LCN Article
Feast of Tabernacles Preparation: A Look Behind the Scenes

September / October 2022

The 2022 Feast of Tabernacles is nearly upon us, and members throughout God’s Church are busy preparing to attend their assigned or chosen Festival site. But very few of us know the half of what goes into preparing those sites for us.

To deepen our understanding of the work behind the Feast, we sat down with the Church Administration Department’s Assistant Director Rod McNair, along with Executive Administrative Assistant Tyler Wayne, and asked for their perspectives on the work involved with making the Feast of Tabernacles so enjoyable for the brethren.

Festival Site Criteria

What makes a potential Feast site? The answer, according to Mr. McNair, is a delicate balance. “I was always struck by just how many criteria there are for selecting Festival sites,” he said. “One thing is, we want it to not be in the middle of a city. What we’re looking for is somewhere close to nature, where God’s creation helps us to get closer to Him. But we want it to be close to an airport, someplace where there is easy access to transportation. And these two criteria don’t usually go together!”

But although the ideal Feast site isn’t in the city, it’s not far from the city, either. “We also want it near some restaurants, hotels, and recreational places where families can do things together,” Mr. McNair added. “And it has to be affordable, because many people, especially our seniors and young families, are on a budget.”

Such varied criteria make for interesting discussions with industry representatives. “You tell them it needs to be family friendly,” Mr. McNair described, “without a lot of seedy parts of town—but near the beach would be fine! It needs to be inexpensive, with lots of housing available—but not in an overly urban area! You start stacking up these different criteria that all look contradictory. How can you possibly find places that check all those boxes? Yet that is what we look for—where God places His name.”

Mr. Tyler Wayne handles many of these discussions. “I gather proposals from different locations and interface with the hotels about price and availability,” he said. But it’s not all about what’s on paper. “After we get a proposal from a venue, we’ll ask a local minister to go to that site and have a look around,” Mr. Wayne added, “because you can only learn so much from pictures. For example, there was one spot where the proposal came back and looked good, but we asked a minister to check it out, and he said that as soon as he got out of his car, all he could hear was the highway. There was another venue that really did not look like a good spot, but the minister we asked to look at it said it’s actually really nice. You just don’t know until you’re on site.”

Contracts and Room Blocks

So, where do these proposals come from? “We currently receive proposals from a service where suppliers are on one side and clients are on the other,” said Mr. Wayne. “We’re a supplier, because we’re supplying the business to the venues, so it’s free for us. I build a request for proposals and send it through this program to different hotels, so they get our parameters: We need a certain amount of space, people are coming on certain dates, we have a particular budget that we’re looking at—and they can either decline it or send a proposal back. I collect those until we have some options.”

Gathering proposals isn’t as simple as just collecting information from the venues; sometimes they need information about the Church and the Feast. “Sometimes they’ll have questions about the event,” said Mr. Wayne, “like whether we need the meeting space through the whole Feast, because some places might want to flip the room and use it for somebody else in the evenings—we tell them that we want the room 24 hours a day. Sometimes a hotel will think that everyone at the Feast site will be staying there, and I’ll have to tell them, No, we only need a handful of rooms, because people are going to stay wherever they want. I answer a lot of questions like that.” Mr. Wayne keeps a detailed record of the proposals he receives. “I fill in all their information, like the hall capacity and square footage, how much it’s going to cost, if they have any food and beverage requirements, and what the rooms are going to cost. All those venues are categorized and broken down by state, so we can keep things organized.”

But a proposal is only the first step—if a venue looks like it has potential, Mr. Wayne will request a contract. “We’ll then evaluate the contract, and sometimes the terms don’t work for us,” he said. “For example, a lot of places have resort fees. So, the hall might be at the top of what we really want to budget for, but then they have a $30-per-night resort fee—that puts us outside of our budget. So, we may ask them if there’s any way they can reduce it, or have it waived.”

According to Mr. McNair, the contracts with various vendors represent the most complicated part of Feast preparation. “The contracts for next year’s Feast have to be signed even before this year’s Feast is over,” he said. Otherwise, “you’re already scrambling to find something, because at that point, you need to be already going through the planning process. In June of this year, we were already working on sites for 2023.”

A vital aspect of finalizing many contracts is negotiating how many rooms a hotel venue will reserve, or “block,” so that Church members will be able to book them at a reduced rate for the Feast. “A lot of hotels have attrition,” explained Mr. Wayne, “so, if they’re blocking 60 rooms for us, they might allow for 20 percent attrition. That means they understand that we can’t guarantee that our members will book all 60 rooms, and they’ll allow us to reduce that number by 20 percent, so it’s okay if we only book 48 rooms. If a contract says we need to book a certain number of rooms and the hotel doesn’t have any attrition, we’re probably not going to sign.”

For vendors who haven’t worked with God’s Church before, this can be confusing. “We sometimes have to explain to vendors that we have open housing,” said Mr. McNair. “If you have a business convention, you can have 1,000 people come in and all stay at three hotels, because they’re all making their reservations through you. We don’t do that—hopefully we offer the brethren housing that is useful and within their budget, but if it’s not, they’re free to find something else.”

Sometimes, Church members have questions about this, too. “People will wonder why we stay in places where we have to commit to a certain number of rooms,” Mr. McNair said. “When we can find it, the ‘gold standard’ is always a standalone hall, where we don’t have to commit to a certain number of rooms.” But that’s not always possible—in fact, it usually isn’t. “It’s more and more rare to find just a convention hall or music performance hall that’s affordable and suitable,” he continued. “So, what’s the next best thing? A hall that’s attached to a hotel. But then people will stay at that hotel for convenience, so if we pay for the hall alone, they don’t get any discounts for staying there. So, if we can’t have a stand-alone hall and we have to use a hotel, we try to get a discount for those who stay there. And that is a model that hotels are always familiar with, so it works pretty well. That’s the main point—if our brethren are going to stay there anyway, we might as well have them get discounts for it.”

