Alternative Medicine

It looked like a typical wedding, except for certain details: the African tchotchkes adorning the auditorium. The pieces of brightly colored kente cloth incorporated into the bridal couple's outfits. And the broom on the floor in front of them, placed there by the minister himself. The wedding party formed a circle around the couple and chanted, "One, two, three . . . jump!" as the two clasped hands and leapt over the broom.

But the most unusual aspect of the African-American nuptials wasn't the decor or the jumping-the-broom rite, but the setting: a conference center on a college campus. Not a historically black college like Howard or Spellman, but Gallaudet, a university in Washington D.C. for deaf and hard-of-hearing students. Nor had the bride or groom attended Gallaudet -- they'd heard about its facilities from friends. "A lot of people wouldn't think of holding their wedding in a conference center at a university& -- especially one designed for deaf attendees," notes David Kohlasch, general manager of Gallaudet's Kellogg Conference Hotel. "But once they see our property, they book."

Some conference centers draw the line at weddings, which are seen as distracting from a meetings-focused atmosphere; even so, nontraditional gatherings are an important part of the business mix at many centers. In fact, the so-called SMERF (social, military, educational, religious, and fraternal) market makes up at least 21 percent of the business for members of the International Association of Conference Centers, says Tom Bolman, executive vice president of IACC, citing a recent study by San Francisco-based PKF Consulting. All conference centers, adds Bolman, rely on nontraditional business during weekends and shoulder seasons. Successful Meetings spoke to conference centers around the country to find out more about this important niche. For tales of meetings that aren't your run-of-the-mill corporate gatherings, read on.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning

Weekdays, Dolce Tarrytown House is like any other executive conference center, used mainly by Fortune 100 firms for middle- and upper-level seminars and retreats. But on weekends the ambience at the historic 19th-century property changes completely as it fills up with guests interested in history and culture.

This month, for instance, it's hosting the biannual Judith Crist Film Festival, a 31-year-old event for which movie buffs pony up $850 each to see previews of Hollywood blockbusters hosted by well-known critics. Such events are a lucrative part of Tarrytown House's business mix, says General Manager Joe Santore. "About twenty-five percent of our business is nontraditional," he notes, "representing revenues of six million dollars a year."

Even events that don't attract a wealthy demographic can be an important part of a conference center's income. Seventeen percent of meetings held by members of the Religious Conference Management Association take place at conference centers, says DeWayne Woodring, president of the Indianapolis-based association: "When you consider that our planners coordinate over fourteen thousand meetings a year for sixteen million attendees, that's a significant number," with centers the second most commonly used venue, just after downtown hotels.

One such center is the YMCA of the Rockies; it hosts over 1,800 religious conferences annually at its facilities in Estes Park and Winter Park, CO. Such meetings represent just over half (53 percent) of the center's total revenue, generating a whopping $13 million a year. Last September, planner Tim McCosker used the Estes Park branch for the first time for his annual Wisdom and Compassion convention, which drew 900 mostly Buddhist conferees to the mountains for a five-day retreat.

Attendance has risen by 50 percent in the last four years, says McCosker, event coordinator for Green Mountain Dharma Center in Hartland Four Corners, VT. The conference's needs are complex: Each morning, all 900 attendees do seated meditation, for which the typical fixed chairs of most auditoriums aren't appropriate; the meeting also needs space for 36 concurrent breakout sessions and enough acreage for daily walking meditation sessions for the entire group. That's not to mention its dining-hall restrictions: All attendees are vegetarian, and all eat together -- in silence.

Despite these unusual requirements, the YMCA was able to accommodate not only McCosker's gathering but a 300-person Scottish cultural festival at the same time. "We heard them practicing [bagpipes] a bit, but everything was organized so we weren't in each other's way," says McCosker, who plans to bring his meeting back to the property. And it made for an interesting atmosphere on site, adds the Y's marketing director Laurie Van Horn: "We had both men in kilts and monks in robes!"

In the Family Way

At Keystone Resort and Conference Center in Colorado, family reunions may only generate $300,000 annually, but are still important enough summer business that the sales department assigns one specialist to this niche. Before leaving for another job last September, Tracy Stoltz was Keystone's family reunion specialist, coordinating over 60 in one four-month period. Such meetings aren't so different from corporate events, she notes: Families use the conference center for banquets and awards ceremonies with "lots" of audiovisual needs. They also like to order customized, Keystone-logo'd baseball hats and T-shirts for their groups, as well as cakes personalized by the resort's pastry chef.

The resort hopes to further increase this business niche in the next few years, notes Tina Frank, Keystone's director of sales and marketing: "Family reunions generate repeat business. We often get conventions from people who brought a reunion here."

And Gallaudet's Kellogg Conference Hotel is also working on aggressively expanding its nontraditional events. "Twenty percent of our business mix is social, but we'd like to double that," says Michelle Wiley, Kellogg's social events coordinator, who's keen to attract more weddings. And if her plan works -- she hopes to convince brides to hold their ceremonies on Thursdays and Fridays -- that'll mean more revenue earned on both weekends and weekdays.