Youth and faith-based gatherings spark cheer

The 2022 Going On Faith  Conference for church meeting planners was held in Panama City Beach, Fla., in September.
The 2022 Going On Faith Conference for church meeting planners was held in Panama City Beach, Fla., in September.

Meeting face-to-face is back in a big way. Throughout 2022, conventions and conferences have welcomed thousands of in-person attendees, and the trend shows no sign of slowing. In fact, September 2022 meetings activity increased more than 135 percent over September 2021, according to Knowland, a meetings and events data insights firm.

Not surprisingly, youth and faith-based gatherings have particularly enthusiastic crowds. While COVID-19 and the advent of flu season remain a concern, conference organizers and CVBs say people have embraced the return of live events.

“For some of these conventions, depending on the nature of the group, the numbers are as big as what we saw in 2018 and 2019,” says Adrienne Siemers, chief sales officer for the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp. “They miss each other. It’s like a reunion. They’ve been disconnected for a couple of years.”

Going on faith

After canceling events in 2021, Exponential is seeing exponential growth at its events. Their Exponential Orlando 2022 conference this spring drew 5,500 people, says Gino Beltran, networking and partnerships director for the faith-based organization that helps churches expand their base.

“We are fully back in person,” Beltran says. “We did our big conference in March. It was the first time we had done it since 2020, and we sold out. It was amazing all the feedback we got. … engagement was great. Our levels of participation was great.”

Exponential introduced new events in Nashville, Tenn., and Raleigh, N.C., this spring, and both were well attended despite economic conditions that made travel difficult for some, Beltran says. The same cities will serve as regional conference destinations next May.

“People coming out of the pandemic are really anxious to be back together,” he says. “People have been really responsive and connecting with the content.”

During the pandemic, Exponential launched online webinars and summits. Those will continue, primarily to serve people who don’t have the budget to travel to live events, Beltran says. At the same time, Exponential is holding live events nationally and internationally, including a regional conference that took place last month in Houston, Texas, and is looking forward to its March 2023 global conference in Orlando, Fla.

Masking and other health and safety protocols vary by location for Exponential events.

“Our stance is depending on the area we’re going to be in and what the local communities are doing, we leave it up to the church who is hosting us,” Beltran says. “We follow their protocols. If their protocol is to wear masks, we request those attending to wear masks.”

Going On Faith, an association of more than 3,000 travel planners who serve the religious community, continued its in-person conferences throughout the pandemic. Their 2022 Going On Faith Conference took place in September in Panama City Beach, Fla.

“We didn’t miss a conference,” says Charlie Presley, founder of The Group Travel Family, the agency that manages the conferences.

Going On Faith events continued with multiple health protocols in place, including masks, acrylic dividers between people, social distancing, and daily disinfecting. Organizers also followed whatever city or state mandates were in place, Presley says. Conference organizers contacted attendees a week after each conference, and no one reported getting sick, according to Presley.

“In 2020, the world was rough. You’re sitting six feet apart with an acrylic divider and a mask,” Presley says. “But it worked.”

Before the pandemic, conference attendance was capped at 500 people. In 2020, attendance dropped to half that. Last year, attendance was about two-thirds of that number, and this year’s September conference reached 80 percent, Presley says. And although masks were provided, almost no one used them, Presley notes.

“I didn’t have one complaint,” he says. “We’re in the meeting-planning business, and if we’re going to a venue and a city to showcase that city, we need … to be person
to person. We bit the bullet and stayed the course. Some people applauded us, and some didn’t.”

The Black Students Lead national conference for college student leaders has two gatherings scheduled this month: one in person and the other online.
The Black Students Lead national conference for college student leaders has two gatherings scheduled this month: one in person and the other online.

A notable exception

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) is an exception to the trend of fully reinstating in-person events. Though the civil rights organization held its 63rd national conference in Atlanta this July, most of the event was online. The only portion of the conference held in-person was the Prayer Breakfast and awards ceremony, which was an invitation-only gathering for 300 to 400 attendees, says SCLC staff member Lukeisha Waters.

“Our last two conferences have been over the Internet,” Waters says. “As far as online traffic, we had thousands.” Many SCLC members are older; some cannot travel, and others chose not to attend large in-person events for health and safety reasons, Waters notes. Hosting the conference online allowed attendees nationwide to watch conference sessions as they happened or post-conference on the organization’s website. Waters coached some members on how to access
the online conference.

“A lot of people aren’t hip to computers, but they were feeling safer,” Waters says.

Youthful enthusiasm

Nothing says “enthusiasm” quite like thousands of high school cheerleaders. This past February, the CHEERSPORT National All Star Cheerleading Championship attracted 30,000 attendees to Atlanta, according to Mark Vaughan, executive vice president and chief sales officer for the Atlanta CVB. The 2023 competition also is scheduled for Atlanta.

Atlanta is a hot destination for many youth events. The city hosted the DECA International Career Development Conference in April, which drew about 20,000 high school students, advisors, business professionals, and alumni to help teens develop college and career skills.

SkillsUSA brought about 20,000 teens, teachers, and business partners to Atlanta in June for its National Leadership & Skills Conference. SkillsUSA has committed to holding the national showcase of career and technical education students in Atlanta through 2026, Vaughan says.

Other cities are getting in on the youth movement, as well. In 2020 and 2021, the National Youth Leadership Council held its National Service-Learning Conference virtually. This year, the conference was a hybrid affair, with three in-person days and one day online. But next April, the 34th annual event will return to all in-person in Nashville, Tenn. The organization touts the conference as the largest gathering of youth, educators, community organizations, and policymakers dedicated to improving education, strengthening communities, and building youth leadership and service-learning.

Student Leadership Conferences’ (SLC) Black Students Lead conference is scheduled in-person this month in New Orleans, La. But registration for the national gathering of Black college student leaders has been “low and slow,” says Christopher Irving, executive director and CEO of The Ceceilyn Miller Institute, the conference presenter.

After two years of events being on hold, many students have graduated, and others may not be familiar with SLC’s work on diversity and inclusion for college and university students. So in addition to planning gatherings, the organization is raising awareness about its mission and events.

“We’re re-establishing ourselves,” Irving says. “I think we’re realizing from a marketing standpoint we almost must reintroduce the brand and re-educate about who we are and what we do.”

Rising costs also pose a challenge for many events, including the five student leadership conferences the Miller Institute organizes. Irving says to hold down expenses, multiple conferences might be held together, or the conferences might move from hotels to more affordable locations on college campuses.

“We’re going to do everything we can to minimize our risk,” Irving says. But he notes, “We did a pretty good survey of past attendees who say they are interested in coming back
in person.”

‘Optimistic about the future’

The desire for live events is strong across all meetings and events industry segments, and that is reflected in increased numbers overall.

“The sponsors, the exhibitors, the attendees are all coming back,” the Atlanta CVB’s Vaughan says. “We’re doing very well here. Our future booking pace is all very positive
for the next eight years.”

Siemers of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp. agrees. Even while Nashville, like most destinations, is making up for events lost during the pandemic, Siemers says the city is ready for a full return to in-person events.

“We have 6,000 hotel rooms that have opened since 2019, and we’ve got 3,000 that are under construction,” she says. “We are very optimistic about the future; 2023 looks like a record-breaking year for the convention center and the city as a whole. We’ve got groups on the books all the way out to 2034.”

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