Church conventions serve dual purpose: Family vacation and economic stimulus

The children around the crafts table set up in a ballroom of the Hilton Orlando all come from different cities, but many already know each other. Every year they take their family vacation wherever the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World holds its convention.

Atlanta one year, Minneapolis the next. Memphis, Dallas and now Orlando.

"Remember me?" 10-year-old Joyce Brooks of Columbia, S.C., asks 9-year-old Elizabeth Gatling of Hampton, Va.

Summer is one of the busiest times for religious conventions, which provide an economic stimulus for the area's hotels and tourist attractions during their slow months. Last summer, church conventions boosted Orlando's economy by an estimated $83 million, according to Visit Orlando, the city's tourism-promotion bureau.

"The faith-based groups are critical to our economy to bring in visitors during a time when other market segments tend not to hold their meetings," said Tammi Runzler, Visit Orlando's senior vice president for sales.

Church conventions are drawn to Orlando during the summer months because the lower hotel rates and attraction discounts make it more affordable for families, Runzler said. Unlike trade and corporate conventions, which generally draw people who attend alone and on expense accounts, the religious conventions attract families paying their own way.

"The faith-based groups are family focused and they are looking for value and discount pricings," Runzler said.

Leslie Menichini, vice president of sales and marketing for Rosen Hotels & Resorts, said the family-oriented church conventions have increased over the years to help fill hotel rooms during the summer.

"As a company, we've seen this migration over the past decade. This helps us to even out occupancies," Menichini said.

There were 13 church conventions booked through Visit Orlando in July 2010, drawing more than 51,000 attendees, while the 11 conventions in January drew fewer than 7,000. In June 2010, 18,000 people attended nine church conventions in Orlando, including the Southern Baptist Convention with its 10,000 delegates, many of whom brought along their families.

"Being that Orlando is such a great family-vacation destination, the Southern Baptist Convention has the highest attendance by families when it is held here in Orlando," said David Uth, senior pastor of First Baptist Orlando.

Typically, about 20 percent of the Pentecostal Assemblies attendees bring their families to the annual convention, but twice that many attended the Orlando gathering with their families, said Presiding Bishop Charles H. Ellis III.

"The culture of the Pentecostals is that the convention is the family vacation, so our convention has always tried for a site that is family friendly," Ellis said.

For Timothy Moore, all the vacations of his youth were spent attending Pentecostal conventions in different cities each year. Each was a reunion with kids just like him whose families combined vacation with religion.

"The church convention was the opportunity to form friendships with other kids from other parts of the country and see other parts of the world I never would have seen," said Moore, 49, of Cleveland.

Arthur Pierce, 64, of Tucson, said his son attended so many Pentecostal conventions in so many cities — Atlanta, New Orleans, Chicago, Denver, Indianapolis — that his teacher thought he was making it all up. This year, he brought his grandchildren, ages 9 and 14, in large part because the convention was in Orlando.

His youngest granddaughter is among the kids coloring at the crafts table. The Hilton ballroom is largely empty, but full of childish chatter that spills into the hallway. Mixed in with plans to visit Monkey Joe's indoor playground, the Magic Kingdom and SeaWorld, there are reminiscences of the children's zoo they visited in Minneapolis, the hotel they stayed at in Memphis and the around-the-world sampling of Coca-Cola products in Atlanta.

"One of the glasses had Chinese water," said Kristen Nedwards, a 9-year-old South Carolina girl who has been to five conventions. "It was horrible."

jkunerth@tribune.com or 407-420-5392

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