Event Planning 101: Retreat! Or Conference? - Sandy Cove Ministries
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    Perhaps you have heard the old joke:

    Q. “When is a car not a car?”
    A. “When it turns into a parking lot!”
    (And if you are like me, and not afraid of a good “dad joke,” tuck that one away to try later on your 7 year old.)


    A similar question, this time not a joke:

    Q. “When is a retreat not a retreat?”
    A. “When it turns into a conference!”

    Now this might sound like strictly semantics, but if you are a volunteer event planner for your church, hang with me and let's take a quick look at what the difference is, why it matters, and what we should do about it.


    More recently, I think the definition of a retreat has migrated to be something along the lines of a group coming away from their regular context, to a less formal setting, for the purpose of focusing on a specific task (planning, strategy etc.) and/or building a team by getting to know each other better.


    But more historically, I think a retreat had more spiritual roots – coming away, perhaps in silence and solitude, for the purpose of prayer, reflection, meditation and attending to the inward.


    A conference then, might be defined by a number of people interested in the same topic coming together to learn more about that topic.


    So what? Well, for one it is going to make a big difference where and how you plan your event. You could facilitate a retreat by providing rooms, food, an empty schedule and not much else. But a conference may require keynote speakers, breakout sessions, seminars, panels, and the works!


    Where do we start in sorting this all out then?


    1. Simple, but still true, is Stephen Covey's advice to “Begin with the end in mind.” As planners and programmers, that means making a list that answers the question “at the end of this event, what outcomes will show we were successful?” Is it specific information we want them to learn? A higher level of inspiration? A deeper level of community or networking? To be more rested or relaxed? To have processed their internal turmoil? To have a plan for the next year?


    2. Once you have identified your outcomes, (and realized you can't have an unlimited number) then translate that into what you add into your schedule. What elements will produce those outcomes? What will hinder them?


    We once had a conference for married couples that had multiple seminar blocks with very gifted, but academic presenters. There was a 3:30 – 5 pm seminar, followed by a “romantic banquet and date night.” We realized it was too much – couples had a hard time making that “hard left” turn from classroom to romance, never mind retaining what they had heard throughout that long day. Romance won out, and we entirely restructured that event, based on the desired outcomes of “encouragement and hope.” But even if you are planning a content-driven conference, with a lot of learning outcomes, keep in mind that just being talked at all day does not necessarily equal learning. Especially during that sleepy time right after lunch!


    3. Communicate your desired outcomes to your attendees. Help people set their expectations to be in line with the type of program you will be delivering, and the end result you are seeking to provide. If you can connect this to their “felt needs” they will be all the more motivated to attend and engage.


    Now, there is a decent chance that your event might not fall cleanly into the “retreat” bucket or the “conference” bucket. It will probably be some sort of hybrid. You can have an event that introduces a good deal of content, but takes place in a beautiful setting, and incorporates enough white space into the schedule to allow for informal networking, or a mental break to keep content blocks more effective. I see it here at Sandy Cove all the time.


    But if you are going to use either of those words in your communications, consider elaborating enough as to what that means in your context, to help clarify for people who may have their own definition of the term. Or just use other words that you can define by the experience itself. For example, “Women's Weekend” is free to be whatever we want it to – as long as it is for women and on a weekend.


    4. Finally, evaluate. Eyes and ears open during the event, then afterward too, simply seeking to answer the questions: Did we achieve the outcome(s) and are there changes that could help it to happen more or better?


    Time away with your group can be a powerful experience, and intentionally programming toward well-defined outcomes can help take it to the next level. And that is no joke!


    If you'd like to explore Sandy Cove as a possible “event” venue, start here.

    Nate Ransil
    Nate joined the Program department at Sandy Cove in 2003, and transitioned to director of that team in 2014. Nate graduated from Houghton College with a double major in Communication and Outdoor Recreation (yes, it is a thing) and got to know his wife Evelyn while co-leading backpacking trips for at-risk youth. Hopefully not as at-risk are their two sons, Caleb and TJ, who have spent all their summers at Sandy Cove, Camp Sandy Cove, and The MARSH! Nate enjoys being outside, being inside, being handy, the beach, snowboarding, roller coasters, training aardvarks, bodybuilding, contributing to quantum theory, and making up fanciful, if not entirely accurate, biographical details.