Church events a growing boon to local economies, study finds
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Communities that host church retreats and conventions can count their blessings and the dollars the faithful pump into local economies, a new University of Florida study finds.
Pilgrimages, retreats and conventions are fast becoming one of the most reliable and desirable forms of income for the travel industry, said Harrison Pinckney IV. He did the study for his master’s thesis in UF’s department of tourism, recreation and sports management. Participants usually bring along their families and stretch their visits over three to four days, making a mini-vacation out of the affair by shopping, visiting museums and eating out, Pinckney said. He is now working on a doctoral degree in recreation, parks and tourism at Texas A&M University.
“There may be 80,000 people in town, but they’re not the kind to show up at bars and drive home drunk,” he said. “Because they have their kids with them they might go to a family restaurant or catch a movie afterwards.”
Another advantage of these religious gatherings is they are less likely to be canceled because many churches’ bylaws require congregations to hold annual conventions, Pinckney said. “After 9-11 there was a decline in attendance at professional conferences, but the numbers stayed steady for church conferences and in some cases even increased,” he said.
Although greater attendance at large church-oriented events is part of a broad social trend, Pinckney focused on black churches in his study. Historically, the church has assumed great importance to blacks because it was one of the few places in society that welcomed them, particularly before desegregation, when black-owned businesses were rare, he said.
“More than just a church, it became whatever the African-American community wanted it to be — a civic center, an after-school program and then a summer camp, even a homeless shelter,” he said.
Pinckney distributed questionnaires at seven Church of God by Faith congregations in Florida and Georgia during 2004. A total of 102 participants returned the surveys at the end of the church service or gave them to their pastors the following week.
Eighty-two percent reported having traveled to at least one Church of God by Faith national event. Sixty-one percent said they attended the four-day national convention for its entire length, while 26 percent said they were there for three days. The remaining 13 percent of churchgoers reported going for two days, with no one reporting a shorter visit.
While at the conventions, churchgoers reported sampling a variety of outside events such as sightseeing, shopping, visiting family or friends, and attending local performances or sporting events. The most popular activity was shopping– 30 percent reported heading for retail outlets –followed by visiting family and friends, 21 percent. Attending sports events was least popular, attracting only 5 percent.
Like major sporting events, church-oriented special events have been a financial boon to cities, with some attracting more than 80,000 visitors at a time and generating as much as $18 million for the local economy, Pinckney said. MegaFest, a religious event in Atlanta, draws about 150,000 a year, he said.
Lori Pennington-Gray, director for UF’s Center for Tourism Research and Development and a professor in UF’s tourism, recreation and sports management department who supervised Pinckney’s research, said the travel industry is recognizing the importance of such events by assembling more meeting planners specializing in this type of market, she said.
Because church-oriented special events operate on such a grand scale, they must usually be planned at least a couple of years in advance, Pennington-Gray said. “That makes them less vulnerable to fluctuations in the economy than segments of the leisure market where people’s discretionary income is affected if the economy takes a downturn,” she said.
DeWayne Woodring, executive director of the Religious Conference Management Association headquartered in Indianapolis, said a survey conducted by his organization shows that the number of religious meetings grew 195 percent in the past 10 years.
“Meetings are becoming more and more important because within this increasingly complex and global society, people feel a need to meet with others with whom they share a common faith, bond or purpose,” he said.