You know you're a SMERF planner when: * Your social organization's attendees request rocking chairs so they can soothe the grandkids while debating land economics issues.

* You have to worry about food and beverage attrition not because your people don't show up, but because they are veterans of the Korean War and they just don't eat and drink like they used to.

* Your educational group doesn't need a suite for its board meeting--it needs 4,000 square feet of meeting space.

* Your gospel group brings along a ten-dollar bill and the Ten Commandments, fully intending not to break either one.

* Your fraternal group wants to bring their own liquor into the hotel's meeting space.

Welcome to the world of SMERFs--social, military, educational, religious, and fraternal organizations--where affordability reigns and quirky requests abound. Your road to success starts with a request for proposal (RFP), which all too often gives suppliers too little information or too short a time frame. The first rule is to know your group.

As Ted Dey, president of Armed Forces Reunions, Inc., in Norfolk, Va., observes, "If the 20 percent of your group who are on limited incomes can't come because the rate's too high, you haven't done your job."

Think about the environment that will best help everyone achieve their goals while staying within your--and their--budgets. If you don't articulate this information clearly on your RFP, you may end up having to plop your senior citizen group on barstools in a dimly lit nightclub, or cringe as the kids in your children's program run rampant through an elegant hotel restaurant. What other extras might your group need? Sue Walton of the independent planning company Scott W. Walton & Associates in Evanston, Ill., says her attendees like to go off-property to eat in local restaurants. "Even if it's a McDonald's, it helps to keep them from feeling isolated."

Go through your meeting sequentially and account for everything you'll need each day. It's a lot of work, but it's worth it if you want more competitive and complete bids, less telephone tag, smoother negotiations, and no big surprises .

Christopher Thiel, CEM, CMP, is director, meetings department for APICS-The Educational Society for Resource Management in Alexandria, Va. "If you are new at developing an RFP, you might want to send your draft out to a few suppliers and have them critique it for you," he advises. "Work it backwards. Develop an RFP from the suppliers' perspective." He also cites other planners as good sources: "If you have three or four samples, take the best ideas from each and combine them into one. This is not rocket science. The key is to update it as the event matures."

Filling In the Blanks Dey, who plans 65 to 85 military reunions a year, starts with a skeleton RFP that he developed several years ago, and fills in the blanks as is appropriate for each of his groups.

"Every year we add more to the RFP," he says. For example, he used to just say he wanted a 50-cent reduction off list prices across the board for banquet cash bars, with bartender fees waived if a $250 minimum in sales was met per bar over a four-hour period. Then Dey wondered what they were going to charge if he did not meet the minimum. So he added a piece saying that if the minimum is not met, the group will be assessed a small sum for bartender/cashier fees.

"We try to ask for everything up front," he says. "We used to just say 'buffet,' but now we specify everything down to having sliced fruit instead of whole, because some of the older members have dentures that just can't withstand a bite into an apple."

Less experienced SMERF planners should "start off with the minimum requirements for an RFP: information that is essential both to you as a planner and to the hotel," advises Stacy Pollard-Johnson, national accounts executive with Marriott National Accounts in McLean, Va. This includes dates and location. If you don't have specific dates, include the month or season you're considering. The geographical location is another must. Again, if you don't have a specific state in mind, don't just say "Midwest." Says Pollard-Johnson: "Do you consider Texas to be Midwest? Not all Texans would."

One way Thiel puts a face on his meetings is by including pictures of past registration counters, entrance units, bookstores, message centers, and anything else unique to his show. He says, "The supplier gets a better handle on our expectations." He also provides a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet for each supplier to complete. "Then, when the RFP is returned, I can easily compare costs from one RFP to another. No need for me to enter the information again."

The Dating Game Another biggie that can help save money for SMERF meetings when mentioned on the RFP is arrival/departure patterns, according to Anna Nash, director of convention sales with the Lexington, Ky., Convention and Visitors Bureau. "To obtain the best room rates, SMERF planners must be flexible in terms of meeting dates and day-of-the-week patterns," she says. Dey sometimes asks the hotel to provide pricing for three different scenarios, which he then can bring back for the association's board members. "We have to educate our groups about what the hotel's needs are and how we fit into the picture," he says.

