A casual SMERF meeting in the park.
Anyone involved in meeting planning should be very familiar with the needs of Social, Military, Educational, Religious, and Fraternal (SMERF) groups. After all, SMERF meetings are the “old reliable” of the meetings market, continuing even while demand for many other types of conventions and meetings has shrunk. Still, no planner can take SMERFs for granted. Like every other market, the SMERF market has changed and evolved. Successful planners must stay alert.
It is essential to remember that social groups want more opportunities for togetherness. As always, these groups require careful balancing between limited budgets and memorable experiences. But there are new opportunities too. Family reunions and other social events are no longer limited to a mimeographed letter sent out in the mail to announce the event. Now there are e-vites, Facebook messages, emails, Pinterest, and smartphone apps to spread the news about the event.
Unfortunately, this can be both good news and bad news for the social event planner. Cassie Brown, president and CEO of TCG Events, notes that planners for social groups are often overwhelmed by electronic input and burn out.
Military group members often consider the reunion to be a major vacation. They tend to drive to the location and want more time to sightsee. According to Sharon Danitshek, president of Reunion Friendly Network, other factors to consider include:
- Space for memorabilia
- A good hospitality room, preferably one that allows participants to bring their own snacks, alcohol, and other beverages
- A planned banquet for which the group can choose the menu and the portion size
- An appropriate site for a memorial service
Joan Eisenstodt, president of Eisenstodt Associates, acknowledges that education groups are a steady business but that they can be somewhat tricky to plan for. One new trend is the desire for first-tier destinations to increase the potential draw of the conference while keeping the budget small. Eisenstodt advises making use of local destination management organizations and convention and visitors bureaus to determine what similar groups have stayed in the area and how the destination has catered to those groups.
She cautions to be very aware of the budgets for these groups. Participants are likely to stretch the occupancy limits of hotel rooms and look for every other budget extender available. The participants need to know about every charge that might come up: costs of getting to the destination from the airport, taxes or fees at the destination, and other extras.
Don’t think religious means old-fashioned. In fact, one thing Reverend Cricket Park, assistant rector at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church in Washington, DC, finds very annoying is when a meeting space charges for Wi-Fi. Her diocese is moving toward a paperless system as much as possible, and that means that meeting spaces need sufficient room for each participant to have his or her own electronic devices and access to a large enough bandwidth for all the participants.
Reverend Park also points out another trend she has seen in 30 years of event planning: more persons with disabilities attending meetings and conferences. She urges planners to be sure there is access for wheelchairs, medical equipment, and other adaptive devices.
Big fraternal organizations like Elks and Shriners have continued to meet in almost any economic climate. But other parts of this market, such as college fraternities and sororities, are very budget conscious during more austere times. Kelly Sabol, account executive for Baltimore Area Marriott hotels, reports that many of these groups are booking more locally to save travel expenses. Their planners are cutting back on food and beverage choices and, says Sabol, “They are negotiating more and requesting fewer concessions.”
Fortunately, fraternal groups tend to be more flexible regarding the time of year their meetings can take place. This makes hotel accommodations somewhat easier to negotiate.