Eight years ago, Louis “Skip” Sander and a friend were spurred to action by a conversation they had with other reunion planners about the need for a military reunion planner association.
They created the Alliance of Military Reunions, and today, with Sander as its sole staff, AMR has a membership of 700 military planners, 100 convention and visitors bureaus, and some 250 attractions.
“It is extremely difficult to reach the military market,” said Sander. “Most of the planners are an old guy who tries to keep in touch with his buddies; I can say that because that is what I do. Other than Alliance, there is no unified list of them.”
The resources AMR offers include lists of military planners, suppliers, recommended venues, destinations, scheduled military reunions and a 33-page downloadable planning guide at the “About Military Reunions” link on its website. Sander also hopes to have one-day educational town halls this year.
AMR membership is free for reunion planners and inexpensive for suppliers — about $100 a year and a little less for multiyear memberships.
Sander, a retiree, coordinates reunions for the USS Rankin — www.ussrankin.org — an attack cargo ship put into service late in World War II. Sander was an officer aboard the ship in the early 1960s.
His work as a planner and his conversations with AMR members give Sander a good grasp of the military reunion market. Here are some of his insights:
Destination is the first decision.
Although a few veterans groups don’t much care where they gather and gab, most want to go someplace interesting. But “interesting” isn’t narrowly defined. As you’d expect, veterans love destinations with military ties; but they are also lured to places like Branson, Missouri, that have little in that respect but that roll out the welcome mat and put on a show for these groups. With the right combination — a hotel that is tuned in to the market and a few interesting attractions — “anyplace can have military reunions, and many places do,” said Sander. Proof is in the fact that airport hotels are popular with this market.
WWII reunions are shrinking, but others are coming.
World War II reunions once ruled, but as those veterans have passed away, so have their gatherings. As a result, the number of annual military reunions has shrunk from an estimated 12,000 to around 5,000, according to AMR.
However, new groups are emerging. During one recent week, AMR signed up reunion planners for Iraq and Desert Storm veterans. These younger veterans are less budget conscious than the World War II veterans were, Sander said.
More than half of military reunions involve Navy veterans and are built around vessels. These reunions often span the many decades of a ship’s service and thus include veterans of varying ages who share the experience of having served on the same ship. When ships are large, such as aircraft carriers, veterans’ children and grandchildren sometimes attend, adding another dimension and more activities to the reunion, Sander said.
Smaller reunions join forces.
Because some military reunions have lost members, they are holding reunions with other reunion groups. For example, veterans who served on the USS Rankin and the USS Yancey will have a combined reunion in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, this fall, Sander said. Three other military groups that were left without a reunion destination when the meeting planning company they used unexpectedly closed will also be joining Rankin and Yancey veterans. The result will be a reunion of about 60 rooms.
Military reunions are a nice piece of the pie.
Not all destinations love military reunions. They aren’t a large piece of business, typically using only one hotel. Because they often have never planned a reunion, military planners can be high maintenance. Yet, these groups are flexible, happy to take dates others might not want and pleasant to have around.
“Military reunions aren’t usually going to bring 2,000 people to town,” said Sander. “But almost all of the veterans are seniors, so they aren’t going to trash your hotel. They are going to pay their bills; they aren’t going to run out on you. They have stability. If they say they are going to bring 50 rooms, based on past experience they are going to bring them.”
For more information on the Alliance of Military Reunions go to www.amr1.org.