SMERF MeetingsAugust 1, 2013

Hooked on Being the Big Fish in a Small Pond By
August 1, 2013

SMERF Meetings

Hooked on Being the Big Fish in a Small Pond
Attendees who meet in Virginia Beach marvel at the amazing exhibits and 800,000-gallon aquarium at Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center. Credit: Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center

Attendees who meet in Virginia Beach marvel at the amazing exhibits and 800,000-gallon aquarium at Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center. Credit: Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center

Social, military, education, religious and fraternal (SMERF) meetings are all but unstoppable these days. While the SMERF segment isn’t the largest, it is dependable, and continues to meet during the good times and the bad economic times with little attendee falloff. 
SMERF groups most often have loyal attendees who fill hotel vacancies by meeting on weekends and during off-peak times and shoulder seasons, says Sara Torrence, CMP, president of Torrence and Associates in Gaithersburg, MD, and a member of the Conference and Visitors Bureau of Montgomery County Maryland (CVBMCM). “If hotels and destinations want group business during those periods, they should look at SMERFs. Hotels don’t have lots of group business over the weekends, and many corporations don’t meet then. But many social, religious and fraternal organizations have to meet over weekends. They are very dependable in that regard,” says Torrence.

While SMERFs are reliable, they tend to be mostly small groups with tight budgets and attendees who pay all or most of their meeting expenses. In part, that’s why planners of SMERF meetings tend to favor less expensive second- and third-tier destinations such as Virginia Beach, VA; Wilmington, NC; Louisville, KY; Springfield, MA; Oklahoma City, OK and Fort Myers, FL.

Many of these destinations, according to their CVBs, actively court SMERF groups. Still, SMERFs must work a little harder to obtain bargains due to the strengthening seller’s market.

“The Hyatt may have had a few smaller groups but we took up the vast majority of the hotel, and the staff made us feel special. Service and hospitality were spot-on. They even had people at the door to greet us when we arrived.”

— Amy Mercer, Executive Director, Florida Police Chiefs Association, Tallahassee, FL

SMERF planners keep costs down by negotiating aggressively and focusing on the largest expenses. “A main challenge to controlling costs is working with hotel partners,” says Torrence. “We try to keep hotel total charges within a person’s budget. We focus on keeping room rates, and food and beverage costs as reasonable as possible, but you still want value. With food and beverage, I usually ask for tastings to make sure hotels aren’t cutting too many corners. To get what you want, you have to start planning further out. Many SMERF planners don’t do that,” says Torrence.

Keeping costs reasonable also is a key factor in building attendance, which enhances negotiating clout with hotels. The Rev. Alice Kerr Laird, who plans meetings for Worcester, MA-based New England Synod Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (New England Synod ELCA), says that cost control is crucial. “The congregations pay for voting members and pastors to attend. Some of our congregations have been struggling financially in recent years and have not sent their full complement of voting members,” says Laird, associate to the bishop of the New England Synod ELCA.

The New England Synod ELCA also changed its meeting days to improve attendance and attract more young people. “We used to meet on Thursday, Friday and Saturday and attracted a lot of older and retired people,” says Laird. “We moved it to the weekends so we can get more young working adults that don’t have to take all that time off from work. We also try to have sessions and events like community work projects that appeal to younger people.”

Such initiatives work best if they accompany efforts to get good deals, and Laird has a simple approach for that task. Just ask, she says. “We always do that. We don’t really have any big strategy for keeping costs down. For instance, we might say we want something for $25 per plate, and it must have a vegetarian option. We negotiate from there, and hotels usually work hard to make it work for us,” says Laird.

Laird negotiated a series of one-year deals to meet in Springfield, MA, in June 2011, 2012 and 2013. The organization also plans to return to Springfield in 2014. Laird had some leverage in negotiating because the Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau (GSCVB), which has targeted SMERFs for years, showed that it really wanted the group. “They recruited us very actively and gave us a good deal. The first year we were to go, a tornado hit a few days before we arrived (but did no significant damage). There were a lot of people using the MassMutual Center as a shelter. We debated if we should have our assembly that year but the city asked us to come. They really wanted us,” says Laird.

