It's Not As If Jim Hawkins didn't give Denise Withers, CMP, some warning. It's just that her mentor was a wee bit too subtle.

A decade ago, Hawkins was associate director of the Louisville-based Kentucky Baptist Convention, and Withers worked for him, planning logistics and learning the ins and outs of event and meeting planning.

One day, with the planning of the next state convention approaching, Hawkins said to Withers, “I'd like you to handle this on your own.”

She was pleased by his confidence in her, but she didn't see what was coming. Six months after Withers successfully executed the convention, Hawkins retired.

“That first year, I tried not to let it show, but inside it was pretty overwhelming. When I see him now, I say, ‘Do you know what you've done to me?’ And he smiles real big,” she says, laughing.

As convention logistics coordinator for the Kentucky Baptist Convention, Withers stresses that she is part of a team that pulls together the state's annual event. “I plan the logistical details. I don't plan the programming or media production. I do work … with other staff members who wear those hats. We work as a team.”

It's a role she began growing into almost two decades ago, first in public relations and marketing and gradually through an increased understanding of event planning.

“I have always enjoyed planning special events,” Withers says. “Hospitality is one of my spiritual gifts. Jim Hawkins mentored me; he saw this ability in me.”

Withers recently completed her 11th consecutive annual convention. As anyone in the business knows, it doesn't get any easier, no matter how much practical experience she might have on the job.

“The toughest part?” she asks, aiming the question at herself. “Not getting so comfortable.” You can't think that it will all be fine just because you've been doing it so many years, she explains. “Every year, there is some new development that you've got to make note of for next year.”

Calendar Girl

Most years, the Kentucky Baptist Convention meets in a church that can handle more than 2,000 people. But nine years ago, the group diverged from its routine and booked a small convention center. Eleven months out, Withers happened to look at the date on the contract.

“My co-workers call me ‘Calendar Girl.’ When I looked at the contract, I about had a heart attack! They had us down on the same day as the 2000 presidential election!”

Withers was embarrassed — “This was the year I got my CMP!” — but the convention center let the group out of its date and contract with minimal fuss.

“It proves [the point]: Don't always assume, don't always get comfortable,” Withers says. “You have to read the fine print. You have to proofread carefully. When the last draft came back from the convention center, they had a typo on the date. The correct date was on the first one, but I didn't look at it carefully the second time.”

Pulling It Off

Attendance in recent years has been off from the convention's highs of more than 1,800 — typical attendance now is 1,300 to 1,500. The group does not require pre-registration, so it hopes for the best. Some 2,400 member churches can each send up to 10 “Messengers” to the annual event.

The more the merrier, of course.

“When it turns into a successful event, the sense of satisfaction that we pulled it together, and attendees enjoyed it, and staff members had a good experience, is its own reward,” she says. “Getting everything done, meeting deadlines, knowing that all the long hours were successful, and the work was worth it, make my day.”


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  • The Convention Industry Council is accepting nominations for the 2010 Hall of Leaders. The deadline for the bi-annual awards is January 16, 2009. Inductees will be announced in March 2009.

  • Accepted Practices Exchange, an initiative of the Convention Industry Council, has unveiled Powershop, an application that allows suppliers and planners to send, store, and retrieve documents via the Internet.

About Denise Withers

Education: Indiana University Southeast in New Albany, Indiana (B.S. in education; A.S. in journalism); Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky (Master of Divinity in Christian education)

Employment: Kentucky Baptist Convention since 1987

Hometown: Born in Louisville, Kentucky; grew up in Sellersburg, Indiana

Family: Husband, Ed, is a senior programmer for Louisville Gas & Electric; son, Graham, 17, is a junior in high school

Hobbies: “Believe it or not, I enjoy planning special events, as well as entertaining, cooking, traveling, landscaping, American history, and University of Kentucky sports.”

RCMA Member Since 1992