So, you've just been asked to plan your church's next big retreat or conference? Don't stress--here's everything you need to know to pull it off successfully.
What a huge job and significant challenge you as the planner face in representing the needs of your organization! The weight of responsibility and the pressure of keeping on top of myriad details can induce a considerable amount of stress. So, before you start pulling your hair out, take a deep breath and listen to some good news: There's a great deal of information and assistance available--based on those who have years of experience in the field--that can help you make wise choices and intelligent decisions regarding meeting and event planning.
The following information is provided to help you think through major issues and critical decisions that can literally "make or break" the success of an event, and it is presented in an annotated outline form to facilitate your thinking and planning at a high level.
However, it's been my experience that the ultimate outcome and success of the meeting is in the details. Don't hesitate to brainstorm with others you know who have experience in this field and from whom you can learn a great deal. The Web sites mentioned throughout this article also provide other resources available to assist you in your task.
Perhaps I should first offer a word about my background. I have worked with my denomination, the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, for the last 10 years in location selection, event planning, event production and management for our annual general-assembly style of meeting for between 3,000 to 5,000 attendees. It is conducted in a different city each year. In addition, I've served at The Church on the Way in Los Angeles for more than 20 years and have planned numerous events on their behalf.
Currently, my wife, Lisa Whelchel, and I are planning and hosting a series of women's events at major hotels all over the country. I've also included materials and ideas provided by my good friend and colleague Scott Falk of Arrowhead Conferences and Events, which is a ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ. Scott and I often end up working together on large projects and events, and he brings many years of experience serving ministries of all sizes using the points provided on the outline below.
Let's get started--at the beginning! You must first clearly know the purpose of the event you are planning, or you'll have no tool to measure whether it was successful or not.
1. Gathering information for the event
Be sure to ask these questions:
A. Why: What is the mission and purpose of your meeting? What is the end result you would like to see?
B. When: What are the dates? Are they flexible or set? Is the event indoors or outdoors? Will weather be a factor? What is the length?
C. Who: Who is the target audience? Youth? Adults? Couples? Who can reach that target audience? Speaker? Musical guest?
D. How: How is the event to be paid for? What is the established budget for this event? Is this budget (per person) inclusive or exclusive of food? How much has been spent in the past? What will the event and hotel reservation procedure be?
E. Where: Is airport accessibility a consideration? Do you need access to a wide variety of restaurants for your group? Are other types of transportation required?
F. Program criteria: How much space is needed for platform/stage? How much seating? Are there breakout sessions? How many rooms are needed for workshops at the same time? How long is the program? Who will develop the program? Should free time be planned?
Once you've answered the basic, essential questions, you're ready for the next step.
2. Develop a Group Résumé (Meeting Specifications) or Request for Proposal (RFP)
**Use the information you gathered in step No. 1 or produce a professional-looking document that can be used by sites as a basis for a bid. You wouldn't think to submit a half-sheet of jotted notes or give information over the phone to obtain a job--the same principle applies here. A succinct and professional résumé will pay rich dividends in the long run. The more complete and credible your RFP or résumé, the better it will be reviewed.
**Make sure that all the essentials are covered: room-block size, day/dates, history of past events, flexibility and multiple dates, billing information, food and beverage needs, audio/visual needs, meeting-room requirements, amenities and parking.
Then it's on to the next step: determining and picking a site.
3. Site selection
By considering all your options and conducting thorough research, you will make the decision that is best for your group.
A. Know your destinations ('Where do I hold my meeting?'):
**Don't compete with your destination. For example, if your meeting is all business with no free time, don't hold it at a resort...you'll torture your constituents.
**Take advantage of the city's CVB (Convention Visitors Bureau) support. They have expertise in desirable destinations, tours, entertainment, marketing, local talent and working with city officials.
**Consider using destination attractions: theme parks, river walks, etc., perhaps for parties, meals and/or events.
**Look to book off-season, if possible. Keep an open mind and look for alternatives. Cheaper rates and more availability are possible.