The two-day New England Synod ELCA meeting, which represents the six New England states and two New York state counties, attracted more than 500 attendees including lay and clergy members as well as spouses and retired pastors. This year, the 325-room Sheraton Springfield Monarch Place Hotel served as the group’s headquarters property. Located just two blocks away, the group also met at the MassMutual Center, which boasts an elegant ballroom, five fully functional meeting rooms, 40,000 sf of exhibit space, plus a totally renovated 8,000-seat arena — all under one roof.

Accessibility and Convenience

What planners avoid in a city such as Springfield is big-city traffic jams as well as lodging and pricing headaches. And access is convenient and simple. Easily driveable, Amtrak rail and national motorcoach service provide more transportation options, and the airport is less than 20 minutes from Springfield. What’s more, exceptional dining options plus 1,000 first-class hotel rooms within easy walking distance make the center one of the finest venues of its kind in western New England.

Laird agrees that accessibility was a factor in choosing Springfield. “It works well geographically for us because it’s easy for most of our New England members to get there. It’s located at the intersection of Interstates 90 and 91 and a short drive from Bradley International Airport (Hartford, CT). It’s a small city so you can walk around, and there are lots of things to do and places to eat,” says Laird.

Walking around is also easy in the Newport, RI, area. In nearby Middletown, about three miles from downtown Newport, transportation needs are minimal because so many venues are within walking distance of the hotels. Especially during shoulder and off-season, SMERF budgets are a good match for the properties in Middletown, which have suitable rooms and adequate meeting space (and cost considerably less than hotels in Newport).

SMERF groups also find meeting in Louisville, KY, attractive due to the value and easy access. “It’s not only about affordability. Accessibility is big,” notes Michael J. Kleine-Kracht, president of Louisville-based Visitours. “Being a driving destination is a wonderful advantage because we are within an eight-hour drive (or less) of three-fourths of the nation’s population. Our convenience factor as far as getting around the city is through the roof. Everything is within a 15-minute drive.”

SMERFS Come in All Sizes

SMERF groups are typically thought of as small. But it would be a mistake to think of all SMERF groups in this way, including those in the social and special interest areas. “SMERF groups aren’t necessarily categorized by size and aren’t necessarily small,” says Kleine-Kracht. “I think many national associations, especially when it comes to Louisville, would be classified as SMERF. Some of the groups can be citywides and serve as anchors for our meeting industry.”

As an example, Kleine-Kracht cites the National Street Rod Association (NSRA), a group that meets to socialize and share their passionate interest. The NSRA held its annual Street Rod Nationals Plus in Louisville in August 2013 for the 16th consecutive year and 19th time overall. The group attracted more than 30,000 street rod enthusiasts who participated in an auto parts swap meet, an arts and crafts fair and trade show.

The four-day meeting was again held at the Kentucky Exposition Center (KEC), which features more than 1 million sf of exhibit and meeting space. More than 10,000 street rods and other vintage autos were displayed during the four-day meeting. The NSRA is contracted to meet in Louisville through 2020.

On the other end of the spectrum, Louisville attracts many small SMERF groups including military meetings that typically have fewer than 100 attendees. There also are lots of religious groups that have a few hundred people or less, says Kleine-Kracht. “Louisville is a nice melting pot for different types of religious groups because of the faith-based organizations that are based here. We have the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the Presbyterian Church USA. Some of the groups tend to fly under the radar because they don’t use DMC and CVB services,” he says.

CVBs Target SMERFs

More second- and third-tier destinations are reaching out to SMERF groups. For example, the CVBMCM in Maryland looks to attract SMERFs, says Torrence. “We have a large social, family and sports market good for meetings and sporting events like soccer and lacrosse. We target those markets by going to trade shows and engaging local citizens so they think of our destination. We also advertise in magazines that appeal to regional audiences and work hard to have a website that meets planners’ needs and is easy to navigate,” says Torrence.

