The Valdosta Daily Times
Most Lowndes Countians are familiar with the James H. Rainwater Conference Center. Maybe they’ve been there for a church lunch or a prayer breakfast, a sports awards show or a gun show, a bridal expo, a wedding or a lunch with the senators and members of Congress who represent us.
What they may be less familiar with is all the behind-the-scenes work that goes into putting on an event.
It starts with the initial talks between the Conference Center and the interested party. After hammering out what services the event will need — a full meal or just a snack bar and water station, a side room or the Grand Hall — scheduling for the event takes place, which can sometimes be a complicated matter.
In the past few years, the Rainwater’s business has increased, making the days when a person could call the month before to schedule an event largely a thing of the past.
The prime directive of the Rainwater is to have the largest economic impact possible on Valdosta. That means priority is given to larger events and big groups from out of town that will bring new money into the local economy.
“The new dollar that comes into town has a premium on it,” said Rainwater General Manager Tim Riddle. “It’s actually new money into the local pot, so to speak.”
That being said, out-of-town business accounts for about a quarter of Rainwater’s calendar, with the rest composed of local events: weddings, local churches, local corporate training sessions, Rotary clubs, class reunions.
“It’s a lot of local. We want out-of-town business, but we strive to take care of every customer because we would not survive without the local business.”
Preparation for the larger banquets sometimes starts a couple of days ahead of time, with ingredients being prepared. The day before, salads and desserts may be prepared, depending on what the event needs. Glasses and dishware are washed and prepped and any décor the event needs — from simple centerpieces to full-fledged decorations transforming a room into a scene straight from a Western movie.
On event day, preparation starts hours and hours prior to the event’s start.
Rooms are set up and the necessary equipment — an audio system, perhaps, or a few projectors — is wheeled in and plugged in. Linens and tables are placed, waiters are assigned areas, glasses are set out for tea and water. The cooking starts in earnest, with plates assembled item by item.
When the crowd arrives, the entire room becomes abuzz with activity, with waiters taking orders, refilling cups, bringing out dishes, bringing out more dishes, whisking away empty plates, bringing out coffee and desserts, whisking away more plates, refilling water and tea again.
When the banquet comes to an end, their work is only half over.
Tables are cleared and tablecloths are whipped off to be sent to a linen cleaners. Major food accidents, like a piece of pie being dropped on the floor, are cleaned, and the room is broken down. Once everything is out of the way, the whole floor is cleaned, and any odds and ends, like stray sugar packets on the floor, are handled.
The gargantuan task of washing the dishes of hundreds of people is undertaken, the trash taken out, plans are made for the next giant banquet, which may be a week away, two days or tomorrow, depending.
And that’s not all that’s happening behind the scenes.
Meanwhile, the Rainwater continues seeking the much-wanted out-of-town business.
For every out-of-town guest brought into a conference or event, it’s estimated they spend $180 a day, breaking down to $79 for lodging, $54 for meals and $47 for miscellaneous: gas, entertainment, etc.
For guests in the surrounding counties, the estimated expenditures are less, taking away the money spent on lodging, and making adjustments to the money spent for meals and miscellaneous, but it still adds up.
Take a month at random, say, last January. Between large events like the Bridal Expo, the Valdosta Baptist Association banquet, the Martin Luther King Commemoration Association banquet, the Chamber of Commerce banquet and other events, the Rainwater had a total attendance of 3,676 for the month. Once you factor in attendee days and adjust for local vs. out-of-town visitors, the economic impact of the Rainwater for January 2014 was $339,956.
That’s not counting the smaller, but important impact it has as a local employer, with 15 full-time positions and a number of part-time positions.
“With everybody I hire here, I give them the big picture. I want them to understand the role they play in the community. They’re part of Valdosta and Lowndes County’s economic-development program for the city and county.”