Last week in this space I described a proposed project to redevelop a portion of our campus to offer new modern lodging to conference center guests and retreat groups. (Click here to read the previous update.) Following that announcement the first questions started in a logical place. From where did the idea for this project come?
Let’s rewind the clock a few years back. I arrived as president in 2014, with timing that could not have been more fortuitous. Thanks to the leadership of my predecessor and the contributions of a community of staff, volunteers, and donors, the conference center had just completed the $5.7 million renovation of Assembly Inn. The impact of that project on the conference center and its programs cannot be overstated. Bookings for conferences and retreat groups increased and revenue rose, as did guest satisfaction in the Inn. Employee satisfaction increased. Overall, the improvement was profound, and we moved from being an organization of financial insecurity to one of relative stability, with increasingly strong conferences and programming attracting more people to Montreat, particularly in the fall, winter, and spring.
I say “relative stability” because, even after this success, many challenges remained. The lean years had left our staff undersized, with limited operating resources to propel our programs forward. Our reserves were building, but slowly. While we grew, one board member continually cautioned me, “Richard, this place is one bad break from being out of business.” (COVID has proved him wrong, but not by a lot.)
More present in my mind were the words of another Montreat president, George Barber, who had described the conference center’s financial history as one of cyclical failure and recovery. If so, how do we break that cycle? How do we turn relative stability into real stability? How do we equip ourselves not only to withstand the challenges of a changing church and world, but also to enable us to serve with new energy and ambition? In short, how do we grow our ministry in the new era in which we find ourselves?
Apart from fundraising, the mother’s milk of the conference center world is housing and hospitality. Everything we do – conferences, retreats, recreation programs, and all of the community responsibilities we carry in Montreat – just about all of it is subsidized by the revenue we earn from housing our guests in our facilities. The next transformative step was clear: with the Assembly Inn renovation complete, we needed to invest in our other lodges.
Besides the Assembly Inn, the conference center operates twelve lodges around Montreat, and in 2015 many of them needed significant upgrades and renovation. So we renovated – Hickory Lodge, Glen Rock, Winsborough, Walnut, Lookout, Sylvan, and Balsam – in all, we renovated seven lodges over five years, and we did see an uptick in occupancy and a return on our investment (about 15%). Relative to our experience with Assembly Inn, however, we just didn’t see the same leap forward in occupancy and revenue or guest satisfaction. We had to figure out why that was.
In 2018, we conducted interviews with a range of Montreat supporters, including cottagers, conferees, and others belonging to neither group. In these conversations we discovered an untapped interest in a new lodge experience in Montreat. While the Assembly Inn experience has many fans, some groups want a defined lodge experience. They want their own meeting spaces, want to cook their own meals, and enjoy their time set apart in a more discreet setting. In particular, they identified three attributes that would make up an ideal lodge: 1) a convenient location, basically as close to their meeting and eating spaces as possible; 2) accessibility, particularly for older guests; and 3) private bathrooms. These findings were further supported by the analysis of our own data when we checked occupancy rates room-by-room on our campus and by the experience of our sales and marketing teams. Location matters. Accessibility matters. Private bathrooms matter. At ground level and in the data, the patterns were obvious. We were able to draw several conclusions:
- We really lack the kind of lodge space to attract more adult groups, particularly in the fall, winter, and spring.
- Being in the center of campus is preferable both for our guests and for the surrounding neighborhoods, and so maximizing the use of our central campus should be a priority.
- Several of our existing lodges are still suitable for young adults and youth.
With these conclusions in mind, we noted the following:
- Our occupancy rates for our lodging during the summer season approach 100%, meaning only 25% of summer conference attendees stay on MRA property.
- The rental market for private homes in Montreat gets a little tighter each year.
- Many churches and other retreat groups are “standing in line” to come to Montreat during the fall and spring seasons.
- There is an unmet need for good lodging on our campus, and a potential new market for a Montreat lodge with updated rooms and support spaces.
In short, we confirmed that there was an opportunity to expand the conference center’s hospitality to new church groups over all four seasons. We came away convinced that an upgraded lodge located in the heart of town provided real potential to propel our ministry forward in the following decades.
There was just one problem: converting existing lodges like Winsborough and Glen Rock would require not only millions of dollars but also would also reduce the number of available rooms. Most of our lodge bedrooms just aren’t spacious enough to add private bathrooms to the floor plan. In some cases, meeting and kitchen spaces were inadequate. If in remodeling rooms we had to reduce the total room count, we’d essentially be running in place financially and in service to our mission.
The more we looked at the problems of renovation, the more obvious it became that new construction offered a much clearer path to success. So we began to ask the question: If we are to build the conference center’s first new lodge in thirty years, where do we put it? What would it cost? And most importantly, what could it do for our ministry? We pulled out the maps and began to think, to dream, and to hope.
Next week, I’ll review the discernment that led to the selection of our proposed site. So, more to come! RD
Montreat Conference Center