Sara Hotchkiss is the daughter of a United Methodist Church pastor, but she never saw herself following in her father’s footsteps and becoming a pastor. The married mother of two young girls never expected to be a meeting planner either, but it didn’t take long before she realized that she had found her calling. Now, with a recent promotion to running the UMC’s General Conference, she has taken on a new role and is excited about the opportunities ahead.
How did you get started in meeting planning?
I got my master’s degree in working with college students and I planned on working in the college world. My first job out of graduate school was director of student activities and orientation at a college, and part of that job involved planning events. Then I had an opportunity to work with my sorority for a year doing meeting planning. After working in a call center for a short period of time while I was pregnant with my daughter, I got a job planning meetings at the United Methodist Church. It’s kind of funny because I’m a United Methodist pastor’s child, but I never really thought of myself working in the church. My dad is very excited about this, too.
What was it about the meeting profession that attracted you?
I really like making it happen—just to be able to have someone say, ‘This is what I’m envisioning for the meeting,” and then I get the logistics to make it happen.
The relationships in this business are wonderful, it’s not just with your colleagues, but the relationships with the suppliers and the relationship you form at RCMA. Not only do I enjoy the work, but I enjoy the people.
Tell us about the new position.
I have been here seven years in November, but my job changed on September 1. I came on as travel and meeting planning specialist and I was hired to handle 25 to 30 meetings a year, but after my first year I did 60. Now we do about 125 meetings per year, so the position has progressed. Eventually I became the travel and meeting planning manager. After that I became the assistant business manager for the general conference. I dealt with the hotels, the flights, and the transportation.
My boss (the Rev. Alan Morrison) is taking on some new duties. (He was named director of support services–meeting planning, facilities, and procurement. His role has been expanded to reflect an emphasis on gaining greater efficiencies in meeting planning, operations, and procurement across the agencies receiving church funds.) I filled his role as travel and meeting planning manager/business manager of the General Conference. I oversee the logistics and planning of our General Conference, which happens every four years. (The General Conference lasts 10 days and attracts about 6,000 attendees.)
What size meetings are you involved in?
Aside from the General Conference, the size of our meetings range from 7 to about 350 people. A large percentage of our meetings are corporate-style where we pay for everything—we take care of their flights, meals, hotels, everything. Something new we’re starting to work with, and this has come from working with other agencies, is the association-type meeting where you pay to come to the meeting.
I work with the RFP [request for proposal] process and get those meetings down to, then I pass it on to our travel and meeting planner and she handles the logistics. Then we have a staff member that handles registration and travel.
What are your biggest challenges?
We are a nonprofit so we really have to watch costs, but we have very specific needs. We need so much meeting space but not as many hotel rooms. The nice term is space-intensive and the real term is space hog (laughs). We need to go to facilities that have enough space to fill our needs, but we have to think about if we can afford it. We do a lot of meetings that are in hotels only, so we really need those full-service hotels that fit our budget. We do a lot of volume, 125 meetings, so that helps with pricing.
We are consistent. We continue to have meetings even if the economy is going in a different direction. The one difference that we saw in the recession was that our meetings were shorter. We didn’t have fewer meetings, but we met for shorter lengths of time and with that came some opportunities to have webcasts and that kind of thing. That’s something we just started doing—hybrid meetings, where you have both the on-site and virtual audience.
What changes have you initiated with your meetings?
The big thing that we’re looking at is having Internet available everywhere because everyone brings their devices. But that can be a challenge financially, depending on the location. Typically we have better luck negotiating the sleeping room Internet than the meeting room Internet. But, it depends on the hotel and the Internet provider.
With one of our meetings we used to give them the option of the conference binder or the thumb drive. Now you have to pay for the binder. It’s a greener option but it’s also a cost factor. We’re based in Nashville and if the meeting is on the other side the country you have to ship all that stuff and have it collated. Or you can just hand them a thumb drive—it’s so much easier.