Known as less lucrative than conferences and business meetings, SMERF sales can fall off the radar easily—especially when the economy is strong.
But nurturing the slow-and-steady SMERF sales market with support from your hotel CRM software can pay off over time. It’s a similar strategy to diversification in finance: A portfolio composed only of a single class of high-yield investments can be vulnerable. A wise financial manager diversifies with lower-yield, sure-thing investments for long-term stability.
What does SMERF mean in hospitality?
SMERF is an acronym for Social, Military, Educational, Religious and Fraternal groups, and often also includes sports, entertainment, and recreational groups. Two key characteristics place these varied groups under one umbrella: SMERF events are typically unrelated to the full-time jobs of attendees, and guests usually travel on their own dime and their own time—rather than having a business pay their expenses.
Benefits of SMERF group sales for hotels include:
- SMERF groups come in all sizes. Even smaller hotels and select-service hotels that can’t host large industry conferences can take advantage of right-sized SMERF groups.
- Meetings are often held on weekends. This makes them great compliments to weekday business groups and travelers.
- SMERF events tend to hold steady through economic downturns. That’s what earned this market the nickname “the market stabilizer”.
- SMERF groups book during slow periods. Because these groups are often on a budget, they will consider booking during off seasons and shoulder seasons to save money, which helps sustain revenue through quiet times.
Nurture the SMERF market, driving overall volume and maximizing repeat business with the following CRM strategies:
1. Pinpoint and widen your existing SMERF sales
Use CRM data to determine which properties are drawing SMERF group business, which of the SMERF group types they are drawing, and which segments are most profitable at each hotel.
Then dig deeper with a more granular analysis: week versus weekend business, for example, or busy season versus “off” season. This should give you an idea of what SMERF segments are currently providing a good fit for your hotels. One prong of your SMERF strategy will be to build up these segments through marketing outreach and high-touch service for repeat groups.
To recruit business, brainstorm untapped sources for properties, both in the immediate region and further afield. Want to provide a venue for more religious groups? Contact churches, synagogues, mosques, and other faith communities in your area. Do they have retreats for youth, women, men, couples, or other demographics throughout the year? Begin to develop relationships even with associations that aren’t ready to book.
Finally, consider what more you can do to win loyalty from existing customers. Repeat business is incredibly valuable to hotels: repeat customers cost less to acquire, tend to spend more, and also act as ambassadors for your brand. Test out the value of these strategies:
- Offer complimentary notepads for an annual women’s retreat
- Arrange for discounts to local attractions for military service members and their spouses. (This invites the group to enjoy the area, and gives spouses some cost-conscious options while the service member is in meetings.) [!]
- Assign a concierge to help guests disembark from vans or busses—especially important for senior groups.
2. Discover and target new SMERF group sales
Next, use CRM room and event space reports to understand where your hotels’ business can grow. What size groups could you add, at what properties, and during which time periods? Consider week segment as well as seasonal timing. Brainstorm segments that might fit your space and time requirements. As you refine your list, note groups that dovetail nicely with a property’s current profitable segments. If a hotel is meeting the needs of local Lions Clubs and winning their repeat business, for example, think about reaching out to Rotary and Elks Clubs.
The following can be sources of ideas and prospects:
- DMCs (destination marketing companies) and CVBs (convention and visitor bureaus)
- Trade show calendars
- Meeting planners
- Lions, Elks, and Rotary clubs
- Local segment-specific markets and related businesses (Sports, for example: youth sports leagues, parks and rec departments, high school athletic departments, college athletic departments, stadiums, rinks, soccer fields, sport-specific sports businesses like golf or ski shops, stables, rifle ranges, scuba shops, powerlifting gyms, etc.)
- Segment-specific aggregators of group events, like the Military Reunion Network or the Religious Conference Management Association
3. Give SMERF planners the support they need
When you want to be the go-to provider for a market, you need to understand that market better than anyone else. What are their constraints and what are their needs? How can you help them?
