The meetings industry is full of unique acronyms, but none are catchier than SMERF (social, military, educational, religious and fraternal) groups.
Although SMERF groups typically are small, their numbers add up to big business for destinations, hotels and venues.
Here’s why: They book rooms on weekends, during shoulder seasons and off-peak times when corporate groups are least likely to meet. They tend to be loyal to properties and destinations and they have dedicated attendees who continue to meet during economic downturns with little or no attendance decline.
According to Dean Jones, CMP, director of conferences and events for the Religious Conference Management Association, “I think SMERF events are a consistent market. Many are mandated by their by-laws to meet on a regular basis. When the economy is good, these events tend to attract more people, but even in bad economic times, the events still meet.”
“Special experiences that can be tailored to a specific SMERF group is a huge draw and helps make them feel welcome.” Jason Dunn, CTA, Group Vice President of
Diversity Sales and Inclusion
Indeed, the dedication of SMERF attendees to their organizations drives meeting consistency.
“SMERF attendees are passionate about their causes — social, military, education, religious or fraternal,” Jones says. “When attendees are passionate, they prioritize their decisions. This leads to wanting to be involved, wanting to attend, wanting to volunteer and leading the charge for their cause. This tends to lead to growth in meetings.”
While SMERF groups are a mainstay of the meetings industry, they must overcome certain challenges to obtain good value. For example, meetings and budgets tend to be small and attendees typically pay their own way and lack expense accounts.
As a result, controlling hotel costs is crucial. About 60 percent of SMERF planners say expensive hotel rates are the top reasons for not choosing a destination, according to a survey conducted by Destination Analysts Inc.
Getting the best deals requires out-of-the-box thinking by planners. “Smart SMERF planners are looking off the beaten path,” Jones says. “They are exploring destinations and venues they’ve not considered before. There are plenty of places to meet where there is value available. These destinations may not have a theme park or beach nearby, but they often have value propositions that will still appeal to attendees.”
SMERF groups often find value in second- and third-tier destinations that are less costly than their larger counterparts and offer more competitive deals. One such destination is Virginia Beach, a popular draw for SMERF groups.
The Spanish Eastern District of the Assemblies of God recently met for the second time at the Virginia Beach Convention Center (VBCC), one of the largest convention centers on the East Coast and the nation’s first to earn LEED Gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.
Originally, the group considered the VBCC due to a recommendation. According to Selene Serrano, WM district financial officer, “We belong to a larger organization and we ask similar groups in the organization about their experiences and properties they have used in the past.”
After meeting with VBCC officials, the group chose it in large part because the convention center met the group’s budget needs.
“In our case, being a not-for-profit religious organization, funds are very limited,” Serrano says. “The money factor impacts greatly the negotiating and selection process, whereas you want to provide the best by keeping the cost at a reasonable rate. Some properties have little to no flexibility.”
But, Serrano adds, that wasn’t the case with the VBCC.
“We received great value in rooms, F&B and other fees,” Serrano says. “The catering service helped in hosting a lunch for leaders by providing accessible prices, a great selection and awesome quality. The concessions had a variety of food items at reasonable prices for attendees.”
In addition, Serrano says, the VBCC’s location, logistical help and space flexibility were keys to the meeting’s success. “We had the ability to expand,” Serrano says. “We originally booked for 2,000 people in the general session, but the VBCC was able to accommodate an additional 1,800 due to their large facilities and flexibility. We were also allowed to come in the night before the meeting started at no extra charge to store and set up items. This helped us save time in the morning.”
Location and service were also big pluses for the Spanish Eastern District.
“The property is conveniently located in the city, making it easily accessible from all hotels, and it’s also just a few blocks from the beach, restaurants and entertainment,” Serrano says. “Overall, we as well as our attendees, were extremely satisfied. We will certainly return to this property soon.”
It can be a big challenge for the Spanish Eastern District and other larger SMERF groups to find the right space at affordable cost.
It’s a hurdle that Ambassadors for Christ Inc. (AFC) overcame to hold a 3,000-attendee event for Christian Chinese churches in North America at the Baltimore Convention Center (BCC). Attendee hotels included the Hilton Baltimore Inner Harbor and Baltimore Marriott Inner Harbor at Camden Yards.
