The SMERF Market—Give Me an S!
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 social market includes groups for weddings, civic and professional organizations, charity events, holiday celebrations, and interest groups.
A SMERF is not a cute little blue creature that is no more than three apples high. SMERF is an acronym used in the travel and tourism industry to describe the five small group meeting market segments – Social, Military, Education, Religious and Fraternal. For DMOs, some of the target groups of a well-rounded Marketing Action Plan typically include leisure, business and meeting travelers. Travel patterns for each of these target groups vary and, depending on your destination's occupancy trends, SMERF groups can be a valuable segment of the meeting travelers target group to pursue. For the purposes of this discussion, we will call low occupancy days of the week and shoulder months/seasons "opportunities". Convention and visitor bureau sales professionals can pursue SMERF markets to help leverage these occupancy opportunities. One of the biggest motivating factors for SMERF groups is cost! They generally want affordability and added value since participants and not their company are usually footing the bill. And when you have occupancy opportunities in your destination, "conventional wisdom" (I know sometimes both of these elements are absent with destination stakeholders, but let's pretend) would be that CVB salespeople should be able to work out favorable rates and attractive packages with lodging, shopping, dining, and attraction stakeholders most impacted by visitor spending. Working with these stakeholders to develop packages can help attract SMERF groups and even encourage SMERF meeting attendees to explore more of your destination, possibly extend their stay or even lead to a repeat visit (because there is so much to do)! Now that we have covered why SMERF groups can be a valuable resource for your destination, let's break down each SMERF meeting market segment.
S is for Social
The S in SMERF stands for Social. The social market encompasses a variety of groups such as weddings, civic and professional organizations, charity events, holiday celebrations, and even small interest groups like scrapbookers. These groups can bring anywhere from 15 to 100+ guests and often host multiple gatherings including receptions, ceremonies, banquet lunches and dinners, curated dine-arounds, etc. on top of using meeting space. As DMOs pursue various Social markets with the goal of growing occupancy, the types of events pursued should be based on (occupancy) opportunities that exist in your market.
Weddings are a big opportunity, and I mean BIG. As of 2021, it is an estimated $51.2 billion dollar industry! Weddings require a lot of planning, catering tastings, contract negotiations, etc. so be sure you and your stakeholders are prepared. But if you are all ready for this segment of Social, this can be a great market to pursue. The wedding weekend often begins on Thursday and lasts until Sunday. Weddings often bring in friends, family and co-workers, and out-of-town guests and even many in-town will generate room nights (especially if the reception is held in a hotel or venue within walking distance to them). And if you are a destination wedding location (not the hometown of the bride or groom), occupancy can really get a boost as virtually everyone who attends has to stay in a hotel. Where does one find the brides? More and more brides are planning their weddings via mobile devices, so make sure your DMO website is mobile-friendly so the bride (and don’t forget the groom) can both see all you have to offer right at their fingertips. If you can take it one step further, create a website landing page just for wedding planning. And try the local Bridal Shows for a great in-person opportunity to reach a large volume of brides and – even more importantly – to network with stakeholders that are a vital part of your destination's success with this SMERF segment.
The benefit of working with professional organizations is that they usually know what they want, have money to spend that is not their own personal money, and tend to be busy (just like you) so they appreciate efficiency in planning. AND keep in mind that more and more often spouses, children and even extended family tag along. So, while one of the guests is an attendee, the others have the entire day to explore and spend $$$ in your market. As you interact with local groups of professionals in your area, always "make the ask" if they are members of a larger professional organization that coordinates out-of-town meetings for their group. Encourage them to lobby their respective professional organizations to bring meetings for their groups home to your destination.
As you speak throughout the year to Kiwanis, Rotary and other local groups, tell them how great it is to host events at local hotels, venues, restaurants, and attractions. Give them menus, special pricing and even a giveaway or two (who doesn’t love winning a gift at a meeting). You never know where you will find a new business opportunity - the audience could be full of SMERF planners that are ready to hold gatherings that can drive overnight stays!
TIP: SMERF Planners
Just before I became president of PRCA (Public Relations Council of Alabama), I was the co-chair of the PRCA State Conference (OMG!). Planning a state-wide conference as a volunteer felt like a full-time job all in itself, and I gained a newfound level of respect for professionals who plan conferences and events year-round. One thing I noticed during this process was that all of us coordinating this event (the volunteer conference planners, the CVB contacts and the hotel partner) all worked regular 8 am - 5 pm schedules. DMOs should keep this in mind as many SMERF planners are working their "day jobs" during the same hours as the CVB, hotels, etc. So, if you have a DMO staff member who wants or has some schedule flexibility, offering some extended/alternate/evening SMERF market segment specialist "extended office hours" could boost your success with almost all SMERF market segments.
Social in Summary
Now let’s be honest…your destination can’t be all things to all groups. Know your destination’s opportunities and strengths. What groups are naturally gravitating towards your city? Try to find others like them. Prioritize and focus on how to market to your target groups. Using the Marketing Action Planning (MAP) process is a great starting point to break down SMERFs or even the segments inside SMERF. Once you narrow down the segments that you have the potential to succeed with, go after them…with a vengeance! Show them why they are missing out if they don’t plan an event in your city. This can be done with grassroots/guerrilla tactics and/or with both digital and traditional advertising. Lead them to targeted landing pages to boost conversion and more accurate tracking of your efforts. Once you've got them, leverage them. Many attendees are posting and hashtagging their way through the event. This can result in great exposure for your DMO, especially if you aggregate (think repurpose) this content on your website and social pages – #winning! 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 Military segment of the SMERF market.