More than 65,000 Adventists from almost 200 countries are expected to visit San Antonio during the 10-day General Conference Session, which opened today in the city’s Alamodome.
“This is the largest, and longest, gathering we have ever had in the city — by far,” Richard Oliver, director of communications for the San Antonio Convention and Visitors Bureau, told Spectrum. “And we are a town famous for being able to host big conventions.”
Until now, the largest convention ever held in San Antonio was a 50,000-strong meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous in 2010, Oliver said.
The Adventists who have flown into San Antonio are expected to fill about 10,000 hotel rooms, and bring $41 million to the city, according to the Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Local newspapers, radio and TV stations are all running stories about the meeting.
But this convention differs from others beyond its large size.
“There aren’t too many conventions with such a diverse makeup from around the world,” Oliver said. “All of a sudden your signage becomes more important. For instance, we don’t want people who might be used to a different traffic protocol to step out into the street.”
Behind the scenes, there are regular meetings of police, security officers, and communications teams making sure all of the attendees from around the world are kept informed and stay safe.
But Oliver says that San Antonio’s easy walkability is one of the major factors that won the city the bid to host the meeting of the worldwide Adventist church nine years ago. With people coming from so many places around the world, the ability to walk between the stadium, the convention center and hotels and restaurants was key.
The San Antonio Convention and Visitors Bureau also contacted the downtown restaurants with suggestions for tailoring their menus for what must be the largest gathering of vegetarians in the world. Casa Rio (the oldest restaurant on the Riverwalk), Schilos (a famous old German restaurant downtown), and Bohanan’s (a popular steakhouse), among others, all adapted their menus to be more vegetarian-friendly. “We are Tex-Mex, we are beef and cheese, but we are able to adapt,” Oliver said.
The convention center, which is serving up to 10,000 at every meal, has planned a menu for delegates and visitors that includes Adventist favorites haystacks and Special K loaf.
The small snack centers in the convention center are offering tofu dogs and veggie burgers, alongside hummus, fruit, salads, and more traditional candy bars and potato chips. But by late afternoon today all of the hot food was sold out. The coffee urns sit empty. “We have been asked not to serve any coffee,” the cashier told me.
Getting from the Alamodome, where all of the business meetings and large gatherings take place in the 65,000-seat stadium, to the convention center, where exhibitors from Adventist institutions around the world have set up booths in three large exhibit halls, takes a little bit of walking. The walk skirts the edge of a construction site where the convention center is being expanded. A brand new walkway over a road and under a highway was just opened on Tuesday, and makes reaching the Alamodome much easier. The walkway is filled with people in traditional dress, representing their countries. Watching all the passersby, listening to many different languages, truly makes you feel part of a worldwide movement. There are friends reuniting after long separations. There are small groups praying together.
And there are police officers directing traffic and pedestrians, “ambassadors” in yellow shirts answering questions and giving directions, and lots of signs giving information about where to find things.
San Antonio is putting a big effort into welcoming the Adventist church members from around the world.
Adventists have also made a concerted effort to make a difference in their host city. In April, more than 6,000 people were offered free healthcare at a clinic staffed by Adventist volunteers. This week, 450 Adventist young people, organized by the General Conference Youth Department are spending their afternoons cleaning graffiti, and other street ministries.
San Antonians will likely remember Adventists as the people who didn’t drink coffee or eat meat, but hopefully also as people who made a difference by helping the local community.
Photo: Friends talk on the new walkway bridge. Photo by Steven Norman lll/NAD.