SMERF SuccessSeptember 15, 2021

This Segment of the Industry Faces Unique Challenges By
September 15, 2021

SMERF Success

This Segment of the Industry Faces Unique Challenges
Jeff O’Hara, president of PRA New Orleans, says SMERF events like the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod National Youth Gathering have different rules and protocols than the typical corporate gathering. Photo by Cindy Hayes

Jeff O’Hara, president of PRA New Orleans, says SMERF events like the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod National Youth Gathering have different rules and protocols than the typical corporate gathering. Photo by Cindy Hayes

Here’s one thing we know: The Social, Military, Educational, Religious and Fraternal (SMERF) meetings and events environment is unique. Not only are the groups that fall within the SMERF realm often smaller entities with lower budgets, but their demographics range from young to old, with each group responding differently to the form and function of today’s meetings and events. Add in a global COVID-19 pandemic, and meeting planners are facing unique challenges in making SMERF gatherings a success.

Understanding the Audience

Jeff O’Hara, CMP, DMCP, president of PRA New Orleans, says SMERF meetings are an interesting meeting category as it relates to COVID-19. A high percentage of SMERF meetings have a demographic that skews older, and another segment has a demographic that skews younger than the typical meeting attendee in other market segments. “Each brings its own challenge. The older group is more vulnerable, but is also highly vaccinated. The younger group, less so on both counts. What I have seen in the last six months is that planners have shifted from planning the health and safety protocols of the event — trust me, we as an industry have that down pat — to the decisions about requiring vaccinations,” O’Hara says. “That, of course, is a sticky wicket and has been well covered in the media.”

O’Hara sees this as an easier sell to the older demographic, as from a planner’s standpoint you stand to lose more attendees if vaccines are not required — because people not feeling safe won’t attend, than if vaccines are required — unvaccinated members not attending. For the events that skew younger, it is a harder move because such a high percentage of that demographic is not vaccinated. “For these events, an emphasis on the health and safety protocols is what will make people feel safe attending,” O’Hara says.

The SMERF market has definitely been slower to come back than others, as there is not as much urgency from a business standpoint relative to the corporate/convention market. With that said, O’Hara is currently in the planning stages for an 18,000-attendee religious event for next summer. “We have been having all of the typical health and safety planning meetings, with plans that will adapt based on the current COVID situation. One contingency is — and the one we expect and hope for — is that COVID is a non-issue. The other, of course, is that we are still grappling with it,” O’Hara says. “If the latter, we have to do things like reduce capacity on shuttles [but stay on budget], create more space for loading and unloading, enforce health and safety on the transfers and in the venues, etc. We have a sliding scale of plans going from scenario A — all clear — to scenario worst case and beyond.”

Jennifer Collins, CMP, DES, president & CEO of JDC Events LLC, says one of the biggest challenges when planning SMERF meetings is scaling back to accommodate any local restrictions. For some locations, capacity might have been a restriction or masking requirements, or other safety protocols. “Some SMERF meetings also host the 65+ population that faithfully quarantined over the past year,” she says. “With the vaccines coming online, this allowed them to move about more freely; however, with the rise of the Delta variant, this may cause some of those events to scale back.”

Karma O’Neill, meeting planner and owner of KO Events, says the biggest challenge with today’s SMERF events is the constant state of not knowing. “Just when we think we are in the clear and go ahead with in-person plans, a new variant comes along,” O’Neill says. “Guests are hesitant to be around others, especially if others are flying in from all over the country.”

Jeff O’Hara, president of PRA New Orleans, says SMERF events like the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod National Youth Gathering have different rules and protocols than the typical corporate gathering. Photo by Cindy Hayes

Jeff O’Hara, president of PRA New Orleans, says SMERF events like the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod National Youth Gathering have different rules and protocols than the typical corporate gathering. Photo by Cindy Hayes

Striving For Success

There are key steps that meeting planners can take to make SMERF meetings during this time of uncertainty successful. As O’Hara explains, it is about making people feel comfortable getting back into a group environment and traveling to do so. That’s why the communication aspect of SMERF event planning is more important than ever, both in getting people on the road and in having an uneventful event once they are there. “One thing that has been very popular is using outdoor spaces for events and education. Fresh air and sunlight is better for you anyway,” O’Hara says. “It also puts people at ease due to less possibility of transmission and helps with health and safety.”

Hotels and venues have also been creative at adapting underutilized outdoor spaces and converting them to event spaces. The New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, in particular, made a big investment during the downtime to create outdoor event space that has a fantastic view of the area. O’Neill says the best thing meeting planners can do is make a plan, and then make a “Plan B” that includes a quick transition to a virtual meeting. Also, it’s important to be open and honest with vendors. “If there is a chance the event will be postponed or changed to only virtual, they should know that up front,” O’Neill says. “A couple of my clients are creating ‘swag’ bags and mailing them to participants so if they are virtual, they will have the ‘swag.’”

O’Neill currently has two SMERF events coming up — one is very small, and she is planning to make it as smooth as possible but have the flexibility to quickly take it virtual. It is also outside unless there is rain, so if offers a bit of a relief to attendees. “The second event is larger, and has guests possibly traveling from Europe and Canada. They are in a quandary as to whether they should go fully virtual and lose money on contracts, or reduce the number of attendees,” O’Neill says. The dilemma is that they will still be charged for 75% of the larger number if they go virtual.

