Worship and pleasure play well together at resorts and theme parks.
By Larry Bleiberg
When Life Impact Ministries brought thousands of teens to Orlando several years ago, the planners knew better than to keep the kids locked up in a convention center the whole time. Instead, attendees spent a day at Sea World.
The ministry gave all 5,000 attendees tickets redeemable for meals throughout the park, and offered refreshments from a hospitality tent, which provided shelter from the July sun. But the highlight was a show with Shamu, the park’s performing orca. Many teens even braved the “Splash Zone” where a flick of a whale’s tail can drench the audience.
After about 30 minutes, the program switched focus. A guest speaker told a few jokes, but eventually turned to the Bible. “It was a regular preaching service,” said the ministry’s executive director Jerry Mapstone. “The response was good, and part of it had to do with the totally different setting.”
Now the ministry tries to add a park visit to every meeting. Three years ago, it scheduled an optional visit to Orlando’s Wet ‘n Wild, home of the Mach 5 waterslide. “We gave them an afternoon and evening to let some of the pent-up energy go,” he said. “They needed that.”
This year, however, plans to visit a park during the meeting in Louisville, Ky., were scuttled when the park closed. Mapstone met with his team in March to devise a new plan: Now the 6,000-plus attendees will spend the day at the Louisville Bats minor-league ballpark.
They’ll start with a service, speaker and worship band. Then a concert with a big-name Christian artist will entertain the crowd. While the stage is disassembled, the attendees will use meal vouchers for dinner at the riverfront stadium. Then comes a baseball game, which will include races with the Louisville Bats’ mascot and between-inning competitions involving attendees.
Mapstone says he thinks everyone will enjoy the day, especially the concert. And he’s ready for more changes if they occur. “That’s what you do,” he says. “We have until July 6 at 3 p.m. to make adjustments. After that it’s just damage control.”
Mapstone said mixing God and a theme park or ballpark might seem surprising, but it allows attendees to socialize and blow-off steam after long days of worship and meetings, which can keep them busy from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Many other religious meeting planners say the same thing.
Next winter, teens on a Phil Waldrep Ministries retreat will find a slice of heaven in between worship sessions and religious concerts at a three-and-a-half acre indoor waterpark in Sevierville, Tenn. At the Wilderness Resort at the Smokies, the staff likes to note, it never drops below 82 degrees, even in the middle of December.
These groups and many others have found that meetings and pleasure not only mix, but complement each other. Theme parks and resorts, long a favorite of vacationers, have found a solid following with meeting planners, even those organizing educational and religious gatherings. Although the trend isn’t new, it has held its own during the down economy, and in some places, has grown.
Barry Roberts, who organizes more than a dozen meetings a year for the Phil Waldrep Ministries of Decatur, Ala., says it’s common sense. “If we plan a conference in [a small town] no one’s coming, because they don’t know what they can do there.” By contrast, the Smoky Mountain tourist towns of Gatlinburg and Sevierville, Tenn., have been popular for ministry events for years. Still, having a great site isn’t enough, he says. “The main thing is getting it out to the people and promoting it.”
Initially some members may question if meeting in a resort or theme park is appropriate for their organization. They fear the setting could interfere with, or overshadow the gathering. Roberts says if an organization has its priorities clear, it shouldn’t be a concern. He organizes an annual meeting of up to 4,000 youth, which gathers for several days after Christmas. The event features religious music, worship services and top-notch inspirational speakers. “The conferences speak for themselves,” he says.
“Ministry is first, and that’s No. 1, period. But in Christianity, having fun — there’s nothing wrong with that either. For a lot of churches, it’s a getaway, and we have to look for destinations that are appealing to them.”
For some attendees, a meeting may take the place of a vacation. That’s particularly true in this economy, when many families can’t afford a separate holiday. To compensate, attendees often bring spouses and children along, and many hosts provide special packages to assure that guests are kept entertained.
In fact, a theme park or resort may make for a better meeting. Rob Enriquez, senior vice president of sales and marketing for the Palm Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau, says there’s a clear benefit to gathering in a resort as opposed to a cookie-cutter city or airport hotel. “You get here and it’s just a feeling. It’s an emotion,” he says of the California desert oasis. “It’s the climate. It’s the terrain, the mountains that surround us, the palm trees.” Taken all together, it makes the experience memorable. “When people are in a better environment they tend to absorb more. They’re in tune with the experience — and the meeting. They take it away with them, and five years later they’re still talking about it.”
