Where the Planner Budget Goes Now

By Matt Swenson, December 5, 2014

Planning a budget for a faith-based event is a high-wire act when the gatherings drive in thousands of attendees. In fact, Paul Holt, executive director of finance and administration at Church of God of Prophecy International Offices, admits to losing money on the Pentecostal ministry’s biannual assembly. That said, the show must go on. How money is allocated for an event says a lot about a group’s priorities. International conferences like the ones hosted by Gideons International and Church of God of Prophecy bear the brunt of travel expenses, whereas food is the top priority for Fellowship of Companies for Christ International, which draws in top business leaders. Four nonprofit organizations break down their budgets into three groups for one big accounting lesson.

A Web of Logistics and Focusing on AV

Bringing thousands of attendees from around the globe to one city is no small feat, but that’s the mission of the CGP and Gideons International with their mega events. More than 90 nations are represented at the gatherings, both of which include hundreds of youth. Another thing they have in common: Both exceeded attendance expectations at their 2014 events.

CGP brought more than 10,000 attendees to Orlando for its biannual assembly, and Gideons International, a Christian evangelical organization, drew more than 4,300 to Philadelphia for its annual international conference. “Philadelphia really caught me by surprise,” says Marc Plew, director of conferences and conventions for Gideons International. “When we go north, normally [attendance isn’t] that good.”

Screen Shot 2014-12-05 at 10.39.54 AMPlew scrambled to find eight hotels to accommodate the larger group after originally planning to use only one, a proposition he’s not eager to repeat moving forward. “I always believe one hotel is better than two is better than three is better than four,” he says. “If it gets over four, I’m not interested in talking to you.”

That’s why he likes booking far in advance, ensuring the best rates and spaces for such a big group. Gideons International, headquartered in Nashville, known for its global Bible distribution program, has selected its sites through 2021, when the event will return to Rosen Shingle Creek in Orlando, where the conference was held in 2013.

The Florida resort also hosted the Cleveland, Tennessee-based CGP’s first foray into Florida this year. Holt says it was the biggest faith-based event the property has held, crediting the lure of Walt Disney World and Visit Orlando’s efforts to attract the larger-than-expected crowd.

Rosen Shingle Creek is an ideal property for these organizations because it’s large enough to accommodate giant general sessions and has enough guest rooms for most of the delegates, although Holt was forced to find overflow blocks in other nearby hotels in 2014. Another advantage, Holt says, is Shingle Creek’s conference space isn’t an arena. Typically, arenas charge extra to use their own staff, adding an additional cost to groups who don’t charge registration fees for their events and would prefer to save money by using their own staff.

Holt says in the future he will only consider an arena that drops the tacked-on budget item. “Our biggest priority is cost-effectiveness,” says Holt, rattling off a number of factors that go into that, including parking and hotel rates, and affordable restaurant options. He says his conference needs to benefit the church, conference-goers and host city. “We’re looking for a win-win-win situation,” he says.

As you’d expect, audiovisual costs take up a large portion of both groups’ budgets to broadcast sermons and amplify music throughout vast rooms. Multiple projectors are used to capture what’s happening on stage and display logos, which will become more important as sponsorship is incorporated more into the events.

Furthermore, the logistics of bringing in thousands of international attendees from Africa, Europe, Asia and the Americas are nearly as expensive as AV needs. The churches often pay airfare for overseas guests. CGP, which does not provide meals for its attendees at the assembly, does give international delegates a food allotment. Gideons International puts a greater emphasis on food and beverage, including several banquets throughout the five-day assembly in addition to providing six breakfast/dinner combinations for international guests. “We don’t drink, but we sure do eat,” says Plew. “That’s why people like us.”

Inviting families increases the numbers, but it also adds complications and expense. Gideons International combines education with excursions to area theme parks and waterparks. The organization also employs a professional service during the meeting to watch over the 30 to 50 babies attendees bring along. CGP’s international children’s ministry focuses on its event’s little ones, putting on youth and children’s assemblies at the same time the adults are congregating, Holt says.

Both groups save costs on marketing with social media, relying on Facebook and other online tools to promote their events worldwide. “It’s amazing how small the world has become,” says Holt. “We can spread the word more quickly through email and social media.”

Emergency Funds and Kosher Concerns

“Man plans, and God laughs,” says Adam Kofinas, manager of facilities and meetings for New York-based United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. What he means is that something is bound to go wrong during an event. As a backup plan, Kofinas has learned to allocate a “Holy smokes, Batman!” fund, inspired by the Adam West TV show.

