Rebecca Woodland, convention sales manager for the Beaumont, Texas, Convention and Visitors Bureau has this advice for those who plan social, military, education, religious or fraternal (SMERF) gatherings: Contact the local CVB.
“You don’t even need to know the dates of your meeting. Set up an appointment with the CVB and discuss the process [of planning a meeting],” she said. “We are constantly marketing the value of coming to us, and not just when you need a goodie bag for a speaker, because if you do that you will have missed out on a year’s worth of valuable guidance that would save you money.”
That guidance can range from getting in line for grants to making slight tweaks in meeting dates to make a significant difference in room rates.
Because SMERF groups are typically budget-conscious, assistance from a CVB and its hotel and other hospitality partners is particularly welcomed.
Here are a few examples, from smaller cities around the country, to illustrate ways convention bureaus help SMERF planners save money.
Planners hop on HOT grants
About five years ago, Jefferson County, Texas, began offering grants to groups that meet there. Its Hotel Occupancy Tax (HOT) grants are funded by a portion of the local hotel tax.
The grants, which can range from $500 to $10,000 depending on the size of the meeting, are designed to increase meeting attendance by helping organizations better market their event.
Beaumont is in Jefferson County, and Woodland and other staff at the CVB there help meeting planner clients with the grant application process.
While the grants application is fairly simple, it is also very specific, according to Woodland. Meeting planners must specifically describe their marketing strategy and follow through with their plan to receive grant monies.
For example, if a group wanted to send out save-the- date post cards, it would detail the cost of the project, from paying a graphic designer to postage.
Several times a year, a grant committee made up of area hospitality professionals reviews proposals.
After grants are awarded, the committee follows up to make sure the meeting group followed through with its marketing project. The impact of the grant, in terms of increases in meeting attendance, is also gauged.
The International Pilot Club of Texas saw its attendance rise when it came to Beaumont, in part because of a HOT grant, Woodland said.
“The funding and the special things that they did the whole year prior to the conference drove up their attendance,” she said.
The grants not only help improve turnout, they also allow a group to shift money that would have been spent on marketing to programming, food and beverage or other needs, Woodland said.
Digging into the past
People who plan SMERF meetings often are volunteers, thrown into organizing events with little to no knowledge of past events.
Gina Mintzer, director of sales for the Albany CVB, knows how critical that history can be to the success of future events. She works hard to collect as much detail from past events as possible for her SMERF clients.
“History is key. I do a history check from a year or two prior because oftentimes, with the SMERF market, the planner will say, ‘I don’t know how many people attended last year.’ Some have inherited no information.”
She requests meeting/convention histories from past meeting sites and when they comply, she not only sends a thank-you but a $5 Dunkin’ Donuts gift card personalized with the CVB’s logo.
Doing so not only underscores her appreciation, it ensures that the destination or venue will be happy to help if she has other questions.
“I want to arm my own hotels with as much information as possible to serve my clients better.”
Like many other CVBs, Albany’s can also help groups avoid attrition penalties. Mintzer has already set computer alerts, called tracers, that will remind her to check on the room block for a veterans group at regular intervals as its gathering in Albany approaches. Last year, the group incurred attrition penalties because “no one was watching” its room block, Mintzer said.