The Evolution of Youth Conferences

By Kelly Russell, November 3, 2017

Buy a ringtone for your Blackberry… choose your “Top 8” on Myspace… refer to Miley Cyrus as Hannah Montana… check the mail for a Netflix envelope. These are all things you did in 2007 that you would never do today. A lot has changed over the last decade, forcing planners of youth conferences to evolve (or die) to engage youth differently. We caught up with the planners of three of the most prominent faith-based youth conferences in the nation: Momentum Youth Conference, Xtreme Winter and Cru Winter Conference to talk audiovisual and production, marketing, speakers, venues and more, then and now.

Momentum Youth Conference

For 78 years, Momentum Youth Conference has gathered sixth- through 12th-graders for a weeklong summer event. The most recent change they’ve witnessed is a desire for greater options for attendees. “We’ve experienced a demand for more electives in the last 10 years,” says Erin Fowler, assistant coordinator at Momentum. Called Power Tracks, there were nine electives in 2007; now they offer 12 to 15 per day, plus Youth Worker Labs to help equip youth leaders.

Venues

While more options give way to creating memorable experiences for participants, they also call for more flexible meeting space. Momentum always has preferred university campuses over convention centers because they provide lodging and meals. The only difference today is the need for larger facilities to accommodate increased attendance and a rising number of sessions.

Speakers

Momentum has added speakers who share 10-minute personal stories or testimonies to its typical lineup of long-form main session speakers. “This generation is attracted to authentic and transparent real-life stories of living for Christ,” says Fowler.

AV/Production

Momentum’s AV and production budget has increased threefold since 2007. Ten years ago, the team used projectors, TV screens and an analog soundboard. They sold CDs from the main session and Power Tracks, as well as a highlight DVD. Now, they’re investing in LED screens and a digital sound board, and have made recordings and videos digital using live streaming and YouTube.

Marketing

In 2007, Momentum’s marketing consisted of a website and mailing print pieces to churches. This year is the first time in almost 80 years that Momentum has dropped its Grace Brethren denominational tag. The current marketing plan is to target church youth groups outside of their former denomination. Momentum still sends marketing pieces to their database of churches and students, but also produces videos to send to youth pastors, as the conference has found success in having this group market the conference to their spheres of influence. The marketing team also uses Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to spread the word.

Cru Winter Conference

Cru Winter Conference has gathered college students in various regions across the United States for 50 years. The biggest difference between 2007 and now are the types of speakers it books for the conference. “Today, we look for speakers who are diverse in every way: in ethnicity, gender and range of topics,” says Darren Holland, director of audience expansion for Cru. “We’re always asking, ‘What are the issues culture is wrestling with that we can address with grace and truth?’” Current topics include sexuality, racial reconciliation and technology. “We want to bring wisdom and the  good news of Jesus into these conversations,” adds Holland.

Venues

Cru’s typical attendees are college students and ministry workers, so they tend to be price sensitive. As such, “Our biggest priority has always been affordability,” says Holland. One thing that has changed is the need for more and larger breakout rooms.

Marketing

In 2007, Cru’s 10 regional conferences were all branded differently with individual websites. Local staff marketed the regional conference closest to them at their weekly campus gatherings. Today, Cru Winter Conference shares a common name, brand, website and social media accounts (Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat.) “We’ve been running social media campaigns and experimenting with ad buys and promoted posts on the various social channels,” says Holland. “We will also be doing email campaigns targeted to first-timers who have interacted with us in the past but have yet to come to one of our Econferences.” Cru Winter Conference also has a mobile app called Cru Life.

Messaging

Adding to the confusion of the regional conferences branded differently, Cru received feedback from attendees that they didn’t know what to expect the first time they came to the conference. In response, Cru has spent the last 18 months defining and refining its marketing message, landing on “Learn, Grow, Impact.” The team’s hope is that renewed clarity will motivate potential attendees to come and bring friends.

Xtreme Winter

For 22 years, Xtreme Winter has been a high- energy, three-day youth conference for teens and youth groups to attend together. Its hallmarks are powerful messages from leading youth communicators like Johnny Hunt and Tom Richter, and live Christian concerts by today’s top artists like Chris Tomlin, Newsboys, Andy Mineo, Hollyn, Newsong and 7eventh Time Down. Youth pastors can attend the free Youth Leader Workshop led by one of the speakers.

Venues

The planners of Xtreme Winter look for a few things in a venue: safety, hotels within walking distance, and plenty of activities and attractions. Over the last decade, and especially in the last few years, the first item has become even more important. “Today, we are more concerned about the safety of our venues,” says Chris Lee, associate director of Xtreme Winter. “Some areas that used to feel safe may not be the best destinations due to increased fear of terrorist attacks.”

AV/Production

Xtreme Winter has increased its spend on AV/production by 20 percent since 2007, says Lee, noting the higher costs come from producing higher-quality video and using LED walls to improve the attendee experience.

Marketing

While maintaining the volume of direct mail and print from 2007, Xtreme Winter planners have dramatically increased their outreach on social media. They are on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and have found that posting about the impressive lineup of speakers and musicians as they’re booked builds excitement about the event throughout the year.

Speakers

In the last decade, planners have sought out speakers who have a broader appeal beyond typical youth speakers. For example, Sadie Robertson of “Duck Dynasty” spoke at the conference last December.

youth conferences cru xtreme winter

Looking Ahead:
Youth Events of the Future

A June 2017 report by IACC, compiled from survey results of 180 meeting planners, examined how younger generations are influencing the way we meet. Make note of these top takeaways.

Nichification

Gen Z (and other generations too, we’d argue) is looking for an individualized approach to events. While more sessions and personalization can spell higher engagement, they also increase the amount of space that may be required for breakouts—something planners should be aware of when considering future venues.

Experience Creation

Compared with only two years ago, more planners are reporting the need for cultivating a start-to-finish experience, rather than simply orchestrating an event. That means the use of interactive technology will become increasingly important in future years to allow for interaction pre- and post-event, as well
as during. Planners should consider events as curating a yearlong community, not just planning a one-time conference.

Transparency in F&B

Food and beverage is one area of faith conferences that tends to stay relatively the same from year to year. However, with the rise of food allergies in the last decade, more planners are becoming cognizant of what’s on their menus. Especially at youth events, when parents aren’t present, creating signs that clearly label what allergens may be present in each item is critical.


Current Venues:

Momentum Youth Conference
> Indiana Wesleyan University in Marion, Ind.

Xtreme Winter
> Gatlinburg (Tenn.) Convention Center > Branson (Mo.) Convention Center

Cru Winter Conference
> DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Portland (Ore.) > Omni Fort Worth (Texas) Hotel
> Renaissance Atlanta Waverly Hotel & Convention Center
> Los Angeles Marriott Burbank Airport
> Hilton Minneapolis
> Sheraton Greensboro (N.C.) at Four Seasons > Hyatt Regency Denver
> JW Marriott Downtown Indianapolis
> Baltimore Marriott Waterfront

Read More