On the Right TrackMarch 28, 2022

SMERF Meetings Planners Look to Get Back to Normal By
March 28, 2022

On the Right Track

SMERF Meetings Planners Look to Get Back to Normal
Courtesy of Isabel Almeida

Courtesy of Isabel Almeida

In the post-COVID-19 world, many destinations rely on the social, military, educational, religious and fraternal (SMERF) market to keep business alive.

Shannon Groff, director of sales for North Carolina’s Discover Durham, knows that all too well, as she has seen the SMERF sector crumble in her city since March of 2020, though the social market segment— which held reasonably strong through the pandemic — is starting to pick up. “Many people are holding weddings, family reunions and small social gatherings,” she says. “However, the military, education, religious and fraternal market segments in SMERF have been very slow to return due to government regulations.”

Like many others, the SMERF market was forced to not only cancel meetings and events early in the pandemic, but was tasked with finding new ways of providing content and professional development. Remote and hybrid models, not typically used with larger-scale meetings, became essential. This left many organizations and associations with an immediate need to develop a strategy for remote delivery and learning. Many SMERF meetings not only developed a virtual strategy, but did so quickly.

Jennifer D. Collins, CMP, DES, president & CEO of JDC Events, notes one of the biggest challenges for SMERF meetings was having to scale back to accommodate many local restrictions. “For some locations, capacity might have been a restriction or even masking requirements or other safety protocols,” she says. “Some SMERF meetings also host the 65-plus population that faithfully quarantined over the past year. With the vaccines in circulation, this allows them to move about more freely. However, with the rise of the Delta, and [then] Omicron, variants, this [may have caused] some of those events to scale back. This sector hosts younger generations as well, which also [were] restricted.”

Joan Eisenstodt, principal of Eisenstodt Associates LLC, has been working and advising nonprofits and sales people regarding SMERF meetings for more than a decade. “We’re all dealing with COVID, and the implications, and it’s not over. The concerns of many continue to play a role,” she says. “For some groups, especially reunion and fraternal, those who attend may be older. Or in all groups, there are parents or grandparents or other caregivers who do not want to risk passing COVID on to others.”

Since there were so few meetings that occurred as scheduled in 2020 and 2021, the need to move dates means everyone is fighting for the same spaces, dates and hotels, eager to recuperate losses. That is troublesome for SMERF planners. “SMERF is often considered great business if there’s a hole in bookings, because the SMERF market is often more rate-sensitive, space-intensive, and wants to bring in their own food and beverage,” Eisenstodt says. “Trying to compete for space with more lucrative groups is painful. And getting the necessary safety precautions met can be too.”

Ray Casey, president of Military Reunion Planners LLC, has spent 34 years planning and executing military reunions all over the United States. He shares that when the pandemic hit, his business almost crumbled as nearly every meeting he planned was canceled. And unlike some other meetings, attendees at military reunions aren’t interested in connecting virtually. “We hold military reunions, and they want to meet in person — that is the whole point,” Casey says, explaining why he wasn’t able to go the virtual route to which other planners of the SMERF industry were able to transition.

Eisenstodt agrees that since SMERF encompasses so many different types of groups, some of which meet mainly for the camaraderie, virtual wasn’t as prevalent as it was for other types of meetings. “Laws have been passed in many states and cities that impact SMERF groups because of who they are and what they do,” Eisenstodt says. “Groups are being cautious about where they meet to not violate their policies and bylaws, and position statements. It’s not COVID-specific; it is what’s happened since COVID.”

It’s not only in the United States where SMERF meetings are being impacted. Isabel Almeida, event & experience organizer for Optimise&Organise, plans meetings, summits, retreats, award ceremonies and art exhibitions across Europe, and things there have been just as troubling. “It’s been a challenging time, with many cancellations, frozen budgets and regulation instability,” she says. “On top of that, there has been a social perspective shift that made many successful meeting formats less relevant or desirable. For those able to embrace the change, this has also been a time of peaked creativity.”

Although virtual meetings aren’t ideal for SMERF meetings, hybrid is an option if measures are taken to ensure online attendees feel like they are part of the process. Courtesy of Isabel Almeida

Although virtual meetings aren’t ideal for SMERF meetings, hybrid is an option if measures are taken to ensure online attendees feel like they are part of the process. Courtesy of Isabel Almeida

The Virtual Way

Within SMERF, there are organizations that must meet to fulfill bylaw requirements for an annual meeting. “In 2020, after March, if they’d not met, they had to meet virtually,” Eisenstodt says. “Many also had to do that for [2021] because hotels weren’t open, weren’t fully staffed, and if the groups hadn’t booked when they postponed their meetings, space and rooms weren’t available. It’s a game of trying to make it work.”

