Mission in action

The economic downturn brings some old and new challenges for Jan Sneegas and her team, as they work to make the General Assembly meeting reflect core UUA values.

By Regina McGee

rejuvinate-unitarian67Sitting in her office on the sixth floor of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s headquarters office in downtown Boston, Janiece Sneegas, director, General Assembly and Conference Services, recalls her first year with the UUA. It was 2002 and the country was still recovering from 9/11 and a recession that had severely curtailed travel. Hotels were hurting for business and heavily discounting rates.

“We had signed a contract [four years earlier] for a $189 room rate for a meeting here in Boston in 2003, but you could go to hotel.com and get a very good room across the street for $129,” she explains. The upshot? The UUA was looking at attrition penalties topping $1 million, with hotels unwilling for the most part to work with the UUA to renegotiate rates. Ultimately, the association ended up owing between $300,000 and $400,000, most of which was paid off through agreements to book future meetings.

“That meeting made a very significant impression on me,” Sneegas says. “I have worked very hard not to sign contracts so far out that we get caught in an economic crunch.” Now the UUA tries to sign contracts two years out from its General Assembly date instead of four or five, but the economy has a way of catching everyone by surprise, as recent months have shown.

Recession Far Reaching

The sharp economic downturn in the last quarter of 2008 has affected a wide swath of businesses and organizations—including many churches and denominations that have seen their investment portfolios suffer and contributions decline. In March, UUA leadership announced plans to address expected budget shortfalls for 2010, including staff and travel cutbacks, merging departments, a salary and hiring freeze, and moving some print publications to digital versions.

Sneegas says a the General Assembly department (Sneegas and three assistants) is likely to morph into the Office of Conferences, which would handle the negotiations and logistics of most off-site meetings. “We’ve been moving in that direction for some time. There are a lot of variables to consider,” she explains, adding that the association has undertaken a survey to find out more accurately “what the universe of UUA meetings is, because we don’t even know.”

It’s not a great time for any meeting planner to be worrying about attrition penalties, but for Sneegas there is the comfort of having instituted changes since 2002 to help with that concern. For one thing, the group tries to negotiate the most favorable attrition clauses possible, asking for 25 or 30 percent slippage. For another, UUA hotel contracts for upcoming General Assembly meetings include a clause that ties the negotiated group rate to rate trends prior to the meeting.

asset_upload_file318_114320So far, registration for the UUA’s 2009 General Assembly meeting in June in Salt Lake City is healthy, Sneegas reports. The meeting will involve election of the new UUA president, as well as a review of the organization’s core beliefs (its Seven Principles and Purposes) — both of which will help drive attendance, she believes.

Cost-cutting steps already taken include big savings in printing and paper by eliminating paper usage wherever possible. Marketing has also been trimmed and the childcare program has been reduced by a day. The UUA is also offering a very affordable option of dorm rooms at the University of Utah, where individuals can stay for $225 for five days.

“We’re always very conservative about our room block. And we’re doing every thing we can to keep the meeting affordable and trim costs,” Sneegas says. A big part of that effort is tied into the UUA’s green meeting practices.

Committed to Green

When it comes to green meetings, the UUA has been a leader not just among faith groups but within the wider world of meetings. Last year the UUA won the silver Green Meetings Award for its 2007 General Assembly meeting in Portland, Oregon. The prestigious international award is given by IMEX, the International Hotels Environment Initiative, Oceans Blue Foundation, and the Green Meetings Industry Council to organizations and meetings groups that have demonstrated a commitment to sustainable practices.

“I wasn’t excited about green meetings at first. Like many religious conference planners, I felt that we had our work cut out for us in just
negotiating an affordable meeting.” But the UUA Ministry for Earth (as it is now called) convinced her that “we need to be walking the talk,” that green meetings are part of the UUA’s core beliefs, specifically the group’s Seventh Principle, which talks about the inter-related nature of all of creation. The UUA worked with Meeting Strategies Worldwide to put their faith into action.

Today Sneegas serves on the board of the Green Meetings Council and on the Convention Industry Council’s APEX commission charged with developing sweeping standards for green meetings. She believes there is both a business case and a mission-based case to be made for why faith-based groups need to start making changes that will result in meetings that are more environmentally friendly.

“Smart meeting planners know that thousands of dollars can be saved by instituting green meeting practices to cut waste and consumption,” she says, noting that the UUA has cut is printing budget for the General Assembly by a third. “Many convention venues and hotels are also aggressively pushing recycling and energy-savings initiatives, as well.”

But the recession is going to impact how cities and venues can maintain these practices. “It’s hard to imagine that the economy won’t affect sustainable efforts in some form,” acknowledges Sneegas. “We’re hearing, for instance, that Salt Lake City doesn’t do glass recycling anymore. We’re still in negotiations about that.” (The city will continue glass recycling, Rejuvenate learned at press time.)

For faith-based groups, Sneegas believes the obligation to go green is much deeper than simply good business practice. “Every world religion has within their mission something that has to do with their relationship to the earth, something that says we are stewards of the earth. Go back to your core beliefs. This is the right thing to do.”

A passionate involvement in social-justice issues has  always marked the Unitarian and Universalist churches (which united in 1961 to form the Unitarian Universalist Association). It’s also true that the UUA’s being on the forefront of many liberal social issues can present meeting planning challenges. One example: At last year’s General Assembly meeting in Fort Lauderdale attendees were required to show government-issued identification to be admitted to convention center. (The building is located in the Port of Fort Lauderdale and thus is required to follow Federal security guidelines.)

Some UUA members objected in principle to the requirement to show government-issued ID, saying it would discourage anyone without such ID, such as undocumented workers, from attending the event. Attendance at the General Assembly dropped significantly from the year before, in part as a result of the ID policy.

“UUA members are a passionate, educated, socially conscious group of people,” Sneegas says.  “So saying, we better practice what we believe when it comes to our meetings.”

Pendulum Swings

The upside of the recession for faith-based groups is that their meeting business is being  pursued with a new enthusiasm. “We’re getting cold calls from destinations and hotels all around the country,” says Sneegas.

“There is more interest because they know that religious groups are by and large mandated to meet by their bylaws,” she continues. “And another piece of it is that with religious meetings, people come together to support one another and to lift each other up in difficult times, so religious meetings are going to happen in a weak economy whereas corporate meetings may not.”

She is particularly impressed with the new advisory board for faith-based meeting planners formed by the Greater Phoenix CVB. The advisory board met for the first time in October. Focusing in this way on the religious conference market is a great strategy, Sneegas maintains.

“One of the things I realized at the advisory board is that faith-based meeting groups tend to follow each other around the country—to destinations that have the facilities we need and that are attuned to things most important to us.” She adds that religious conference managers are invaluable resources for each other.

“Planners have long memories. We share stories with each other, and if something happens in a city that is negative or that is wonderful, word gets around.”

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Photography by Jenn Gyles

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