According to Catherine Roberts, convention manager, Chinese Mission at AFC, “Looking for a location in the Northeast corridor for a budget conscious group is quite a challenge, especially for our group that needs nearly 200,000 sf. Baltimore provided affordable and available space. The BCC is easy to work with, and they make a great team with the Hilton and Marriott.”
“Visit Baltimore worked closely with us to clear the last financial and logistical hurdles,” Roberts adds. “They offered us some creative ways to offset the cost of renting space at the convention center.”
In the past, the AFC preferred to use a retreat center or a large hotel where the meeting space is part of the overall package, including rooms and meals. However, “Baltimore was the first convention center without hotel rooms we have used,” Roberts says. “And Visit Baltimore made that possible.”
It was the AFC’s second time using the BCC. As with many SMERF groups, local community connections also played a role in the AFC’s decision to return.
“First and foremost is the importance of our local partners,” Roberts says. “Our event is a partnership between our organization and Chinese churches in the local areas — in this case Baltimore and Washington, DC. Having partnered with them once, we reaped the benefits of a learning curve with them and met a second time in the same location.”
SMERF groups such as AFC generally have their own strategies for negotiating with properties, which are to negotiate aggressively, focus on curbing the biggest expenses first and exercising flexibility when necessary. The goal is to control out-of-pocket costs for attendees while building attendance.
Those goals align with Susan Feldman, conference services manager of Ayelet Tours, which recently planned a meeting for a religious organization at the Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza hotel for 530 attendees.
Feldman uses the following strategy to negotiate SMERF meetings: “When I do a search for my SMERF clients,” Feldman says, “I am always transparent with the CVB and the hotels, letting them know what my client’s maximum room rates and F&B budgets are. The religious client that I worked with has stayed at the Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza several times because of its location and the amount of meeting space it offers, which is conducive to what the meeting was trying to achieve,” Feldman says. “The group also has close ties to the Cincy community as well.”
Flexibility was also a key.
“I did some give and take with concessions in order to make sure we were within budget,” Feldman says. “In the end, the room rate was within my client’s budget as was food and beverage pricing. The A/V team really outdid themselves and came in under my client’s budget. The hotel was fine for this conference. They were a pleasure to work with.”
Flexibility is crucial to the ability of SMERF groups to get value during the current seller’s market. Being flexible also helps SMERF organizations overcome the limitations of size, budget and low attendee on-site spending.
According to Jones, “Being flexible with dates and patterns can often determine whether you’ll get to utilize the venue or destination you desire. If you can fill a need gap on a calendar for a hotel, you’ll be more likely to get the deal you need.”
Jones says that SMERF groups’ flexibility paired with all that they offer can help planners strike deals.
“Many SMERF events bring a lot of room nights, and often involve families,” Jones says. “These factors often generate good revenue for a venue and destination, although they may generate room rates lower than those of some other market segments.”
CVB sales executives who assist SMERF groups also stress the need for flexibility.
According to Jason Dunn, CTA, group vice president of diversity sales and inclusion for Cincinnati USA CVB, “In order to find the best price, many groups opt for dates in non-demand periods which means lower rates and an opportunity for our hotel partners to fill occupancy gaps. We look at hotel need dates to determine how we can best fill those gaps and at what cost.”
SMERF meeting planners say it’s important to have at least two sets of off-peak date options that include one of the following alternatives — arriving on a Wednesday and departing on a Friday or arriving on a Sunday and departing on a Wednesday. Such options are crucial when considering destinations where leisure business increases room rates on weekends.
It’s easier for SMERF groups to have booking flexibility because, unlike corporate groups, their annual event may be the only travel the group does each year. And SMERF meetings can occur any time of the year and may take place over holidays and weekends.
That is precisely what the AFC does.
“We hold our meeting between Christmas and New Year’s, a time when most hotels are empty,” Roberts says. “Culturally, this is a win for us as many Chinese churches usually hold retreats over holiday periods when the whole family can get away together. By using a quiet time for the industry, we can get the best possible deal on rates, dates and space.”
