The SMERF Meeting ChallengeSeptember 1, 2017

Planners Learn the Art of Doing More With Less By
September 1, 2017

The SMERF Meeting Challenge

Planners Learn the Art of Doing More With Less
A Cru (Campus Crusade for Christ) staff conference. Credit: Tom Mills © Cru

A Cru (Campus Crusade for Christ) staff conference. Credit: Tom Mills © Cru

The acronym may sound whimsical, but coordinating SMERF events is serious business for planners serving social, military, educational, religious and fraternal associations. With a close eye on costs and a willingness to undertake creative approaches, planners for these organizations have become adept at tackling a common set of needs.

Budget constraints and date parameters always seem to be the biggest challenges in the SMERF arena, according to Jamie Kervin, senior account manager for Arrowhead Conferences and Events, a wholly owned subsidiary of Cru Ministry, (Campus Crusade for Christ) that also serves church denominations and other parachurch ministries.

“We often have to consider family and school schedules when planning for many of our meetings, which means that some of our clients are even competing with each other for the same space over the same dates in the same hotels and cities,” she says. “This demand is driving up rates and making availability even more scarce.”

Another trend with some SMERF groups is the desire to avoid convention centers, when possible, to save costs.

“Most of the time it’s less expensive to hold an event all under one roof as opposed to utilizing a convention center,” Kervin says. She notes that the number of large hotels with 1,000-plus guest rooms and a 100,000-sf ballroom or exhibit hall is relatively small, so availability becomes a challenge, especially when availability is needed at a lower rate.

In fact, the need for extra attention to budget matters is typical of many SMERF situations. While there are exceptions, many conferences fall on the smaller side and may not be considered among the most lucrative prospects for some top venues. At the same time, many attendees participate as private individuals. As such they are often responsible for their own expenses, making it imperative for planners to keep costs reasonable.

Tight Budgets

And even those with costs covered by their employer may have to be more budget-conscious than the typical corporate traveler, according to Matthew Wales, CMP, senior director, meetings, events and special projects for the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. He notes that with colleges and universities, tight budgets often can be inhibiting factors when it comes to conference attendance by faculty and administrators. Any efforts planners can make to keep expenses at a reasonable level will be in everyone’s interest.

“When we can be a bit more budget conscious it’s not just good for the organization, but also for our attendees,” he says. “They need to get the biggest bang for spending the minimum amount possible.”

At the same time, such efforts may bear explaining. “It puts the onus on people in the SMERF environment to educate attendees and let them know why we choose terms we do,” he says. “It helps to take a holistic approach by, for example, breaking out what registration fees actually cover.”

Wales says in planning meetings, his organization strives for a good measure of variety. “One year we may have a great deal with a big box property,” he says. “Another might be in a convention center with four or five supporting hotels.”

The association’s annual meeting attracts 2,300-2,500 participants. Several regional meetings on topics such as accreditation and assessment bring in 100–300 participants.

One strategy that has worked for AACT is taking advantage of arrangements such as the Three City Collective, where Visit Milwaukee, Visit Pittsburgh and Travel Portland have partnered to offer financial advantages and other incentives that can be especially attractive to planners with budget challenges. The three cities share a number of similar features including convention center size, enough hotel rooms to accommodate 1,100 to 1,500 on a peak night and a variety of convention services.

The same goes for Synchronicities, where San Antonio, Anaheim and Baltimore offer an array of collaborative features to convention groups and meeting planners.

Reunion Groups

Even without such multicity cooperation, many smaller cities, which may be considered second- or third-tier destinations, can be ideal for SMERF meetings. That’s certainly true for military reunions, says Ted Dey, founder of Armed Forces Reunions Inc. in Norfolk, Virginia. He points out that, as is the case with many other SMERF markets, his participants pay their own way, so the lower room rates and other expenses typical of smaller cities can be a plus.

