for those who register at your 2009 meeting.

    Working two years in advance gives you better rates, more choice when booking speakers and performers, and allows you to get a jump on registration.

  • Partner with key organizations, but choose your friends carefully. You can't create a successful teen meeting alone. Success requires mutually beneficial alliances with people and organizations. Build on those relationships by treating your partners well.

Contracts

  • Add language that guarantees there will not be incompatible groups sharing the facility space.

Food and Beverage

  • Don't fight fast food. You will lose. One of the first things to look for in your site selection is the proximity of fast food. Is it convenient to the hotel and/or the convention center? It needs to be.

  • For late night meals, pizza has to be available. Again, don't fight this, because you will lose. There are two ways to provide pizza: Either have the hotels ramp up their pizza production and sell the pies at a reasonable price, or make an arrangement to have an outside pizza vendor provide the pizzas, with the hotel receiving a small fee for every pizza brought into the building.

  • Educate the hotels. If the hotels want F&B revenue from your teen meeting, then it will have to change a few things. For breakfast, the hotel will do very well if it provides “grab and go” food options.

Ground Transportation

  • To eliminate the need for ground transportation, make sure that there are enough hotel rooms that meet your needs close to (within three blocks) of the convention center. If you negotiate well on hotel rates, attendees won't be tempted to stay at low-cost hotels that are farther away.

Room Setups

  • One large room for worship and gathering is a given.

  • A room dedicated to games and activities (air hockey, basketball, perhaps a casual stage) has worked well for many groups.

  • If you want interactive breakout sessions, place the stage in the middle and the kids in small groups surrounding the stage. This creates intimacy and is conducive to learning. (Do not use theater-style seating for an interactive program.)

Drill Down

And One More Thing …

Designate one room for the creation of items for needy people. For example, you could set up a woodworking area for teens to make cabinets for an area charity.