SMERF Meetings update

By Maura Keller
As the economic recovery lurches along, one thing’s for sure: Meeting and event planners in the SMERF arena are riding the recovery wave with a close eye on their clients’ purse strings. And, after satisfying the basics of the planning process, SMERF meeting and event pros continually seek creative and innovative ways to dazzle and inspire attendees. After all, a major goal is to entice attendees to come back year after year.

Fiscally Focused

Social, Military, Educational, Religious and Fraternal groups exhibit varying degrees of budget sensitivity. According to Diane Tighe, meeting planner and director of conference services at the Washington Duke Inn & Golf Club, the military, religious and educational groups with whom she helps plan events tend to be the most sensitive and require the most creativity when working with concepts to fit their budget.

As Tighe explains, they typically utilize the most basic meeting packages offered and have very little wiggle room to add extras if needed. One avenue they use to stay within budget is providing their own audio-visual support. These groups also will be more creative when scheduling around meal periods, typically offering a half-day event that either includes a breakfast or lunch, avoiding breaks or beverage replenishment.

While secondary education and fraternal groups also have sensitive budgets, they tend to be slightly higher and will utilize more sophisticated packaging when it comes to the use of audio-visual options in their programs. This segment also tends to have more flexibility in catering compared to their SMERF partners. They will schedule full-day meetings and offer breakfast and lunch, as well as beverage breaks.

“Social groups don’t always present themselves to be budget-sensitive and may have more in their allocations than other SMERF organizations, however they definitely want to see creativity to get the most for their dollar,” Tighe says. “Social groups’ budgets will vary as widely as the options available to them.”

As Cassie Brown, CSEP, chief experience officer at TCG Events in Charlotte, North Carolina, explains, SMERF events traditionally have smaller budgets than other corporate events, but not always particularly in the social or education segments.  “SMERF markets tend to need to stretch every dollar,” Brown says. “And SMERF market planners sometimes are less experienced planners than individuals planning more traditional corporate events. These planners can be much more hands-on and DIY.”

Joan Eisenstodt, owner of Eisenstodt Associates, a meetings and hospitality planning firm, agrees. She explains that SMERF is such a broad category, encompassing groups that employ professional meeting planners, who may have one paid staff who does it all, those that employ management companies, and those that rely on volunteers to plan and manage the meetings.

“The budgetary concerns are often because of a lack of knowledge of planning and the consequences of not knowing the right questions to ask and all the provisions for the contract,” Eisenstodt says. “Attrition may be an unknown factor to an occasional planner. Or they may not understand that in addition to the room rate that sounds reasonable, there may be multiple taxes and other charges such as hotel or resort fees. They may also not know that meals will incur a taxable service charge, and may have an administrative fee added on. So it’s not a matter of different charges; it’s knowing or not knowing what those charges may be and budgeting for them.”

According to Sidney Dunn, executive director of the Carmel, Indiana-based Fraternity Executives Association, who helps with meeting planning for the association, meetings and events within the fraternal market have grown, somewhat because the fraternal organizations are in a boom period with double-digit growth.

“This requires more regional meetings, larger conventions and leadership academies, more president’s retreats, etc.,” Dunn says. “Our membership numbers are at a record, and that requires more educational opportunities accomplished through face-to-face meetings.” Dunn plans meetings for a group of physicians with an international membership, but the basics of the meetings remain the same.

“Good facilities, good programming and good food and beverage are universal in any type of meeting,” Dunn says. “Fraternal organizations consider their meetings to be a professional outgrowth of the campus experience.”

Dunn explains that budgets also are always a concern for not-for-profit groups and in the fraternal market, since so many involve college undergraduates, and money is very tight.

“Still, the leadership of chapters attend these meetings because of a need to learn about policies and the social interaction beyond the chapter that such a meeting engenders,” Dunn says.

Unique Requirements

While every segment within the meeting and events arena has its own nuances, the basic planning is the same for all types of meetings — including SMERF meetings. The “what” and “where” meetings are held is very much based on the audience, agenda, goals and budget. That’s where the similarities end within the SMERF arena.

“The variables are plentiful between each of these market segments, and a planner needs to be able to understand the entire event and then orchestrate the best setting and food style for the market they’re handling,” Tighe says.

In planning events, organizers have to first identify the purpose of the event and what the client wishes to achieve from hosting it. The planner has to be nimble in order to offer the best environment for the group to achieve their goals.

“These separate SMERF market areas often vary in seating arrangements, presentation styles and overall catering needs,” Tighe says. “Seating arrangements differ widely between the organizations, just as they differ between the types of events. Social events tend to focus more on the look of the room with tables, linen and centerpieces. The other SMERF market segments tend to focus on the seating variables for better discussions and presentation viewing. For presentation events you need to be able to offer time breaks and food delivery and understand that any interruption in a speaker’s presentation will throw off his timing. However in a social event food often is the focus and events are entirely planned around a food theme.

“For each of the types of SMERF meetings — each very different from the others and even different from those in the same broad category — one has to know those factors before considering where to hold the event and how to design and budget for it,” Eisenstodt says.

