How Birmingham was chosen to host 2019 Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting

By Grace Thornton
The Alabama Baptist

Bill Townes’ road to Birmingham began in 2014 — that’s when the Southern Baptist Convention’s (SBC) Executive Committee (EC) performed its first site visit there.

“Probably the most significant thing I remember is the gracious hospitality of those we interacted with in Birmingham,” said Townes, the EC’s vice president for convention finance who oversees planning for the SBC annual meeting. “They were genuinely excited about their city and about the possibility of welcoming and hosting Southern Baptists from around the United States to their hometown for an event our attendees would not soon forget.”

Site visits

It would be the first of many site visits. Each year Townes and his colleagues are tasked with the overall responsibility of identifying possible future locations for the SBC annual meeting, then making a recommendation to the convention messengers for consideration.

It’s a big job. There’s a lot to consider.

First, does a city possess enough hotel rooms? For it to be a “yes,” a city must have up to 4,000 hotel rooms, with a minimum of 1,500 rooms within two miles of the selected meeting venue, according to the convention guidelines written in 2011.

As for the meeting venue itself it must include a minimum seating capacity of 16,000 and an exhibit space of at least 90,000 square feet (that space also must be in the same building complex as the main convention hall). And of course there must be enough additional space in the building for luncheons, dinners and other meetings Southern Baptist groups want to host in conjunction with the main meeting.

The EC takes into consideration other factors too — such as cost, transportation accessibility and good geographic proximity to the Southern Baptist population. They also try to move it around as best they can.

“In practice that involves identifying eastern, central and western locations in a generalized rotation,” Townes said.

Once they’ve identified some future sites they reach out to the city and facility and ask them to submit a “request for proposal” or RFP. Then after they receive the RFP they carry out even more site visits to review the venue and hotel accommodations.

And for each year’s meeting the EC submits three RFPs.

“This multiple bid process allows us to negotiate the best possible pricing and venue for each year’s SBC annual meeting in order to recommend several sites that have availability and fit our general site rotation pattern,” Townes said. 

Once the convention approves a site planning is in full swing. Five years out they finalize contracts with the hotels and convention center. One to two years out they select additional hotels. About a year out they start initial engagement with a local arrangements committee and have a gathering with the committee in October before the summer meeting.

Then in the meeting year site visits transpire in January, March and May, and monthly conference calls take place in February and April.

“As with any event this size it takes an incredibly committed team to make it happen,” said Townes, who serves on the EC logistics planning team with Lynn Richmond, the meeting planner. 

Townes has worked on seven of the past SBC annual meetings and is currently working on eight future ones.

Richmond has worked on the past 25.

“I handle site visits, contracts, assign sub-blocks for entities and monitor all housing issues from beginning to end,” Richmond said.

She also manages catering, equipment inventory, child care, security, police, shuttle services and a host of other things.

‘Father’s business’

“During the annual meeting my office is command central,” Richmond said. “I like to say I am the ‘fire chief’ — I put out whatever fires come up during set-up and throughout the event.”

Townes said each and every one of the EC staff is involved in multiple aspects of the planning and preparation each year, as are a number of volunteers and contractors.

“Each year I look forward to seeing all of the planning come to fruition to support the mission and ministries of Southern Baptists as we come together to be about our Father’s business and to ultimately see Him glorified in all that we do as we renew our commitment to share the gospel around the world,” he said.