Meeting in faith

Religious venues and meetings form a significant niche in the UK conference industry. CN goes forth amongst it.

The Sermon on the Mount, the Last Supper, gathering at Mecca: meetings move in mysterious ways.Religion provides a big conference theme and there are also many venues with strong faith connections offering something different.

Six of the top 10 gatherings of all time had religious connections, including the Haj to Mecca and the Hindu pilgrims at Kumbh Mela in Uttar Pradesh (an estimated 30m in 2013).

The religious meetings market is significant enough to be part of one of our great industry acronyms: the so-called SMERF (Social, Military, Education, Religious and Fraternal society) market for meetings. And mighty resilient it is, too, holding up well during the recession. Faith can be a powerful thing.

At the top end, in terms of numbers in the UK at least, there are events such as the Redeemed Christian Church of God’s Festival of Life (FoL). The largest indoor conference in the UK, it drew 40,000 delegates to its recent plenary session in April at Excel London. FoL is held also in October and may spin off a smaller (5,000 delegates) event for youngsters.

Excel’s executive director for conferences and events, James Rees, was first involved in bringing the business to the London Arena 20 years ago and is still involved today.

The FoL is also an all-nighter, with delegates arriving from 7pm. The main event begins around 10pm and runs through to 5.30am in the morning. The sheer size of the event makes for a special catering allowance as many delegates bring their own food, says Rees.

Pastor Enoch Adeboye, key speaker at last year’s event, has been named No.48 in the list of Newsweek’s 50 most influential people in the world. PM David Cameron even showed up at last year’s FoL.

“Because there are so many in the venue, we have to plan well,” says Rees. “We never rest on our laurels. Every time it is a big thing.” Logistical considerations include making car parking space available, and liaising with the DLR so that they know likely travel peaks.

Excel London also hosts other religious events, including women-only ‘Mountain of Fire’ event.

“It is very uplifting hearing a 200-person gospel choir,” notes Rees. “You can’t help but be enlivened by it. A singalong with 40,000 people in the room. I’ve seen FoL for 20 years and never ceases to amaze me.”

Kerrin MacPhie, ACC Liverpool director of conference and exhibition sales, agres that religious meetings are an important sector.

“The International Bible Students Association has held its conference with us for the past five years for 8,000 delegates in August. This is traditionally a quiet time,so it is great for us to be able to welcome so many visitors into the city,” says MacPhie.

And the Redeemed Christian Church of God will bring 3,000 attendees in July after first coming to ACC Liverpool in January.

David Chislett, committee co-ordinator for the Liverpool IBSA Convention, said: “This is the fifth year that the International Bible Students Association (IBSA) has hosted a convention at ACC Liverpool on behalf of Jehovah’s Witnesses. “We keep coming back because ACC Liverpool is the perfect location for our North West members, particularly for accommodation and transport links.”

Over on the venue side, when Central Hall Westminster opened its doors in 1912, it was a rare UK venue that was purposefully designed both as a church and a conference centre.

In its 100-year history, the listed venue opposite Westminster Abbey has seen events from the Inaugural Meeting of the UN (1946) to the Laureus World Sports Awards (2012), as well as holding regular Sunday Services.

Some clients assume wrongly that religious buildings have restrictions on alcoholic drinks, but the events departments are usually separate identities from their church owners.

Church House Conference Centre, owned by the Church of England, is just across the road in Westminster, but holds only one major event a year for the C of E, albeit a big one: the General Synod around February.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses are known for practising ‘face to face’ meetings like no other, and have a large network of Kingdom Halls for smaller meetings, although the church uses large commercial venues for its big events, including Twickenham, and sporting arenas in Manchester, Leeds and Milton Keynes.

The church generally does its own stage set up, PA system and provides trained stewards who act as attendants during its conventions. They also use their own medical staff.

“While many arenas have seating which will remain comfortable for a 90-minute game, our delegates will be seated for around seven hours and the AMEX in Brighton is one venue with particularly comfortable seating,” the church’s events organiser David Algar told CN.

There are 475 Quakers’ Friends Houses in the UK and the church’s central London HQ in Euston provided event hospitality to over 300,000 people in 2015.

As a Quaker-run company, values such as equality, truth, simplicity and peace are put at the core of the venue’s identity and the customer experience.

Management says this ethos has helped attract regular customers that include charities, government and NHS departments.

“The vision is to be the venue of choice for the third sector in London,” said CEO of Friends House Hospitality Paul Grey.

“Customers who book with us appreciate the fact that we gift-aid our profit to Quakers in Britain; they also enjoy our central London location, transparent pricing and commitment to sustainability. We source fresh, organic, Fairtrade and local products for our event catering, use 100% renewable energy and have been landfill free since 2008,” he added.

“This approach has allowed us to grow our business by 90% for The Light [the main hall at the Euston HQ], since 2013. “Our strong values and friendly service make us stand out in what is often a very competitive market”.

Going to The Chapel?

Jodie Widman is sales director at Beaumont Estate near Windsor, which uses The Chapel, built for celebrating Mass in 1870, for special events.The Chapel was restored in 2008 by English Heritage and Widman says it resonates with organisers in search of a distinctive space. “This is what attracts them in the first instance: pure wow factor.

“We have attracted business from church organisations such as the Religious Liberty Residential weekend hosted in March. But equally there is as much interest from organisers looking for historical, unique and even theatrical venues.”

The can cater for up to 170 people, but if anyone does baulk at using such a backdrop for meetings, Widman says there are 74 other spaces on the estate to choose from.

One media client used the Chapel to bring the Alice in Wonderland theme to life. An immersive event experience was created including a fashioned rabbit hole pathway leading to the entrance of the venue, grass table runners, giant playing cards and tea pot centre pieces on the tables.

LSO St Luke’s, home to the London Symphony Orchestra’s music education programme, can host 450 people for conferences and is close to the Silicon Roundabout, just north of the City of London.

Marketing manager Ella Thomsen says: “Being an 18th- century church that combines the original architecture with contemporary interiors, definitely makes the venue unique.”

And the Niland Centre in Hertfordshire is next door to the Rosary Priory and run by Dominican Sisters. It can host events for 150 and was opened in 1999 to fulfil the desire of the Congregation for hosting a programme of spiritual and faith-formation events. It also hosts groups seeking an atmosphere of tranquility for meetings and retreats.

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