As president of a company that manages a variety of association meetings, Gregg Talley knows firsthand how the ice-cold-to-red-hot hotel market has turned the SMERF (Social Military Educational Religious Fraternal) meetings industry upside-down in just a few short years.

“A few years ago, you could get first-tier cities at decent rates and decent dates,” says Talley, founder of Talley Management Group, a Mount Royal, N.J.-based association and event management company. Now, in a market where hotels are reaping record revenues, it's gone to the opposite extreme. “No one will talk to us because of rates and because they don't have any dates.”

Because many budget-conscious SMERF groups “are priced out” and “blocked out” of the top-tier destinations, they must look further downmarket than they have in the past, even before the hotel market went topsy-turvy in 2001. So, if they used to look in second-tier cities, they might have to go down a tier (maybe two) to find availability at decent rates.

SMERF Hot Spots

As a result of this migration of business down the proverbial food chain, some new destinations are showing up on meeting planners' radar screens. Talley, whose company manages several SMERF organizations, including the National Society for Experiential Education, Alcoholics Anonymous, and Real Estate Educators Association, has recently booked meetings in cities he never considered before, including Sacramento, Calif.; Spokane, Wash.; Albuquerque, N.M.; Chattanooga, Tenn.; Pittsburgh; and Austin, Texas. “There are new destinations coming up that are anxious for business,” he says. “That's the opportunity for SMERF groups to look at places they wouldn't have looked at before.”

Jennifer Collins, president, The Event Planning Group, Laurel, Md., has also cast a wider net in looking for cost-effective destinations. St. Louis; Raleigh-Durham, N.C.; Birmingham, Ala.; Savannah, Ga.; and Sioux Falls, S.D., are all cities that have replaced first-tier destinations for some of her SMERF clients. She finds that these destinations are not only affordable and available, but also offer a surprisingly good meetings package.

Long Beach, Calif.; Charlotte, N.C.; Louisville, Ky.; Salt Lake City; and Tampa, Fla., are other up-and-coming meeting destinations, industry experts say.

Of course, some of the smaller cities may not have the concentrated hotel package, convention space, or accessibility by air to meet the requirements of certain groups, which SMERF planners must take into account.

Brenda Bishop, meeting services coordinator at the American Numismatic Association, an organization for coin and money collectors, looks at first- and second-tier cities only because of the size and the nature of the ANA convention. It attracts 10,000 to 15,000 people, so she requires a large metropolitan destination with enough hotel rooms around the convention center and good accessibility by air. But price is also a factor. So, while cities like New York and San Francisco, where ANA has met before, are not options now because they are too expensive, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Seattle all fit the bill for her group.

Airlift is particularly important for ANA, Bishop states. “Frequency of flights and nonstop service in and out of these airports is critical,” she explains, because attendees bring their valuable inventory with them and don't want to be shuttled around on connecting flights in small airplanes.

Dates, Rates, and Space

If planners are flexible and creative, budget-conscious groups can still meet in first-tier cities without breaking the bank, explains Bonnie Wallsh, a Charlotte, N.C.-based independent meeting planner.

A SMERF group she plans meetings for, the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies, just booked a meeting in Chicago in its price range by filling a hole in the hotel's calendar. “We selected dates based on availability, because cost was a factor,” Wallsh says. Although it wasn't during the time of year they usually meet, the meeting was booked in August — a low season in Chicago. For filling a dead spot on the calendar, the group was also able to get a discounted rate at the same hotel for a board meeting in prime season, spring.

It's all about dates, rates, and space, says Wallsh. If a SMERF planner wants one of the three in this particular market, they probably have to be flexible on the other two.

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