Matthew Wales, CAE, CMP, vice president of member services & events for the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE), has been involved in planning and marketing of events in the education association world for almost 15 years. He notes the AACTE was fortunate, as its 2020 annual meeting took place the last week of February, two weeks prior to the shutdown. “Therefore, we had an entire year, and the wisdom and insight from some of our colleagues, to incorporate in planning our 2021 virtual annual meeting,” he says. “This allowed us time to research platform providers and develop some best practices for virtual delivery.”

Last fall, the association began returning to in-person events, and had a few smaller, subject-matter-focused meetings, ranging from 20 to 40 attendees. “We used these as a sample to observe our members’ comfort level with returning to in-person meetings,” Wales says. “The result was that not only were the majority comfortable with the appropriate safety measures taken, but that they truly want to be there now more than ever.”

Almeida notes while many SMERF meetings went virtual over the course of the last year, few have managed to have the same impact as in-person meetings. “The key is to re-create that tangible experience from far away,” she says. “It’s possible, but requires more creativity and a different approach to logistic management.”

But not everyone is an expert at technology, and the virtual experience turned out to be challenging for many — especially older attendees. The main challenges were many people not being able to get a handle on Zoom and a lot of drops due to internet issues. So, turning to digital platforms and arranging for everyone was a tricky task. “SMERF meetings need a leader, a person in charge of the event,” says Steven Walker, CEO of Spylix, a service facilitating online legal employee-monitoring services. “The leader conveys the information or thoughts to their followers. It is well observed that the physical sound and feel of a group motivate many people. However, sitting alone in your house and listening to electronic audio tones down the excitement and the exact purpose.”

For those associations that can do so, Groff expects the virtual option to be a choice forever. “Now that we are all used to using our virtual platforms, we can attend conferences on our laptop,” she says. “Many companies and organizations are asking attendees to attend the virtual option to save on flights, food and travel costs associated with in-person events.”

The Hybrid Approach

For the near future, Collins expects SMERF planners will need to consider a hybrid model. “During the pandemic, this opened up opportunities in reaching more people or providing more convenience,” she says. “I don’t believe this will entirely disappear. There is definitely value in face to face. However, if there are cost or convenience considerations making it more advantageous to host a hybrid event, then I think it will be considered.”

Therefore, one of the biggest challenges with scheduling SMERF meetings in 2022 is not just planning for a return to in-person events, but developing a strategy for how virtual options will be incorporated moving forward. “The costs associated with producing a quality hybrid event can be exorbitant, and determining the optimal ROI between expenses and virtual engagement with your membership is key,” Wales says.

Almeida says meetings planners have had no choice but to offer more hybrid meetings, with experiences that can be enjoyed from near and far. “They also became more collaborative. Participants are invited to help keep the safety regulations in place, but also to contribute to the content of the gathering,” she says. “Seeing as interactions between participants have become more limited, experiences are designed to make them interact in a more structured and intentional way.”

While gaining in popularity, Groff notes that hybrid meetings aren’t always the best idea. “During the early months of the pandemic, we did see hybrid meetings emerge,” Groff says. “Starting [last] fall, we are seeing people meet face to face as the hybrid model can be very costly with the virtual component.”

Joan Eisenstodt, principal of Eisenstodt Associates LLC, center, says members of reunion and fraternal groups are often older, so they may be slow to return to live events.  Courtesy of Joan Eisenstodt

Joan Eisenstodt, principal of Eisenstodt Associates LLC, center, says members of reunion and fraternal groups are often older, so they may be slow to return to live events. Courtesy of Joan Eisenstodt

Preparing for a Return

With the freedom granted by the vaccines, Collins says it has opened up new opportunities to host SMERF events and she feels safer to do so. “I believe SMERFs will have to incorporate a level of safety that they may not have factored in previously,” she says. “Certain types of SMERF meetings might also consider hybrid as part of their events. Not only from a safety standpoint, but also to extend the reach of the program. They may also be impacted by cost issues, which hopefully will not be long term, but most certainly could be a factor in the short term.”

After almost two years of virtual engagement, expectation levels are likely to be high as SMERF meetings return for in-person events. “However, we all know this industry has been hard hit during the pandemic, and many of our hotel, convention center and overall hospitality partners are struggling with staffing to meet demand,” Wales says. “So, as a colleague of mine says, ‘We all need to pack a pocketful of patience,’ because things will not be perfect our first time back in a face-to-face environment.”