The CVBMCM’s website features Web pages aimed squarely at SMERF groups. The social event planning page touts Montgomery County as an ideal place for such meetings because it is within a one-day drive of two-thirds of the U.S. population. The “sports Montgomery” page boasts that “the CVB has a close partnership with the sporting venues in Montgomery County and with the hotels that are located in Montgomery County, ensuring that all hotel rates offered through the CVB are the lowest available group rates.” The site also invites groups to submit RFPs online and receive a response within 24 hours.

Destinations that depend on military SMERFs find their outreach efforts to be even more important due to recent federal budget cutbacks stemming from the congressional sequester. The reduction has impacted the number of military groups meeting in Virginia Beach, Newport and similar destinations. Military groups have been one of Newport’s biggest-spending SMERF segments and gravitate to the destination partly because it is home to the U.S. Naval War College.

The Virginia Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau (VBCVB) also focuses on growing other SMERF niches, especially the faith-based market. The VBCVB attends and helps to sponsor meetings of faith-based organizations, such as the Religious Conference Management Association.

Time for Green

Popular SMERF destinations such as Virginia Beach offer several advantages for planners, including value, especially from October through May, which is when the hotel community can really use the business. The mid-sized Virginia Beach Convention Center also is a great attraction for SMERF planners because it is easy to navigate, and offers innovative opportunities for green meetings. The nation’s first convention center to earn LEED Gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Council, the center can hold any size meeting imaginable, with more than 525,125 gross sf, more than 150,000 sf of column-free exhibit space, nearly 29,000 sf of meeting space and a 31,000-sf ballroom — one of the largest on the East Coast.

From state-of-the-art lighting and HVAC systems to an extremely active recycling program, Virginia Beach’s sustainability initiatives reflect their commitment to staying green and preserving the environment. Even the restaurants are into being green. Those establishments that carry the Virginia Green certification are committed to eco-friendly practices such as recycling, energy conservation and greater water efficiency. The opportunities to green SMERF meetings are endless in Virginia Beach.

Family Fun, Too

A family-friendly destination is important to SMERF groups as many members often combine the annual conference with a family vacation. In addition to sun, sand and beach activities that Virginia Beach is famous for, a trip to the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center is a good choice, too. The center boasts an 800,000 gallon aquarium and live animal habitats as well as hundreds of hands-on exhibits, an outdoor aviary, nature trail and marshlands. The whole family also can revel in the 3-D Imax Theater with a huge screen six stories tall and eight stories wide. A 10-minute walk takes visitors through a salt marsh and a woodland preserve between the aquarium’s buildings, and families can climb the 30-foot observation tower to get a view of Owls Creek from tree-top level. There also are 300 interactive exhibits to learn more about marshes, the bay and the Atlantic Ocean.

Oklahoma City, an ideal destination for SMERF groups and their families, is equipped to accommodate meetings of 25 to 20,000 delegates. One satisfied planner called it a “fun destination” that has some of the best steak houses in the country. Hotel options (there’s 16,000 hotel rooms) and budget-friendly price points also make Oklahoma City a great choice for SMERF groups.

The Renaissance Oklahoma City Convention Center Hotel makes a convenient headquarters property because it is connected to the Cox Convention Center via skywalk. Located at the heart of the downtown business district, the Cox Convention Center features 100,000 sf of exhibit space, 27,500 sf of meeting and event space, and a 25,000-sf ballroom. Surrounded by 1,600 hotel rooms, the center is also near bustling Bricktown, the popular entertainment and dining district along the Bricktown Canal.

Directly to the west of the Cox Convention Center is the Myriad Botanical Gardens and Crystal Bridge Tropical Conservatory, which features new adventures after a $38 million transformation project including a restaurant, interactive water features, a new children’s garden, dog release area, grand event lawn and more. Coming in 2018, Oklahoma City will debut a new convention center. Construction is expected to start in 2016.

