While the COVID pandemic has taken its toll on the youth and faith-based market, many organizers are moving back to in-person events and not looking back.
“We’re going into next year with a ‘business as usual’ mindset,” said Calvary Baptist Church lead pastor Ricky Smith about next year’s plans for Youth Ministry Conclave, an annual leadership event. “We’re not trying to be naïve to the reality of the world we live in, but at the same time, we value in-person relational networking and we do our best to foster that environment. That’s who we are as an event, and it’s truthfully where we need to be as a church globally.”
Conclave is scheduled for January at the Chattanooga Convention Center, and thus far, no livestreaming option is being considered. While the event will adhere to any local or state pandemic protocols put into place, so far, the only change to the in-person event is a registration setup that avoids congestion. Thus far, registrations are going quite well, Smith said. As of September, the group is up approximately 300 percent from where they typically were at that time in the past three years. “It’s extremely encouraging,” Smith added. “Full disclosure, however—that number is a little skewed because last year when we shifted to virtual, we automatically rolled everyone over to this year instead of reimbursing.”
While Exponential, a nonprofit organization serving the evangelical church planting community, canceled in 2021, plans are well underway for Exponential 2022. They also plan to be completely in person. “Our sponsors and partners are itching to get back to in person,” said Exponential’s marketing and networking director, Gino Beltran. “We’re expecting some hesitancy with attendees, but so far, so good.”
The group has already launched registration and are tracking at 50 percent, which is where they expected to be. “We just hosted our first in-person regional event in Washington, D.C., and it was at about 60 percent,” Beltran said. “We’re hoping numbers [continue to] pick up.”
Back to normal
While many groups have plans in the works for in-person events next year, many others have already successfully staged events.. Memphis’ Renasant Convention Center welcomed the National Association of Free Will Baptists in July. It was the facility’s first big event after its $200 million renovation, and it brought more than 3,300 attendees. “It was like a family reunion,” said the association’s executive administrator, Ryan Lewis. “We didn’t meet in 2020. Even though everyone appreciated it when we tried to do some things online, they wanted to get back together. It was obvious to us that our group needed to be face-to-face after a year apart.”
Planning was not easy, but the association worked hand in hand with the local CVB and the venue to make it happen. “The convention center was willing to help any way they could in order to make our event as normal as possible for us,” Lewis said. “Thankfully, as we got closer to the event, the area’s protocols relaxed, and it was really a gamechanger in making our event feel normal. As people saw COVID-19 protocols being relaxed, they began to get more excited about the meeting. Though we had only about three-fourths of our normal attendance, it was actually much higher than we expected.”
Nashville opened back up over the summer with a large faith-based event, the Southern Baptist Convention. Held in June, the annual event brought in approximately 25,000 attendees, who were all hosted at the Music City Center. Organizers originally expected a capacity of roughly 12,000 attendees, but as the city continued to open up, it allowed for a larger attendance. “Thankfully, over the three months prior to our meeting, opening plans accelerated faster than anticipated,” said Southern Baptist Convention executive CFO Jeff Pearson. “That allowed us to do more with the space than we originally thought, expand our exhibit space, and overall make it more comfortable for everyone.”
Plan, then plan again
While cities like Nashville opened back up quicker than many groups expected, the ever-changing protocols required constant planning updates. The Southern Baptists, for example, basically reworked their entire event just weeks before it was scheduled to begin. “As things continued to open up, we continued to modify,” Pearson explained. “We ended up drawing the plan for our exhibit hall space about six times. That’s normally something you draw out once, but every time something changed, we were able to tweak it to provide for more flexibility. This year just needed more planning because we didn’t really know which way it would go. As much as things continued to open, we also knew they could start going back to the other way at any moment, and if so, we’d be back to the drawing board again. We were always working on two or three different plans.”
Family, Career and Community Leaders of America (FCCLA), a career and technical student organization, found itself in a similar circumstance. FCCLA hosted its annual event in Nashville over the summer. At first, registration was capped at 800. “It sold out in 90 minutes,” said FCCLA executive director Sandy Spavone.
As the city eased restrictions, the event was able to be opened up as well. “We were able to increase attendance to 1,500, though we did keep a virtual component for those that couldn’t be there in person. We had about 3,500 attend virtually,” said Spavone.
The FCCLA worked out multiple plans, not only because of its hybrid element—which Spavone said is like planning two conferences at the same time—but also because of constantly changing protocols. They started with four potential plans. “We completely reworked every single plan all the way down to the marketing pieces,” Spavone said. “Even as we got to within two days of the conference, we knew things could change on a dime. We had to have backup plans because we couldn’t wait until something happened.”
Communication is essential
With the potential for plans having to change at a moment’s notice, constant communication with all partners involved has continued to be key. “Our relationship with the local CVB has been one we lean on a great deal,” said Smith. “With everything so fluid, communicating regularly with them has been a must because they are the ones with their ears to the ground.”
That increased communication with the CVB was also important for the Southern Baptist Convention and the FCCLA as they tried to determine if in-person events were even feasible yet. “The CVB was instrumental in aligning us with our venue and other city and state officials, including health officials,” Pearson said. “There were so many decisions to be made based on projections of what we thought things would be like in June. No one had a crystal ball, and no one could make promises, but everyone was willing to work together, brainstorm, and provide as much insight as possible. That communication was instrumental, and it was special to see all of Nashville come together to make an event happen.”
Paige Townley is a lifelong Southerner and freelance journalist based in Birmingham, Ala. For the past 15-plus years she’s been writing on a variety of topics—and loving every minute of it. When not crafting her latest story, she’s usually spending time with her husband and two little girls or chasing around their French bulldog.