Coming In To The Cold

September 7, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — When the Religious Conference Management Association meets here at the end of January, it won’t be the first time its members have gathered for their annual meeting in a cold-weather city in the middle of winter.

RCMA delegates have braved the near-zero wind chills of Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and Rochester, N.Y., in recent years. In fact, the organization has chosen to gather in cold climates on a somewhat regular basis for a very particular reason that has very little to do with the weather.

“Regardless of the weather, we purposely move the event around the country so our religious meeting-planner members may gain first-hand knowledge of the venues available for their events,” said DeWayne Woodring, RCMA executive director and CEO, in an e-mail to the Business Journal.

“Incidentally, our members plan 16,375 conventions and meetings, which annually attract nearly 15 million attendees,” he added.

In addition, the cold may not have that chilling of an effect on members. Woodring said most of the convention’s delegates are expected to stay at the three downtown hotels that are linked to DeVos Place and Van Andel Arena by an enclosed and heated skywalk.

“It will mean much to our attendees in January to be able to traverse from their accommodations through the skywalk to the sites of our events without donning coats,” he said.

Even so, the Convention and Visitors Bureau is trying to heat things up for the delegates’ stay with what it calls a hot marketing campaign. The bureau’s marketing team, headed by CVB Vice President Janet Korn, has decided to directly confront winter’s cold with a series of mailings to RCMA members that highlight the city’s “hottest spots.” These local sites will be marked with a red thermometer on a map members will receive. Just one of those is the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, which the bureau calls “one of the Midwest’s hottest tourist attractions, featuring a torrid tropical conservatory.” The mailings will also include other “hot” elements of the city, such as downtown’s heated and snow-free sidewalks.

Woodring told the Business Journal that he expects more than 1,300 delegates will attend the convention, which is the 37th annual meeting of the RCMA but the first in Grand Rapids.

“The RCMA board of directors was impressed with your first-class convention center, top quality hotels, religious heritage, walkability, cleanliness, outstanding museums and the professionalism of your convention bureau’s staff,” he said of the reasons why the board chose the city.

Bureau Executive Vice President George Helmstead has called the RCMA meeting the “Super Bowl” of religious conferences because RCMA members plan more than 16,000 conferences, meetings and other events each year that attract 14.8 million attendees.

The data shows cities that have landed the RCMA conference have increased bookings for other religious meetings. Woodring said that after Pittsburgh hosted the 2004 event, the Steel City booked 188,000 room nights and 115 events. After Tampa had the 2002 meeting, Woodring said that city booked 175,000 room nights.

Helmstead said just having the RCMA come here has put the city on the map for national convention business. He also said the CVB, SMG and the area hotels were in the process of putting together a three-year plan to make the industry more aware of what Grand Rapids has to offer meeting planners and their delegates.

“I think an awareness campaign should help us out,” said Joseph Tomaselli, president of the Amway Grand Hotel Corp. and CVB board member.

Another campaign that should help the city out is a current private fundraising effort to assist the CVB in meeting its expenses to bring the RCMA here. The drive has a goal of $200,000, and is being guided by four prominent community leaders: Casey Wondergem, John Canepa, J.C. Huizenga and Donald Maine.

The first meeting was held in mid-July and Maine said that more than 60 percent of the goal had been pledged by late last month.

“We have a number of requests out there and we feel that we will be able to achieve the $200,000. I feel optimistic that we should reach our goal by the end of September or the early part of October,” said Maine, retired chancellor of Davenport University.

The money raised will go toward meeting some of the bureau’s marketing and advertising costs associated with the conference, and ensuring the meeting has plenty of audio and visual equipment.

“It’s a very tough economy and we’ve worked very hard at this as any fundraising group that is raising money in West Michigan. Even though West Michigan is exceptionally generous to virtually all causes, the nature of the economy is such that fundraising has become more and more difficult as we go forward with this economy,” said Maine.

The RCMA has nearly 3,400 members and its meeting planners represent almost 1,000 denominations and religious organizations. The upcoming convention will offer delegates a choice of 17 educational topics ranging from how to get the most from a site visit, to how to work as a team to plan a meeting and how to be a world-class negotiator.

“The conference is important to our members because it presents new ideas, new concepts and new ways to make their efforts more effective. Through attendance, the planners gain increased insights into the arts and sciences of religious-meeting management and keep abreast of the latest developments in the field,” said Woodring of the event that will run from Jan. 27-30.

“RCMA is dedicated to enhancing the professionalism of its members and to improving the experience of religious-meeting attendees throughout the world.”  

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