SMERF events aren’t known for glitter and glitz. But for planners and facilities that take the time to learn the social, military, educational, religious and fraternal groups market, SMERF profits are as predictable as the calendar.
“Reunions never go away, they continue even when the economy tanks,” says Ted Dey, president of Armed Forces Reunions, a meeting planning service that works primarily with military groups. “People attend because they want to; attendees save up money to go.”
The story is just as positive from the supplier side.
In Ocean City, Md., Fred Wise, director of sales and marketing at the Ocean City Convention Center, has been booking religious and fraternal events almost as though the Great Recession—as the last few years have come to be known—never happened. The average January group booked into the Ocean City Convention center is 4,200 teenagers attending a religious event—and Wise has four back-to-back such groups on the calendar every year.
Wise booked the same groups in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 with only minimal fluctuations in attendance. Things look just as bright going forward.
“My January for 2013, 2014 and 2015 are already committed,” he says. “The kids change from year to year, but the meetings come and go like clockwork.”
Social, educational and fraternal groups are just as dependable, Wise says. February is packed with competitions in martial arts, song and dance, cheerleading and similar youth-oriented groups. Ocean City hosts two cheerleading groups every year, the smallest of them bringing 16,000 attendees into a town with 9,500 hotel rooms. The focus on youth has built his adult group business.
“When parents see what we can do for kids, they tend to come back on their own,” Wise says. “We do a good business with the “animal groups,” the Eagles, Elks, Lions, Moose and so on. And when the kids grow up, get married and want to come to the beach, Ocean City is the first place they think of. I’m a five-hour drive for 35 [million] to 40 million people, an eight-hour drive for a third of the nation’s population.”
SMERFs At Every Tier
SMERF business can be just as important at the upper end of the market. In Longboat Key, Fla., the Longboat Key Club & Resort uses SMERF business to fill in slow periods like mid-December and January. University training, leadership and medical meetings like the small resort atmosphere, says marketing director Mary Kay Ryan.
“Easily a third of attendees take advantage of our tennis facility and instruction,” she says. “Groups adjust their agenda to take advantage of our facilities and meet in the morning and again in the afternoon.”
Nonprofit fundraisers have emerged as a strong market, Ryan adds. Many foundations have cut back on large fundraising events, leaving strong pent-up demand. Combining a business event with a charity golf event boosts attendance and fundraising for scholarship funds.
Convention bureaus particularly like the SMERF market. Groups range from 50 to 10,000 people and up, says Michael Van Parys, president of the Connecticut Convention & Sports Bureau in Hartford, Conn. That gives CVBs the chance to work with a range of members.
CVBs are good for SMERF meeting organizers, too.
“SMERF groups don’t always have professional meeting planners,” Van Parys explains. “We emphasize that the CVB is one-stop shopping and it doesn’t cost them anything. We gather all the information so groups can make a final decision.”
Share the Pie
“SMERF business is a very valuable segment of the market,” says Peter Shelly, executive vice president of business development at HelmsBriscoe. “Planners and vendors who are not active in this area may want to rethink their perception; it can be a very solid market.”
Solid doesn’t meant that SMERF planners are willing to pay top prices, however. SMERF attendees almost always pay their own expenses, so budgets are crucial. But they will happily shift dates to fill calendar gaps, book slow season events and go to second-tier cities.
“You don’t have to be in the glitz and glamour, you just have to be near it,” says fraternal event planner Reggie Sears, president of Sears Enterprises in Sacramento, Calif. “Attendees don’t want to pay triple-digit rates in Las Vegas, but they will thank you for booking in Henderson, Nev. Look at hotels near John Wayne Airport in Orange County. It’s near Disney, Los Angeles, and it meets attendees’ budgets.”
Timing is everything for SMERF business. Sharon Atland, director of sales for the Hershey Harrisburg Regional Visitors Bureau, booked the Mennonite World Conference Assembly for 2015. Hershey jumped at the opportunity to bid on the event in a slow season.
“In slower periods, it’s a solid piece of business,” Atland says. “They may not buy alcohol, but they are still eating and using other services. It’s all in the timing.”
That goes for attendees, too. Hotels are willing to bend on rates to fill rooms during slow periods. SMERF attendees are less flexible on budget but may be willing to shift dates.
“Weekends are the time we are courting that SMERF market,” says Eric Whitson, director of sales and marketing for the National Conference Center in Leesburg, Va. “So are resorts in our area, which are aggressively low on weekends. If you are flexible on timing, there is plenty of opportunity for groups that are price conscious.”
Fred Gebhart is a frequent contributor to Meetings Focus East.