Religious conventions are hot commodity for Charlotte, other mid-size cities

Posted: Friday, October 31, 2003

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) The Christian Church and the city of Charlotte were a match made in conventioneering heaven.

The church's biennial General Assembly, which ended last week, brought an estimated 7,000 people to fill tables at the city's restaurants and beds at its hotels. Conventioneers, meanwhile, got to spend five gorgeous fall days in a clean, affordable Bible Belt city.

''I've enjoyed the city. People have been very nice. It's very hospitable,'' the Rev. David James, pastor at First Christian Church in San Lorenzo, Calif., said as he got ready to head home from the five-day meeting.

Other people from other denominations feel the same way: The Christian Church was the fourth major religious group to meet here in 2003. They've been a boon to Charlotte, one of several ''second-tier'' destinations that have come to rely on religious meetings to bring in tourism dollars.

The Progressive National Baptist Convention visited in August, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship met in June and the Presbyterian Church in America came to Charlotte last spring.

Collectively, the meetings attracted an estimated 22,500 visitors to the downtown area and direct spending of approximately $10 million.

After the Christian Church left, 4,000 people for a Youth Specialties conference of Christian youth workers descended on the city. And in late December, a Wesleyan Church youth conference is expected to bring 10,000 people to town.

''Charlotte has a warm, Southern hospitality, it just lends itself to the religious sector,'' said Molly Hedrick, a spokeswoman for Visit Charlotte, the city's convention bureau.

Most of the mainline Protestant denominations are well-represented here, and religious revivals regularly draw large crowds to the Charlotte Coliseum. Billy Graham was born in Charlotte, and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association is building a new headquarters building and museum in the city.

With business travel and convention spending still depressed as a result of the economic downturn and terrorism concerns, religious conventions have become crucial to the tourism bottom line of Charlotte and other places such as Nashville, Tenn.; St. Louis; Cincinnati; and Indianapolis.

Attendees who often pay for their own travel and use their vacation time to visit may spend less than business conventioneers. But meeting sizes don't shrink due to a bad business climate and attendees don't demand the flash and glitz of a Las Vegas or New Orleans.

Religious meetings are ''a marketplace that for the most part is inelastic,'' said Warren Breaux, vice president of sales at the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center in Nashville. ''They're kind of impervious to the market conditions.''

Breaux spoke in January to a national meeting of religious convention managers held in yes Charlotte. He told them that there is a new enthusiasm for religious meetings among convention and tourism officials, particularly in first-tier cities such as Orlando and San Diego that are feeling the squeeze from the business travel market.

''Everybody's going to begin to look at that marketplace to help us through the wild swings of the corporate marketplace,'' Breaux said recently.

Since 1996, when the Religious Convention Managers Association first held its annual gathering in Charlotte, the city has booked 43 religious conventions and meetings, Hedrick said. Only sporting events and association meetings created more bookings for the city than religious conventions in fiscal 2003.

''Charlotte offers a lot of those amenities of the first-tier cities, yet we are small enough that our rates are reasonable,'' said Christa Williams, a national booking manager for Visit Charlotte.

Because the focus of most religious meetings is worship and fellowship, the groups often don't demand a city packed with a lot of tourist attractions or a vibrant nightlife.

''Usually they don't have that much spare time,'' Williams said. ''They often tell me, 'We won't be in your bars, but we'll definitely be in your restaurants.'''

James, the California pastor, has been to Christian Church assemblies in Denver; Tulsa, Okla.; Kansas City; and St. Louis.

''This is the first General Assembly in a while where I haven't felt crowded,'' he said. ''You have a lot of hotels here, and that's key. Some places, they have a convention center and a Holiday Inn and that's it.''

The Rev. Bill Edwards, associate general minister and vice present of the Christian Church, helps select sites for the group's general assemblies.

His church is headed to Portland, Ore., in 2005; to Fort Worth, Texas, in 2007; and Indianapolis in 2009.

''What works best for us is the kind of second-tier cities that work hard to accommodate us,'' he said.

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