Ray Casey, president of Military Reunion Planners LLC in Grapevine, Texas, faces the same situation. “The biggest challenge is meeting budget and managing client expectations,” he says. “Our reunion clients foot the bill out of their own pocket, so it’s important that we find the best value for them while helping them understand why things cost what they do.”

At the same time, another factor adds an interesting dimension for military groups that may be less applicable across the board. “They like to congregate and share stories; they prefer to have function space where they are allowed to provide their own refreshments, including alcohol — which can be problematic,” Dey says.

But a number of other needs are more common across the different types of SMERF organizations. “Cities must have good airport access and attractive day tours, and the hotels must offer good rates and allow groups to provide their own refreshments,” Dey says. Other discounts also are important, he adds, including breaks on standard banquet menus and reduced costs for audio-visual equipment.

Obviously, some locations may be more attractive, or conversely less so, to specific groups depending on how they match with a given group’s interests. Proximity to museums or monuments may be attractive to military associations, for instance. On the other hand, cities known for their gambling opportunities or rollicking night life may be less desirable to some religious associations.

Transportation is another part of the equation. Easy accessibility is a must, especially for groups that may include family members where the cost of air travel for an entire family could be prohibitive. So locations with ready access to interstates and rail or bus transportation is optimum. Having meeting venues, dining options and accommodations within easy walking distance is generally another must.

As another way to keep costs down, Casey looks closely at both location and scheduling options. “I tend to look outside the required area, like airport instead of downtown,” he says. “You can shift the pattern if your group is retired and every day is Saturday. If I can fill a hole at a place they want, I may be able to bring it within budget tolerances.”

Day affirms that reunion groups are highly motivated by discounted pricing. “They will alter their dates and arrival/departure pattern to get lower rates,” he says. “And hotels can fill need nights by being flexible with rates.”

Flexibility Reigns

In fact, budget limitations shouldn’t make it tough to negotiate if you’re willing to be flexible, according to Kervin.

“We often tell our clients that you have to be flexible on one of three things — dates, location, or cost,” she says. “You can meet anywhere you want over any set of dates that you want as long as you’re willing to pay for it. So if you want to save money and have a specific place you want to meet, then you may need to be flexible on your dates to make that happen. Or if you want to save money and have specific dates you need to meet, you’re most likely going to have to be flexible with your location.”

Kervin advises planners striving to save money always to enter a competitive bid process. “If cost savings are important, whether the meeting is for 10 people or 10,000, be open to multiple hotels and/or cities,” she says. “And in that process, make sure that you’re looking at all cost centers.”

When her organization distributes an RFP, venues are asked to provide pricing on everything from guest rooms to meeting space and audio-visual support. Each RFP is extremely detailed and tailored to the specific event.

“So, for example, if a group has frequent room turns, we communicate that in the RFP process and ask for a certain number of room turns complimentary,” she says. “All of those cost centers add up and allow us to accurately compare venues from a financial perspective.”

When budget is a strong factor, she often encourages clients to consider second- and third-tier cities, which can be more competitive with an overall package.

Kervin says that a key for some of the destinations that work best for SMERF meetings is their willingness to be flexible. “I always appreciate hotels that will help us think outside the box to make a piece of business work,” she says, noting that positive responses to questions such as these are always welcome: Can you shift us one day and drop the rate $20? Will you work hard with us on menu planning to decrease the cost of individual meals in an effort to increase the overall F&B spend? If you don’t have a lot of affordable dining options, can you offer some inexpensive boxed lunch options for individual purchase?

Vendor Partnership and  Cooperation

Also attractive are citywide approaches where CVBs, hotels, and convention centers all work together to provide complimentary rental at the convention center.

“It’s obvious to us when all of the parts of a city aren’t working together to earn a piece of business,” Kervin says. “When given the option, a city that is really coming together to work for a piece of business is most likely going to win it.”

