Staying power: SMERF groups fuel recovery as destinations work to meet their needs

Louisville, Ky., with its Big Four Bridge, is a perennial favorite meeting destination for educational and religious groups from the SMERF sector.
Louisville, Ky., with its Big Four Bridge, is a perennial favorite meeting destination for educational and religious groups from the SMERF sector.

The mighty SMERF market is propping up the meetings and events industry at a time when business and corporate groups have been slow to return.

Consisting of social, military, education, religious, and fraternal groups, the SMERF market has consistently booked in-person meetings and events to fill the gaps left by large corporate groups since the start of the pandemic. The challenge destinations now face is finding the workforce to support these events as bookings continue to roll in.

“Corporate America has realized they can have events remotely, via Zoom or Teams, versus having to meet in person on a wider scale, whereas your religious and education markets love to meet in person,” says Katherine DiPietro, SMERF and travel industry sales manager for Visit Irving in Texas.

Boosting recovery

Waterfront Park along the Ohio River in Louisville, Ky., continues to draw crowds.
Waterfront Park along the Ohio River in Louisville, Ky., continues to draw crowds.

When meetings and events started returning to Lexington, Ky., in 2021, the first large group the city hosted came from the SMERF sector. It was the biennial convention of the Lutheran Women’s Missionary League (LWML), a citywide event that brought more than 2,700 attendees and gave the city an economic jolt.

That a religious group heralded the return of events to Lexington came as no surprise to Stephen Barnett, destination sales manager for VisitLex.

“We believe the SMERF market will be key to our city getting back to pre-pandemic tourism activities, thanks in large part to Lexington being an easy driving destination, an affordable city to host meetings, and a city that is now home to new and revitalized meeting facilities and hotels,” he says.

Lexington has long been a sought-after destination for groups from all SMERF segments. But Barnett says there’s been a significant uptick in religious and fraternal groups, specifically, who are booking Lexington not only for future years, but also to host events that were scheduled before the pandemic.

A major draw for these groups is the Central Bank Center in downtown Lexington. The venue opened a new exhibit hall in April 2021 as part of a $300 million expansion and renovation. Last June’s LWML convention was the first event to take place in the new space. This spring, the entire project was completed, giving the convention center 200,000 square feet of flexible space.

“We’re also working with other religious groups this year and in future years that will be important for our city and believe Lexington’s central location, affordability, and family-friendly activities have been a strong influence in booking these events,” Barnett says.

With Lexington known as the Horse Capital of the World, visiting groups often venture out to the Kentucky Horse Park and book tours of private horse farms in the region. In nearby Williamstown, the Ark Encounter features a 510-foot-long Noah’s Ark and is a popular attraction for religious groups.

“Guests are dazzled by these fun, family-friendly activities you can’t find anywhere else in the world,” Barnett says.

Leading the charge

The SMERF sector provided the first large group Lexington, Ky., hosted when meetings started returning in 2021. Venues such as the mixed-use City Center complex are a draw to the downtown area.
The SMERF sector provided the first large group Lexington, Ky., hosted when meetings started returning in 2021. Venues such as the mixed-use City Center complex are a draw to the downtown area.

The SMERF-driven recovery is playing out similarly in Memphis, Tenn., which saw a tourism bump in March when the city hosted Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA) Sorority Inc.’s 90th South Eastern Regional Conference. Sessions took place at the newly renovated Renasant Convention Center, and attendees filled rooms in hotels across the city. The conference brought in nearly 5,800 attendees—about double the projections for the 2021 event, which was canceled because of COVID-19. The group’s last regional conference took place in Knoxville, Tenn., in 2019, and 2022 marked the fourth time since 2004 the event took place in Memphis.

Malvin Gipson, vice president of sales, sports, and convention services for Memphis Tourism, says the AKA regional conference and other recent events serve as an indicator of SMERF market growth in the year to come.

“The SMERF market has continued to thrive in our destination,” Gipson says.

What’s more, groups in this segment appear to be leading the charge of events making their way back to Memphis. “As the travel industry continues to recover from the pandemic, one trend we’ve noticed is social and smaller meetings for individuals traveling because of mutual or shared interest have been the first to come back,” Gipson says.

Although SMERF activity in Memphis isn’t limited to a single category, Gipson says the religious market has been the most active this past year in the city, which has a deep religious history. Memphis is home to the headquarters of the Church of God in Christ, where the renowned Pentecostal Bishop G.E. Patterson presided.

“Religion plays an important role in our cultural identity,” Gipson says. “So, it’s quite natural for Memphis to be an attractive destination for religious groups.”

Among all SMERF categories, cultural experiences tend to be the most popular activities for groups visiting Memphis. Groups are drawn to attractions such as the National Civil Rights Museum, Beale Street, Elvis Presley’s Graceland mansion, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, and driving tours of the area’s cultural landmarks.

Time crunch

According to Visit Irving, the Texas town is seeing occupancy rates at local properties, such as Texican Court Hotel, nearly back to pre-pandemic levels.
According to Visit Irving, the Texas town is seeing occupancy rates at local properties, such as Texican Court Hotel, nearly back to pre-pandemic levels.

In Jacksonville, Fla., SMERF bookings have varied, with some groups planning events further out than others, says Bob Doering, senior national accounts manager
for Visit Jacksonville.

Religious groups, for example, are Jacksonville’s most popular SMERF category, and those groups are scheduling events a year or more in advance.

“Social and military are the most active for immediate events—those booked in the year for that same year,” he says. “Faith-based is planning now and booking mostly in 2023 and beyond.”