B. Know your facilities ('What is the best type of facility for my meeting?'):
**Traditional settings include: (1) hotels, where your meeting space may be provided complimentary if you book enough sleeping rooms; (2) convention centers, where you usually pay for meeting space unless you have a citywide event; and (3) arenas and stadiums, which are obviously for large events.
**Nontraditional settings (which may not have as good of an infrastructure) include college campuses, retreat centers, campgrounds and churches.
C. Know your resources ('Who can help me with this?'):
I. Convention and Visitor's Bureau (CVB). Simply log on to a search engine such as www.google.com and type in a city name and "CVB").
These organizations have one purpose: to encourage groups to hold meetings in their locations. They can assist you with meeting preparations and will encourage your group to visit the local historical, cultural and recreational opportunities. They are usually supported by a combination of hotel-room taxes, government funding and membership dues.
CVBs are especially helpful in coordinating and promoting the use of and common interests of travel/tourism-related businesses, such as convention centers, hotels, motels, restaurants, tourist attractions and local transportation companies. Services offered include the following:
**Meeting facility availability provides information on the availability of hotels, convention centers and other meeting facilities.
**Transportation network has shuttle service and airline information for your use.
**Destination information offers information on local restaurants, activities, and assists with tours and event planning.
**Housing services provide housing reservations for meeting attendees. (Not all CVBs offer this service. Call the destination city's CVB for more information.)
**Destination government/community relations is a local resource regarding legislative, regulatory and municipal issues that may affect your meeting.
**CVBs can set up and arrange site inspections.
II. Web sites. Here are some examples of useful Web sites for event planning:
**To find anything on any subject, try www.google.com, www.refdesk.com and/or www.alltheweb.com.
**City sites: For example, to search for the CVB in Birmingham, Alabama, log on to www.bcvb.org.
**Site selection: www.mpoint.com includes more than 40,000 hotels.
**Room diagrams: www.meetingmatrix.com.
**Videoconferencing: Log on to www.gvcnet.com.
**Complete list of resources: Log on to both www.successmtgs.com and www.corbinball.com (airlines, car rental, conference centers, cruise lines, CVBs, government, hotels, associations, information resources, products and services, speakers).
4. Negotiating your contract
Following are important tips to remember when it comes time to nailing down a contract. Don't sign anything until you've covered all your bases.
A. Basic principles in negotiating:
**Everything is negotiable.
**If you want it, ask for it!
**Get it in writing!
**A contract is not binding until both parties sign it.
**Quoted rates are invitations to buy, not statements of value.
**Remember the three Rs: Relationships, relationships, relationships! This industry is very small, but just like us, relationship-oriented.
**Know that contract negotiations and development are a process, not one-time events.
B. Know your meeting's and group's history:
**Know every revenue source your organization brings to the table.
**Have the hotel provide a detailed post-event report for next year's contract negotiations.
**Find out what the revenue goals are of the hotel on sleeping rooms, food, hospitality suites, etc.
**Have constituents run tabs rather than pay cash to track dollars spent.
C. Leverage with hotels:
**Consider what your total buying power is. How much food and beverage use are you offering? How much use of their audio/visual services? How much will your group be using their restaurants and shopping? Are you bringing in business before and after the event?
**Consider the following: room rates, catering, total revenue, arrival/departure pattern, rooms-to-space ratio, seasonality (displacement), group's meeting history and contract terms (risk assumed).
D. What's negotiable with the hotel?:
1. Sleeping rooms: rates and rate structure, room locations, complimentary rooms, suites, staff rates, upgrades, check-in/check-out times, guarantees, deposits, cut-offs, attrition/slippage.
2. Food and beverage: Know your group well.
**Menu items: If they don't have it, ask!
**Meal, reception, price breaks: Negotiate discount off published prices based on sleeping, meeting rooms and exhibit space booked.