Nevertheless, “we try to commit to as few rooms as possible,” Mr. McNair said, “because even if we have 400 people coming to a site, we know not all 400 are going to be staying at that hotel, so we’ll only commit to filling something like 50 rooms during the Feast. There are times when we are stuck in a commitment to a certain number of rooms—it was the best we could do, so we tell brethren, If it fits within your budget and it’s not a hardship for you, it will help us if you stay at the hotel.

However, Mr. McNair emphatically stated that this is not a requirement. “If the host hotel does not work for you, we’re not expecting you to stay there,” he said. “There are some brethren who feel as though they must stay at a Feast site’s host hotel, but it really does have to fit their situation. We are not pushing at all for people to stay in places they can’t afford.” While there are brethren who greatly enjoy being so close to the site’s meeting hall, others will need more spacious accommodations. “Many families need kitchens, so it doesn’t make sense for them to stay in a hotel room.”

Working with Coordinators

Festival coordinators work extremely hard to make their sites run smoothly—but who coordinates the coordinators? “After the Feast is over, one of the first things we do is figure out the coordinators for next year’s sites,” Mr. McNair answered. “It has to be discussed with Dr. Winnail and Mr. Weston, because managing a Feast site is a heavy responsibility. There is a lot of detailed organizational work, and some people just gravitate to that—so, we take that into account. Sometimes one man from one area will coordinate a site for several years, and then he’ll get to take a break, and someone else will do it for several years.”

While sites outside the United States are primarily managed by the Church’s regional offices, Mr. Wayne spends considerable time assisting many Festival coordinators with preparations for their specific sites. “A big part of our job is getting the coordinators what they need,” he said. “Near the end of 2021, we scheduled out all the important deadlines for 2022, leading up to Festival registration. We give the coordinators deadlines to submit their information about housing accommodations, what the site is like, maybe what activities they will offer, and we’ll upload that to the Festival microsites. We also handle a lot of the business side of things, like the payments. Ms. Amanda Casey spends a ton of time dealing with the finances for the Feast. Basically, from Feast to Feast, we have processes going on.”

Of course, one essential task is determining who will be giving sermonettes and sermons at the Feast, and when they will be giving them. “Usually, we aim to have the speaking schedules out before the Feast starts—that’s our goal, anyway,” Mr. McNair said, chuckling. “I jest—hopefully, by the end of June or by early July, we have them ready to send out, so speakers will know and have a couple of months. We want them to spend time preparing—it’s hard to do that if you don’t know you’re going to be speaking!”

Festival Registration

As one can imagine, managing Festival registration represents a major part of the workload. “We spend a ton of time helping people sign in to their accounts and register,” said Mr. Wayne. “We also spend time making sure that the Festival sites do not get overfilled. The IT department has built a system that shows us how many people have registered for each site, and those who have not yet registered.” Registering for the Feast as quickly as possible, even to simply confirm attendance for an assigned site, makes things much easier for Church Administration—and for the rest of our brethren, as well. “At one time,” Mr. Wayne said, “there were around 100 people waiting to get into a site, but we couldn’t let them all in until more people who were assigned to that site had registered to let us know where they wanted to go.”

And assigned sites aren’t just a matter of matching brethren to their nearest one. “Sometimes we assign certain sites to more people than we can actually fit there,” said Mr. Wayne, “because we know that many people are going to transfer somewhere else. We’ve rarely had a problem with over-assigning to a site, because we generally have a pretty good idea of what to expect. And sometimes, for example, we’ll assign about 200 people to a beach site even though we have room for 400 people there, because we know we’ll have a lot of transfers to that site—a lot of people want to go to the beach.”

Where God Places His Name

In all of this, Church Administration strives to work in accordance with God’s will, and He makes that will known in various ways. “Sometimes God tells us where He’s placed His name through the fact that there are just no other options,” said Mr. Wayne. “A good example is a few sites we have on the East Coast—they’ve been great sites, but we started looking at other places to see what else is out there and whether we’d get any better prices. We ended up just spinning our wheels—nothing was coming up, or venues weren’t getting back to us. But the places where we were already, they were like, Come on back! And they continue to give us good rates. It’s obvious that God is keeping the door open in those spots.”

As we all know, doing God’s will is the very purpose of keeping the Feast of Tabernacles, and Mr. McNair emphasized that we need to be diligent in staying focused on it. “In speaking about the different parameters of the Feast,” he said, “it’s important to note that, while the Church tries to find places that ‘check all the boxes,’ the big priority is just that we have a place to worship God in peace and harmony. We can fall into the trap of thinking that the Feast is all about amenities and things to do, especially in the more affluent nations. But the more all of us can focus on the real purpose of the Feast—growing together as a family as we worship our Creator—the more we won’t get sidetracked by distractions and side-issues like housing and recreation.”

Every year, God miraculously enables the Feast of Tabernacles to run smoothly for scores of Festival sites around the world. In doing so, He uses not just a few people, but many. “All of us who are involved with the Feast know that it really takes a lot of people,” Mr. McNair said. “It’s not just the handful of people at Headquarters, it’s not just the coordinators and their assistants—it’s sort of an army of people who make the Feast run. It’s really inspiring and exciting to think that all of us can experience this foretaste of the Millennium.”

May that Millennium come swiftly, and may we all keep God’s Feast this year with even greater appreciation for all He accomplishes through His people!