By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
For more than 250 exhibitors who cater to a niche clientele of Episcopalians, the start of General Convention on July 5 marked a long-awaited opportunity to greet, sell, and interact with the 3,200 registered bishops, deputies, visitors, and volunteers.
But the exhibit’s peripheral location — tucked away in a corner of the sprawling 246,000-square-foot Austin Convention Center — left some vendors feeling marginalized and disappointed, and that was not the only problem. Poor communication, scheduling conflicts, and unfulfilled promises added to the sting, said exhibitors who spoke with TLC.
Not everyone had a bad experience. Ministry exhibitors said the showcase was largely a success because their goal was simply to raise awareness and reinforce relationships. But some vendors who incurred a financial loss vowed never to exhibit at General Convention again.
“Everything I thought I was walking into did not pan out,” said Emily Wortman, a potter near Lafayette, Louisiana, who finds her baptismal bowls, chalices, and other altar adornments to be popular with Episcopalians — if she can grab their attention.
She spent $3,000 on booth fees, lodging, and other overhead costs, she said, and suffered a net $1,500 loss. She isn’t confident that follow-up orders will close the gap.
“I’m not coming back,” she said.
Wortman’s experience was not unique. Alabama artist Carol McGrady, who paints watercolors on papyrus and is a regular exhibitor at General Convention, also rented a 10-by-10 booth for four days. The booth cost about $1,300, she said. Like Wortman, her total overhead ran about $3,000; her revenue barely broke $1,500. After taking such a hit, she likely will not exhibit at future General Conventions, she said.
“Consistent hours would have helped,” said McGrady’s daughter and business partner, Michelle. “The hours changed every single day. Yesterday we were supposed to be open from 12 to 6, but then someone came around and said, ‘Do you know that we’re closing the exhibition hall at 4:30?’ Well, surprise! The lack of communication has been stunning.”
Every three years, General Convention’s Exhibit Hall becomes an Episcopal ministry fair, marketplace, and activity hub rolled into one. For anyone excited to chat with Episcopal nuns, try on a new cassock, or charter a Holy Land tour, it’s the place to be.
Yet for organizers of General Convention, scheduling posed some challenges for those in the exhibit space. At short notice, a worship service was moved to an earlier slot in the schedule, according to Nancy Davidge, the church’s interim public affairs officer.
That turn of events had ripple effects for exhibitors, she said, in part because General Convention differs from typical retail trade shows. To wit: when the church gathers for worship, the hope is that everyone will attend. That sometimes means shutting down exhibits so people are not tempted to shop during that time slot, according to Davidge.
“One of our primary reasons for gathering is for common prayer,” Davidge said. “The worship takes time every day, and that’s very important.”
Organizers also tried to condense General Convention closer to one week rather than two, as it has been in years past. Committees meet before the first legislative day, so total time wasn’t reduced for many participants. Compressed schedules meant meetings happened from early morning until well into the evenings, leaving little time for exhibit browsing.
What irked exhibitors, however, was a sense of not receiving what they paid for. Several referred to a floor map they received from General Convention organizers. Seeing the layout, they opted for sites in high-traffic locations near food vendors. But when they arrived, food vendors were not where the map said they would be. That meant vendors were in secluded corners where few would-be shoppers ventured.
The confusion arose because General Convention organizers decided to change course and place additional vendor booths in spots marked for food on the Austin Convention Center’s floor map, Davidge said.
“The map is what it is,” Davidge said. “It’s unfortunate that it has that option on it, and that it caused some confusion. But the space was used for booths.”
Some vendors believed opportunities were missed to promote the marketplace, which becomes a de facto Episcopal Church fair for more than a week every three years. General Convention did not advertise the exhibit hall locally, and the Diocese of Texas did not work at bringing in locals, except for the 948 volunteers who came largely from Texas.
“I don’t think bringing in the public was something we were expected to do,” said Jason Evans, a Diocese of Texas missioner who worked at the host diocese’s booth on July 9. “If vendors want promotions to market their products, that’s on them to do that.”
Challenges notwithstanding, this year’s General Convention notched some gains. The number of exhibits jumped 25 percent from 2015, according to the church’s data. The exhibit hall featured 179 organizations spread across 256 booths.
Also new this year was a policy of inviting the public to visit for a day. (In the past, only registered participants and volunteers could visit exhibits). But charging $15 to enter the Exhibit Hall likely diminished interest, vendors said. Three made that point but would not speak on the record out of concern that doing so would harm their General Convention relationships.
For some vendors, the traffic was disappointing but not enough to dampen the overall experience. Michael Gyura, whose Worship Times provides website and social media services for faith organizations, said on day one that his visit to General Convention would be a success if he could leave with 15 requests for proposals. With three hours to go on his last day, he had received only six. But he wasn’t discouraged.
“I’m the new kid on the block,” Gyura said, noting that his company had not exhibited before at General Convention and was not well-known beyond a handful of Episcopal clients. “It takes time. And we get a weekend for the staff in Austin in the meantime.”
Ministry exhibitors, who had less need for immediate returns than retail vendors, found plenty to like about the Exhibit Hall experience. Nashotah House Theological Seminary, for instance, simply needed to have a presence as an Anglo-Catholic seminary and help people from around the church get to know the administrative staff as regular, joyful people.
“You could get the wrong idea that [Nashotah House] is an emotionally austere place, but it’s really a very joyful place,” said Garwood Anderson, provost and interim dean and president. “That’s why this is what you see here,” he said, gesturing toward cheerful photos and smiling administrators in the booth.
Episcopal Migration Ministries exhibited in a location separate from the Episcopal Church Center for the first time this year. The agency shared a 10-by-10 booth with the Episcopal Public Policy Network. EMM has recently begun fundraising in the wake of reduced federal contracts for refugee resettlements. Exhibiting helped raise awareness of refugee resettlement as an Episcopal ministry and promote avenues by which congregations and dioceses can become involved.
“There are a lot of things that churches can do to have a seat at the table,” said Allison Duvall, manager for church relations and engagement at EMM, as she handed out materials at the booth.