Religious meetings attendance has been on a steady increase over the past two years, says Dean Jones, CMP, the director of conferences and events for Religious Conference Management Association (RCMA).

Jones cited several possible reasons for the climb, including RCMA’s efforts to innovate educational programs and improve services. More regional meetings are in the offing, so attendees can drive to destinations closer to their homes.

“Planners are looking for destinations that draw in families and are affordable,” Jones says, “so they can roll the family vacation into the conference time. DMOs and venues are getting better at offering incentives like menus for budget-minded groups, discounted AV and meeting rentals, all of which helps keep costs down.”

[Related Content: Q&A With Planner Dean Jones on Bringing the RCMA to Omaha]

Some cities are offering package deals to planners, he says, rather than an “a la carte” approach. The pricing strategies represent a change from a few years ago, Jones says, when the industry didn’t really understand the segment’s needs.

“Hotels are back to a seller’s market, but in order to win business, there is more collaboration among all providers for the bottom lines to look better,” Jones says. “Part of this goes to the fact that so many faith-based planners have remained loyal to a city or property, and the sellers want to honor them for their business loyalty.”

Chapters of fraternal groups like the Elks and Shriners continue to meet in most any economic climate, but Kelly Sabol, an account executive for Baltimore Area Marriott hotels with expertise in the SMERF market, reports some local chapters in this sector are meeting closer to home.

“In the current economy, we are seeing more fraternal chapters book locally to save travel expenses. They are also cutting back on food and beverage choices,” Sabol says. “Larger annual events continue to book well in advance, as much as two to three years out, but smaller meetings are getting booked a year out or less.”

Sabol also reports that fraternal meeting planners seem to have more experience in the meetings process than previously.

“Meeting planners [in the fraternal segment] are now more experienced, with better understanding of the structure of the hotel sales process,” Sabol says. “They are negotiating more and requesting fewer concessions.”

Natalie Hirsch, sales manager for the Colorado Springs [Colo.] CVB, says fraternal groups are coming later in the year to save money.

“They prefer summer dates because our weather is so fantastic, but they realize they can save by getting here from late August through mid-October,” Hirsch remarks. “They also like us because our rates on everything are much lower than Denver’s.”