Costs have also risen, given the need for new safety protocols and the labor issues. Some venues are waiting until they have the business in order to staff, so there are limited guarantees on service levels.

Wales encourages events professionals not to throw out their virtual strategies, but determine what items can still be incorporated moving forward. “It’s no secret that doing a true hybrid event requires more resources, including staff time,” he says. “Take care of your team and pay attention to their workload, because it’s their availability and bandwidth that should be a primary factor in determining how you maximize the delivery of your meetings and events.”

And with things starting to pick up maybe faster than expected, venues are all struggling to keep up with the limited staff to execute a top meetings experience. Plus, forecasting has become a huge challenge with all of the starts and stops and unknowns. “Many people were furloughed or let go due to COVID, and some have left the industry altogether,” Groff says. “The variants have also made for slow starts and stops. The unknown makes it hard to plan. Cancellation clauses and force majeure are having to be rewritten due to COVID.”

Another big challenge comes down to finances. Eisenstodt recently saw an eye-popping charge from a hotel for a SMERF group — a 25% administration fee that is taxed at 9% on top of food and beverage, room rental and labor — and it’s not a gratuity charge. “It’s vital to negotiate contract terms that work,” she says. “Just like after 9/11, hotels and their owners want to continue to protect groups’ abilities to meet because of COVID. And now, with this likely double endemic, it becomes more critical to consider the ‘what ifs.’ Staffing and facilities need to assure groups that their meeting will be taken care of.”

Matthew Wales, CAE, CMP, vice president of member services & events for the AACTE, says his group managed to meet before the lockdowns in 2020, which gave them a year to plan their 2021 virtual annual event.  Courtesy of Matthew Wales

Matthew Wales, CAE, CMP, vice president of member services & events for the AACTE, says his group managed to meet before the lockdowns in 2020, which gave them a year to plan their 2021 virtual annual event. Courtesy of Matthew Wales

Where We Stand

The current approach for the SMERF market is mixed, and it really depends upon who your constituents are and how they have been impacted by the pandemic. For example, AACTE moved full-steam ahead with a 2022, in-person annual meeting in New Orleans the first week of March. “However, [we prepared] for a smaller attendance, given that many colleges and universities are still operating on reduced budgets and under travel restrictions,” Wales says. “We [also prepared] digital versions of our major sessions, which we will … offer online in the months after the event.”

Many SMERF meetings are being planned in 2022, but with the caveat that a back-up plan is in place. “Unfortunately, with regulations changing as often as they are, there is always the possibility of having to hold events that cannot be attended by the full participant list — either due to venue capacity restrictions, international travel limitations or personal health situation of individual participants,” Almeida says. “It’s important to plan for this and ensure that participants that cannot partake physically have the chance to have an equally engaging experience.”

As of late 2021, Casey shares that about 75% of the military reunions he plans are back to being held in person, with his most recent one being an aircraft carrier military reunion group in Louisville for about 350 people. “We’re back, but only seeing about 70% of normal turnout,” he says.

Eisenstodt is seeing more in-person meetings being planned, though many not until later in 2022 because of safety, since there is still uncertainty with COVID. A recent SMERF meeting that she advised on met last fall and had just a quarter of expected participants in person, but they did have a virtual component that brought the attendance closer to normal. Still, many involved in the SMERF industry are concerned about the unknowns, such as unpredictable regulations allowing or limiting social gatherings. “Meetings and events take time to plan for a reason — there are logistical arrangements to be managed, but also participants’ mental and emotional preparation, which often happens subconsciously,” Almeida says. “With the constant changes in regulations, all those things become more challenging to manage.”

One trend that has come out of the pandemic is that more people are looking to hold their meetings in an outdoor space or natural surroundings, with enough air and space for everyone to interact with ease. “They are also becoming more intimate, with fewer people involved, and those who are there interact more meaningfully,” Groff says. “I expect venues to adapt to these norms, and experiences to reflect these up-and-coming values.”

A survey of the experts mostly come to the same conclusion: SMERF meetings are likely to survive and prosper in the years ahead, as meeting in person is of value to the attendees of these sorts of events. “SMERF is all about camaraderie,” Eisenstodt says. “Though virtual can be OK, it’s not the same. As the populations age more, those who are attending reunions and fraternal groups want to see each other, and experience the comfort of old friends and colleagues. That keeps this industry thriving.” | AC&F |

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