The SMERF market: Defying travel trends during a pandemic

Pensacola beaches serve as an open-air, socially distanced alternative to traditional indoor venues.
Pensacola beaches serve as an open-air, socially distanced alternative to traditional indoor venues.

In tough economic times, destinations have come to rely on the Social, Military, Education, Religious and Fraternal (SMERF) market to keep business stable.

With this past year’s absence of in-person corporate meetings and events, SMERF organizations have been a silver lining.

Group events are still happening for some SMERF organizations, and some destination marketers and venues say these bookings have held steady—and even thrived in a few places.
The National World War II Museum in New Orleans has seen a consistent demand for SMERF events, said James Williams, vice president of sales for venue, which includes the new Higgins Hotel & Conference Center connected to the museum. “The good news about the SMERF market is it has been the strongest and the one that persevered the most out of everything,” Williams said.

Plano, Tex., has always had an active SMERF presence, and that trend has continued during the pandemic, although scaled down from previous years, said Steven Yearwood, SMERF and association sales manager for Visit Plano.

Hotels have experienced less demand for these events than in previous years, but activity has remained consistent.

“Out of sports, SMERF, associations, and corporate, SMERF is one of the areas that has suffered the least, following sports in the amount of demand,” Yearwood said.

Military strength

The demand for SMERF events has varied by city and venue, and most gatherings have been smaller. While some locations have seen very little interest from SMERF groups, others have been more popular with specific segments.
At the World War II Museum, events for military groups have continued to be in demand. The museum and its new convention hotel saw very few military groups cancel or postpone their events; if anything, bookings increased, Williams said.
“What was surprising to us was the fact that they didn’t cancel,” he explained. “We saw corporate, other parts of the SMERF market, and religious go away. But we didn’t really see military meetings disappear.”
To Williams, the interest is likely due to a few reasons.

“I do believe that nationally, the military market—if they had to meet—was strong,” he said. Military groups have taken safety precautions and kept to their own pods, and so there has been less concern about exposure at events, he said.

Another possible explanation for the steady stream of military bookings is that the Higgins Hotel did not close during citywide shutdowns in spring 2020 and remained open to accommodate government contractors. And since the Higgins Hotel opened in late 2019, just weeks before the pandemic hit, it has attracted interest as a new venue in the city.

“We were positioned very well in New Orleans to take this business, probably better than some other properties,” Williams said.

Military groups have also been the most active SMERF segment for parts of the Alabama Gulf Coast. Even though most military groups still have travel restrictions, the National Guard has been the exception, said Amy Peralta, sales manager for Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism.

“The reason is they provide support services to active-duty members that are deploying or returning from deployment,” said Peralta, sharing insights she received during a site visit from a National Guard group.

The National Guard provides resiliency services including suicide prevention and financial and housing assistance, and the members need a place to provide training for middle managers on these services.

“They cannot have ‘conferences,’ but can have workshops,” Peralta said.

Weddings keep their vows

‘Social’ has been another SMERF segment that has fared better than most, and weddings have led the charge.

Williams said most weddings have remained on the books, with many couples choosing to modify their events—instead of getting cold feet. “Those were not cancelling,” he said. “They just may have had to be reinvented.”

Social has the been the most active SMERF segment in Plano, too, Yearwood said. “People are still getting married, having birthdays and anniversaries. While they are still going on, they are smaller in size due to social distancing,” he said.
In Pensacola, Fla., weddings account for the most active segment of the SMERF market. That has continued to be the case during the pandemic, although couples have had to scale back celebrations and pare down guest lists.

“We have had to adapt to what could be offered. That meant downsizing to immediate family members and going virtual for all other attendees,” said Kaya Man, destination sales manager for Visit Pensacola.

Despite having to make a few modifications, lovebirds have been flocking to the Florida coast to exchange vows on the beach. “Pensacola is a destination wedding heaven—with miles and miles of wide-open, crystal white sand beaches, emerald blue waters, and large open spaces,” Man said.

The National World War II Museum in New Orleans has seen a consistent demand for SMERF events.
The National World War II Museum in New Orleans has seen a consistent demand for SMERF events.

Out-of-town couples facing the logistical challenges of planning a pandemic wedding have looked to the Pensacola beaches as an open-air, socially distanced alternative to traditional indoor venues closer to home.

“Our location is an excellent choice for drive traffic,” Man said. “With many of our surrounding states facing more strict ordinances during the peak of the pandemic, many brides decided a beach wedding in Pensacola was perfect.”

Groups have had to get creative with their choice of venue, while venues have taken steps to minimize crowds and add safety measures. “Outdoor beach wedding venues are a must-have, and fortunately Pensacola has plenty,” Man said.

Man points to the example of Pensacola Beach event venue Pier Suite, which has adapted by offering mini-wedding sessions with Zoom capabilities. The venue features a large outdoor patio overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. “It allows family members in attendance to distance while still enjoying the joyous occasion,” she said. “It also provides spectacular views for those attending virtually.”

Man believes social groups will continue to perform better than other SMERF segments, primarily since people have been isolated for a year and want to travel. “People are ready to get out and experience vacations again, whether with a group with the same interest or a wedding that was put off for a year. Most travel vouchers are also set to expire a year from the original booking, so time is limited in rebooking,” she said.

Other markets mixed

Meeting and event planning has been a mixed bag for other segments of the SMERF market, and those that are active in some cities may be less active in others.