Unique Destination for Movie Buffs

Attendees who always wanted to be an extra in a film may consider meeting in Wilmington NC, which has logged more than 400 film-related credits. Filmmakers and association planners are attracted to this historic town along the Cape Fear River for great weather, three nearby island beaches, varied landscapes and architecture, and the Wilmington Convention Center. The largest and newest convention center on the North Carolina coast, the center is not only a popular destination for meetings and events, but also serves as a backdrop for Hollywood blockbusters, TV drama series and national commercials.

Wilmington has produced three No. 1 hits at the box office in one year with the release of “The Conjuring,” “Iron Man 3” and “Safe Haven.” The newly released “We’re the Millers,” a popular R-rated comedy starring Jennifer Aniston and Jason Sudeikis, was shot at the Wilmington Convention Center in the spring of 2012. “Revolution,” the hit NBC series, is filmed in the Wilmington area, including at the Wilmington Convention Center.

The venue boasts LEED Silver certification and 107,000 sf of function space with event capabilities for 25 to 2,000 people. Groups are keen on meeting in Wilmington due to its temperate coastal climate and the 12,000-sf waterfront event lawn. The area is also home to nearly 8,000 hotel rooms and suites with unique settings ranging from Wilmington’s downtown Riverwalk to the sea.

Workshops for Planners

Some destinations are reaching out directly to planners and others who plan SMERF meetings. The Lee County Convention & Visitors Bureau (LCCVB), which represents The Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel, sponsors complimentary planning workshops every April and October and attracts 40–60 attendees. The workshops feature planning experts who offer advice in several areas such as budgeting and creative activities for attendees. Also, the CVB offers information on such topics as the differences between full-service and limited-service hotels; how to talk to directors of sales and catering; how to set up a food and beverage budget; and how to put together a committee in charge of deciding activities and banquets.

The LCCVB also knows that SMERF groups want to feel like a big fish in a small pond. They want personalized attention and a special customized event. And the LCCVB aims to please. For example, the LCCVB’s SMERF outreach efforts focus primarily on military and other groups, but also include student and youth groups as well as law enforcement organizations such as the Tallahassee, FL-based Florida Police Chiefs Association (FPCA).

Amy Mercer, the FPCA’s executive director, says the LCCVB recruited her through several emails and phone calls. The group’s 500 attendees met in Fort Myers for four days in June after a several year absence from the destination. 
The FPCA met at the 454-room Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort & Spa located in Lee County about 28 miles from Fort Myers. The Hyatt, with 70,000 sf of flexible function space, was a big draw for the FPCA, says Mercer. “We never go to convention centers because our members like a more intimate setting,” says Mercer. “The hotel is extremely meeting friendly. It is not so huge that you spend a lot of time trekking back and forth from the training sessions to the exposition. I’ve been doing this since 1999, and this is the only conference that has produced zero complaints afterwards,” says Mercer. The FPCA plans to return to the Fort Myers area, she adds.

Mercer says her group was the center of the hotel’s attention. “The Hyatt may have had a few smaller groups but we took up the vast majority of the hotel, and the staff made us feel special. Service and hospitality were spot-on. They even had people at the door to greet us when we arrived,” she says.

While Mercer got a good deal from the Hyatt, she finds it ironic that SMERFs must now fight to find good deals as hotel business is on the upswing. “What we see is that, because there is a bit of an upturn in the economy, hotels want to charge more as far as room rates. They need to remember that groups like ours were there during the difficult times as well,” says Mercer.

All destinations can benefit from SMERF groups, which deliver a steady stream of meeting income even during downturns. Torrence reminds, “SMERFs bring value to any market.”

Truly, SMERF groups enjoy meeting in second- and third-tier destinations, especially when they are treated like the big fish in the little pond —  a key reason why so many groups return to the same destination year after year. As CVBs and DMOs continue to fulfill the wishes and expectations of SMERF planners and their groups, their long-lasting relationships will continue to thrive. AC&F

Back To Top