There are many acronyms in the world of meetings, but SMERF is one you should not forget. SMERF stands for social, military, educational, religious and fraternal groups who, while not snagging quite as much attention as corporate events, provide a necessary market for the industry. While SMERF meetings tend to be smaller in size, the numbers do add up.
Nowhere was this more apparent in 2016 than in Jacksonville, Florida. Last year marked the loss of Florida Country Music Superfest in Jacksonville, which was replaced by the Country 500 at Daytona International Speedway over 90 miles away. “The perception was that without this big event, our community would see a dip in our destination appeal,” says Paul Astleford, president and CEO of Visit Jacksonville. Instead, Jacksonville saw a 6.5 percent increase in occupancy from June 2015. It was SMERF groups to the rescue: Several religious and fraternal groups, including Gospel Rescue Mission, Hebraic Roots Network, Jehovah Witnesses, Special Forces Network and U.S. Green Building Council helped fill the occupancy gaps. “We were able to fill that gap with group business and increase our marketing outside the region to promote leisure visitation to our city, and it worked flawlessly!” says Astleford.
SMERF groups also keep the industry afloat during particularly difficult economic times. When big-budget hotel chains are struggling to fill their occupancy, SMERF groups bargain their way to cheaper rates, which prevents hotels from cutting their losses entirely. Suppliers have since come to understand the importance of SMERFs in an unpredictable economy and continue to work out deals that benefit the hotel’s bottom line and SMERF’s budgets.
The new year brings welcome news from the government-regulated SMERF segment. The Obama administration has loosened the reins on government conference spending. Since the crackdown in 2011, which involved a 30 percent reduction in travel expenses through 2016, senior-level review of conference-related spending of more than $100,000 and many other restrictions, government meetings have been scaled back, to say the least. According to the White House, agencies have saved roughly $30 million in conference spending over the past few years. While the government is still wary of excess, the new rules will mean that only meetings with a budget of $500,000 will be closely monitored, freeing up a huge portion of government oversight.
There’s also a rising sector of SMERF meetings that doesn’t fall within the traditional grouping: sports. Locations such as Virginia Beach, Virginia, have long benefited from SMERF groups. “With the growth of our sports market, Virginia Beach has become a national leader in hosting marquee competitions and tournaments,” says Todd Bertka, VP of convention sales and marketing for Virginia Beach CVB. Still, Bertka knows it’s best to diversify: “Due to our central mid-Atlantic location and affordable, diverse hotel selections, Virginia Beach is also a perfect location for religious meetings of all sizes. And given our rich history, robust military community and variety of attractions, Virginia Beach also excels in the military reunion arena.”