It’s no secret in the industry that SMERF (social, military, educational, religious and fraternal group) meeting planners are sometimes considered to be the red-headed stepchild of the meeting biz.
Katie Riggs, CMP, vice president, client and conference services for Indianapolis-based Raybourn Group International, has spent the last 10 years working with various types of associations and organizations to plan and execute meetings, conferences and trade shows, and understands the differences between a corporate event and its SMERF counterpart.
“Most of my organizations operate on a lean budget. Every decision is made carefully on what we spend money on,” she says. “We always ask how will this benefit the member or attendee. In the current climate, this can make negotiations a little difficult at times.”
Other key trends she has seen lately include the focus on safety/security and transgender/inclusion topics.
As a “recovered” corporate planner, Riggs has worked with pretty much every type of client, but feels in the SMERF segment, it just seems more personal.
“People are there on their own dime or choosing your conference or event with very limited funds from their company provided to them for development,” she says. “Therefore, they simply expect more, yet we typically have less resources to work with, so we get creative a lot.”
For instance, Raybourn Group International works with a government group that focuses on disability for its annual conference each year — an event that brings numerous unique challenges, but Riggs considers it some of the most rewarding work she has ever done.
“We were able to streamline processes, increase communications, bring in high-quality education and attract sought-after vendors for the expo,” she says. “The general attendee surveys came back very high, and overall, the event ran very smoothly — all while connecting people with unique stories and bringing awareness to a sometimes forgotten segment of our population.”
Matthew J. Wales, CMP, vice president, membership, events & special projects for the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE), is responsible for contracting, negotiating, site selection and large-scale logistical development for all the meetings and conferences of the organization.
“There needs to be more diversity and thought on how presentations are handled. There needs to be more opportunity for networking and engagement and activity.” — Matthew J. Wales, CMP
His team oversees one very large annual meeting in February, with approximately 2,300 members from the education community attending, and he also organizes a number of larger regional meetings in the summertime, a legislative conference and a handful of committee board meetings that take place throughout the year.
“As the individualization of events continues, and we move from going from the traditional meetings of old with a speaker in a room and creating more of an experience for attendees, there needs to be more diversity and thought on how presentations are handled,” Wales says. “There needs to be more opportunity for networking and engagement and activity.”
Joan L. Eisenstodt, meetings and hospitality consultant, facilitator and trainer for Washington, D.C.-based Eisenstodt Associates, LLC, works with numerous groups that fall into the SMERF category.
“One thing I have found that’s sad is that hotels and other supplier entities assign the newer people to the SMERF groups because I’m guessing they don’t generate the same amount of income or revenue that other groups do,” she says. “They are often dealing with volunteers who are planning events, and they don’t know how. That is a dangerous combination.”
As an example, Eisenstodt helped someone plan a military reunion earlier this year, and she sent a list of questions they should ask the hotel. They were flabbergasted because they didn’t know to ask any of them.
“They were able to negotiate a better contract that was fair to them and the hotel,” she says. “Because the hotel person was new, they weren’t explaining any of the language, and the group would have had a very unfair deal.”
Eisenstodt believes education meetings are a bit different than the other SMERF segments, but notes for the most part, people get together for the same reasons, whether a corporate meeting or association meeting — they want to spend time with colleagues, network and solve problems.
Ray Casey, president of Military Reunion Planners, Grapevine, Texas, has been planning armed forces reunions for more than 30 years.
A big trend in military reunions is a rise in Vietnam groups, but with that population declining, Casey says there will be a gap between that and the Gulf War groups, so reunions will possibly see a slowdown for a while.
“A big trend is these social media groups where guys are getting together on these big Facebook groups, and eventually, someone will suggest getting together in person. That’s brought more people to these sort of events,” he says.
These reunions are also trending on the shorter side, with most typically two to three nights now, instead of the traditional four or more. There’s also been more individuals attending, rather than wives and kids tagging along.
“The younger, newer groups also don’t do as many offsite events and tours,” Casey says.
As co-owner and founder of Armed Forces Reunions, Inc., Norfolk, Virginia, Ted Dey has been organizing military events and reunions for 30 years.
“We’re seeing veterans from Operation Iraqi Freedom in Afghanistan and the war on freedom begin to form reunion groups and associations,” he says. “The key to success is to know what hotels are reunion-friendly. We can handle everything once there, but the hotel partners are a big part of the process. If you don’t book it right, it won’t be a successful event.”
Dey adds that things are a lot easier to plan today because so much is done online, and that has made planning everything more convenient.
Due to some financial issues, many SMERF planners cannot have everything they would like for their meeting, which is why it takes a savvy and experienced planner to still create a memorable meeting that will provide the client with everything they are looking for.
The budget is definitely something that needs to be considered carefully for any education meeting, Wales shares. It all starts with finding new and creative ways to match the budget you are given.
Caitlin Donahue, senior sales manager for Courtyard by Marriott Chicago Downtown/Magnificent Mile in Chicago, is responsible for securing all the SMERF business at the hotel, facilitating everything from government to spiritual leadership to fraternity formals.
“The trend that sticks out to me the most is that no one has a set budget, but they’re still trying to be as cost-conscious as possible,” she says. “Value is of huge importance because a lot of these organizations either don’t or can’t spend a lot of money, but once you show them the value of coming to your space, they realize they’ve made a good investment.”
