Magazine Online    The Authority On African-American Conventions, Incentives, & Leisure Travel
Issue: September/October 2010
The Dos and Don'ts of Planning for the Religious Market
By: Michael Bennett
Looking for a recession proof business? Look no further than the religious market. This protracted recession and painfully slow recovery has severely weakened the meetings marketplace. As many of you have experienced firsthand, attendance figures and corresponding revenues in the meetings market are down sharply from the heydays we enjoyed during the middle part of this decade.

But the religious market is bucking this staggering downward trend. This recession proof segment of the industry held steady even in the wake of September 11, once airlines started carrying passengers again and today’s tough economic environment is no exception. Spirituality and faith guide people through tough times such as these – It’s where people find strength, solace and fellowship.

As you might have guessed, arguably the most popular group of individuals in our industry these days are religious meeting planners. Hoteliers, CVBs and other suppliers are looking for a piece of the action to keep their balance sheets above water until a broader economic recovery takes hold. But religious gatherings shouldn’t be a piece of business pursued only in tough economic times. Suppliers should incorporate the religious market in their business paradigm regardless of the economic climate. Need proof?

The Religious Conference Management Association (RCMA) 2009 Survey shows attendance at meetings conducted by RCMA members was over 10 million that year and rising, with a total of 13,394 meetings planned. These meetings include conventions/conferences, committee/ seminars, retreats and board meetings.

The RCMA survey revealed some other rather interesting findings. Downtown hotels hosted 17.5 percent of all religious meetings. Resort hotels hit an all time high in popularity as sites for religious meetings attracting 11.3 percent of all such gatherings. Other top places for religious meetings; conference centers (the second most popular), suburban hotels, convention/civic centers, airport hotels, colleges and universities and cruise ships.

The percent of meeting planners who use catering services continues to surge upward with 83 percent of RCMA planners reporting they use such services, compared to 25 percent 15 years ago.

The percentage of meeting planners who use venues throughout the United States stands at just over 23 percent with nine percent being held outside the U.S.

The RCMA survey has great news for suppliers. In addition to the catering services mentioned above, 84 percent used audiovisual services. Fifty-seven percent used ground transportation and tour services. Over half were able to negotiate special airfares to their chosen destination and 44 percent used car rental services. And almost half of RCMA members used exhibit and decorating services.

If you divide the country into regions, the Midwest continues to lead the way in religious gatherings at 17.5 percent, followed in order by the Southeast, Northeast, South Central and the West.

Only five percent of religious meetings need over 3,000 rooms but those destinations that score one of these larger gatherings reap huge financial rewards. As reported in Black Meetings and Tourism’s annual report of top African-American conventions, religious gathering dominate the list.

The 104th National Baptist Congress of Christian Education visited Detroit in 2009 using over 24,000 hotel rooms – estimated direct spending was $76 million. The Gospel Music Workshop of America descended on Cincinnati each of the last two years with attendance estimates between 15,000 and 20,000 each year. Church of God In Christ brought 8,500 members to their 2009 convention in Tampa using over 8,800 room nights.

Hopefully we’ve convinced you to get on the religious market bandwagon and stay there even when the economy takes a turn for the better.

Here are some tips for appealing to the religious market and some things to avoid. First, several CVBs and other suppliers have a sales person on their staff dedicated to the religious market. There are nuances of dealing with the religious market that don’t apply to corporate retreats.

Second, keep in mind the religious market is extremely price sensitive, which is one of the reason many of the larger tier markets don’t necessarily make good destinations and neither do those locales without flexible rate structures. Why you might ask? Members of the religious market typically pay their own expenses and bring family members with them. Often, religious convention attendees save for an entire year to afford one of their retreats.

And children provide a special concern for meeting planners in the religious market. There is less of a need for single or double rooms and more of a need for triple and quadruple rooms and pull out beds, along with kitchenettes to cut down food expenses not to mention things like babysitting services – family-friendly attractions within a block or two of a religious convention are a big plus.

Having a solid relationship between the CVB and the meeting planner is vital, especially as it pertains to the religious market. The CVB can explain the nuances to a hotelier and other suppliers and better explain the price constraints of many religious organizations. It’s also incumbent upon the meeting planner to keep meticulous records of previous events to give the CVB the ammunition necessary to negotiate favorable prices.