Darryl Diamond, CMP, senior meeting manager at Talley Management Group Inc., which helps with association management and events, says it’s important to plan for both an in-person and a virtual experience for attendees. Then, if one option has to go away due to health concerns, you already have the other option ready to go and don’t have to start from scratch. “You also need to consider your audience. Some meetings can do better in a virtual world than others. If you have a hands-on trade show and just can’t be virtual, then think about alternative venues,” Diamond says. “Does your property have a covered parking structure? Can you convert that into an expo hall and use the fresh air coming in instead of an ample indoor space?” He adds: “There was a great story recently about a group that was supposed to meet at the San Diego Convention Center. Because it was still closed for government use, they had to find an alternate venue and ended up at Petco Park [where Major League Baseball’s Padres play]. It was a clever use of the venue, and allowed room for all attendees to meet and exhibit in the open air.”

Nuances To Consider

There are specific traits within the SMERF meetings to consider when planning for an event. For instance, a higher percentage of attendees at SMERF meetings are not frequent travelers compared to a typical corporate/convention market. So O’Hara says it is important to set the expectations for them what the entire travel experience will be like, and what is happening in each area to keep them safe. This includes traveling to and from the airport, the experience in the airport and on the plane, traveling to the hotel, what happens at check in, and what the meeting experience will be like.

Also, many hotels are not offering full housekeeping service during the stay while the pandemic is ongoing, some outlets are perhaps not operating full hours and some not at all, etc. Helping attendees to understand that in advance — and the “why” of it — will make for a better experience on-site. Helpful travel hints to make their journey more comfortable should be provided. For example, Lyft requires all of their drivers to wear masks, even in areas where the local authorities don’t mandate it. Local taxi drivers generally are not required to wear masks. “Knowing this may make someone more comfortable in their airport to hotel journey and avoid a surprise,” O’Hara says.

In addition, the current travel experience is a bit different even to road warriors, and there have been many news reports about how airplanes in particular have had a large uptick of in-flight disturbances. “Educating meeting attendees about what the full experience will be like is very important,” O’Hara says.

Collins agrees, and stresses that, given our public health crisis, it’s important for planners of SMERF meetings to fully understand the risks and prepare their participants for navigating the event in a pandemic. “This means constant and continued communication outlining safety protocols and expectations, especially if the event will be held in a low vaccination rate state,” Collins says. “I would also book as far in advance as possible. The leisure market started the comeback for hospitality, and many of the locations have booked up. With the challenges in staffing of venues, restaurants and other businesses, it would be in the best interest of the SMERF meeting planner to find out what’s most important for the group, and find ways to bundle timeframe with location lower rates and offer more amenities.”

Also, O’Neill says meeting planners need to have discussions about vaccination requirements, mask versus non-mask requirements, and whether it is appropriate to require proof of vaccinations. Planners also need to closely scrutinize contracts, as vendors are changing requirements and adding clauses about cancellation that the industry has never seen before. “For instance, I work with a rental company that has never had minimums before, but instituted them this past spring. They were turning away clients and groups were cancelling events on certain days due to lack of available vendors/product,” O’Neill says. “The rental company now charges a fee if I cancel more than 25% of the rental items.”

Indeed, one of the big unknowns, as the meeting business picks back up, is how many people will actually attend events. It is uncharted territory, and meeting history can’t be counted on as a good indicator. O’Hara says this is especially true in the SMERF market, where most of the attendees are there voluntarily and paying from their own pocket. That’s why contracts should have some flexibility built in that protects not only the meeting planner, but also his or her suppliers and venues in the case numbers should drop. “Planners have to think strategically around this issue and make it a partnership with their suppliers. It can’t be just an automatically allowed attrition,” O’Hara says. “There is a lot of work that goes into planning a successful event — you can’t just drop the revenue your supplier receives without giving them some compensation for the work that went into planning the larger event.”

Diamond also stresses the importance of being honest and transparent throughout the SMERF meeting planning process. Be open with your attendees and stakeholders about your plans and specific decision dates. For example, if you are going to limit attendance to only vaccinated attendees, communicate that early and clearly. If you require masks at all times, put that in every email. Also, consider being more flexible with your cancellation policies. “The last thing you want is for somebody who’s not feeling well to come to your event because they weren’t going to be able to get a refund and didn’t want their investment to go unused,” Diamond says.

Of course, meeting planners should not assume there will be an honor system or that people will be truthful as it relates to vaccination status. Should they require participants to be vaccinated, they should have a plan in place to verify the status and provide other protocols — such as masking — to ensure their participants are safe. “It’s the event organizer’s duty to develop clear communications on the protocols and procedures in establishing a safe environment,” Collins says. These protocols should be well communicated throughout the planning process. This will not only provide assurances to the participants, but it could also assist in addressing any potential claims of negligence should something occur.”

It’s also important that these guidelines communicate the role of the participant to ensure a safe environment as well. This especially since masking and other public health guidance has unfortunately become a lightning rod for select individuals. “So if the event calls for masking or other procedures, then those guidelines should be respected and followed,” Collins says.

Looking Ahead

The meetings and events industry has learned how to transition a large group of people from in-person to virtual. As O’Neill points out, in many cases virtual saves time and money both for the host and the participant. “I think there will be a huge transition in the number of live events that take place in the future. On the flip side, we might be looking at shorter planning periods, groups wanting to have an event in the relatively short ‘safe’ window,” O’Neill says.

That said, O’Hara is a firm believer in the need for humans to congregate and interact. “I do not think there will be a long-term effect on SMERF meetings or meetings in general,” O’Hara says. “Particularly with the SMERF market, there isn’t as much in the way of education or corporate information to be shared, the main value attendees receive is seeing each other.”

Similar to most meetings, Collins thinks SMERF events will have to incorporate a level of safety that they may not have factored in previously. 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,” Collins says. “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.”  | AC&F |

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