Serving SMERFs: Balancing marketing needs and destination options

Double occupancy is a standard request for many SMERF groups, according to Visit Tampa Bay’s president and CEO Santiago C. Corrada.
Double occupancy is a standard request for many SMERF groups, according to Visit Tampa Bay’s president and CEO Santiago C. Corrada.

It would be an understatement to say SMERF events come in a wide variety of types and sizes. Combining multiple types of groups—social, military, education, religious and fraternal—the SMERF market is as diverse as the requirements and needs it presents to host cities. But it’s also a market which offers unique and positive opportunities as well.

“Working with SMERF groups affords you an opportunity to work with a vast range of association management professionals all the way to organizations being run by volunteers,” explained Benchmark’s Heldrich Hotel’s sales manager Meaghan Cannon. “Like all groups, they are very focused on creating value for their attendees and having successful outcomes, particularly with membership driven organizations.”

“SMERF meeting planners tend to be very personally invested in their meetings and conferences as they are many times working on behalf of their peers or have a connection to the group which goes beyond the meeting relationship,” Cannon adds.

Benefits Of Hosting SMERFs

SMERF events also offer destinations and host cities serious economic impact by typically requesting higher hotel occupancy.

“Double occupancy is a standard request for many SMERF groups,” noted Visit Tampa Bay’s president and CEO Santiago C. Corrada.

The frequent request for double occupancy is sometimes a benefit which can be overlooked, added Chattanooga CVB’s Brian Murphy, especially as it plays out in other aspects of their visit. “SMERF events can bring in double or triple your typical corporate group,” Murphy said. “That also means the number of attendees coming into your city overnight is a lot higher.”

“A lot of times we focus so much on the hotel rate or hotel occupancy tax, but forget there’s a sales tax, food preparation tax, and the many other things that drive economic impact. When you have more overnight visitors, there’s actually more money spent,” Murphy explained. “So, for example, if you have a family of four, they may all be staying in one room, but that’s still four people eating in your city and buying souvenirs.”

Another factor making SMERF events an enviable market is they are dependable, notes Nashville CVB senior vice president of sales Adrienne Siemers.

“Whereas corporate markets can get volatile, SMERF markets are reliable,” she said. “We can rely on them to show up and not cancel. They are also willing to look at a variety of different hotel options, from limited service to full service.”

The fact SMERF planners are often willing to be flexible on dates in order to get more value for the budget makes the market even more beneficial.

That’s an aspect of the niche market often seen by Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism. “Flexibility is a big plus from a destination perspective, especially as we aim to fill guestrooms and meeting spaces outside of our peak summer season,” said Amy Peralta, CGMP, sales manager for Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism.

In addition to the willingness to consider booking during offseason or months not in as high of a demand, SMERF groups will consider different days of the week, added Siemers.

“Sometimes SMERF groups are willing to shift the pattern so we can offer a lower hotel rate. For example, they may come in on Sunday and leave on Sunday, unlike corporate groups that often push for a Monday arrival,” she said. “That’s one thing we find appealing about the SMERF market. They are willing to adjust their pattern and work at the availability of hotel schedules, and they can get a little lower rate as a result.”

SMERF Needs Changing

Nashville offers a wide variety of attractions for SMERF event attendees, including the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum.
Nashville offers a wide variety of attractions for SMERF event attendees, including the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum.

While SMERF groups have many constant benefits to offer host cities, what they are actually looking for in those destinations is ever-evolving. What many of those groups are looking for is unique experiences—no longer simply settling for a conference room or banquet room.

“One of the biggest changes we’re seeing in social groups is they are looking for immersive experiences which are more interactive,” said Sarabeth Quattlebaum, CMWP, CPCE, founder of Sarabeth Events in Grapevine, Tex. “It has become more about offering guests experiences they wouldn’t have otherwise if they don’t attend the event.”

This includes getting away from events like standing receptions and instead opting for venues with lounge seating.

“These groups want more places with character,” Quattlebaum added.

For Quattlebaum, it often means she’s searching for beautiful homes as venues or buying out a hotel bar for the evening.

“Clients want a comfortable feeling, which is such a different feeling from social events in the past,” she added.

“When you bring in entertainment like an acoustic singer/songwriter or an entertainment actor, it’s something more interactive with guests,” she added. “That’s much more approachable than bringing in a ton of tables and chairs and people having a seated dinner. It’s really almost a 180-degree change in our industry as far as thinking about the events.”

With more and more groups looking for unique options, many venues and destinations are also thinking outside the box.

In Dallas, Quattlebaum recently visited the new Virgin Hotel, which offers a pool opposite a ballroom which can be used together.

“A wall opens from the ballroom into the poolside bar, and it’s incredible,” Quattlebaum said. “An event can finish a conference in the ballroom—which boasts skyline views of Dallas—and then one side of the room completely opens up to the bar space. It’s completely unexpected and offers a lot of built-in character.”

Authentic Experiences Key

In addition to looking for unique venues, SMERF events attendees are also looking for more opportunities to immerse in the city.

“Feeling like a local—that’s what they are looking for now more than ever,” added Murphy. “That means they are looking for a city with more to do than just staying at the hotel and then going to one attraction. They want walkability and local activities to partake in.”

In Chattanooga, Murphy said the options are plenty.

“We are a boutique-type city in that we offer different things to do and see,” he said. “Our attractions aren’t typical. We offer places that many people haven’t experienced before, such as Ruby Falls.

According to Murphy, another unique spot is the International Towing Museum.

“The tow truck was invented here, and visitors can spend time at the museum without spending a lot of money. They can even host an event there,” he said.

Nashville is another city taking full advantage of its unique offerings, from the local music scene to its vibrant and walkable downtown.

This has attracted DECA to Nashville to host its High School International Career Development Conference in the past.

One of the biggest draws to the Music City is the proximity of Music City Center and Bridgestone Arena.

“That’s a criteria we try to achieve when looking at cities to host our conference. Having them in such close proximity in a walkable area makes Nashville a great fit,” said DECA chief program officer Christopher Young.

Also attracting DECA to Nashville is the opportunity to give attendees a unique local scene with events at locations such as the Grand Ole Opry, Wildhorse Saloon, and the Nashville Zoo.

“There are so many different venue options in Nashville that we are able to give our attendees a fun and unique experience,” said Young.

Attractions for All Ages

Alabama Judicial College often returns to Gulf Shores & Orange Beach for annual meetings.
Alabama Judicial College often returns to Gulf Shores & Orange Beach for annual meetings.

Because so many SMERF groups visit a city with families in tow, attendees are also looking for family-friendly markets which offer attractions for all ages.

SMERF groups are often a perfect match for Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism thanks to the area’s miles of beaches.

This is what brings the Alabama Judicial College back to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach time and again for meetings.

“For many of our attendees, it’s their only conference in the year, and they like to bring their families with them, so the Gulf Coast is an automatic draw for us,” said Alabama Judicial College’s director and conference planner Wally Lowery. “Gulf Shores and Orange Beach provide a family atmosphere, and it’s all convenient with quality places.”

Longstanding Relationships

Whatever attracts a SMERF group to a destination—whether it is dates, discounts, attractions, or unique venue options—it is often a lasting relationship.

“As compared to other markets where there can be a lot of turnover and business opportunities are often more transactional, I’ve literally worked with a number of my SMERF market planners for 20-plus years,” said Visit Dallas’ director of national accounts Kevin Owens. “Because it’s so relationship driven, it really helps galvanize the relationship, and often it becomes an actual friendship. They learn to lean on us and trust us because we understand their needs.”

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