While the weddings segment has remained active in Pensacola, educational meetings have come to a halt, Man said. “Many of our student travelers are restricted by schools, and large corporate companies were not permitting travel. So, this segment became obsolete in our destination,” she said.

For the World War II Museum, one group that has been largely missing is religious organizations, which Williams said have had a harder time planning meeting. “A lot of what they do is service work, and that just wasn’t able to happen,” Williams said. “So, with that market and the fraternal market, they decided to postpone for a year or two because what they wanted to do was not possible.”

But in Plano, religious groups have been going strong, and Yearwood said he has seen many smaller retreats this past year. However, meetings and events for military, education, and fraternal groups have been sparse. “They have taken extra steps due to the pandemic, and some of those areas have stopped traveling altogether,” Yearwood said.

In Virginia Beach, Va., sports marketing and religious assemblies have seen the most activity because it’s easier to control the flow of those events, said Sally Noona, director of convention sales and marketing for the Virginia Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau. Virginia Beach has been able to host sporting events and competitions, although without spectators and with precautions in place.

“Sports marketing is performing much better than the others because parents make the choice to allow their kids to compete or not, and it is a much less affected demographic. Religious groups are also making a faster comeback,” Noona said.
But otherwise, onsite SMERF functions have stalled out in Virginia Beach, Noona said. Education and government meetings have been hardest hit because of budget cuts and executive orders. “Most SMERF association meetings and events over the past year have either been cancelled or became virtual events,” she said. “Currently, we are seeing more hybrid events so fellowship can still occur, but in a safe way.”

Lately, the Virginia Beach Convention Center has been serving a dual role during the vaccine rollout. The center has been used as a vaccination center during the week and a competition venue for sporting events on weekends. “We recently hosted a cheer and dance program with no instances of COVID traced back to the event,” Noona said.
Aside from military meetings and events, SMERF activity was scarce on the Alabama Gulf Coast in 2020, and that trend has continued into this year, said Michelle Russ, vice president of sales, sports and events for Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism. Religious, travel, and fraternal groups have been the least active segments because of COVID-19 travel restrictions and safety concerns for senior attendees, Russ said.

“Most of our SMERF groups have not confirmed for 2021,” Russ said. “If they decide to host a meeting in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach in 2021, it will likely be last-minute if there is availability.”

Russ is hopeful meetings and events will pick up later this year. “Meetings for all group types in 2020 were few and far between,” she said. “We had a few meetings on the books in the fall and have many coming up in 2021 as the pandemic climate improves.”
In the meantime, Russ and her organization have worked to engage past and potential clients by offering meeting planning tools and resources such as digital ad banners, logos, photos, and other items to help them market future events.

“We expect less-active organizations to come back when the majority of the public is vaccinated and COVID-19 cases drop dramatically,” Russ said.

Aside from military meetings and events, SMERF activity was scarce on the Alabama Gulf Coast. However, there is optimism that events will pick up later in 2021.
Aside from military meetings and events, SMERF activity was scarce on the Alabama Gulf Coast. However, there is optimism that events will pick up later in 2021.

‘People don’t forget loyalty’

With vaccinations on the rise, destination marketers and venues are seeing signs that demand for SMERF meetings and events is trending upward.

“The social market is already blowing up,” said Williams. “It’s really huge, mostly surrounded by weddings or wedding-related events. And we see a significant increase in that for the entire calendar year of 2021.”

Williams has also seen more interest from education groups whose meetings were postponed by six months or more. “Now with case counts going down, those meetings are not moving, and we’re very excited about that,” Williams said.

Religious groups are also anxious to get back out and could see an uptick after education groups come back, he said.

Plano has seen a bigger spike in attendance from the SMERF segments that have remained active, as people become more comfortable with travel and government guidelines. Further, Yearwood said vaccine rollouts have helped restore some normalcy. “SMERF is the market that will have the biggest comeback over the next year,” he said. “People are wanting to travel again, and the social market is going to be the first one to do it.”

With vaccines, safety protocols, and hybrid opportunities in play, Noona is “cautiously optimistic” about what the next year could hold for SMERF meetings and events in Virginia Beach. However, to her, a few things need to happen before less active segments return.
“Vaccinations need to be offered to all sectors of the population for these markets to truly feel confident meeting in person,” Noona said. “Safety protocols will continue to be part of daily operations for quite a while.”

In Pensacola, military reunions are making a return, with most attendees over age 65. “This group has their vaccines, has spent long enough in quarantine, and is ready to get back to spending their retirement traveling,” Man said.

But weddings will likely continue to dominate the events calendar in Pensacola. Since so many weddings have had to reschedule, couples have booked up most of the area’s event venues for the next two years, Man said. “These groups are all willing to travel, dine out, shop, and experience the destination with or without COVID protocols,” she said.

The WWII Museum is starting to see meetings returning to the schedule for July or later, especially after October. “We believe that is a sign of confidence because of the quickness of the vaccine rollout,” Williams said.

When meetings and events do return, Williams believes just as New Orleans will be forever grateful to other cities that helped out after Hurricane Katrina, hotels and event venues will feel indebted to the SMERF market for providing them with steady business during an uncertain time.

“People don’t forget loyalty. And I’ll never forget that after Katrina,” Williams said. “I think you’ll see that same loyalty to the SMERF market because of what they’ve done during COVID.”

Autumn Cafiero Giusti is a freelance journalist based in her hometown of New Orleans. For over two decades, she has covered everything from small-town government to Fortune 500 companies. When she isn’t on deadline, she likes to hang out at home with her husband, their two daughters and their very needy Labrador.

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