LOCATION: ANTIOCH, TENN.
RELIGIOUS ORGANIZATION: EXECUTIVE ADMINISTRATOR, NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF FREE WILL BAPTISTS INC.
Ryan Lewis has attended the National Association of Free Will Baptists' annual convention as long as he can remember. “There were pictures of me in a stroller at our convention,” says Lewis, a lifelong member of the church, who attended conventions with his parents when he was a child. Now, Lewis runs the 6,000-attendee meeting as executive administrator for the NAFWB, and his journey to the position is anything but typical.
Lewis attended the Free Will Baptist Bible College in Nashville, pursuing a degree in Exercise Science to become a doctor. But after graduating, he worked with in his alma mater's recruiting department, then moved on to a church in Mississippi, still trying to figure out what to do with his life. “Convention planning was not on my list,” Lewis says.
He moved back to Nashville, looking for work, and that's when he got a call from Keith Burden, CMP, executive secretary at NAFWB, regarding a job planning the convention for NAFWB. “I was absolutely floored,” Lewis says. “He thought I was the right man for the job and he trusted me with a large part in our association.”
Lewis started in August 2008 with little knowledge of the meetings business. “I love what I do, but to say that I had a background or some kind of degree toward that end would not be true,” he acknowledges. He spent the better part of the first year shadowing Burden, who took on the job of planning the annual meeting in between executive administrators.
The first challenge was just learning the language of meetings. “I went to my first site visit and they started throwing around terms like BEO (banquet event order) and(return on investment) and all the different lingo,” Lewis says. He made a mental note to ask Burden about all the terms he didn't know. “The challenge was just coming in blind,” Lewis says “The benefit was that I was eager to learn, I was open, and I had no presuppositions. I was starting from square one.”
How things have changed. In less than three years, Lewis has learned quickly and addressed the many challenges he has faced with creative solutions. The biggest issue in the last two years has been attrition. The problem is not due to low attendance; in fact, attendance has held steady through the recession. Rather, attrition has stemmed from housing-related concerns, asdetailed in the October 2010 issue.
NAFWB doesn't use a housing bureau, so attendees make their own reservations once housing officially opens. The meeting is in July and housing used to open the first Monday in April. Attendees would book all the rooms, usually on that first day. But many of them would reserve more rooms than they needed — this was especially true of those attending the National Youth Conference. (The NAFWB National Convention is essentially three meetings in one — the annual conference, the National Youth Conference, and the Women's Conference).
The kids who attend the youth conference get there by winning state and regional competitions in various activities. However, many of the competitions aren't over by early April, so the youth groups would book multiple rooms, not knowing how many would qualify to attend. Invariably, they would book too many and cancel just before the conference. That left NAFWB with empty rooms and attrition penalties.
Initially, NAFWB required a one-night deposit to hold rooms, and anyone who canceled after June 1 would lose their deposit. While people did cancel by June 1 to avoid the penalty, it didn't help with attrition because others had already booked less expensive rooms outside of the block and didn't see the need to re-book inside the block.
To remedy the situation, NAFWB pushed ahead the date when housing opens to the first week in May. By then, most of the state competitions would be over, so groups should have a better idea of how many rooms to book. Also, Lewis and staff reduced the size of the room block and negotiated a lower threshold percentage in its attrition clause. (It used to be 90 percent.)
As he prepares for the 2011 National Convention, which will be held July 17-20 in Charlotte, N.C., Lewis is hoping that these solutions will eliminate the attrition problems that the association has had to deal with over the last two years.
Lewis joined RCMA right away. “My bosses, Keith Burden, and his predecessor, Dr. Melvin Worthington, who is the president of RCMA, are heavily involved in RCMA, so I became a member as soon as I came into the industry,” Lewis explains.
He attended his first RCMA annual conference in 2009, just weeks after he was married. “I enjoy the networking. One thing that I've quickly learned in this business is you definitely want to build relationships and not burn bridges because you'll see those people again. You want to build a good reputation for yourself because word gets around, whether it's the RCMA community or the meeting planning community. RCMA gives me an opportunity to build a personal relationship on top of the professional relationship that's already there.”
One relationship that's long been established is with Rev. Randall Bryant, CMP, executive director of the Florida State Association of Free Will Baptists, Vero Beach, Fla. (RCM profiled Bryant in the October 2010 issue). Lewis' parents went to college with Bryant, and the two have been lifelong friends. “If you looked around, you wouldn't find too many people in the church who didn't have a connection to somebody else, because we are a tight-knit group.”
The Free Will Baptists are a relatively small denomination, Lewis says, and the annual convention is almost like a family reunion.
When Lewis isn't doing work for NAFWB, he enjoys sports, traveling, and spending time with his growing family. He and his wife have a 9-month-old son, who will no doubt be attending the convention with his parents someday soon.