As the event and meeting planner for the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, Livonia, Mich., Sandy Milis has a welcome challenge—dealing with the denomination’s incredible growth. At a time when many denominations are contracting, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church has nearly doubled in size in the last five years, from 180 to 330 churches. Likewise, attendance at EPC’s annual General Assembly has spiked to more than 1,000 attendees.

How has EPC’s growth affected the group’s annual meeting?
Because we hold our General Assembly each year in one of our church facilities, we have to rely on our larger churches to extend an invitation to host the assembly. We are at the point in our growth where we need a church building that can accommodate 700 to 1,000 people in the sanctuary, as well as provide numerous breakout rooms for the committee meetings, function space for meals, and our exhibit hall.

Another challenge is the location of the meeting. We are sensitive to the costs of getting to a location, especially in this day of increasing fuel costs for both cars and planes. We will be in Baton Rouge this year, which is presenting cost challenges due to air availability.

What kind of meeting space will you look for as the
assembly grows?

When the time comes for us to move out of a church facility, it is our desire to maintain the values that we hold dear and that make our denomination seem like family. Our annual assembly is a time when old friends renew acquaintances and new friends are welcomed into the EPC family—kind of like a family reunion. We are not ruling out a convention center or a convention hotel that could help us maintain the “family” feel that our assembly has while still providing us with the meeting, exhibit, and dining space we need.

Do you work with hotels in the area of the host church?
Once a city and host church has been selected, I work with the local CVB, which sends out requests for proposal on my behalf. I usually do a site visit to the city and have the CVB show me the hotels on my short list. It also gives me an opportunity to visit the host church, meet their staff, and see the facility.

What are some of the other challenges?
My challenges are probably no different than other meeting planners. Three major ones are trying to keep costs in line, finding a hotel that can offer us a large enough block of rooms for our duration so that the majority of our attendees can stay at one hotel, and convincing attendees to book within our block so we don’t have an attrition issue.

Some years, we have had to spread our hotel block among four or five different properties, which is always interesting because then you are dealing with four or five different contracts to negotiate.

We incurred attrition costs following our 2010 General Assembly because the contract had been signed in 2009 before the downturn in the economy. To avoid that situation again, I pore over the contracts with a fine-tooth comb and renegotiate them so that we have some wiggle room if attrition is part of the contract. It has also caused me to shy away from hotels that include an attrition clause, opting instead for just a cut-off date when the rooms would revert back into inventory with no penalty to our organization.

When the meeting is for one of our smaller off-site meetings, I try to line up a hotel near the airport that offers shuttle service/mass transit, meeting space, catering options and reasonably priced hotel space. [Milis plans 15 to 20 smaller meetings each year, ranging from 8 to 30 attendees.]

What new initiatives have you implemented in recent years?
The most important one has been taking the burden of costs for hosting an assembly off of the host church. We have built some of the costs into our registration fees. In the past, it was a major expense for a church to host the assembly, as they were expected to pick up well over half of the cost of the event, or more. Now that the churches’ responsibilities are primarily hospitality and logistics, and not funding, they are more willing to extend the invitation to host.

We also implemented an online registration program and we are offering electronic distribution of our meeting material. Forty percent of our attendees have said they would use electronic distribution if it were available.

How did you get started as a meeting planner?
When I was hired into the EPC in 1996, it was primarily to do the travel arrangements—air, ground transportation, and hotel reservations for our incoming committee members who met at our headquarters in Livonia, Mich. Owning my own travel agency, Joyful Journey Travel, allowed me to book these arrangements with ease from the EPC office. As I got more involved with the General Assembly, I offered to do the site inspections and hotel negotiations, and it has grown from there.

When I attended my first meeting planner convention, Hospitality Sales and Marketing Association International, about five years ago, I was blown away by all the new lingo related to meetings and hotels. I was so used to the travel industry language that it was a whole new learning curve. I enjoy attending RCMA and other conferences so that I can continually increase my knowledge about contract language as well as meeting and exhibit space requirements.