Late in the 1990s, San Jose did not have a keen interest in hosting the 3,000-person general assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). “There wasn't much incentive for the city to book conventions that far out or to commit large room blocks,” says Deborah Davies, manager of assembly services for the Louisville, Ky., organization. But once the dot-com boom went bust, things changed. “The city came up with an attractive package for us, subsidizing the convention center rent and working with hotels to guarantee the rates,” she says. The meeting is booked for 2008.

Cities across the United States are taking the lead from San Jose. With the volume of corporate meetings slipping, hotels and convention facilities are counting on religious organizations and other often-overlooked so-called SMERF (social, military, educational, religious, and fraternal) groups as the next best thing.

Although they tend to get lumped together because many of them share certain traits (tight budgets, willingness to book during off-peak times), SMERF organizations are a varied lot with a wide range of challenges and needs.

Mixed Bag

Many social and fraternal organizations (Lions Club, The Benevolent & Protective Order of Elks, Loyal Order of Moose, etc.) face forecasting challenges: Their membership bases are aging and shrinking, and because the size of their conventions, they need to commit to a destination seven or eight years in advance.

This year, for example, attendance at the Lions annual meeting in Denver was way off typical figures — just over 12,000, when it's normally around 18,000 to 20,000. “Most reservations come in during January and February, when we were going into a war, and SARS was a big issue for us,” says Renee Aubin, manager of the convention division for the Oak Brook, Ill., club, which has a substantial international following. Weak economies in South America and Canada also prevented a number of members from traveling to the U.S. this year. The group used only about half its room block, but fortunately the housing agreements did not include attrition clauses.

Military groups, which consist largely of reunions, are a different story. Despite the shrinking ranks of World War II and Korean War veterans, “this is still a growing market,” says Bill Masciangelo, director of government and military sales for Cendant Corp.'s hotel division, which franchises Days Inns, Ramada Inns, and other midscale and economy lodging brands.

Newer groups of Vietnam, Cold War, and Gulf War vets are taking their place, and the troops who fought in Iraq are likely to start getting together in 10 years, he explains.

Locating fellow soldiers had always been the biggest challenge to mounting a reunion, but thanks to the Internet, “some units have been able to find everybody except those few who have disappeared and don't want to be found,” Masciangelo says.

“For these groups, the big question is, What does the destination have to offer?” Masciangelo says “Having to be near a military installation is a myth,” he says. Veterans often bring their families and turn the reunion into a vacation, and “people who take a vacation once a year want to see something.”

Masciangelo says most military reunions share certain common threads: a hospitality suite at the hotel, time to share memorabilia and photos, tours of local sights, a banquet, and a memorial service at a cemetery or monument. They like to feel welcome and appreciate patriotic touches such as banners and flags outside the hotel.

“Pricing is important, but it isn't everything,” Masciangelo says. Attendees often drive to their reunions to save money, but they treat them as a special occasion.

Conversely, they're likely to avoid a destination that they perceive as “too fancy,” says Masciangelo. Like many SMERF groups, military reunions are often planned by volunteers — often, as in this case, a husband-and-wife team. Generally, they look to the hotel for help in putting together a package for attendees.

Education Feels Pain of State Budget Cuts

With state and local budget constraints, that segment of the SMERF market is likely to suffer; this year, the Association for Career and Technical Education has seen a drastic falloff in preregistration figures for its annual Career Tech Expo, planned for Orlando in December. The convention normally draws about 7,000 administrators, teachers, and counselors involved in career and tech education.

Attrition has become the biggest challenge for ACTE, says Julia Richardson, senior director of business and professional development for the Alexandria, Va., association. “So many of our people are going outside the room blocks to get cheaper rooms,” she says. Attendees staying outside the block are also affecting the cost of shuttle buses, which the designated hotels subsidize based on the number of attendees staying within the block. The association is turning to CVBs to help with these issues.

Richardson says cities are actively pursuing ACTE's business. “Some hotels are foregoing an attrition clause in their contract. I haven't seen that in many years. Bureaus are helping to offset more of the cost for the meeting.”

Getting Religion

Unlike educators, religious groups don't seem to be fazed by the economy. “National church budgets have definitely been affected by the recession and the stock market,” says the Presbyterian Church's Davies. “So we're doing things like having fewer task force meetings and sending fewer staff members to our convention. But we still have to have meetings, and [participants] still have to come. To the extent that it can be, it's recession-proof,” she says.

Even within the religious segment, though, priorities vary. The Unitarian Universalist Association, which recently had a record-setting general assembly in Boston (7,500 attendees versus the usual 4,500), is socially and environmentally conscious, so cities that don't welcome gays or tree huggers are not considered.

General Assembly Manager Janiece Sneegas says the Boston-based association was hit with big attrition penalties despite the packed house. Boston hotels posted bargain-basement rates on the Internet, and many attendees snapped them up. Sneegas said every mailing to the group stressed reservations outside the block could end up costing the church money, “but when you're asking people to choose between their loyalty to the assembly and their wallet in tough economic times, it's hard,” she admits.

Carrots from CVBs

Given the doldrums that corporate business is experiencing, many cities are beefing up their efforts to woo SMERF meetings. “We've always focused on corporate meetings in the past, now we're targeting associations and SMERFs and extending that promotion year-round,” says Lisa Murray, who represents Bermuda in the U.S.

Two years ago, the Denver Metro CVB, for example, named Tim Litherland its first director of sports and specialty markets and assigned him to concentrate efforts on SMERFs and other often-overlooked groups. “More and more of our members are willing to make the necessary concessions, whether it's on rate or something else,” to get these groups, says Litherland.

While rate is a key for many groups, it's not the only consideration.

The Northern Kentucky CVB, which has built a following among military reunion groups, provides a cash donation to help organizers find members, a commemorative American flag that has flown over the U.S. Capitol, assistance in obtaining an official White House greeting, attendee and spouse badges, on-site registration for larger groups, contacts for local attractions, local souvenirs, and visitor brochures.

The Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau has hosted an annual roundtable for SMERF planners for 15 years. The conference, which typically draws 60 to 75 people, walks these planners through the process of putting together an event, with speakers covering subjects from contracts to attrition, “whatever is the hot button at the time,” says Deborah Sexton, president. Besides educating them, the CTB sometimes helps planners promote their events as well.