Perhaps the most significant moment of RCMA's 31st World Conference and Exposition in Charlotte, N.C., came in the relative calm and ease of the Friday morning breakfast, during the conference's final section, a panel discussion examining the future of religious meetings. That's when Warren Breaux, vice president, marketing, Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center, told the attentive audience that the meeting industry as a whole is embracing the religious market, perhaps as never before.

Breaux's comment crystallized what many were thinking in Charlotte: The religious market is being taken very, seriously in the marketplace.

Theme Brought to Life

The 2003 RCMA conference more than lived up to its theme of “Soaring.” RCMA is the only conference developed specifically to meet the unique needs of religious meeting planners, and the general session speakers, tutorial leaders, attendees, and exhibitors all showed how they are ready to soar into the future with confidence, hope, and resolve.

The networking and knowledge-gathering began before the conference's Wednesday kickoff breakfast with Tuesday's Behind-the-Scenes experiences.

RCMA is the only organization that annually provides the opportunity to see what goes on behind the scenes to make a meeting happen. On Tuesday morning, the Charlotte Convention Center, several Charlotte hotels, and Visit Charlotte (the Charlotte Convention & Visitors Bureau) offered more than 180 attendees the chance to learn about housekeeping, meeting-room setup, flower arranging, F&B prep, and convention center operations.

At Charlotte Convention Center, participants had a busy morning. Many learned that they had hidden floral-arrangement talents when they were given the opportunity to create a centerpiece. Joanne Seeger, JR Plant and Floral Productions of Milwaukee, taught planners how to creatively and economically build floral displays.

The attendees also received a tour of the convention center, seeing all the work that goes into setting up the expo floor for a major event.

Then it was off to the kitchen, where the planners filled bowls with lettuce, put salt on soft pretzels, sliced potatoes, and unpacked cookies.

The morning culminated with participants enjoying the flowers and fruits of their labor, at a luncheon consisting of food that they had helped to prepare, eating at tables graced by centerpieces of their own creation.

Many attendees also had the opportunity to see some of Charlotte's sights on Tuesday afternoon's city tours.

Two tours were offered. One was of the famous Lowe's Motor Speedway, where attendees posed for pictures in the winner's circle, and the other was a tour of historic Charlotte, including the wonderful Mint Museum.

All of RCMA came together for the first time Tuesday night at the Grand Reception, at Charlotte's Discovery Place, an interactive science center. The event gave attendees the opportunity to mingle and to reacquaint themselves with their fellow religious meeting professionals.

Then, after a good night's sleep, it was time for a big day.

Encouraged to Soar

Nido R. Qubein issued the challenge clearly and concisely to RCMA attendees: You have the ability to soar.

Qubein, the keynote speaker at Wednesday's opening general session and breakfast, stressed that we cannot soar in life on our own abilities.

“Those who are soaring are those people who live life with a purpose,” he said. “We can't soar by ourselves. We need the people who love and guide us.”

Qubein's story is one of determination and perseverance, a story of “building wells so that others can drink, and building fires so others can be warm.”

He explained that he has chosen to help other people as a way to honor those who helped him in his journey.

A Lebanese immigrant, Qubein came to the United States with only $50 in his pocket. He spoke of how his father died when Qubein was just 6 years old, and how that had a profound impact on his life. “If I could change one thing in my life, I would much rather have had a dad,” he said. “But that was not my fate.”

Qubein was blessed to have his mother, however, whose common-sense teachings and strength in the face of adversity are still with him.

Among other things, she taught him that “if you want to be happy, be with happy people.” She also taught Qubein that where we are in life is the result of the choices we make.

“With God's help, we can do anything,” he said.

Qubein followed a lively and moving array of talented musicians who entertained the appreciative audience.

A trio playing guitar, violin, and banjo provided background bluegrass music to acclimate attendees to their North Carolina environs. That group was followed by the Providence Christian School Children's Choir, which connected to the “Soaring” theme with the song “I Believe I Can Fly.” The audience then bowed their heads for a moving, instrumental rendering of the “The Lord's Prayer,” performed by violinist Jane Brendle and guitarist Dennis Spring.

