The SMERF market is generally known as the "old reliable" standby, which continues to book meetings even in the harshest of economic climates, while always remaining budget-conscious.
However, it would be incorrect to say the SMERF market planners (who plan events in the Social, Military, Education, Religious and Fraternal segments), haven't had to adjust their strategies over the years.
An aging population, new advances in technology and the rise of the millennial generation must all be accounted for. In addition, hospitality providers need to be aware of the budget restrictions and limitations most SMERF groups face, even while hotel and convention business is on the upswing.
Here is a breakdown of what is on the mind of meeting professionals who work in each of the traditional SMERF sectors, including details on the specific needs and challenges associated with each segment.
Whether working on family reunions or nonprofit events, the social event planner typically has to find a balance between providing a memorable experience for attendees and staying within a limited budget
"With social clients, the event is much more personal, and less objective focused," said Cassie Brown, president and CEO of TCG Events.
"We are conscious of this difference and strive to make sure that we communicate the value of each line item as contributing to the overall goal of the event," she added.
TCG Events works with a variety of social gatherings and groups, including nonprofits, conferences, fundraisers, reunions and donor thank-you events.
Many of these clients value face-to-face interaction.
"Having ample opportunities for togetherness, for real connection, is important for social groups," Brown said. "They want private space big enough to have breakfast together, but at a leisurely time.
"They want to accommodate both retired Uncle Bob that gets up at 5 a.m., but also Cousin Sally and her three young kids who can't possibly make it down to breakfast until 9 a.m."
As far as those troublesome contracts are concerned, Brown says simpler is better.
"As a planner, it's important to keep in mind that social groups want contracts that are particularly easy to understand, i.e., no hidden fees," she said.
Regarding modern trends, the rise of smartphones and social media can help reduce printing costs and allows planners to share their ideas for social events on platforms such as Pinterest, where they can pin examples of themes, décor, food, beverage and invites for inspiration.
"We've seen an increased use of social media to distribute information," Brown said. "A few years ago, a guest might have gotten a hard copy invitation to the reunion in the mail, including a typed document with all the logistics.
"Now they get an e-vite with a link to a basic web page or a Facebook group," she added.
Finally, when asked what she thought was the biggest challenge social planners' face, Brown said burnout is easily number one on the list.
"Social clients don't always understand office hours and boundaries," Brown said. "And planners make the mistake of thinking providing good service means being available 24/7."
Military reunions are a valuable asset to many hotels, as they tend to offer flexible meeting dates and multiple room nights booked at times when properties would otherwise sit empty.
"The beauty of military reunions is that they are flexible to book in off-peak times within the April to October window," said Sharon Danitschek, president at Reunion Friendly Network–a trade organization that aims to help connect volunteer military reunion planners with CVBs, hotels and other vendors. "For this reason, rates do not change more than a couple of dollars year-over-year."
According to Danitschek, military reunions are typically four-to-five days long, including two-to-three days of sightseeing in the local area, alongside a banquet and memorial service of some kind. Reunions can be as small as 25 or as large as 250, but can vary based on the individual group and its needs.
As a more general trend she said "World War II reunions are fast becoming a distant memory," whereas "Korea, Vietnam and Gulf War reunions are still taking place."
Danitschek mentioned that attendees consider reunions to be one of their vacations, tend to drive versus fly and that veteran planners know where to book in the U.S. to get the best attendance. She also noted that social media has allowed for increased connection among military members, something that was a problem area for reunion planners in the past, and thus has improved attendance. In regards to special accommodations for military reunion groups, Danitschek said mobility, menu selection and portion size are all considerations.
The hospitality room is a major factor as well.
"In some cases it must be large enough for memorabilia tables and there is also the trend of groups bringing their own snacks, beverages and alcohol," she said.
Educational groups provide steady meetings business, yet this segment of the SMERF market is harder to define, as it contains many different groups (with differing needs).
