Renee Aubin's meeting-planning challenges are not the same as yours. Aubin is the manager of the convention division for Lions Club International, a fraternal organization. The Lions Club strives to serve people with sight challenges, so it's probably not surprising that 5 percent of the attendees at its major annual meeting are blind. With at least 15,000 attendees in town, that means several hundred guide dogs will be in attendance, too. No, it's not your everyday meeting.

The Lions meeting has other unique elements: Its attendees tend to be older and they usually bring their spouses, they come from all around the world (40 percent are from overseas) and speak 10 different languages, and they like to make side trips before and after the five-day meeting. That means Aubin looks for destinations that don't require a lot of walking; have plenty of double rooms; can adapt well to people from overseas; and have enticing activities close by.

Montréal, for example, excels as an easy multilingual destination, with a compact downtown and tantalizing pre-and post-convention tourism opportunities, Aubin explains. “It was one of the best cities, with its housing package and diversity,” she says. Aubin has learned the art of customization, and the cities that meet her needs are candidates for her big, high-profile piece of business.

Identify Unique Qualities

Customization is a buzzword in the meetings industry these days as hoteliers and meeting planners are finding it's in their mutual best interest to create meeting experiences that are ideally tailored to attendees. Recognizing uniqueness is viewed as a way to combat the growing trend to view meetings as commodities.

A thought-provoking panel discussion on meeting trends was held at the close of January's Religious Conference Management Association World Conference and Exposition in St. Louis.

All things about meetings — even the meetings themselves — are viewed as commodities. Planners and suppliers are asking themselves: “What's my future?” according to panelist D. Bradley Kent, vice president, national sales, Wyndham International.

“Your ongoing challenge is to ask: ‘How do I create a personal experience for each of my attendees?’ ” said Kent, adding that it's vital that meeting planners view hotels, convention and visitor bureaus, and convention centers as partners and leverage the suppliers' resources in order to create extraordinary experiences for attendees.

Customizing is nothing new for SMERF planners, whose groups share one overarching characteristic: their extreme uniqueness.

The challenge for SMERF planners is, first, to identify their unique characteristics; second, to understand how to custom-fit meetings that resonate with attendees; and third, to find destinations and properties that are willing to think creatively and to create special accommodations that attendees value.

Unique in Size, and More

By any measurement, the Church of the Nazarene's General Assembly and Conventions is a large meeting. Held every four years at the end of June, the 10-day, event attracts up to 40,000 at peak and has a base attendance of around 20,000, according to D'Wayne Leatherland, CMP, senior administrative coordinator, International Headquarters, Church of the Nazarene, Kansas City, Mo.

Leatherland and his colleagues are responsible for a wide variety of meetings, but none matches the size of the quadrennial. Their largest meeting-planning challenge is identifying cities that are capable of handling a meeting of that size. Including this summer's event, four of the last five meetings will have been booked in Indianapolis, a destination that is conveniently located for the Church of the Nazarene membership.

“Indianapolis has geared itself for the religious market,” Leatherland says. “From our perspective, it's ideal, and it takes a very unique package to match that.”

The event relies heavily on local church volunteers (more than 300 of them), and Indianapolis holds the added advantage now of possessing a well-trained group of willing volunteers.

Those volunteers help serve a group of attendees whose composition has changed recently, Leatherland said. With the strain of the recent economic downturn, many attendees turn the quadrennial meeting into a family vacation. As a result, the planning staff needs to consider the needs and desires of entire families.

The meeting attendees are very rate-conscious, so that means the meeting-planning staff needs to be, too.

Leatherland says the market is shifting toward a seller's market, but “I don't think we're there yet.” He sees evidence of change in the amount of effort it takes today to achieve the desired contract. “It's requiring a lot more give-and-take and more time and energy to get to that point.”

Another ongoing challenge for Leatherland is convincing destinations that they will do well with the Church of the Nazarene and its uniqueness. Specifically, he has to make the case that the attendees will make up for their lack of alcohol consumption in food consumption. Leatherland said the meeting's history supports the claim that his group likes the “f” in “food and beverage,” highlighting the importance of having your meeting history at hand, so you can make a strong case for your piece of business.

The attendees typically are in meetings until at least 9 p.m., and he urges hotels to keep their food outlets open late to serve hungry attendees who are looking for food and fellowship at the end of a long day. “We get together not just for business and not just to achieve a specific purpose. We get together, because that's what the church does; it gathers and then sends its people out into the world,” Leatherland says. He also encourages hotels to convert bars into ice-cream parlors or coffee shops during the quadrennial meeting, turning the lost alcohol revenue into food revenue.

Indianapolis now understands the meeting's idiosyncrasies, and that makes life easier for everyone: the vendors, the planners, and the attendees.

Sweet Music

Does a group with 10,000 female attendees who could break into song at any moment qualify as unique? Perhaps. But it's not unusual to Kathy Hayes, director of meetings and corporate services for Sweet Adelines, Tulsa, Okla., who's used to having to fight the perception that her group is a “bunch of old ladies.” But her meeting history, which shows an annual attendance of 8,000 to 10,000, is strong.

