Fort Wayne has long been known as the City of Churches, but it might be developing a new reputation – as the City of Church Conventions.
In recent years, religious groups with sizable numbers have flocked here for regional and even national gatherings, says Dan O’Connell, president of VisitFortWayne, which markets the city as a tourist and meeting destination.
Last summer alone, four major religious bodies brought conventions to Fort Wayne within an eight-week span – the Indiana-Kentucky Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Missionary Church, the Fellowship of Evangelical Churches and the United Brethren denomination.
Those groups comprised more than 2,700 people and generated $1.6 million in direct spending, O’Connell says, and they’re just a small part of the picture.
Seven other groups of 200 or more people – including the American Guild of English Handbell Ringers and Youth for Christ – all met last year at the Grand Wayne Center. Meanwhile, Memorial Coliseum hosted several Christian concerts and other events that attracted thousands each.
Smaller groups met in hotels, on college or seminary campuses or at individual churches without using the services of VisitFortWayne.
Groups included the National Association of Burmese Catholics, which brought more than 1,000 people from around the United States to Fort Wayne in September for events that included a Mass that nearly filled the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.
Another long-standing group consists of Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod scholars, pastors and laypeople from around the world who meet about 500-strong each January at a symposia series at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne.
The trend, tourism officials say, is shaping up to continue.
Five groups’ events have been booked for this year at the Coliseum, the Grand Wayne Center and Hotel Fort Wayne, with six more scheduled for 2015 and early 2016. More bookings for all three years are still being negotiated, officials say.
While the number of gatherings for 2014 is smaller than 2013’s, planners estimate that attendees at this year’s already-scheduled events will more than triple to 20,680. By the end of 2015, the already-booked events are expected to generate about $3.2 million for the local economy.
Perhaps the biggest coup for 2014, planners say, is the booking of Living Proof Live, the conference arm of Beth Moore, a nationally popular TV Bible teacher who previously has had sold-out events in Indianapolis.
Moore will appear Sept. 13 at the Coliseum and is expected to attract more than 12,000 people, says Randy Brown, the Coliseum’s executive vice president and general manager.
Also scheduled is a worldwide simulcast through a satellite hook-up the facility can accommodate, he says.
“Part of what makes the Coliseum so attractive is the versatility of the building,” Brown explains.
“We have the main arena, which seats up to 13,000, but we can accommodate up to 8,000 in the Expo Center, which can be divided into two areas. We also have a smaller meeting quarters in the Appleseed Room.”
Bob Willey, president of Fort Wayne-based Trinity Communications, a nonprofit corporation that markets Christian music and worship events nationwide, has been booking Christian concerts and worship events in Fort Wayne for 33 years.
Venues he’s booked include the Coliseum, Embassy Theatre, the Grand Wayne Center and what is now the University of Saint Francis Performing Arts Center.
“It’s a lot of people from the Fort Wayne area (who come), but we also draw from Ohio and Michigan. And, some of these events, because it’s a weekend event, people drive in from Kentucky and Illinois. We’ve even had some from Wisconsin and Minnesota come and make a weekend of it.
“They stay in hotels and they eat at restaurants and they shop. So a lot of (religious) people are bringing money into Fort Wayne.”
O’Connell says Fort Wayne appeals to geographically broad-based religious groups because of its central Midwest and easy-to-reach location.
The city is more affordable and easier to navigate than larger cities such as Chicago and has developed a reputation for wholesomeness that meshes well with church folks’ values, he says.
“It isn’t too big a city that might scare some people,” O’Connell says. “There’s nice housing in the hotels, nice dining and a nice (convention) facility that’s conveniently located.”
To that list of Fort Wayne amenities, the Rev. Heather Apel of Noblesville adds “nice people.”
She serves as assistant to the bishop for synod assembly planning for the ECLA’s Indiana-Kentucky Synod, which has about 200 congregations. Fort Wayne has hosted the group for many years when the synod meets in the northern part of its territory, Apel says.
“The relationship between the city and us just worked really well,” she says. “The people there are very accommodating. They’re easy to work with.”
Apel says synod-elected delegates spend most of their time in business meetings inside the Grand Wayne Center. But they often bring family members who get the chance to explore the attractions of Fort Wayne, such as the TinCaps, the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo and downtown museums.
“We also liked that Trinity English Lutheran Church was just a couple blocks’ walking distance – and we could have a worship service there,” Apel says.
She’s already working on booking the synod’s 2015 assembly in Fort Wayne.
O’Connell says local officials “have earned a lot of trust” with religious bodies, several of which are locally based or have members or officials with local ties.
The staff, he says, has been “intentionally marketing” to religious groups for about two decades, routinely attending the trade show of the Religious Convention and Meeting Association, where booking business is done, to sell the faithful on Fort Wayne.
Church groups make up only about 25 percent of the city’s convention business, O’Connell says, but about half the groups have returned after booking once.
“Our business, the hospitality business, is all about relationships,” he says.
That’s also true with churches, says Josie O’Donnell, group sales manager for VisitFortWayne. Even though technology is increasingly used during meetings of religious groups, it hasn’t supplanted the need for people to meet, she says.
“People still do want to see people in person and meet people and talk to people face to face,” O’Donnell says. “It’s the fellowship, and that’s important to church people.”