Three People Smiling and Engage in Conversation Over Railing

The SMERF (social, military, education, religious, fraternal) banner covers an array of groups that on the surface would seem to have little in common, pertaining to everything from weddings to military reunions and fraternal conventions.

What these groups share, however, is that their gatherings bring together people who are actively choosing to get together.

“SMERF groups are convivial and actually want to spend time together versus having to spend time together networking in order to meet an obligation,” said Andrea Kinney, who plans gatherings for a number of SMERF groups as a St. Augustine, Fla.-based director of global accounts for HelmsBriscoe.

Of course, that conviviality comes at a price—for the venue, rooms and food and travel—and the attendees usually pay for it out of their own pockets instead of it being something they can expense.

“The common bond is that they’re self-funded social groups,” said Ray Casey, president of Military Reunion Planners, based in Grapevine, Texas.

Because of this, these groups tend to look for the best deals they can find from destinations and hotels, without skimping on quality. When the economy is struggling and corporate groups aren’t booking as much business, the SMERF groups—who tend to meet no matter how the economy is doing—are very popular, but in today’s market, with its high hotel occupancy, it can be a bit more challenging.

The good news is that when SMERF groups and the host destinations and hotels are able to work together they can find a balance that rewards their loyalty and the long-term relationships that have been forged.

Accommodating Loyal Customers

“It’s a cyclical business that goes with the economy,” Casey said. “When it’s in the tank, hotels are begging for our business and will give us anything we want. Now that business hotels are full, some are not interested.”

This is where the relational aspect of the meetings industry comes into play and, according to Casey, military groups remember who was loyal to them.

“I remember the ones that turned me away,” Casey said. “The hotels I work with the most have been loyal and will still work to give us a deal when times are good. It might be harder to get some concessions—breakfast, parking, etc.—but they try to keep the rate down for our guys.”

For family reunions and weddings, Kinney has found that booking all-inclusive resorts like those in the Dominican Republic and Jamaica can help keep expenses down.

“All-inclusive resorts are perfect for weddings and reunions because no one has to worry about who will pick up the tab when enjoying meals together,” sad Kinney said. “Since the activities are also included everyone can enjoy time together doing something fun and not worry about breaking the bank.”

Flexibility in Dates and Rates

Casey and Kinney both advise their groups to be flexible on dates.

“Dates are a big driver,” Casey said. “We try to educate them to be flexible if they want the same experience.”

“I like to say that there are no bad rates, just bad dates,” said Jason Dunn, vice-president of multicultural sales and community development for the Cincinnati USA CVB, who touts the importance of the SMERF market for his city. “The SMERF market is under appreciated but it’s a consistent revenue generator.”

Katherine DiPietro, national sales manager for the Irving (Texas) CVB, agrees and points out that the market is valuable to her city because it can fill rooms on days of the week when the corporate market isn’t meeting and that with all the new development surrounding the Irving Convention Center (including two new convention center hotels and entertainment options), they can now book larger groups.

“Many of the SMERF groups choose to meet on the weekends and in Irving we are able to offer incredibly good rates over the weekend patterns,” DiPietro said. “Hotels and convention centers are always looking for ways to fill gaps in their calendar and are willing to negotiate better deals during those times.”

Kinney tells her clients to have a preferred set of dates and at least two alternatives.

“Be willing to arrive on a Sunday and depart on a Wednesday, or arrive on a Wednesday and depart on a Friday,” Kinney said. “This is especially important in vacation destinations where the leisure market drives up the prices on the weekends.”

She also advises clients to not just pick dates and send them to attendees before asking for quotes.

“I see that often and it’s a big mistake because you are locked into those dates,” Kinney said. “And definitely don’t broadcast a destination without making sure it’s a viable one. I have had SMERF clients choose the Caribbean in the middle of hurricane season and, because they didn’t realize it and had already sent a ‘save the date,’ they tried to make it work. Even if there isn’t a hurricane, it will still rain—a lot.”

Meeting Planning Know-How

Having the expertise of a professional meeting planner is not always something SMERF groups realize they need. Many begin hosting gatherings in an informal way and then realize they’re in over their head.

Casey said that many of the military reunion groups he works with start by finding each other on social media and then at some point begin thinking about getting together in person and don’t realize all of the logistics (and negotiating skills) involved in planning a meeting.

“There’s no national organization, it’s just a bunch of people trying to put it together and 99 percent of them try doing it themselves at first,” said Casey, who added the biggest challenge is letting people know the type of services that are available to them. “Later they end up begging us to help because to do it well and do it right requires a lot of work.”

This meetings expertise is particularly important when it comes to signing hotel contracts, especially in today’s market.

“It is a hotel sellers’ market and hotels will take advantage of SMERF planners who don’t know how to book a group or are unfamiliar with contract language,” Kinney said. “Sneaky contract clauses can cost an organization a lot of money. Third-party planners know what to look for and how to negotiate those ‘bad clauses’ away.”

Kinney said she can also offer strategies on how to save on food and beverage.

“A good strategy is to toss the catering menus and ask to meet with the chef,” Kinney said. “Let him or her know your budget and ask how they can design a great menu within those constraints. A good chef will love it because they get the opportunity to be creative instead of working off a menu that they may not have had any input in.”

Kinney mentioned that a third-party planner’s buying power can also help with getting better rates and extra concessions and that while some of the largest hotel brands are reducing commissions for planners they still want their business. “They know that if they treat our clients right, we will come back with more clients,” Kinney said.

A Growing Market

The buying power of the SMERF market in general is growing.

While the acronym has historically referred to social, military, education, religious and fraternal groups, many destinations now include other groups in the mix. For example, in Irving, Texas, it also includes the tour and travel market, while in Cincinnati it also includes multicultural gatherings.

Dunn said the key to bringing SMERF groups to Cincinnati has been establishing a relationship with them, as they did with the A.E.A.O.N.M.S. (Ancient Egyptian Arabic Order Nobles Mystic Shrine), a fraternal group that has met in Cincinnati twice in the last 10 years.

“Most of our conventions are in repeat cities that are familiar with us and we have good relationships,” said Frederick Bell, imperial convention director, who reported that registration for the organization’s Imperial Council Session typically runs to around 5,000 members and 13,000 total room nights.

“These markets are very relational so we need to have sales managers who understand the market,” Dunn said. “It’s not a typical sales process; you have to actively engage and be involved in the community and then build that bridge to your city.”

An Ongoing Relationship

Perhaps because of the relationships that are established, Dunn said he has seen an increase in organizations seeking ways to give back to the cities where they’re meeting and have forged those close connections. “Groups are increasingly looking for ways to partner with cities on the kinds of things that can re-energize and inspire their membership,” Dunn said.

Jonathan Williams, president and CEO of the Battleship Iowa Museum, a popular site for military groups meeting in and around the city of San Pedro, Calif., said that he has found that groups are starting to add more community service projects to the events held on the ship.

“We tend to see the younger generations of veterans interested in giving back and being involved in the community,” Williams said. “In the coming years, I envision veterans reunions turning into more of a community engagement activity where they may adopt a project aboard the ship and couple it with memorial services and banquets."

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