For example, at a P-47 Thunderbolt Pilot Association meeting he planned in San Francisco a few years ago (which was scheduled for Memorial Day weekend to take advantage of the lower holiday rate), the price ranged from $119 per night for a four-day meeting with a Saturday banquet and Sunday departure, to $77 per night for a Monday banquet/depart Tuesday meeting. "To any SMERF group, that's a big difference," he says. If he has a rate-sensitive group going into an expensive area, he'll note "would consider Sunday night banquet/out Monday pattern" in the RFP's "number of rooms needed each day" section.

Expected attendance (including a daily breakdown of sleeping rooms and meeting space required) and as detailed a history of your past meetings as possible are essential, but don't inflate your group's numbers to make it look more enticing. (See sidebar on page 54 for a list of essential items).

J. David von Gunten, CMP, director of administrative services/controller, Missionary Church, Inc., in Fort Wayne, Ind., also lists other considerations that influence his organization's site selection decisions, such as complimentary parking, airport proximity and complimentary shuttle service, removal of sexually explicit magazines from the gift shop, guaranteed shoulder-season sleeping-room rates, a cumulative comp policy on sleeping rooms and suites, and complimentary shuttle to the host property if overflow sleeping rooms are needed. Other factors being equal, these types of issues can be used as tie-breakers.

This is a lot of information to squeeze into a document, and it could take on a life of its own, if you let it. Aim to be like independent planner Sue Walton, who manages to restrict hers to one page, while still keeping it complete and understandable.

Casting the Net Once you have developed your RFP, how do you decide where to send it? Many SMERF planners lean on the local CVB. "Our bureau asks the meeting planner very thorough questions, so our convention sales managers can narrow the venue choices for a specific type of group," says Lexington CVB's Nash. The CVB also can help a SMERF meeting planner record information on the number of rooms used on peak night; total rooms used; and the largest attendance for a meal or a general session. Planners then can use this data to adjust their RFP to give a more accurate representation of the meeting, which in turn helps the bureau recommend future venues, says Nash.

Chris Thiel, whose organization does more than 100 meetings annually, uses the CVB for larger, annual events. For smaller events, he sends the RFP to a specific group of hotels in a city, and to the sales managers of the national hotel chains. Both he and Walton use their own customized database of hotels.

An RFP can come in handy if there is a dispute down the line. You also can use the proposal as a checklist when the contract arrives. Go through the RFP line by line to make sure that everything's in the contract. If it isn't, you can send it back unsigned with a note to make the changes to match the RFP.

"If I were with a professional association or corporate group, I wouldn't have to include every penny-pinching detail in my RFP," Dey says. "But I'm with SMERFs, and I need to get everything in there right up front to make sure everyone gets what they came for--at a price they can afford."

What Every Good RFP Should Include: * Title of meeting

* Name and address of organization sponsoring the meeting

* Preferred city, area, or region

* Meeting goals and objectives (briefly)

* Possible meeting dates (by month or season, plus days of the week meeting is held)

* Types of properties preferred (e.g., airport vs. downtown hotel)

* Projected sleeping-room block (include any special suites; staff discounts; single, double, triple, or quad occupancies anticipated; and room-rate range)

* Desired rate range/quotation from hotel

* Daily review of meeting space requirements and usage (include any specific ceiling height or room dimension requirements, staff room, business center, registration area needs, and any 24-hour holds)

* Day-by-day meeting schedule

* Reduced or waived meeting room rentals

* Exhibit information (number of exhibits, booth or tabletop, setup and tear-down times)

* Food and beverage functions, including type of function, number of expected attendees, any special dietary requirements, and day of function. Also include food and beverage history, if possible.

* Your meeting's history (preferably going back three years)

* Preferred mode of response (phone, mail, fax, e-mail)

* Name and contact information of contact person

* Schedule and procedure of site inspections, final decision-making, and contracting

* Deadline for submission

What Every Great RFP Should Include: All of the above, plus:

* Overview of attendee demographics

* If you need space held at the time of the RFP request Attrition clause issues

* Organization's willingness to explore alternative dates

* Additional information necessary to meet your group's goals, such as ADA compliance, emergency services, satellite hookups, complimentary shuttle service, and on-site AV services. Also any special concessions needed

* Additional information to enhance your meeting's attractiveness to the venue (e.g., affiliate groups that will be holding meetings in conjunction with your meeting; or the likelihood of your organization's providing repeat business)