The SMERF Market—Give Me an E!

By Stamp

The SMERF Market—Give Me an E!

The SMERF market encompasses a range of group travelers that your destination can target marketing towards to ensure a more stable occupancy rate year-round. The education group covers local, regional and national organizations of all sizes who periodically convene to share and discuss all topics related to education. Read time: five minutes.

Understanding how valuable SMERF groups can be to destinations, we are going to cover each segment one by one. So for this third installment of our SMERF market series, I am going to tackle the E is for Education segment. Read the first post here for an introduction to SMERF markets in general and our S is for Social segment. The education travel market can be a hidden opportunity for DMOs. Think about all the local, state and national education groups that meet periodically to solve problems, stay on top of trends and just share their knowledge. Wondering if they would be a good fit for your destination? Dawn Owens, owner of Tandem Early Education Consulting, talked with us about the education industry and group travel. Her company partners with early childhood education programs, as well as education professionals and advocates, to provide professional development and training, coaching, mentoring, and guidance on classroom setup. Not only is Dawn a frequent education conference attendee, but she is also a conference planner!

Attending Education Meetings and Conferences

Dawn regularly attends conferences hosted by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), Southern Early Childhood Association (SECA) and Alabama Education Association (AEA). She stated that cost, location and workshop topics were the keys when deciding to attend a conference. After assessing that the topics covered at the meeting are desirable, Dawn said she is then more likely to attend if she can drive to the destination. Not only is she more comfortable in her own vehicle, but driving usually helps keep the overall cost down. Dawn also does research on the city to see what the dining and shopping opportunities are. And if the destination is drivable, really appealing AND her family is also available (spring break, summer, etc.), she often takes them with her and adds extra days to the trip so they can all explore and enjoy the destination before and/or after the meeting.

As your DMO prepares to welcome small groups, entice meeting attendees to explore your city by including visitor guides, brochures and coupons (who doesn’t love a discount?!) in their conference bags. Show off your city and attractions with those beautiful printed materials you put so much effort into creating.

Planning Education Meetings and Conferences

In addition to regularly attending education-related conferences, Dawn also plans the annual Alabama Pre-K Conference. The conference is usually three days and two nights and regularly attracts over 2,000 attendees! The Pre-K Conference started in Montgomery, Alabama, but after several years and record growth in attendance, they outgrew the meeting space and had to find a new location. To prepare for the move, she and the conference planning committee visited numerous convention centers throughout the state. For each location, they evaluated the following criteria:


  • What is the food and beverage minimum of each location?
  • What is the group room rate and how much of a discount is it off the standard rate?


  • Is this location easy to get to for all attendees? (i.e. from all over the state)
  • What is the average drive time for your attendees?
  • Where is the closest airport? (your speakers and some vendors may need to fly)

Dining Options

  • What’s new and noteworthy in the area?
  • What are the options and costs for both onsite and offsite dining?

Conference Center Location

  • How far are the hotels from the conference center?
  • What about other nearby attractions?

As the committee’s site visits continued, one city went above and beyond to secure their business - Mobile. Everyone came to the table – from the CVB, to the city, to the chamber, to the hotels, to all the other downtown businesses. They helped her understand that hosting this January conference helps minimize the impact of Mobile’s shoulder season (the period between college football bowl games and Mardi Gras) and that her group filling that opening would ensure that her attendees got the attention she was looking for. Additionally, Dawn stated that she "receives so much help now from the Mobile CVB that they act as her right hand, especially since she manages the conference planning from afar." But looking back, "it was little things that they did that won her group over" in the courting process:

  • Consider having your team send the meeting planner a handwritten note with visitor guides and coupons to your destination's attractions, shops and restaurants: "Dear Dawn, these are the kinds of resources we can provide to every one of your attendees when they are considering attending your conference in Mobile."
  • Don’t be afraid to share your cell phone number: "Dear Dawn, as you consider Mobile for your upcoming meeting, I wanted you to have my cell phone number in case of an emergency or if I can answer a last-minute need."
  • Follow up with specific ideas for their group that you and your team come up with after the initial meeting. "Dear Dawn, after we discussed dates for your upcoming meeting, I contacted several attractions here in Mobile and they have offered free passes during your conference sessions for family members who are in town with your attendees."

In 2017, Dawn's group grew to 2,297 attendees for a 3 day/2 night conference. Almost every hotel room in the area was booked by conference attendees and many stayed longer in Mobile to enjoy the city!

Leverage Attendees

Don’t forget about social media! Most attendees will be posting and hashtagging their way through the event, sharing with their friends about the time they are spending in YOUR city. This results in great exposure for your destination! Plus we all know that authentic, visitor-generated content can be one of the most important aspects of your destination’s online presence. Promoting your destination and its amenities on social channels and your website (there are digital tools to help you curate and then aggregate this content) will help drive the message to other SMERF planners that they need to consider your destination to host their next event.

Education in Summary

The SMERF group travel market is very valuable to the tourism industry as they can often bring visitors to your market during the slow times of the week and off-peak travel seasons. The E is for Education SMERF segment is a fun group to bring in - they meet and then go explore your destination! Not to mention the potential for authentic visitor-generated social content along the way. Each SMERF segment brings its own preferences, benefits and challenges, but all of them can create additional occupancy opportunities that can help grow your city’s tourism numbers. Click here to access the next installment in this series when we’ll dig a little deeper into the Religious segment of the SMERF market.