Kenny Smith, regional sales manager of Big Cedar Lodge near Branson, says he makes a point of watching attendees during meeting breaks. They step into an open area, which has leather seats and rocking chairs overlooking the Ozark Mountains. “I love walking by and seeing someone who doesn’t have a cell phone in their hand, and instead they’re sitting there almost mesmerized by the atmosphere and the ambience. It provides a setting for learning and creativity and productivity, and that in itself is a value.”
That’s exactly why Rick Whitmer says he has returned to the lodge since 2001 for the annual President’s Retreat he organizes for Ron Hutchcraft Ministries, located in nearby Harrison, Ark. The resort’s atmosphere encourages reflection for attendees. “It allows them to refocus priorities, to be able to walk away from a weekend like this recharged, reenergized and renewed and ready to head back home with a new passion and a new vigor.”
All this sounds appealing — and pricey. But not necessarily.
Sales executives acknowledge they’re now more willing to make deals with groups to attract business. That’s partially because corporate business has slacked off, and resorts and parks have more slots to fill. The Palm Springs region can be expensive in March, but the cost drops dramatically in the summer.
In Hershey, Pa., the busy season is summer. But spring and fall bring bargains. And often switching from a weekend to mid-week cuts the price as well. “We can make it a win-win,” says Hershey Park sales manager Kevin Grant. He recalls one group that found it couldn’t afford its original contract for a summer weekend. Most of the attendees were paying for it themselves, and they were personally being hit by the economy. But the park was able to renegotiate. By moving the event to mid-week, the price dropped, and more delegates could attend. Ultimately the park got extra business during a traditionally slow period. “It kept our revenues pretty much the same,” Grant says.
La Torretta Lake Resort and Spa in Montgomery, Texas, opened in November 2008 and has been working deals with clients from the start. As a new property, sales managers realized they would have to work to bring in business to the site, about an hour north of Houston. But the resort has been strategic about discounting. “As opposed to just dropping prices out of the gate, we’ve targeted value-added,” says Jason Purifoy, director of sales and marketing. “We’ve added upgrades. It’s a minimal cost to us and something groups might have paid for in the past. We’ve offered complimentary welcome receptions on arrival and that saves them money. We’ve offered credits for every room night they’ve utilized, and that goes to their master bill.”
Even Disney, the largest theme park in the world, has proven willing to work with customers. It will offer meeting attendees discounted tickets for visiting its theme parks after 4 p.m., a special admission option not available to the public. In one case, the park began monorail service earlier in the morning than usual so that attendees in an overflow hotel would have transportation to early morning events at the host hotel. While resorts like Disney can’t be expected to give away the store, they are able to work with groups and give concessions and discounts.
That’s a point echoed by Smith at Big Cedar Lodge. He says he’s been able to make concessions on things like food and beverage minimums, but only at certain times of year. He’s limited in his ability to cut costs during the high seasons of summer and October. There are long-term considerations, too. “We don’t want to sacrifice the brand. There’s a long-time penalty to pay if you make too many concessions.”
Many resorts are betting on the growth of meeting business, and are building dedicated meeting sites and facilities. In October 2008, Big Cedar Lodge completed its Grandview Conference Center, which has a ballroom and flexible meeting space that can handle events for groups of 10 to 1,000. In Sevierville, the Wilderness at the Smokies resort is physically connected to a new conference center with more than 150,000 square feet of space. La Torretta Lake Resort was constructed with meetings in mind. Its 73,000-sq.-ft. conference center has 19 event and meeting rooms, with private terraces, walkout balconies and lake views. It’s certified by the International Association of Conference Centers, which means it meets strict requirements for facilities and services.
Theme parks and resorts are also tailor-made for special events. La Torretta has a sandy beach, which has been used for receptions. It can be decorated with tiki torches for a clambake or a Hawaiian-themed evening. At Hershey Park, the property has seven separate catering areas. Attendees are free to come and go during a specified period. Menus can vary from hamburgers and hot dogs to barbecue ribs or a luau. “It’s like going to a banquet at a hotel,” said Kevin Grant, sales manager for the park. “But it’s more of a fun atmosphere.”
Some venues are also great for team building and bonding. Big Cedar Lodge has scavenger hunts around the lake, which require groups to work together. At Wilderness at the Smokies, groups have been known to organize impromptu surfing contests at the park’s wave area. But don’t think the appeal’s limited to children. “I’ve talked to a 70-year-old man who told me he tried every ride,” says Dottie Clabough, director of group sales. Even if guests don’t want to brave the Storm Chaser waterslide, they can sit in the hot tub, or stretch out on a lounge to read a book — or a meeting handout.