**Gratuities and service charges: Most prices are quoted "plus plus" (+ +), which means the price is + gratuity and + service charge--but this is negotiable.
** Table décor and decorations: Are they included or an extra charge?
**Guarantees, cutoffs and attrition clauses: Decide how you wish to be charged, guaranteed number and when it must be declared, number of meal tickets pre-collected, quantities consumed, confirmed, etc.
3. Meeting space: Such items as space charges, room locations, set-up fees, price structures, A/V equipment and labor, the receiving and storage of supplies, pads, pencils, candy, refresh/clean-up schedule, security and electrical service are all possibly billable, but are also negotiable.
4. Miscellaneous: Other items you may wish to consider are turn-down service, parking, amenities, collateral to promote attendance, signage, local phone calls, newspapers, copying and fax service charges, airport shuttle service, early payment of your master account for a discount, and multiyear contracts.
5. Get educated
There are many resources and publications available to help the meeting planner.
A. Professional religious associations:
**RCMA (Religious Conference Management Association) is a professional nonprofit, interfaith organization of men and women who have responsibility for planning and/or managing meetings for religious organizations as well as those who provide service within this specialized field. Founded in 1972, RCMA is dedicated to enhancing the professionalism of its members and to improving the experience of religious meeting attendees throughout the world.
For more information about RCMA, contact DeWayne Woodring, One RCA Dome, Ste. 120, Indianapolis, IN, 46225; phone (317) 632-1888; fax (317) 632-7909; www.rcmaweb.org.
**CMCA (Christian Meetings and Conventions Association) is an organization dedicated to bringing Christian meeting professionals together with suppliers. In addition to establishing professional relationships, the organization has a distinctive focus on Christian fellowship and outreach.
B. Industry publications/ resources:
**MeetingsNet: Log on to their Web site at www.meetingsnet.com.
** Convene: www.pcma.org
**EventWeb newsletter: www.eventweb.com
**Meeting News: Log on to www.meetingnews.com.
**Event Security: www.eventsecurity.com.
C. Consult the experts: If all of this seems daunting and overwhelming, there is an alternative that can help to "fast track" the decision-making process. There are a number of companies, such as Arrowhead Conferences and Events (a wholly owned subsidiary of Campus Crusade for Christ and the largest not-for-profit meeting-planning company in the world) that specialize in working with religious organizations and ministries of all sizes to locate just the right location and site, and to assist and negotiate the contract on their behalf.
All of their years of experience in this field combined with invaluable contacts in the industry and the clout of booking more than 150,000 room-nights per year for clients is available to you and your organization at no cost--the commission they ultimately receive is paid by the host hotel. The room rates they are able to negotiate are usually substantially lower than can be obtained by any individual or organization because of the large volume of bookings they negotiate each year at a wide variety of properties.
In most cases, even considering the commission being paid to them by the hotel, the net cost to you and your constituency is still lower than if you tried to negotiate the agreements yourself. In addition, they are often able to negotiate substantial (and valuable) perks or concessions that are important to you as part of the overall package, in addition to lowering or eliminating the cost of associated meeting space when more space is needed than is normally allowed by the number of sleeping rooms booked.
An added benefit to using a company such as this is having a professional thoroughly review the contract before you sign to make sure that you and your organization have minimal legal exposure and maximum protection in the event of plan changes or sizeable attrition you had not anticipated. Though these companies don't normally provide on-site management assistance for the event itself, the assistance they do provide in securing the needed facilities at a reasonable cost can free up you and your team to concentrate on the program elements and related details of the event to assure it meets your expectations and goals.
The bottom line is a successful, well-attended and well-run meeting or event and one at which all of your goals are reached and expectations met or exceeded.
The way an event is run behind the scenes makes all the difference in the world in the attendees' experiences and receptivity. And when the event has spiritual implications, the importance of a well-planned and well-run meeting is all the more crucial.