In her role as the Assistant to the Bishop for the Indiana-Kentucky Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Rev. Heather Apel found herself being responsible not only for the annual meeting, but also a few smaller meetings throughout the year. Not being a planner by trade, Heather turned to the expertise and guidance of the Visit South Bend team. There, she found the guidance and help she needed to ensure her events were a success. Read on to find out about Heather’s journey into event planning and how Visit South Bend has become her invaluable resource.
SUZZANNE: Tell us, what was your first job in the industry? How did you evolve to where you are now?
HEATHER: My education and formation prepared me to be a Lutheran pastor. After seminary, I served a congregation in Indiana for 5 years, and then was asked to join the bishop’s staff. We are a synod (a regional body) of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, serving over 180 congregations and ministries throughout Indiana and Kentucky.
One of my responsibilities is to plan and coordinate our annual synod assembly, which brings together pastors, other rostered leaders and church members from across our territory. The synod assembly is not only our legislative body for the synod, but we incorporate worship, learning, fellowship and collaboration at this annual event.
I have now been in this role for 5 years, and learned a lot about meeting planning through trial and error those first few years. I met several people in the industry that gave me advice and tips on the ins and outs of event planning, and also attended some conferences to learn more about the best practices, as I had no experience in large group event planning.
SUZZANNE: What is the hardest/most challenging part of your job? What do you most enjoy?
HEATHER: In my role as an Assistant to the Bishop, event planning is just one of the responsibilities that I have. I also work with leaders and congregations throughout our two states, oversee several programs and ministries, and also serve in our national denomination at times.
What has been challenging in this job is finding the time to learn and improve my event planning skills and knowledge, alongside all of the other aspects of my work. Other than our large annual synod assembly, I do plan a few smaller conferences and retreats throughout the year, but I am not doing event planning as a primary job each day, which makes it hard to keep up with some of the tasks and responsibilities.
What I enjoy most about my work are the people that we meet who work and serve in the event, hotel and hospitality industry. As I mentioned above, several of the CVB staff or convention center staff have supported me and helped me learn more about what to do and not do. They are the people who often work unnoticed before and during the event to make sure our attendees have a positive experience, and I have deep appreciation for what they do on a daily basis and the assistance they have provided me.
I value their knowledge and inside information to the area where we are planning to hold an event. Although we only hold our annual assembly in locations throughout Indiana or Kentucky, and frequently return to locations where we have had good experiences, there is no way I could know all of the hotels, meeting spaces, restaurants, activities, etc. in any location.
We have relied on the connections of the CVB, both in South Bend and other cities, to help us meet our needs for our assembly. Sometimes this has meant finding a last minute hotel to accommodate an overflow of attendees when our primary hotel was booked, or finding buses or vans for transportation between venues. I have always found the CVB staff to be very responsive to my emails and phone calls, assisting us in whatever ways they can as the on-site connection to the city.
A CVB is like planning a vacation to a particular area, knowing that you have a friend or family member who lives in that city. That friend or family member will be able to provide you with suggestions on places to go, or restaurants to try, which you may not find in a travel book or website.
The CVB is your inside source and connection to that city, as a group of people who know what’s happening in that place. They can suggest hotels, meeting spots, activities and attractions to visit as the “local” expert and resource.
We chose to hold our recent synod assembly in South Bend because the meeting space in the Century Center perfectly fit our needs, and we value the close proximity and skybridge connection of the DoubleTree by Hilton hotel next door.
We also chose this location because of the lower costs of the Century Center and hotel lodging, as compared to other meeting/lodging options in other cities throughout Indiana and Kentucky.
And the third reason we chose South Bend was the support and resources that the CVB provided us, from lists of activities for families who attended, help in the contract negotiation process, to financial incentives to host our meeting in South Bend.
I don’t keep up with the trends or innovations of meetings across the industry. What I know from the 5 years I have been doing this for our church denomination is that we are using more technology both before and during the event. Several years ago we transitioned to online registration, then sending out all event information via email and websites. Now we have incorporated electronic voting devices for our business sessions, and hope to begin using event apps like Guidebook for future assemblies.
Thank you Heather for taking the time to talk with us about your experience working with South Bend!