The memorable musical moments continued when the U.S. Army 82nd Airborne Chorus from Fort Bragg, N.C., marched through the crowd and took the stage.

The group's commanding presence and obvious talent on the singing of “Wind Beneath My Wings,” “Amazing Grace,” “I Believe,” and “God Bless the USA” stirred the crowd and prompted multiple standing ovations.

Then it was the RCMA Board of Directors' turn to motivate the crowd. At the prompting of RCMA Executive Director DeWayne Woodring, CMP, the board members, with the “William Tell Overture” playing in the background, shook as many hands as possible in one minute.

“If you do this all week,” Woodring explained, “you'll make many new friends. And startle a few bystanders.”

Attendees were welcomed by both Melvin Tennant, president and CEO of Visit Charlotte, and RCMA President Jack Stone.

After Qubein spoke, soloist Verna Law kept the energy level high with her singing of “Let the Future Soar.”

Time for Laughter

Charles Petty opened his Wednesday luncheon speech with a joke, and then he kept the jokes coming for 45 minutes, blending his focus on the importance of family with laughter.

The highlight of Petty's RCMA presentation, “Soaring to Success and Taking Your Family with You,” was when he took the audience through the stages of parenthood, from preschool to the grandparenting stage.

For all his jokes, Petty delivered a message: Family relationships should be the most important things in our lives. He learned this lesson the hard way. His parents split; three years later, his mother died of pancreatic cancer. His father remarried, but tragedy struck again when his father and younger brother died in a car accident. Petty then spent time in foster homes.

“You get to decide what's important in your life,” Petty said. “If I asked you to write down the most important things in your life, what would you write? First would probably be God, because we all know where lightning comes from. Second would probably be family, just in case somebody peeks at your paper.

“Soar fast, soar high. Just take your family with you. You will be glad. Your family will be glad. Your association will be glad. Your God will be glad.”

The lineup of fine speakers continued on Thursday.

Be Like Top Performers

Soaring to higher performance is an active effort, not a passive one, according to Fred Kleisner, chairman and CEO of Wyndham International and Thursday's breakfast speaker.

Kleisner detailed the 10 requisite traits to high performance:

  • Have passion for your work.

  • Visualize success.

  • Be disenchanted with the status quo. Disenchantment with the way things are has been the catalyst for every major advance in history.

  • Embrace the global economy.

  • Measure twice, cut once.

  • Strive to have high emotional intelligence.

  • Work hard.

  • Learn from mistakes, but don't dwell on them.

  • Know how to revitalize yourself.

  • Be persistent in the face of adversity. Success rarely comes on the first or second try. Henry Ford went bankrupt twice early in his career. Dr. Seuss' first book was rejected by 23 publishers before he found one who thought the book held promise. Abraham Lincoln lost election after election; the first election he won was for president. Of all the 10 traits, persistence is the most important.

Be Yourself

Instead of telling the Thursday luncheon audience to become better people by changing, speaker Emory Austin urged attendees to be themselves.

A hometown girl from Charlotte, Austin was delighted to be back and speaking in her own neighborhood.

“Take my hand and walk with me down your own mountain,” she said. “Are your memories good ones, soaring ones? Or do they hold you back? How often do we live our lives based on what we want other people to think of us? And how much does that cost us in life? Do things just for yourself alone. How else will you learn to soar?”

Austin cited her annoying childhood. Born to parents who were 40 years old, she grew up embarrassed by their gray hair and wrinkles. Austin's body also made her miserable — in the seventh grade, she shot up in height almost overnight and towered over her classmates.

Those frustrations, and her parents' calm, wise response to them, eventually made Austin understand that what was important in her life was who she was, not who she wasn't.

“That place is the first place to soar,” she said. “Of course, I did not see it that way at the time. Deep within the heart of every one of you is some spark that pulls you forward with magnetic force. And it comes from places you've already been. And it comes from places we have not examined nearly enough. We carry with us forever what we are becoming.”

On the Floor