A slew of meeting and event types are now captured by the SMERF acronym, not only the social, military, educational, religious and fraternal, but also special interest, sporting, multicultural, talent competitions and more. Some of these segments are more prominent in the meetings and events industry than others. Religious meetings, for example, have been enjoying increased attendance overall in the past two years, and the Religious Conference Management Association (RCMA) has a strong presence at IMEX America, partnering with the show for the third year in a row this October. But no matter how high profile a SMERF segment becomes, its planners tend to face a certain balancing act in designing an event that is both attractive and affordable to members. As is well known, SMERF delegates are typically on tighter budgets than corporate attendees or the well-to-do members of some professional associations.
“For my international convention, cost per room night would be the No. 1 criterion,” affirms Keith Reed, director, member and field relations, for Suitland, Maryland-based Air Force Sergeants Association. Many of the AFSA’s members are retired and on a fixed budget. “So they would love to be in Washington, DC, or Los Angeles, but when you’re looking at $250 per room night (for a quality hotel), there is no way I can justify that cost. They’re actually paying out of pocket.”
Yet at the same time, not just any second- or third-tier city, or budget property within such cities, will be a good draw or have the resources necessary to host the meeting. Jacksonville, Florida, site of the AFSA’s 2014 Professional Airmen’s Conference, August 16–20, is not only affordable, but has what Reed calls “flair.”
“Give me something for attendees to do,” he says. “So after a long day of meetings and discussions, they can go out in the local economy and get good meals, or have a drink if they so choose. They can go out and have a safe social gathering.
“What makes Jacksonville such a good fit for my group is that you have the Landing (a shopping, dining and museum complex along St. Johns River) and St. Johns Town Center, which is a stone’s throw from the Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront,” where the conference’s 600-plus attendees are meeting.
Reed also has found that San Antonio, Texas, offers a similar combination of affordability and entertainment resources, with its River Walk cafés. An added benefit Reed has noted is that venues in both Jacksonville and San Antonio display a certain pride in hosting military groups, “perhaps due to the military presence that’s already there. In my opinion they do a good job of recognizing what the military means to the nation.”
If a site selection is significantly constrained by rate requirements, a planner is traditionally advised to try to be flexible on dates and/or space. But those needs also can be rather entrenched for some SMERF groups, making site selection even more challenging. At press time, Chaz Boston Baden, chair of Animé Los Angeles, a project of the Institute for Specialized Literature, was involved in site selection for the convention’s 2016 installment, with potential California cities including Ontario, Long Beach, Anaheim and Los Angeles. “Certainly we would have more flexibility if we could shift our dates, but we want to keep the event in January because we have a niche as the first event of the year,” says Baden. “Also, we’ve grown so large (attendance is currently at 4,000-5,000) that the number of properties that can accommodate us gets fewer and fewer. If I was running a 400-person convention, there are three hotels in every town I could pick.”
Some concessions might be made, such as no longer holding the entire convention under one roof. “But we must have a lot of breakout rooms because we have five to six tracks of live programs, panel discussions and talks, plus we have a martial arts demo room, hospitality suite and a parents’ lounge,” Baden explains. “We also need a couple of big rooms for our main stage and dealers’ hall, and a room or two where we can show video programs and offer computer games. And we rent AV equipment from a preferred vendor, so it’s important that the venue not have a problem with us bringing in our own equipment.”
Compounded with those logistical requirements, Animé Los Angeles is limited on the revenue it can promise hotels, given that attendees are mostly ages 15–25. “In the process of trying to negotiate a site for 2016, we had one offer from a property that is just a lovely hotel with acres and acres of function space; however, they wanted $40,000 of additional revenue above the F&B and guest room expenses we were prepared to commit to,” Baden relates. “In addition, our members are very cost conscious, and the property wanted our room rate at $150 plus tax for the first year, and to go up after that. Now, for people who are going to trade shows on an expense account, (that rate) is no big deal. But people (in the Animé space) can choose to go to a different convention that has room rates of $110 a night, and they don’t have to come to our convention. What we try to impress on the hotel is that we know they’re trying to make money, and we’re not trying to nickel and dime them. But our people are not on expense accounts, they’re saving up their money.”
“What we try to impress on the hotel is that we know they’re trying to make money, and we’re not trying to nickel and dime them. But our people are not on expense accounts, they’re saving up their money.” — Chaz Boston Baden
So, how does Animé Los Angeles manage to source facilities that fit its stringent date, rate and space requirements? “It’s a matter of shopping around,” Baden says.
For many SMERF groups, there can be no getting around a good deal of legwork in that area. Virginia Pinto, assistant director, special events, University of Maryland Alumni Relations, utilizes plenty of resources, from industry magazines to alumni connections to Cvent, to find venues for the organization’s numerous off-campus social and educational events for alumni. Spaces include hotel ballrooms, stadiums, museums, art galleries, restaurants and theaters. She notes that University of Maryland Alumni Association events sometimes cannot deliver the headcount and revenue that a venue expects. “I think certain venues are definitely looking for a larger number of peak night rooms, larger groups than we tend to work with,” she observes. “But I think a lot of other ones realize that smaller groups are actually making up a majority of their business. We find many venues that are great to work with. So I don’t think being a nonprofit or alumni group is in general a problem.”