Another area of importance to a supplier trying to chase after the religious market has to do with messaging. When presenting to this market avoid suggesting outside venues that have to do with things such as bars, nightclubs and casinos. While this might seem obvious, several meeting planners have reported previously that some destinations take a one size fits all approach and forget to cleanse their presentations of such materials – hence the need to have someone dedicated to the religious market on staff.

Many religious groups only take RFP’s from destinations that are already a part of their denomination. Suppliers should build a solid relationship with the local congregations of all religious organizations and keep them apprised of the latest offerings – new hotels, new convention facilities or anything that attracts attention and puts your destination in a positive light.

Religious groups have a tendency to meet over the summer when schools are not in session, making it difficult to offer off-season or shoulder-season rates. And if you represent a city that has a large influx of tourists, having ample hotel space at reasonable prices might pose a significant problem.

Another challenge that’s surfaced over the past few years has to do with room rates negotiated a few years before the recession hit. Many suppliers lock in their rates and refuse to negotiate even when circumstances change. Think of the long-term good will gained from price flexibility and a willingness to negotiate. Remember, this group is extremely price sensitive. Think about the tradeoff between reduced price and having more attendees.

It’s extremely important to be culturally sensitive to all religions. For example, Muslims don’t eat pork or drink alcohol. Hoteliers and other venues hosting a religious organization need to walk their properties and remove anything the might look offensive. If in doubt take it down. Also, some venues might need to be converted to a place of worship, that’s especially true for large gatherings whose attendance won’t allow them to fit in a traditional house of worship.

Advances in technology have many of us relying almost exclusively on emails and PDF documents to make contact with meeting planners. Nothing will offend a meeting planner more. Get out of the office or invite the religious meeting planner in for a visit. Get to know them and their organization. Learn their wants, desires and needs.

Now lets make a pivot and look at technology from the religious meeting planner/buyers perspective. How do you market a conference, convention or retreat in the 21st Century? How do you increase your footprint and attract new members? It’s no longer prudent to just print brochures or flyers and make announcements from the pulpit to attract attendees, especially to those under the age of 40. Just having a website is not enough.

So where do you start? Social Media is the centerpiece for the young, but even baby boomers have taken to this form of communication. The first step is to identify your goals and objectives. Are you trying to increase attendance at your annual conference or retreat? Are you trying to reach a certain demographic? Are you trying to establish a long-term presence with relevant content?

Of all Social Media, Facebook is by far the most relevant, vibrant and vital. Go on Facebook and do a search of pages, people or groups who share a particular denomination – you would be astounded by the reach of this medium.

So let’s say you take the plunge and decide Facebook is a great way to reach your members and others. Let’s also assume you personally don’t have the expertise to start a Facebook page. Look no further than your own congregation. I can almost guarantee that if someone in your congregation doesn’t have the expertise to start a site, they will know someone who does.

As you build your own Facebook presence here are a couple of things to remember. The word “Social” in social media is very important. To keep people coming back to your Facebook page, it must remain relevant, meaning it needs to be updated weekly at a minimum

Don’t be too alarmed if things don’t click right away. Participation in social media follows a 1:9:90 rule. One percent creates the content, 9 percent interact and 90 percent are spectators. Your job is to create a presence compelling enough to get at least some of that 90 percent to interact.

One great feature of Facebook for the meeting planner is an events calendar that allows you to promote an upcoming gettogether. If you decide to use this feature – and I recommend you do, make sure the website you refer people to sign up for a conference or convention is ready to go. There is nothing worse than referring someone to a site that doesn’t work.

Also keep the website up for awhile after the event has occurred. It’s a great way to keep people talking and get them interested in next year’s convention. If you put on a great event, attendees will upload pictures and keep the dialogue going for months.

There are numerous ways to effectively use technology. There’re Blogs, Twitter and newsletters. Another way to promote an upcoming event is through text messaging. There are over 4.5 billion cell phones in the world and growing at 25 percent annually. You can send a single message to multiple cell phones simultaneously.

The recession proof nature of the religious market puts both the buyer and the supplier in an excellent position to forge long-term relationships. If suppliers are sensitive to the unique needs of this market you might find yourself with a friend for life. And both sides should adopt the latest form of technology to communicate and market to others.
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