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Making the most of SMERF Meetings

Unlike conventional corporate meetings that are often strictly business, SMERF (social, military, educational, religious and fraternal) meetings and events usually include some kind of social or civic element, and that’s why the SMERF meeting market has different needs than corporate meetings.

Convention and visitors bureau staff members in several cities each had the same advice for meeting planners who are working with SMERF clients: Get in touch with the local CVB. Work with the CVB, and tap local resources to plan your next SMERF event.

“Take advantage of the CVB,” said Erin Filarecki, media relations manager for VisitNorfolk, the convention and visitors bureau for Norfolk, Virginia. “Use those services in whatever city they’ve selected, not just here. A lot of times, clients just don’t realize that services are free and that the CVB is a great asset to your destination, whether it’s Norfolk or anywhere else.”


Norfolk, Virginia

Every branch of the U.S. military is located within 30 miles of Norfolk, so it’s no surprise that the city handles many military and veteran reunions and events. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, is also located there, and the city is home to the Naval Station Norfolk, the world’s largest naval base.

“There are a lot of military attractions that are open to the public for tours and such, so it’s a natural fit,” Filarecki said.

Family reunions and fraternal meetings are also large pieces of the city’s SMERF meeting business, she said. As with many SMERF meetings, the people in charge of planning a SMERF event may be volunteers or first-time organizers who are unfamiliar with meeting planning, Filarecki said, which is why VisitNorfolk tries “to help guide them through the entire event.”

“We try to work with them really closely on everything and make sure they understand the site-selection process, including the hotel or venue contracting phases,” Filarecki said.

VisitNorfolk has sales managers who are assigned to specific segments of the SMERF market, and the CVB can provide help with public relations and marketing, such as handling social media and press releases, as well as tips on producing events or providing entertainment as part of the meeting.

“We’re the locals here, and we have a lot of contacts in the area, so we can assist them with that or whatever they need,” Filarecki said.


Louisville, Kentucky

Louisville does a brisk business in the student segment of the SMERF meeting market and frequently has student groups and youth organizations visiting the town. The National FFA Organization, also known as Future Farmers of America, is on a three-year rotation with Louisville, and SkillsUSA has signed up to hold its annual National Leadership and Skills Conference in the city from 2015 to 2020.

Religious events and meetings are another big piece of the city’s SMERF business, and religious organizations are attracted to Louisville for many of the same reasons as student and youth groups: safety and affordability, said Kate Burger, senior sales manager for the Louisville Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“We’re consistently ranked among the top 10 safest cities in the U.S., and that’s important if you’re talking about bringing young children or teens to a place,” she said.

Louisville is very walkable, which is a big part of its safety, Burger said. A six-block skywalk connects the Kentucky International Convention Center with three downtown hotels, and nine major museums and attractions are located along a three-block stretch of Main Street, known as Museum Row on Main.

The CVB takes a “divide and conquer” approach to the SMERF market, and SMERF segments are divvied up among several staff members, Burger said.

“It allows each of us to become experts in our market,” she said. “Oftentimes with these specific groups, they rely on the local community to help produce the event or be liaisons, so it helps that each of us can become experts in the local markets.”


Branson, Missouri

Branson’s unofficial motto is “Faith, family and flag,” and that formula summarizes the city’s SMERF market.

Branson handles a huge number of military reunions, so many that the Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce and Convention and Visitors Bureau moved the military portion of the SMERF market over to the CVB’s leisure department, said Deborah Cohen, director of convention and meeting sales for the agency.

But Branson also gets plenty of family reunions and religious events, some of which need a bit more hands-on help and guidance because volunteers are stepping up to organize the event, she said.

“When they don’t do it all the time — it’s a volunteer project for them, or they’re helping out the church — the CVB helps out a little bit more, and we’re happy to do that,” Cohen said.

The CVB offers the same services to SMERF meetings as to any other meeting, including help with submitting proposals, selecting a site and rounding up event entertainment.

“Branson has so many entertainers, and we often get questions about having entertainers come to perform for them,” Cohen said.

Branson’s reputation as a city that welcomes families helps attract many family, military and religious meetings and reunions, she said, although some people mistakenly believe that Branson is a gambling city. Branson is a major destination for shows and concerts, but all of Branson’s performances are G-rated, and “there’s a lot of religious aspects to many of our shows, so religious planners really do love that,” Cohen said.


Rockford, Illinois

In the past, Rockford’s largest SMERF segment was religious events, but over the last few years, it has shifted toward the social arena: The city has hosted the Illinois Red Hat Society, the Shriners and the Illinois Sister Cities conference, said Lindsay Arellano, director of sales and service for the Rockford Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

SMERF meetings and events differ from traditional corporate or business meetings because the attendees aren’t necessarily there as part of their full-time jobs; they are members of an organization or an association. So they might attend an event over a weekend, or bring their spouses and families along, said Greta Spencer, meeting sales manager for the Rockford Area CVB.

As such, SMERF meeting organizers are looking for “something different than the corporate atmosphere with a boardroom and a cup of coffee and a sandwich for lunch,” she said.

“Maybe they want to have their meeting at a garden or theater, somewhere that makes it feel more like a destination or retreat as opposed to a corporate event that’s just to get business done,” Spencer said.

Rockford Area CVB staff attend trade shows to help attract SMERF meetings, but staff members also tap their best local resource: Rockford’s own residents.

“We try to attend as many networking events as possible because you never know who you’ll meet that’s part of some religious organization or fraternal society,” Arellano said. “We try to partner with our local residents to bring their meetings home.”