"The 'education market' is broad and depending on the type of association and their issues, meeting attendance will vary," says Joan Eisenstodt, president of Washington D.C.-based Eisenstodt Associates, and a meetings and hospitality consultant, facilitator and trainer.
"Attendance for the educational clients I work with has been steady–in some cases, because of their issues, increasing," she added.
Eisenstodt said she has noticed a change in guest room occupancy, with people now looking for the lowest hotel rates they can find, sometimes out of the designated block(s), along with more doubling up of participants versus single room requests.
She also noted that education planners have to be particularly aware of how their groups receive funding and lookout for changes.
"If funding is dependent on state or federal government grants, or grants from other nonprofits, everyone is being cautious about projections," Eisenstodt said. "I do not take attendance for granted and advise clients of the same.
"One has to look at so many factors (including air fare, lift into the destination, taxes in the location of the meeting, etc.) to determine what the attendance will be," she added.
Eisenstodt said a developing trend among the education market is that more groups want to meet in first tier cities because of draw and access, which can be tough to budget financially. However, that's not saying you should count out other destination options.
"We've all looked to those secondary and tertiary markets–and we can still," Eisenstodt said. "The best thing again is to know one's group and ask the DMO in the city what other like groups have met there and how the destination is catering to those groups."
Rev. Cricket Park has been a meeting planner and association executive for over 30 years, but in that time she also managed to attend seminary and become an Episcopal priest, and is currently assistant rector at St. Patrick's Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C.
"Currently, I am manager of our diocesan convention," Park said. "I also help couples who are getting married to brainstorm venues for their receptions and work with our parish life coordinator to provide space at the church for outside groups."
According to Park, one particularly challenging aspect of planning religious meetings is adapting to the changing needs of current and future generations.
"We need to keep in mind the incredibly busy lives of the people in the Gen X and millennial generations," she said. "They are not going to attend things the way we 'old folks' did (and still do)."
Park pointed out that many religious groups are continuing to be stretched financially, which may result in less days being booked or limit total F&B expenses. However, these groups still expect the same standards as other SMERF and even corporate groups.
"My attendees are 'stuck' in a plenary session for a day and a half, so they want to be comfortable. We need lots of space," she said. "We've recently gone paperless and that means large bandwidth on the Wi-Fi. Oh, and Wi-Fi needs to be an automatic part of the package–stop charging extra for something that is as necessary as a water station these days."
Another trend that Park feels is of increasing concern among all meeting groups, but perhaps especially within the SMERF market, is the increase in those who are attending meetings with disabilities. "Most of these are going to be people with invisible disabilities, although I'm seeing more people using wheelchairs and other medical equipment," she said.
While the fraternal category includes groups such as Shriners and Freemasons, a continuously growing portion of the SMERF segment is dedicated to fraternities and sororities looking to hold meetings and reunions for local and national chapters.
"This portion of the fraternal market is very active, because the organizations put on events beyond their own annual meetings, leadership and regional conferences," said Sidney Dunn, executive director of the Fraternity Executives Associations (FEA). "Typically each fraternity will have five or six board meetings in addition to alumni gatherings that are significant."
It's well-known among planners and hoteliers that the SMERF market stays steady, even during the bad economy, and Dunn said the most recent recession had actually benefited the fraternal market.
"As the economy improves, the fraternal market is finding hotel and conference room pricing has gone up significantly and continues to go up," he said.
"Which is more of a challenge for us to plan the same types of meetings, as all of our groups are not-for-profit and work under tight budgets," Dunn added.
As far as general trends are concerned, Dunn said most fraternal groups tend to hold their large meeting in the summertime and the fraternal market greatly varies in number, which means there are a wide range of meeting needs that have to be accommodated.
"The biggest challenge, really is finding good value, like any other market, find good value for the money you have available," Dunn said. "We're the same, we want to find good value for our fraternities and sororities and give them a good experience, but still be able to afford it."
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