Jones offers the following additional advice:
“Teaming up with a similar organization and meeting at the same time and place, and perhaps sharing space and menus can be a huge savings and give more buying power,” Jones says. “Booking a multiyear deal in the same city, or with the same hotel chain can possibly generate some savings over time.”
“Categorize your concession needs into ‘deal breakers,’ ‘helpful to have’ and ‘icing on the cake,’” Jones says. “If you ask for and expect everything on your wish list, you’ll likely not get it and your event will be rejected by a property. But if you determine things you feel you must have vs. the rest of your wishes, you are more likely to have favorable consideration.”
It’s also important to remember the following when negotiating concessions: “Each property knows the dollar value of your wish list,” Jones says. “Some are easy to provide, some may be impossible with a hefty price tag. Be reasonable with your wish list and you’ll find more opportunity.”
Flexibility alone won’t get the best possible value. It’s crucial that SMERF planners know and stress their attendance and spending history. While the spend may not be huge, it is usually consistent because attendees typically pay their own expenses.
The financial limitations of SMERF attendees makes communication with properties even more important, according to Brian Parker, CMP, president of Parker Conference Management Inc., who specializes in planning meetings for predominately African-American groups.
Parker recently held a successful meeting for a group in Washington, DC at the Washington Marriott Wardman Park, a conference hotel in the Woodley Park neighborhood.
Parker’s advice: “The best approach is to ensure the clearest communication possible with hotels. Advise them in advance of the group’s budget restraints so they can respond with dates, meeting patterns and room rates that are palatable to the group,” Parker says. “Regarding food and beverage expenses, advise them of budget limitations so they can work with you to customize menus, etc.”
Parker has planned meetings for the National Association of Black Accountants, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History and the National Association of Health Services Executives. Such groups often prefer smaller destinations.
“A lot of SMERF-type groups prefer to meet in second- or third-tier cities because they are less expensive to do business in,” Parker says.
Meanwhile, more smaller destinations are courting SMERF groups.
According to Jones, “Markets that are interested in enticing SMERF meetings often have good incentives available. Recently, I’ve seen the following offered: no attrition, big discounts on meeting space rentals, hotel point bonuses, rebates to offset event budgets, transportation between properties, etc.”
The growing number of options is increasing competition which, in turn, generates even better deals.
“With many second- and third-tier cities vying for the same SMERF events, it puts planners in the driver’s seat, depending on the destination,” Jones says. “It all seems cyclical, but currently, there are many cities that are interested in attracting the business to fill gaps in their calendars.”
In addition, more CVBs are designating sales managers to oversee SMERF groups and including the word “SMERF” in the job titles. For example, the Arlington Convention & Visitors Bureau has a “Director of National Accounts: National Associations & SMERF.”
SMERF groups are becoming valuable to destinations for two other reasons: They provide opportunities for new and loyal repeat business. The category of SMERF groups are expanding to include special interest, sports and multicultural.
For example, Cincinnati USA’s Vibe Cincinnati program targets multicultural SMERF groups.
According to Dunn, “Through Vibe, we create custom programming that introduces event attendees and planners to Cincinnati’s vibrant mix of cultures. We’ve established local relationships with church leaders, education professionals, fraternal organizations, etc., so we understand what each group needs to connect them with local resources and contacts to help make the meeting happen.
Most of all, Dunn says, “We make it clear that each event, no matter the group or size, has the potential to own the city and has a wealth of resources at their disposal. Special experiences that can be tailored to a specific SMERF group is a huge draw and helps make them feel welcome.”
Melissa Riley, vice president, convention sales and services, Destination DC, makes it clear why SMERF groups are valued.
“What’s most important to recognize is that overall, the SMERF market is stable and predictable,” Riley says. “Unlike corporate events, SMERF meetings are often required by bylaws and reliably take place over certain times of year. Meeting attendees, and often their families, will use conferences as extended vacation opportunities.”
Meanwhile, many SMERF planners are aware of the value of CVBs. About 58 percent of SMERF planners say they are “very familiar” with CVBs, according to the survey by Destination Analysts.
Savvy planners will get the best deal for SMERF meetings by stressing the loyalty of attendees, their collective spending history and willingness to meet during off-peak times.
| AC&F |