It’s been only a relatively short time since hotels, convention centers and other venues were all but groveling at the feet of meetings buyers in the SMERF (social, military, educational, religious and fraternal) market. Economic times were tough, and SMERF groups could always be relied upon to meet and spend no matter the economic climate. Luxury hotel and resort chains were spinning such affordable deals that SMERF planners found something other than costs to worry about if they put their groups inside the walls of posh venues: perceptions.

My, how times have changed. Though the prevailing venue seller’s market isn’t offering many bargains to a meetings industry segment that includes a range of groups, from military reunion meetings of hundreds to religious rallies for thousands in outdoor arenas, suppliers stress that there are ways SMERF planners can grant themselves some favors in the here and now.

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Flexibility First

As always, flexibility with meeting dates is at the top of the negotiations advice list when it comes to crafting favorable contracts.

“SMERF groups that are flexible with both the season and day of the week are likely to get the best deals,” says Karl Pietrzak, CDME, CASE, vice president, convention sales for Visit Pittsburgh. “There are always very good discounts for groups that will consider meeting over holidays like Easter, Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends. Also, December through March for us is a need time.”

Doing short-term bookings of a year or less out is another good strategy for just about any destination, Pietrzak adds.

“Almost every city, no matter how busy they are, has holes in their schedule. People who are willing to fill those spaces can get some very good rates,” he says.

Some years present good booking opportunities, too. Zagat’s online travel guide recently named Pittsburgh the No. 1 food city in America, and its downtown hotel room inventory has increased by 25 percent in the past five years, so meetings business for 2016 is humming. But city managers have named 2017 a “need” year.

Pietrzak says his local industry is offering financial incentives now—including 10 percent off the master bill—for 2017. Groups with 500 rooms or more a night can get up to $15,000 toward convention costs that can be applied to any segment, including rooms in the convention center, transportation and so on. If they have up to 1,000 rooms, the incentive is up to $30,000.

In Branson, where tourism is robust most any time of year, Deborah Cohen, CMP, director of meeting and convention sales for the Branson Lakes Area CVB, says flexibility is key for the many SMERF groups who want to book her popular Missouri entertainment destination.

“Close to half of our meetings business is the SMERF market—particularly religious and faith-based groups—because we are considered a wholesome destination with a patriotic culture that also draws lots of veterans and active military groups,” Cohen says. “We always advise SMERF planners to have lots of flexibility with their dates. Our greatest business-need time of year here is summer and the first-quarter shoulder season. But there are other pockets of good booking opportunities throughout the year.”

Buy Smart

SMERF buyers can also do well with bookings if they know the true value of their meetings business, and if they work with city affiliates that partner for meetings marketing, says Tom Hemer, director of sales and marketing for Wyndham Grand Pittsburgh Downtown.

Several CVBs like Pittsburgh, Milwaukee and Portland, Ore., affiliate for meetings marketing, and groups that book multiple dates and/or years within those destinations can enjoy additional incentives. Cities have different “need” years and seasons, Hemer says. While Pittsburgh currently has 2017 as a “need” year, Portland’s is 2018.

Also, destination dynamics differ. Fall in Pittsburgh is all about Steelers football, but there are often good bargain periods in May or June for which suppliers are very willing to negotiate.

“If you are willing to book two or three cities—maybe the same-brand hotels in each city—there are good incentives to have,” Hemer says. “Beyond that and flexibility on dates, I recommend that planners always understand how important it is that they know the true value of their business—like spend on sleep and meeting rooms, F&B and other services. Many planners do not, or they offer us lower figures than the real one.

“Many people will spend $50,000 to $75,000 but they tell you they have spent much less because they don’t want to commit to a certain amount,” he continues. “If you are able to contract for a $40,000 minimum, for instance, that makes us more willing to give you more space and other concessions with F&B and other services.”