Conference Director Excited About Charlotte 2013, Asks for Understanding on Hotel Costs

Photo by Jon Kobel
Children play in a fountain in downtown Charlotte, N.C.

The city of Charlotte, N.C., will be a wonderful location for the 2013 Annual Conference, according to director Chris Douglas. In an interview last week at the denomination’s General Offices in Elgin, Ill., she commented on the site for the Church of the Brethren’s 227th recorded annual meeting.

The 2013 Conference will be led by moderator Robert Krouse, pastor of Little Swatara Church of the Brethren in Bethel, Pa., on the theme, “Move in Our Midst.” (See more details about planning for the event below.)

Douglas also apologized in advance for the prices that are forecast for the Conference hotels, and explained how the prices came about and the church’s legal obligation to the hotel block.

‘A great downtown’

Douglas described Charlotte, which is a leading business center for the east coast and is considered the banking capital of the South, as “a pleasant, inviting downtown.” Attractions include the NASCAR Hall of Fame directly across the street from the convention center. Lots of restaurants are within easy walking distance as well. Douglas reported that the downtown restaurants are “at all price points,” and offer “a lot of variety of places to eat.”

The downtown area features parks with fountains, flowers, and sitting areas that will appeal to Brethren–especially those with young families looking for space for children to stretch their legs.

The Charlotte Convention Center facility is only 17 years old, and incorporates a food court featuring some popular restaurant and café chains. Since 2007 it has been implementing “Going Green” procedures such as recycling and water conservation.

Douglas also highlighted a special plan, new this year, for Sunday to be a time for spiritual renewal. This year, the business sessions are being postponed and will not start until Monday morning.

“We’re at a time in our denomination where we need to stop doing business as usual and invite God to ‘move in our midst’ in a more intentional and powerful way,” she explained, quoting the theme that has been chosen for the Conference. “How do we attend to God’s call in our lives, and how do we open ourselves to allow God to move? Annual Conference has got to be more than just business.” (See below for more about the day of renewal on June 30.)

Photo by Jon Kobel
Conference director Chris Douglas visits the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte

‘Bear with us’ on hotel costs

Planning for Annual Conference begins years in advance, with convention centers reserved at least five years ahead–a strategy that up to recently obtained cheaper prices for the Brethren. However, since the recession imposed significant economic stress on the hotel industry this has changed, Douglas reported.

Contracts for the Charlotte Convention Center and hotel block were signed one month before the stock market crash of 2008. They are legal documents, Douglas said, and are binding on the Annual Conference. She has attempted to renegotiate the hotel contracts but without success. “I have begged hotels to lower the prices,” she said. “I’m sorry that these prices are outrageous, but they’re what we’ve got.”

Douglas has explained to hotel management that the typical Brethren family and delegates from smaller congregations are not accustomed to paying the rates charged in Charlotte, where downtown hotels usually run $180-plus per night.

The relatively low room rates in the Conference hotel block–which range from $130 to $145–are virtually unheard of in Charlotte these days, Douglas learned from hotel management. “So when they look at our rates they say, what are you complaining about? These are fabulous rates,” from the point of view of the hotels, she said. “We’re already at the lowest price rate of any of the hotel contracts for 2013.”

The one success she has had is to decrease the number of rooms reserved in the hotel block. The contracts oblige the church to either fill a certain percentage of rooms in the block each night of the Conference, or to reimburse hotels for the cost of unfilled rooms. This means that if Brethren do not fill 85 percent of the hotel block each night of the Conference, the cost of unfilled rooms may have to be paid directly out of the Annual Conference budget.

The Conference does receive a significant reduction in the cost of renting the convention center, in return for making contracts for hotel blocks, Douglas pointed out. Such agreements are common in cities with convention centers. For example, the Conference is renting the Charlotte Convention Center for around $57,000, whereas Douglas estimates rental of the center would cost around $150,000 for a group that did not have contracts with surrounding hotels.

In upcoming years, she has been able to negotiate much better terms. For example in Tampa, Fla., in 2015, hotel rates will be very reasonable, she said, and rental of the convention center will be virtually free to the Conference.

Until then, however, Douglas asks Brethren to express mutual support by reserving within the Conference hotel block instead of going to cheaper possibilities away from the convention center.

When it became clear that Charlotte hotels would not lower their prices, the Program and Arrangements Committee discussed raising the registration fee for those who do not reserve in the hotel block, Douglas said. The idea was to help spread out the costs of unfilled hotel rooms throughout the Conference budget.

However, the committee decided against taking that step, hoping instead that a forthright appeal to Brethren to understand and help out would be enough to encourage each congregation and each Conference-goer to do their part.

“I feel terrible about the situation we’re in,” Douglas said. “I’ve done everything I know how to do to appeal to the hotels. We’re stuck with these rooms. They’re legal contracts, and the church has an obligation.”