There was joy all around Friday evening at the start of what is the first sizable convention in San Antonio in six months. 

The Women Of Joy conference, a women’s Christian fellowship event, held annually in the city since 2010, kicked off with a welcome and a prayer after founder Phil Waldrep and his wife Debbie took to the stage in the Henry B. González Convention Center. 

Waldrep said that while he didn’t plan it that way, he was happy to know Women Of Joy was San Antonio’s first convention since March.

“I believe God created us to be with our people and for six months, people have been isolated and there’s a mental health aspect to that,” Waldrep said. He realizes how important it is for San Antonio, too. 

While spending time downtown since Wednesday, he said business owners in restaurants and shops, and even a police officer, thanked him for coming. 

With 62 conventions cancelled or postponed since March, costing the city nearly $300 million, the city’s tourism bureau, Visit San Antonio, was thankful as well. 

“The fact that we’re opening our doors to a convention – it honestly does not matter the size – this is a symbolic moment for us in the meetings industry, because there are going to be people all over the U.S., looking and watching,” said Casandra Matej, president and CEO of Visit SA.

About 1,300 were registered for the event, down from the usual 5,000 to 6,000, with the majority traveling from outside the city to attend. The conference has an admission price of $100 per person.

On the convention center floor, conference organizers had arranged 2,100 chairs in sets of two and four spaced apart and reminded the women to practice social distancing and wear a face mask. All who entered the convention center had their temperature taken and given a sticker to show they had been screened. 

A group of about 10 women from Wilshire Park Baptist Church in Midland traveled to San Antonio for the conference. In previous years, it was a larger group, but they said they refused to cancel their plans. The group was staying at the San Antonio Marriott Riverwalk.

“We love Women Of Joy and what they represent, what they do for us,” said Terri Pipes, an attendee from the Midland group. “It gives us a very uplifting experience every time.”

For her friend Charlotte Frasier, the trip is a bit of a homecoming she wouldn’t miss. She said she was born in San Antonio in 1942. 

Another group of 19 women who are members of the Sutherland Springs Baptist Church, the site of a mass shooting in 2017, shopped together at the convention’s merchandise market before the first worship event began Friday evening. 

“It’s kind of a long tradition [to attend],” said Renea Barnett, who added they are staying the weekend at the LaQuinta Inn & Suites. 

Wearing matching blue T-shirts with the hashtag “evil did not win” on their backs, Barnett and three others took a break from wearing their face masks and said they didn’t worry about contracting coronavirus. 

Barnett said she had COVID-19 in July and recovered, but Judy Chesser said previous work in India and a message from God allayed her fears.

“There’s a lot worse,” Chesser said. “Jesus is all you need, and it really is true.”

Most years, Waldrep Ministries produces the Women Of Joy conference eight times in various cities throughout the country, as well as one men’s conference and another for senior adults. 

Women Of Joy conference founders Phil and Debbie Waldrep. Credit: Shari Biediger / San Antonio Report

After canceling most of this year’s conferences scheduled between March and October, the organization hosted its first event of the year in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, in June, and Indianapolis, Indiana, in August. 

“I think it’s safe as long as people follow the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines,” Waldrep said. “We were the first to do it. We weren’t trying to force it. But we were willing to say, ‘Hey, we will try it.’”

He said other event organizers are watching to see how it goes. “So if we can have a positive impact on San Antonio, slowly and safely the wheels can begin to turn again, and I think that has been positive for us because I love San Antonio. I just love the people,” Waldrep said.

Visit SA has three more events scheduled at the convention center through the end of the year, but there are a total of 39 events at other locations throughout the city, including hotels, with an economic impact value of about $26 million, said a spokesman. 

One of those is the annual convention of the International Association of Fairs and Expositions, scheduled for Nov. 29 to Dec. 2. Instead of the usual 10,000 attendees, 3,500 are expected, bringing an economic impact of $1.5 million. 

Though six events have been canceled for 2021, with a loss of nearly 44,000 attendees, there are 65 meetings still booked at the convention center for next year. 

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.