With unknowns like future COVID variants, booking and planning times have been much shorter overall, and venues have been more flexible with attrition and cancellations, Doering says. At the same time, groups have expressed frustration over having to pay higher rates for hotels, which are full of leisure travelers and have been raising prices amid surging demand and workforce shortages.

Given all of those factors, Doering has maintained a “very positive” outlook on the SMERF market in Jacksonville as the pandemic continues to wane. “We’re seeing increased interest now versus the last two years and are expecting to carry it through next year,” he says.

Along with its reputation as a faith-friendly destination, Jacksonville appeals to military groups because of its status as a military town. The area is home to multiple bases and military complexes, including Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Naval Station Mayport, Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, Camp Blanding Joint Training Center, and Blount Island Command and Marine Corps Support Facility Blount Island.

Doering says SMERF groups appreciate Jacksonville’s accessibility; it sits at the intersection of Interstates 95 and 10 and offers nonstop flights from more than 30 locations. They also like that it’s an affordable beach town with plenty of options for outdoor activities and dining, Doering says.

Turning a corner

Visit Jacksonville has a positive outlook on the increase in SMERF market events in the Florida city, which offers numerous event venues, including Brick and Beam.
Visit Jacksonville has a positive outlook on the increase in SMERF market events in the Florida city, which offers numerous event venues, including Brick and Beam.

Although SMERF business has been known to power the industry through tough times, that wasn’t the case everywhere during the pandemic.

Louisville, Ky., is a perennial favorite meeting destination for educational and religious groups. But during 2020 and 2021, Louisville saw a decline in meetings for these and other SMERF categories, says Kate Burger, director of convention sales for Louisville Tourism.

“Educational meetings, which have made up a large part of our convention business historically, somewhat halted everywhere due to the unique impact that the pandemic had on students and those in the university community,” Burger says, adding many universities, colleges, and school districts instituted strict travel regulations or took a hit from drastic budget cuts. “These challenges correlated with the number of groups that cancelled and rebooked our destination during the peak of the pandemic.”

With SMERF business lacking, sports and trade-business commercial groups accounted for the most event activity in Louisville during the peak of the pandemic and last fall, Burger says.

Things seem to be turning a corner, though, and Louisville is seeing the religious and educational sectors returning this spring, summer, and fall, as well as into future calendar years. “More and more groups are resuming face-to-face meetings, have a clearer outlook of the future, and are sourcing RFPs in Louisville again,” Burger says.

Louisville’s largest convention center, the Kentucky Exposition Center near Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport, features an attached arena and 1.2 million square feet of event space. Popular with SMERF groups is a smaller venue, the recently expanded Kentucky International Convention Center, located downtown and offering more than 200,000 square feet of exhibit space. Also downtown are the Muhammad Ali Center and the KFC Yum! Center.

Within walking distance of downtown hotels, groups can access attractions such as the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory, the Kentucky Derby Museum, and distilleries along the Urban Bourbon Trail.

Unlike other markets

The SMERF market continues to thrive in Memphis, Tenn., where groups enjoy music-related attractions such as Elvis Presley's Graceland mansion (left) and the colorful mural of B.B. King.
The SMERF market continues to thrive in Memphis, Tenn., where groups enjoy music-related attractions such as Elvis Presley’s Graceland mansion (left) and the colorful mural of B.B. King.

Since the start of the pandemic, DiPietro of Visit Irving has observed a distinct shift in the industry that has had ripple effects for SMERF events. Longtime hotel employees have left, either because of a furlough or to pursue other opportunities. Many hotels remain short-staffed while also helping newer employees through the learning curve.

“Now we’re finding the hospitality industry is on an upswing, and our occupancy is almost back to pre-pandemic levels. But it’s hard to find good people,” DiPietro says. “It takes some time to gain that knowledge of the industry and get the training and experience.”

That’s created challenges for SMERF groups and their planners, particularly because many of these groups are smaller and require contract clauses that are different from their corporate counterparts.

“In the SMERF market, I’d say 99 percent of my clients are nonprofit. So, understanding the nonprofit market and where their budgets are is key,” DiPietro says, adding nonprofits don’t have the same financial resources as corporate groups, some of which can cancel an event without taking a major financial hit. “They can completely go under because they don’t have that endless checkbook.”

SMERF is unlike other markets, DiPietro says, and as the pandemic recovery continues, understanding the key differences between it and corporate groups is essential to attracting and serving SMERF groups. “Relationships are so important in these markets,” she says.

Unlike corporate America, where event planners often come and go, the planners and decision-makers for SMERF groups generally remain in those roles for years. “A lot of my clients are my really good friends,” she says. “When we go to a conference, it’s like a family reunion. I know about their families and their kids, and they know about mine.”

DiPietro points to the example of a religious group’s executive who spoke at a marketing conference about the importance of connections. “He said he would rather book an event with a person he has a relationship with instead of letting the choice of venue or destination drive his decision,” she says. “I thought that was interesting, because he felt more comfortable knowing that person would be there to assist him through the process of not only negotiating the event, but also planning it and executing it, making sure everything was successful when they were at the event.”

DiPietro is optimistic about the SMERF market and says the first few months of 2022 have been busy for Irving. And judging from meetings she’s had with SMERF planners and her industry counterparts in other cities, groups in this market are eager to reunite.

“We like to be together,” she says. “We want to meet in person. We don’t like Zoom or Teams. We want to be there. We want to give the person a hug. We want to say, ‘How are you doing?’ So, I think that’s different from other markets.”

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