In addition, she sometimes manages to keep pricing affordable by using the university’s connections to venues or partnering with an alumni-owned business that’s related to a rental venue. When such recourses aren’t available, it simply comes down to an intensive site search: “We use the RFP process to go through all the different venues in the area and find those that are the best value for us while also being somewhat upscale.” Hotels utilized, for example, are generally three to four stars, Pinto adds.
Meeting industry market conditions sometimes come to the aid of SMERF groups, making their site search and negotiation process easier. While corporate meetings took a dive during the recession, some SMERF segments remained resilient, including fraternal meetings. Sidney Dunn, executive director of Carmel, Indiana-based Fraternity Executives Association (FEA), notes that there has been “very little downturn in attendance at fraternity and sorority meetings, even during the recession.” As a result, “we found that properties that wouldn’t normally consider fraternity and sorority meetings were looking at them because the hotels had availability. So, for example, in Las Vegas we were being approached by hotels such as Bellagio and Venetian with rates that compared with some of the lesser-priced properties in Las Vegas that typically had hosted fraternity conventions.” Predictably, the economic recovery has caused those opportunities to vanish, Dunn relates.
As executive director for the FEA, a professional group that overarches fraternities and sororities, Dunn has a good perspective on that segment’s meeting patterns. “They meet frequently: an annual business session, generally once a year for leadership education, board meetings, alumni events and regional meetings, sometimes at campus facilities. When I was a fraternity executive, I would plan as many as 14 meetings a year,” he says. In some cases, the frequency of events can be used as negotiating leverage during a site search; that is, the right deal will encourage the group to regularly use the property.
Of course, a given property may not be suitable for all of the various fraternity meetings. “Some of the higher-end meeting facilities would work for a convention but not necessarily for a leadership academy because they are priced too high for a weekend activity. For example, we just left the Waldorf Astoria Naples (where FEA’s 2014 Annual Conference was held in July). That hotel would be great for a board meeting, a foundation meeting, an alumni event or a national convention. But it would not be as good a place for a regional meeting in February because it’s in season.” Generally, fraternities and sororities meet in the summertime, and due to the need for lower rates, will opt for “Southern tier properties and the warmer cities in Arizona, Texas, New Orleans and Florida, where summer business is generally slower,” Dunn explains. “They aren’t able to meet as much in the Northeast and upper Midwest cities because summertime there is popular for tourists,” and hence room rates rise.
Such site limitations of fraternal meetings are generally well known, as they are one of the traditional SMERF groups. But the category has become quite a catch-all, and some of the more unusual groups can face site-search hurdles due to their very nature.
One example is the Face & Body Art International Annual Convention (FABAIC), a trade show and educational show that falls in the “special interest” category. The event draws more than 450 professionals and enthusiasts who do face and body painting, air brushing, glitter tattoos and related kinds of art. Participants from the United Kingdom, Germany, South and Central America, Japan and elsewhere around the world fly into the Bonaventure Hotel & Spa in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Claudia Banks, FABAIC Board Member and co-organizer of the convention, notes that the Bonaventure has been an ideal site for three years. FABAIC’s artistic attendees enjoy its lush outdoor gathering spaces and aLaya Spa. As far as meeting rooms, “we look for good lighting that can be projected in the rooms because when the instructors teach classes, we have cameras to project what they’re doing. And the hotel has been great about providing good lighting for us.”
But there were some bumps along the way to that site choice, according to Banks. Body-painting participants, while not nude, are scantily clad, and this was an issue with some hoteliers. “When we were looking to move from Orlando, our biggest challenge was to find a hotel that was open enough to understand that this is not a pornographic convention, it’s an art convention,” Banks says. “We were turned down by several hotels, and if you get a salesperson at any of these properties who’s not so receptive to that kind of art, then automatically they’re going to see it as taboo. But that happened about five years ago; ever since then we’ve been courted by hotels who actually had said ‘no’ before, because face and body art has become so much more mainstream. We have kids in our classes, and art is in the eye of the beholder as they say. The first year we were at the Bonaventure, when it was still a Hyatt, they were a little bit (hesitant), but then they saw how our people behave and what the art means to them. And they were happy to have us back.” FABAIC can also market itself as a significant piece of business to hotels, as the hundreds of attendees stay a minimum of five nights.
Although body painting is an artistic event, the participants are nonetheless quite visually impactful, and Banks would prefer not to draw a crowd in a hotel. Thus, one of FABAIC’s site criteria is that the group’s function rooms be removed from guest traffic. “I don’t want the meeting rooms to be exactly where you walk in, and that’s what we liked about the Doubletree (by Hilton Universal Orlando). Their convention space is completely at the other end of the hotel lobby, as it is with the Bonaventure.” With 80,000 sf of meeting space, the Bonaventure had little trouble keeping FABAIC well separated from another SMERF group that shared a day with the convention last year. “We thought it was going to be a disaster because, believe it or not, it was a group of rabbis,” Banks recounts. “But it went fine.” AC&F