After all, what could go wrong planning a weeklong conference for nearly 1,000 young people, or a four- to six-week long bus trip for more than 300 high school students? A blown tire could derail a delivery—USCJ relies on caterers to deliver kosher food. If the delivery doesn’t happen, it’s off to the supermarket with an educated shopper who knows about more than avoiding shellfish and pork. Kofinas notes about 75 percent of most hotels’ fare is kosher.

With member synagogues across the country, USCJ leaders can rest assured they’re probably never far from someone who can help. “It’s like ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,’ and you phone a friend,” says Kofinas.

Still, there’s plenty of planning that goes into minimizing costs while trying to maximize a program. It starts with the location and dates. Because the timing of its annual international youth conference is dictated by school schedules, USCJ plans the 1,000-attendee event the week of Christmas, regardless of whether Hanukkah falls at the same time, as it does this year. Kofinas says he looks at any city except Orlando and Anaheim, California—two hotbeds for holiday traffic—because occupancy will be low and rates will reflect that. “If we say we’re bringing in 300-room nights over four or five days, plus F&B, hotels are pretty willing to come down to some bare-bones pricing,” says Kofinas.

The next trick is a willingness to stay outside a city center. For instance, the group’s 2014 youth convention will be based at Hilton Atlanta Northeast in Norcross, Georgia, a 40-minute drive from downtown Atlanta. Similarly, the group’s 2015 biannual adult leadership convention (1,200 attendees, mainly synagogue leaders) will be in Schaumburg, Illinois, northwest of Chicago. “That saves $60 or $70 per room,” says Kofinas. “That’s a huge amount of money.” With the savings, USCJ will take its attendees downtown for a night of activities.

Screen Shot 2014-12-05 at 10.40.15 AM

Not What You Know, But Who You Know

It pays to have friends in high places. Ask Fellowship of Companies for Christ International, which frequently stays at high-end properties such as The Ritz-Carlton during its annual international business leaders conference, whether it’s in the organization’s hometown of Atlanta or in Maui. But, how can FCCI afford it?

Horst Schulze, former president of The
Ritz-Carlton, was an FCCI member, explains Frank S. Vann, FCCI’s director of operations and finance. During the association’s first conference in 1980 in downtown Atlanta, Schulze cut a deal with FCCI, and the hotel chain has stuck with it for 35 years.

As a result, attendees’ room rates were a $175 per night (lower than average for Ritz) this September for the conference in Amelia Island, Florida, and will only be a bit higher next year at The Ritz-Carlton, Dove Mountain, outside of Tucson, Arizona, says Vann. The Ritz also waives its resort fees for the group and discounts food and beverage. The latter is especially important: three formal banquet dinners, a breakfast buffet served four mornings and two networking receptions
mean F&B makes up 66 percent of the conference budget.

“When you serve plated meals, it costs about $75 per plate,” says Vann. “By the time you add tax and tips, it’s between $85 to $100 per plate for a nice dinner.”

But with business leaders coming from as
far as Australia, China and Singapore, FCCI can’t afford to lower its standards. Vann typically is able to negotiate for the extension of the lower rates to three days before and after the event, a nice perk when the conference was in Maui in 2013 and many attendees stayed after the long trip.

Screen Shot 2014-12-05 at 10.40.24 AMFCCI’s numbers keep growing as the organization pours more energy into social media. About 550 attendees came to Amelia Island, and more than 600 are expected in Arizona next year (FCCI rotates its meetings between the East and West coasts). Because electronic media is far cheaper than printed materials, the group is able to devote more time to marketing without adding to expenses,
a trend seen throughout the industry.

One challenge, says Vann, is when attendees register very close to the deadline, making it hard to plan meals or ensure rooms in the host hotel will be available. Conference-goers pick up their own tab on rooms and can stay elsewhere if they prefer, but Vann desires to keep everyone under one roof for a grander experience. It also makes it easier to network, which is such an important element that FCCI leaves afternoons free after morning worship and education sessions. The group reconvenes at dinner, when keynote addresses are given by a combination of religious and business leaders (or people who encompass both, such as Hobby Lobby founder David Green).

Vann has begun incorporating sponsors into the program to save costs. FCCI already has a partnership with Christianity Today.

Social media has proved to be a real money saver for faith-based groups that can use funds that otherwise would be used on marketing for other big-ticket items like production costs, travel and F&B. This is especially true in an environment when planners are continually asked to do more with less. As Holt likes to joke, “My whole life is a trick to save money.”

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