“It is important to determine the key objective of the meeting and make planning decisions to facilitate that objective,” Brown says. “If networking is the goal, sticking people in a meeting room seated at classroom tables for eight hours doesn’t meet the objective.” Likewise, if an event is geared toward the needs of social or religious organizations or associations, certain modifications may need to meet the specific attributes of that group.

For Brown, SMERF market planning can require more patience from a planner. The decision time can be longer, as many times decisions have to go through layers of people.

“People planning for SMERF organizations also may need more educating on contracts, expectations and vendors,” Brown says. “SMERFs can be more sensitive to every line item of a budget.”

And when it comes to the type of booking, these days short-term booking windows are the norm, and traditionally SMERF markets tend to plan a little earlier than meeting and event professionals have seen in traditional corporate events as of late.

“It isn’t uncommon to see a social event plan a year to a year and half out,” Brown says. “We almost never see that with a corporate event anymore unless it is an annual event.”

As Eisenstodt explains, the educational market is sometimes lumped into education associations that are calendar-dependent based on academic years. For them, booking farther out may mean they are more likely to get the dates and location they want or need. That said, SMERF groups also have to factor in changing conditions, such as the economy that may prohibit people from attending.

“The farther out, the more favorable the cancellation provisions may be for the group,” Eisenstodt says. “The shorter term, cancellation provisions may go into effect immediately on booking.”

Dunn further explains that there are equal advantages and disadvantages with both short and longer booking windows. If the meeting is large and you are required to be in a specific part of the country that year, booking in advance can be a necessity so as not to be shut out. However, for some smaller meetings, one can often find a “window of opportunity” at a particular property or area that matches well with the type of meeting to be held.”

Fraternal organizations typically are very rate sensitive due to the large college undergraduate component and so gravitate to Southern-tier cities in the summer with their conventions. “They also look for cities with good transportation, more competitive room rates and food and beverage pricing,” Dunn says.

Often with SMERF, the extensive involvement of volunteers in the planning and management also plays a key role in the meeting and event planning for these groups.

As Tighe explains, social events do tend to have a longer planning process as there are often many hands in the planning pot and several committees involved. This requires more time to make decisions on overall event needs. The other market segments vary depending on how much space they require with their meeting needs. Often groups require several breakout rooms to fit their meeting requirements. This will add to a longer booking window, simply to find a location that can offer the variety of options to fit their program. The simpler the event in any of these markets can equate to a shorter booking window.

“Volunteers also need to be trained in the nuances of how hotels operate, why costs are what they are, and the time lines for each aspect of planning and execution,” Eisenstodt says. “With one client for whom I helped design two meetings a year, as part of the planning process, we created a game for them to guess and learn the price of meals and AV equipment. It allowed some fun to be built into the ‘how’ and ‘why’ that helped the group plan better with more information.”

Another issue with some SMERF groups is the political climate. Some SMERF groups would be unable to meet in cities or hotels that pass laws that are unfavorable to the position that group represents. Or, for example, in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, there may be military reunion groups that might find meeting at the hotels branded by one candidate objectionable.

“SMERF groups need to consider more than rates, dates and space when booking and look at the implications of who they are, what they do and stand for, and where they meet,” Eisenstodt says.

An Eye On the Horizon

As social, military, education, religious and fraternal organizations strive to thrive in our nation, many recognize that they need to attract millennials and other younger members to keep afloat. So what are SMERFs doing to attract the younger demographic to their events or their organizations as a whole?

“People will always want to connect for milestone events. But as the population ages, the ability to accommodate multigenerational needs will become increasingly important,” Brown says. “Venues will have to provide facilities that are both friendly to the aging body but also entertain the millennials who are constantly looking for a new active experience. Attracting millennials is all about providing a unique experience. Remember, they are looking for something that is Instagram-worthy.”

Eisenstodt recently read that millennials have overtaken boomers in population numbers and hotels are now catering to millennials.

“Finding a venue that is suitable for multiple generations is not easy since boomers and some veteran and silent generation people will continue to attend meetings,” Eisenstodt says. The challenge for SMERF planners — where the audience is likely to be employees who will be more in the similar age range — include:

Finding a balance in programming and entertainment that meets the needs of multiple generations.

Ensuring that venues are more than ADA-compliant.

Staying relevant to the needs of changing demographics — beyond generation, looking at religious and ethnic differences as the population changes.

Pricing sensitively, as many millennials are paying off college loans; while many boomers are living solely on Social Security.

Of course fraternities and sororities have attracted millennials for the past 15 years. It is the age group that is filtering through their ranks right now.

“Soon, the next generation, post-millennial, will be on our campuses,” Dunn reminds. “The challenge will be to engage them with programming that meets their heightened use of technology with the same information that all groups need about the organization. Ours is a people business, and without human interaction, the fraternal experience is diminished.

The goal is to get people to your meeting and make it interesting and informative,” says Dunn. “Quality programming brings people to meetings, good facilities make it easier to attract, and ease of travel would be the ‘third leg’ of the meeting planner’s stool.”

Read the original article in Meetings Magazine.