Of course the efforts of individual properties can go a long way in developing a positive situation, especially those that make it a priority to serve SMERF groups.

“I think almost universally at these properties there is a can-do attitude and willingness to go to bat for their client,” Casey says. He finds them more willing to agree to simple requests such as a complimentary podium and microphone, free ice and so forth.

“If I can show our clients a basket of freebies, I can better sell their property,” he says. He tells of a SMERF salesperson who was out unexpectedly one day when he was scheduled for a site inspection. Casey was handed over to a corporate salesperson who seemed to say no to every simple request that he had.

“Little did she know that I knew they would do those things, but her market training was different,” he says. “The SMERF market is all about value for dollars spent.”

Dey recalls a successful meeting at the Hilton Minneapolis Airport where things went very well. There were 400 people in his group, a size larger than the restaurant could handle by serving only off the menu.

“The hotel put special lunch and dinner buffets in the restaurant, with reasonable prices inclusive of service charge and tax,” he says. “The wait staff was not overwhelmed and folks could charge to their room and eat quickly.”

Kervin notes that in her experience, the vast majority of meetings go smoothly. “Many planners want to rush through the site selection and contracting phase,” she says. “We always tell a new client that the RFP, site selection and contracting phase may seem tedious but that in the end, it’s worth it.”

Invariably, hard work during the process of negotiating hotel contracts prevents problems later. But headaches do arise. Kervin recalls an instance where a hotel canceled a client’s meeting because it landed some more lucrative business over the same dates.

“Because our rates were much lower than the other groups, the hotel made the poor decision to cancel on our group,” she says. But eventually, previous efforts at relationship-building paid off. “We immediately called on our national sales representative and ultimately a vice president within the chain to leverage the relationships that we have cultivated for 30-plus years,” she says. “Their own hotel brand making the hotel aware of our total value in the industry quickly resolved the issue in our client’s favor.”

Wales, too, stresses the importance of building relationships as well as planning for the long term. If you’re considering locations for the future, he advises other planners to start early. “If you want to go there, you’ll need to establish that network,” he says. “It’s much easier to work with relationships that have been developed over time than to start cold.”

To ensure successful meetings, Dey focuses on effective negotiation. “Understand your members’ needs and negotiate everything into the hotel contract upfront, including banquet pricing and all the concessions such as AV discounts or comps,” Dey says. “Also ensure that the restaurant will accommodate by offering special buffets, and remember that groups like breakfast included in the rate.”

Stay Patient and Be Open-minded

Patience is also a key, Casey says. “Be patient, as these tend to be a longer close,” he says. “Pay close attention to performance clauses and get good history on your group — you can’t make SMERFs attend.”

Being open-minded is another plus, according to Kervin, who says that it’s easy to fall into the trap of doing things the same way over and over. “Being open to small changes can sometimes have huge impacts on the bottom line,” she says.

She tells of saving a new client close to $1 million simply by convincing the group to consider a new location and bidding the event out to various other cities.

“The amazing thing was that the group got to use the same hotel they were already contracted in,” she says. “The key factor was that the group was really willing to move the entire event. The original hotel lowered their pricing enough to be competitive with the other potential locations.”

In another instance, a client agreed to move its annual meeting from historical dates to a holiday week. The move, although originally not an option, resulted in hotel rates dropping from $219 to $99. The savings convinced the group to meet again in the future over that same holiday period.

Another tip is to realize the importance of previous history and be ready to call on that knowledge. “A hotel sales manager often has to sell you and your meeting to her director of sales and even her revenue manager,” Kervin says. “You want to arm her with as much information as you can to convince her team to pursue you, and also to offer you the most competitive bid they can.”

She also adds details such as pickup from at least the past three meetings, the banquet food and beverage spend, and where appropriate, even the concession sales in a convention center.

“The more information you can provide in the RFP process, the better,” Kervin concludes. “A hotel is going to look at all potential revenue centers before bidding.” AC&F

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