Judging from the online job postings, hotel sales people with experience in the SMERF market are in big demand these days, especially if they have a great client list. Social, military, educational, religious, and fraternal meetings have never been hotter as we head into 2003.

Once considered the dregs of meetings business, this budget-conscious, love-to-meet-on-weekends market segment is being wooed by all kinds of CVBs and hotels. Here are just two examples: The SMERF market represents 25 percent of booked business from its opening in 1997 to 2015 for the Hawaii Convention Center in Honolulu. Next summer Las Vegas will host a citywide teachers' convention with a room rate of less than $100 night.

A steep falloff in corporate meeting business, high interest in drive-in markets since 9/11, a big leap in new convention space (especially in the small and mid-size market) between 2000 and 2005 are key factors fueling interest in the SMERF market, which tends to be more recession-proof than more deep-pocket meetings.

“I am one of those people who believe the corporate market isn't going to rebound [to previous levels],” says Bob Gilbert, CEO of the Hotel Sales and Marketing Association International. Consequently, hotel salespeople need to adjust their marketing and aggressively go after new markets, he says. “SMERF meetings, a lot of them, are more like leisure travel in that people don't go to them for business. … They go to them to connect on a more personal level, and there's probably more need for that now than ever.”

ELUSIVE MARKET

Despite the full-court press from venues and destinations, the SMERF market remains somewhat hard to track. The last time the International Association of Convention Bureaus was able to track the economic impact of this segment was in 1993, when it estimated that SMERF meetings accounted for 27.66 percent of the events in 73 cities — compared to 6.35 percent for medical meetings and 2.04 percent for corporate meetings. The same study also showed more than a $500 difference in the average expenditure per delegate of a medical meeting ($851) and a military meeting ($322).

Because many of these organizations are run by volunteers, it can be daunting finding them. Ted Dey, president of Armed Forces Reunions Inc., a military-reunion planning company based in Norfolk, Va., is a rare full-time planner. He estimates that there may be as many as 10,000 military reunion meetings each year. His group handles about 80 a year. “I'm telling our groups, now's the time to step up and book hotels we normally can't afford,” Dey says. “It's been glorious for us. We're hearing from hoteliers we've never heard from before. There's been much more negotiability on everything from attrition to catering clauses.”

One SMERF segment that is easier than most to quantify and track: religious meetings. The Religious Conference Management Association, based in Indianapolis, has 1,285 meeting planner members. Sister publication Religious Conference Manager found in its annual membership survey this year that attendance at members' meetings topped 16 million in 2001, up from 4.4 million in 1994.

“We're not hearing about any downturns in this market,” says DeWayne Woodring, RCMA executive director. “Our current registration numbers for our annual meeting in Charlotte [N.C.] in February are on par with where they were this time last year for the 2002 Tampa meeting.” That's especially good, he says, since warm weather winter destinations tend to draw higher registration. “Despite war, [or] peace, [or] recession, the religious market carries on,” Woodring adds. “When times are gloomiest, people turn back to their faiths looking for answers. And that means involvement in events with that faith.”