Greetings SBCVoices readers. My name is Bill Townes and I serve as the Vice President for Convention Finance and Convention Manager for the SBC Executive Committee.
I want to thank the SBCVoices team again for the opportunity to help shed some light on this issue. I apologize for the delay in responding, but I needed to do a lot of research to fully understand the issues that we were experiencing over and above some of the obvious challenges related to housing in Birmingham.
Our Convention planning team left for Birmingham around 6:00 am this past Monday and just returned to Nashville last night around 8:00 pm. This was one of our regularly scheduled site visits, but took on a much greater importance as we had significant meetings with the general manager of the Sheraton hotel and the president of the Convention Visitor’s Bureau. We had some very frank conversations regarding the issues we are facing (including those mentioned in the original blog post by Adam) with these local city leaders and they responded graciously and encouragingly.
Before I update you on the results of those, let me give you a glimpse into our housing guidelines process. (Because it is actually, very similar to what was suggested in the blog). The SBC Executive Committee Board has a policy that was last updated/approved in June 2011 that spells out for staff the process we use for assigning our room blocks to attendees. The policy requires the following:
At least 40 percent of the rooms in the convention hotel(s) will be available to individuals. The other 60 percent will be a sub-block for SBC entity presidents, officers, trustees, speakers, and Executive Committee staff that are required to be available for meetings in the hotel.” – June 2011
While the policy allows us to use up to 60% of the room block in the convention hotels, we limit ourselves to 50%, as we want to make as many rooms available as possible to general attendees.
Since housing always has a finite number of rooms available in the main hotels (closest to the Convention Centers). We open our housing reservations at a specific date/time (8:00 am central time) that is provided by notification to the entire SBC through Baptist Press (and of course SBC Voices). The only way we have found to do that fairly in our electronic environment is our current “First Come, First Click” process. We also limit each person to no more than 5 room reservations to allow as many general attendees as possible to obtain rooms in the main hotels. When we opened housing this year, we had 238 reservations within the first 3 minutes, and filled the entire available main co-convention hotel block before 8:04 am. So, actually we did (and always do) have a significant number of reservations within the first few minutes each year.
UNIQUE CHALLENGES (OPPORTUNITIES) IN BIRMINGHAM
Normally, our reservation process works very well and hotels do not fill up at 8:04. However, as you all are probably aware (alluded to in BP), we have had some significant challenges in Birmingham. We originally had 650 rooms committed/contracted at the Sheraton and 200 at the Westin (both connected to the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Complex. In September, we were notified that the Sheraton experienced catastrophic water damage that resulted in a loss of over 400 rooms to our contracted room block at the Sheraton. Resulting in a nearly 60% drop in available rooms at the Sheraton. So, the net result to the SBC was an overall loss of nearly 50% of rooms in the two Co-Convention hotels. That is why we delayed housing opening to find additional hotel rooms (at close to the same rate) that could fill the void lost at the Sheraton. As you can imagine, that 50% drop in rooms caused the remaining available rooms to be snapped up very quickly.
After some healthy and frank conversations with the Sheraton general manager, we made some good headway and received some helpful concessions. Unfortunately, the damaged rooms at the Sheraton are not anticipated to be fully renovated and back in service until July 2019. (Good for the Sheraton, but not immediately helpful to us). However, there is always the possibility that some rooms may come back in service as they are completed, and we are working on contractual addendums to require that we receive first availability for our attendees for any rooms that come back in service. (We are prayerfully hopeful). The Sheraton has been extremely helpful in securing additional hotel rooms throughout the city and is also going to provide shuttle assistance for any of these attendees that will have to be moved to the other hotels as a result of this as well as insuring that the rates were reasonably consistent (or a little less in some instances). With all of the inconvenience to us, we need to keeping the staff of the Sheraton in our prayers as they are experiencing these same conversations over and over with multiple groups and I am not sure if all of their clients interact like we do. (We believe in “saying what you mean, meaning what you say, but not saying it mean” – not original to me, but you can feel free to use this saying in the future).
Now on to the Westin and the part of the original post that took some additional research especially as it relates to Adam. After some thorough analysis by our housing bureau, they realized that a large number of reservations actually showed up inappropriately as “Waitlisted” on the Westin hotel. Remember, we only had 100 rooms generally available in that hotel (50% of the total contract) (it is a nice property, but small). Unfortunately, rather than just showing unavailable after the hotel room block was full, the system mistakenly opened up a waitlist on 317 reservations rather than directing them immediately to other hotels. Since this inconvenience/confusion was caused by the housing bureau program, our provider (Experient) is going to make a contribution of $2,500 to our SBC ministries through the Cooperative Program Allocation Budget. Additionally, Experient has been working behind the scenes to secure rooms for those already in the system. An email notification will be sent out to all of those waitlisted by accident next Monday to follow up on helping to accommodate their needs (if not already met).
As noted by one of the SBCVoices commenters, Birmingham is undergoing significant freeway infrastructure improvements that will ultimately improve the downtown connectors. The good news is that many of the new exit ramps are or will be completed to bring guests downtown and bypass the major bridge projects. In fact, city leaders explained to us that only “through traffic” (on I-20) will be diverted around the city during the project, which should help alleviate some of the downtown congestion for those intentionally heading downtown for convention meetings (like the SBC). So, again we are prayerfully optimistic on that project.
Due to the number of anticipated attendees, limited size of many of the hotels in Birmingham, geographic spread of the 37 contracted hotels, and limited local transportation options we will be using HOTEL shuttles again in 2019. We will probably be offering a number of solutions including Hotel Shuttles, Park and Ride lots (with shuttle) at local churches, and Uber and Lyft Event coupons (for those who use these services). Additionally, downtown parking concessions at the Sheraton hotel are being negotiated for those having to drive back and forth as a result of the damaged hotel rooms who would not normally need to. We continue to work with the great Birmingham CVB team to facilitate these issues and are very appreciative of their dedication and service. One additional good piece of news is that downtown parking is usually around $10 per vehicle.
So, suffice to say, the loss of hotel rooms at the Sheraton is what is driving most of the issue that Adam experienced (and others) and also being in a smaller city with smaller hotels. However, in spite of the challenges, we are excited about 2019 and bringing together Southern Baptists as we work together to share the Gospel throughout the world.
On another note, we had a great initial meeting with our Local Arrangements Committee in Birmingham this past Thursday. This diverse committee is comprised of committed local pastors, leaders from six local Baptist associations, Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions leaders (in fact, Dr. Rick Lance, Exec Director, with the ALSBOM volunteered as well!), WMU representatives, SBC Pastors’ Conference representatives, members of SBC President J.D. Greear’s team and other local leaders. We briefed them on all of the unique challenges that we are experiencing and they are committed to assisting and welcoming all of the SBC attendees to Birmingham for our historic 2019 SBC Annual Meeting. And yes, due to popular demand, the preferred twitter hashtag will be #sbc19!
Bill Townes, SBC Executive Committee
Vice President for Convention Finance/Convention Manager
Note: We are thankful for Bill Townes’ willingness to address the housing issues in Birmingham here at SBC Voices. The staff at the Executive Committee works very hard to ensure that our convention meetings are a success. I appreciate their willingness to answer important questions when asked. I find the information Bill shared here very helpful. I trust you will as well. -Adam Blosser