Stats vary, but the trend shows that portable churches make up over 20 percent of all new churches in the United States. A ‘portable church’ is a local congregation without a permanent facility, and often meet with the help of volunteers for setup and tear-down in venues such as schools, movie theaters and community centers. Technology is a major factor in these churches and the market is ripe for innovation and focused marketing efforts on the behalf of manufacturers and systems integrators. This is the untapped market — portable churches.
Easy, Portable, and Easy
Similar to performance venue load in and load out, everything has to be rack mounted in portable road cases. In fact, the similarities between a portable church audio/video/lighting rig isn’t all that different, functionally, as a concert venue. The biggest differences are in scale and connectivity.
For the most part, portable churches are small operations relying on the manpower of volunteers willing to arrive two to three hours before service. Because of this, these systems need to be extremely well designed for optimizing efficiency and connectivity. The size of these operations is usually limited to about a dozen or so volunteers, so every road case has to be easy for a two-person team to move, unpack and prep.
In the professional touring market, the engineers and roadies know their jobs and the gear well. They’re used to making cables, re-configuring audio snakes and edge-blending projectors. From stage plots to audio matrixes to ringing out the system, these pros have the experience (and, often a half day or one day load in) to make portable work very, very well. The constraints on a portable church are both limited by time (two- to three-hour prep time is typical) and volunteers who work hard and are teachable, but lack years of experience in touring. This opens up the approach for selling to the portable church market to be one that is unique, simplified and affordable.
Systems Integrators and Simple Selling
A systems integrator should love this market: pre-designed, zero-engineering required per project, as one large box-sale. This is the epitome of simple selling. The opportunity to not only provide ready-to-go packages, but the documentation, color-coded connectivity, and pre-determined cable runs is a huge win-win scenario for the church and the integrator.
While it should be simple picking off the low-hanging fruit, very few integrators – even those focused on churches — have addressed this market segment well. In fact, there a grand total of two firms — Portable Church Industries and Church on Wheels — that have directly focused on these churches. As thousands of churches are planted each year, with a portion of those in portable scenarios, the opportunity is clear: Address this underserved market with simple, portable systems.
How Manufacturers Can Address Portable Churches
Depending upon the company and technology, some manufacturers are in a position to provide portable church kits. Approaching it from another direction, if a manufacturer currently has a strategy for selling their products in the rental and staging and touring markets, they likely can adapt those strategies in order to sell to portable churches.
It’s not hard to envision a trade-up, trade-in scenario whereby a manufacturer provides a guaranteed upgrade path with guaranteed buy-back pricing when trading-up. This not only endears the church to your brand, it makes volunteer training easier through consistent product menus and operation as their technology needs scale up with their growth and budget.
There’s even the opportunity to demonstrate how your a brand’s technology can be used today in a portable venue and easily installed in a permanent venue should the church purchase a facility.
Video Training for Portable Churches
I’ve written about the need for more training of church volunteers by manufacturers and systems integrators alike, so this isn’t new territory. There’s a huge opportunity to either sell (package with the sale) or give away training on how to set up your pre-configured portable church systems on video. The up-front costs are minimal and the opportunity to re-purpose the videos is immense, with only minor changes needed (simple video edits) as technology is upgraded.
To this day, I still link to a YouTube video of a roadie slowly demonstrating ‘over-and-under’ cable wrapping. This kind of simple training is viewed thousands of times because there’s always a new group of volunteers that are seeing this for the first time. Consider how many short, simple videos your company could shoot and publish to help users understand how to maximize your gear! Instead, the assumption is that pros with decades of experience are the exclusive users of products – when that’s just not the case.
Reaching Portable Churches
It may surprise you to learn that that a high percentage of portable churches are not started from scratch, but are part of a multi-site strategy of existing churches. That’s right: Plenty of larger churches are choosing to add new campuses that meet in schools, movie theaters and community centers because the overhead costs are far lower as they experiment with increasing their community reach.
These existing churches often have technical staff and will have the experience and expertise to buy larger, more complex portable systems than the typical small church plant, making this a market that not only serves the inexpensive box sale, but also the larger portable system sale. There are some churches spending six figures on each portable campus’ A/V/L technology. It’s not just for those with $20,000 budgets for everything.
I rarely see advertising in the church technology and church leader magazines/online websites that focuses on portable churches, and it makes me wonder how existing churches would respond if their favorite manufacturers starting promoting towards this segment of their market. For most mega-churches (those with 2,000+ attendance), the likelihood of adding portable churches is high, with a recent survey showing more than 50 percent of these churches planning on adding portable churches as part of their multi-site strategy for this coming year (2015).
Sometimes, it really is the simple and obvious opportunities that surprise us. Perhaps this will be the year when manufacturers and systems integrators realize the potential of serving this growing market.
How should manufacturers and systems integrators reach portable churches? Share your views and links in the comments below.