Two years ago Hayes enlisted the help of a third-party vendor to negotiate her contracts. “We're benefiting from the volume of their meetings. It's gone well and we've been happy with them and the kind of rates that we're able to get,” she says.

Like the Lions organization, the Sweet Adelines meetings draw better when the event is held in “touristy” spots, according to Hayes. “New Orleans always is popular, and so is Hawaii.”

For many SMERF organizations, attrition isn't the problem that it was just a couple of years ago. Efforts to inform and educate attendees to book within the block are resonating, according to planners. The Sweet Adelines are unique in this regard, too, because educational efforts have not worked. “It's an ongoing struggle,” Hayes says. Last year, the organization decided to tie booking within the block to ground transportation. Attendees within the block received logo key cards that were their free pass to ride the group's buses. “That got people's attention,” she said.

Trying to Move Online

With the Lions Club, the biggest challenge is to move attendees toward online registration, Aubin says. After several years of focused effort, with an Internet cafe on site, training, and posting membership reports online, only 2 percent of attendees register online. “It's been very slow to change,” she says. As a result, the organization will have to continue to send costly printed registration materials.

While that's been frustrating, attrition hasn't been an issue. “We do a good job with the contracts, so it's not a problem,” Aubin says. Contracts and negotiating are at the heart of why the Lions recently began booking meetings five years out, instead of seven years. They require “firm and final” rates two years out, so booking five years out means there's less effort spent on revisiting and adjusting contracts. “Five years doesn't tax the staff as much.”

The explosion of new convention center facilities in recent years also means it's possible to book only five years into the future, Aubin says. With more cities capable of handling their meeting, there isn't the urgency to book so far in advance. “There are more and more cities available to us. It's given us a bigger market to work with,” although she adds that in many locations, housing capability is lagging behind and doesn't yet match convention center capability.

Unique Attrition

When Ted Dey, president, Armed Forces Reunions Inc., Norfolk, Va., speaks of attrition, he's talking about two different kinds: The first is the type you're all aware of, and the second is “natural attrition,” meaning the death of old soldiers.

“The most pressing challenge for us is replacing the World War II reunion business we've had for the past 20 years. World War II has been the vast majority of the military reunion business,” he says. “There are always going to be military reunions. The challenge is getting the younger groups to come on board. They're out there.”

Because of the aging demographic, Dey insists that the hotel contracts for his groups include a penalty-free review of a group's meeting history one year prior to the meeting. That review typically will nip any attrition problems in the bud, but he also urges groups to be very realistic and conservative when reserving room blocks.

“These are small groups without much money. They can't afford to get hit with attrition,” says Dey, who adds that his groups are extremely rate-sensitive. His “magic number” for room rate is $100 per night. “It has to be accessible and affordable to everyone. The SMERF market is people who are paying their own way.”

Also critical to military reunion groups is an adequate hospitality room, a place where attendees can share stories and consume drinks. “The hospitality room is the reunion. That's where it happens,” Dey says. The ideal hospitality room would be one that's large enough to accommodate tables of memorabilia, and where attendees are allowed to bring in their own liquor.

If the group is too large for a hospitality room, Dey says he negotiates with hotels for a meeting room and reduced-rate cash bar. “They won't buy $6 drinks,” he says of his attendees.

Dey plans 70 to 80 reunions a year, with the typical group being 100 to 200 attendees staying for four nights, during a shoulder season or Thursday to Sunday. Most attendees drive to the reunions, but he has to make it easy to fly in, too.

Popular meeting destinations vary, depending on the branch of the military, he said. With the Air Force, for example, good cities are Dayton, Ohio (because of its flight history and museum), San Antonio (many Air Force veterans trained there), and Colorado Springs, Colo. (home of the Air Force Academy). Washington, D.C.,s is a hit with all military reunion groups because of its historic sites, and San Diego is highly regarded because of the weather.

SMERF Meetings: A Snapshot

In April 2004, Association Meetings magazine published the results of its first SMERF market survey. Here are some key findings of that survey. (See our archives at www.meetingsnet.com for a full report.) And look for an updated survey to be published later this year.

Average net square footage for expositions: 50,000 square feet. Just over 5 percent of respondents said their expositions range from 100,000 to 299,000 net square feet. A surprising 40 percent of respondents said that their annual event includes an exposition.

Attendance at largest annual event: under 500 for 44 percent of respondents; 36 percent said that attendance ranged from 500 to 3,000. The median was 600 and the mean 1,294,

Money allocated annually for meetings/expositions: The mean was $950,000, but the median was just $182,758. Indeed, 43 percent said they had less than $100,000 to spend annually, yet 13 percent said they spent from $1 million to $4.99 million annually on their meetings. Clearly, SMERF events span the spectrum.

Types of facilities used: About 29 percent said they used convention centers; 36 percent, conference centers; 32 percent, resorts; 65 percent use downtown hotels; 44 percent use suburban hotels; 20 percent use university facilities; and 7 percent, arenas/stadiums.

Meeting outside the United States: 28 percent of respondents have meeting outside the country, and the average number of offshore meetings for this group was two per year.