Case Study: Hillsong Conference NYC

By Lindsay Williams, December 5, 2014

For the second year in a row, the Big Apple hosted 5,300 church leaders and worshippers at the U.S. version of the renowned Australian Hillsong Conference. A smaller version of the annual conference held in Sydney, where Hillsong Church was birthed under the leadership of Brian and Bobbie Houston (shown, opposite), Hillsong Conference NYC included Hillsong-bred speakers such as Christine Caine and Carl Lentz as well as Judah Smith, in addition to music led by Hillsong’s three touring worship bands. Rejuvenate contributor Lindsay Williams spoke with the event’s planner, Heidi Thomson, about this year’s event held in October 2014 at The Theater at Madison Square Garden. Thomson discusses the challenges of scaling down Sydney’s massive conference to fit
on our shores.

What components are involved in Hillsong’s New York event?

Hillsong Conference NYC had nine main sessions over three nights and two days. There’s such a great atmosphere in all our sessions. We always begin the conference with an amazing opener—this year we had an astronaut suspended from the ceiling and laser lights [shown above]. We also have other creative moments throughout the conference. During each session, we have praise and worship and preaching.

How did you decide on The Theater at Madison Square Garden as your venue?

We really wanted to hold the conference in downtown Manhattan, and The Theater at Madison Square Garden is an iconic building. Next year, we’ll be taking the conference to The Prudential Center in New Jersey, as this will allow the event room to grow. We’re not ready to go to Madison Square Garden yet, but we’d love to be there sometime in the future. The Prudential Center is a good next step for us. The arena is scalable, so we don’t have to take the conference from 5,000 to 18,000 in one year.

What are the main differences between the conferences in Australia, London and the States?

Sydney has been going on for over 25 years, so it’s larger; however, the conferences have the same feel and atmosphere. The Sydney conference runs for five nights and four days, and it offers master class streams (“Lead, Create, Help”), which we don’t offer here. One of the reasons we don’t offer these sessions in New York is that we are limited with breakout rooms, plus it’s a big effort logistically. This is something we’ll look to add down the line. We’ve been running the Hillsong Conference in London for many years, and this was the first year we offered live streaming.

There’s one vision across the Hillsong Conferences, and that is championing the cause of local churches everywhere. That doesn’t change from year to year. The theme of the conference captures what Brian and Bobbie feel God is saying to the church.

How is this event different from last year’s conference in New York?

Last year was our first conference in New York and was more of a Hillsong “taster” as it only ran from Friday evening through Saturday evening. This year we ran for an extra day and night, so it felt more like a conference. There was great buy-in from the delegates and 2015 will be the same format as this year.

Did you get any feedback on the format?

These days you don’t need to ask for feedback—it comes through social media. However, we do focus groups to see what people are saying. We want people to have the best experience at our conferences, so we are continually looking at how we can do things better.

What has been your biggest challenge for the event this year?

We sold out about six weeks before the conference. This is a nice problem to have, but we don’t like having to turn people away. Our solution was to move to a bigger venue next year. And we do live stream sessions from our Sydney conference to allow more to join in.

What advice do you have for other planners?

Team is important. You don’t plan a conference on your own. Having a unified, cohesive, amazing team not only makes conferences possible, but also fun and successful.

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