(RNS) — In early March, Harry Schmidt learned the answers to questions some religious conference organizers may be asking: What’s it like to hold an in-person event in the midst of an ongoing pandemic?
When more than 300 planners and exhibitors gathered in North Carolina at the Religious Conference Management Association’s annual meeting, they got a glimpse of what could be ahead for their upcoming convocations, synods and general assemblies:
Four people — sitting 6 feet apart — were served fresh prepackaged meals at round tables set 10 feet apart in a ballroom in the Charlotte Convention Center.
Attendees walked along one-way aisles in the exhibit area, where they could speak face-to-face — or, rather, mask-to-mask — but there was no handing out of “trade-show tchotchkes.”
Registrants were screened before entering the building and given a QR code to present once they were inside.
“It really became a great model,” said Schmidt, president and CEO of the Indianapolis-based association that worked in collaboration with regional convention and public health officials in planning the event.
“Everybody wore a mask at all times except for when they were actually consuming food.”
Religious conference planners and exhibitors, like the hundreds gathered in early March in Charlotte, are waiting to hear whether their meetings will go on as expected this year and contemplating how those conferences will look as the pandemic continues and vaccination levels increase.
Schmidt said the RCMA meeting included planners and suppliers from 34 states. Thirty-one percent of the people who gathered — from Seventh-day Adventists to Pentecostals to Methodists — were first-time attendees.
Many of RCMA’s members didn’t meet last year as the COVID-19 rates spiked during the summer and surged again in the fall during months that religious conventions often are held.
“Large meetings, by and large, were canceled,” he said of RCMA’s membership, many of whom found virtual alternatives to be cost-prohibitive.
Now, Schmidt is hearing reports of solidifying plans and significant hotel bookings.