The major difference between corporate and SMERF meetings comes down to money. Most planners admit that corporate events usually have more money to work with, whereas, sometimes SMERF meetings need to get a little more creative.
At our property, we treat every meeting with care and consideration, so it’s no difference to us whether it’s SMERF or otherwise,” Donahue says. “We’re seeing these meetings evolve in that they are happening more frequently. That’s why it’s important to keep an open mind and be willing to work with your clients.”
In order to be successful with any segment of a SMERF meeting, Wales notes one has to be flexible and willing to acknowledge and admit that no event is going to be perfect, and that’s OK.
“As long as you’re putting your best foot forward, it will be successful,” he says. “We also try to be mindful of taking a deeper look at our events and go into strategic planning mode every five years to gauge where we could optimize improvement and develop a new three- to five-year plan to target the goals and develop tactics to get us where we need to be.”
Donahue says a secret for a proper meeting is to know upfront what the client is looking to achieve and digging in for as many details as possible.
“The government and association groups almost always know what they need and how they need it, whereas the religious and fraternal groups sometimes have zero idea of what it will take to have a successful event,” she says. “Use your experience to listen and execute the client’s needs to a T, but also be ready to take the wheel and drive if they need a little help.”
A big trend that Karen Shackman, president of Shackman Associates New York, has seen penetrate the SMERF market is networking apps that are used before, during and after an event.
“Apps can now let you know that an attendee you were hoping to find for networking is down the street at a Starbucks,” she says. “Apps like Topi help attendees find people before the event. They also are great for networking after-hours, especially in cities like New York.
If an attendee decides to go out for a walk or a drink in the evening, geofencing on these apps can provide locations on where other attendees might be having cocktails, as well.”
Shackman also believes SMERF hosts should consider private technology that increases presentations’ ROI.
“Meeting planners running an event for expansive, and often, diverse organizations, are looking for constructive feedback on organization business and should consider private technology that includes sophisticated tools to help moderators stay on pace and enhance feedback like attendee polling,” she says. “This also helps reduce noise from too many tweets and texts.”
That’s where activation stations should come in. She notes that while millennials are highly social, and highly engaged, they are tech-dependent and expect amenities that make this a seamless process. However, they also love connecting face-to-face with others around common interests, products and causes. They want to learn from older generations, as well, which is a great formula for SMERF meetings.
“The key to balancing these two needs is activation stations and can include sponsored charging stations like Bubbles,” she says. “Others feature teambuilding games where the generations can interact and learn from each other. One of my favorite after-hours ideas that features ‘activation’ is the silent disco, where attendees can pick music they love, put on individual headphones and dance together. We have used activation stations at multiple events.”
Just like any corporate meeting, those involved with SMERF meetings are faced with a litany of problems associated with the subject they deal with.
The AACTE’s upcoming 2019 annual meeting is scheduled for Louisville, in the Kentucky International Convention Center. However, since it was booked in 2015, the state was put on the travel ban list by the state of California. That means those member institutions represented from there need to find creative funding to attend, as they can’t get reimbursement from their institutions to attend due to the ban.
“That’s one of the challenges of having to plan so far in advance, which is something we have to do, whereby corporate meetings have a luxury of being able to plan much closer to a date,” Wales says.
One example Donahue cites is a college fraternal formal, where she made sure there was a security guard in the contract because she knew that would be an important feature, but things still didn’t go perfectly.
“I also knew that after a formal, those kids don’t just go home, they go upstairs into our hotel rooms and could potentially wreak havoc on the rest of our guests,” she says.
“Together with my team, we built a ‘No Party Policy’ form that the group was held accountable to. Did it work? Sort of, but not really. Let’s just say that a ‘form’ doesn’t stop a group of angry college kids from trying to lift up and flip your front desk because their rooms aren’t ready. But, with the knowledge we gained from the experience, we’re better prepared for the next time.”
“The challenge these days is that the hotels are all so busy, and this business is not as attractive to them as it used to be,” Casey says. “We’ve been known to pull a rabbit out of the hat to get our guys great deals, but the hotels are now backing off on some of the goodies we used to get included, like breakfast or free ice.”
That makes it hard for many of the vets who are on fixed incomes, but look forward to getting together with their brothers in arms once a year.
Dey notes the recent trend of hotels putting a cap on commissions is bad for his military groups and all SMERF events, because they are rate-sensitive, and it’s a challenge to find hotels that will offer an affordable rate.
“In most cases, a big challenge today is finding a hotel that will allow a hospitality room,” he says. “A reunion isn’t just 300 people in a hotel and they hang out in the lobby. They want to go to a central gathering room available to them 24/7. If a hotel is willing to give up a function room for them, it’s great, but you can’t go to every city in the country and find that — especially if they want to bring their own food and alcohol in.”
For all SMERF segments besides education, Eisenstodt says the biggest issue people face is the fact that volunteers are usually put in charge.
“That’s a hazard, and that’s what I’ve seen happen when people don’t understand what a contract really means and the implications of the language, they might sign something they shouldn’t,” she says. “Then, with something like the military reunions, often you have older people working with the younger salespeople, and they might not want to question anything because they don’t want to look like they don’t know what they are doing. As an industry, we need to do better to help and elevate what we do.” AC&F