SMERF planners are a varied group, but as a general rule, they are not professional event planners. Certainly there are exceptions, more in some segments (university alumni fundraising, for example) than in others. When working with SMERF event planners, remember they:
- Volunteer their time
- Have limited experience planning events
- May be stressed by the learning curve needed to pull their event together
Sales teams and hotels who understand these planners’ perspectives have a nice opportunity to go above and beyond to meet their needs.
Planners without much experience under their belts, who are working on a project personally important to them and their families, friends, or associates, want to feel comfortable and optimistic. They may appreciate more guidance, explanation of the options, and reassurance throughout the planning process.
Sales managers should take the time to find out if planners would like an explanation of the lingo: What’s a BEO? What are the important parts of a contract? (It pays to go ultra-transparent here; if taxes, administrative fees, and other charges are not explicitly spelled out they may be mistaken for hidden fees by SMERF planners. Pointing these out and explaining them creates trust and may even build customer loyalty.)
Give them timeline information as well, so they can easily take it back to the rest of their group. When will paperwork be due: contracts, deposits, signed BEO? Use your CRM to stay on track with these deadlines.
To help them feel taken care of, it is often best for SMERF planners to have one contact person throughout the process. However, occasionally they may need to confer with someone else at the property. A group CRM is vital so that whenever another contact handles the group, that person will be seamlessly up to speed with the group’s information. (Contact logs are indispensable, of course, but the CRM “notes” feature is an especially strong ally here.)
4. Personalize SMERF events with low-cost extras and event tips
SMERF events are often more personally significant to attendees than business or work conferences. Help them see that you see and celebrate their event’s importance too and remember a little goes a long way. Put welcome messages for groups on the flatscreen monitor behind the front desk, create patriotic event signage for military groups, and offer customized Instagram selfie frames reunions.
Since SMERF groups are often budget-conscious, they will especially appreciate help tailoring the event to their budget. For groups with absolutely no wiggle room—many religious and educational groups may fall in this category—help them find ways to keep the event as lean as possible. For example, you can suggest they use a tech-savvy group member for A/V support rather than hiring outside help, or have them scale back F&B offerings. Sales managers can glance through meeting data for other groups on a tight budget to see what else they can recommend.
Some groups have a little more flexibility and may be interested in slightly more sophisticated packages. Consider group packages with perks that appeal, such as:
- A certain percentage of allowable attrition up to a week before the contracted arrival date. This is helpful for groups that might be experiencing stress and frustration about the tension between budgeting and providing for their members
- One room upgrade per every ten rooms. This is potentially of interest to groups bringing in a speaker, honoring a member, or wishing to reward a leader for their service to the group
- Complimentary enhancement to a morning break or a reception. Keep this ‘chef’s choice’ to allow your F&B staff to customize to an option that makes inventory sense for the operation
Keep detailed notes in your CRM, as these will be valuable pointers when it’s time to work with similar groups or even—hopefully!—the same group again.
5. Learn from experience for long-term SMERF success
You’ve found the new group business, assisted the planner, negotiated packages that keep in mind SMERF group limitations, and hosted the event. Now it’s time to review your most successful efforts and those that have fallen short.
Once again, the notes feature in your CRM is an invaluable tool. Make sure to note anything out of the ordinary—both positive and negative. Were there amenities, F&B, or services the group particularly appreciated? Did they complain because their rooms were split between two floors? Is this an annual event for this group? This can help guide the timing of outreach by the sales team, and give them talking points to cover, such as reassuring the group they can reserve room blocks on the same floor or offering discounted spa services during off-peak hours.
After several months, it’s time to look at the data in aggregate. Run a report from your CRM about your lead sources: which sources have been most productive at each property? Which can potentially be converted into repeat business?
Next, check for overall patterns in a win/loss report. Though the SMERF market is sensitive to price, look beyond that. What are the other reasons that each property is winning or losing SMERF business? Customize the CRM with all the reasons you can think of to track. Check periodically (say, twice monthly—not just when it’s time to run the report!) that sales teams are gathering as much information as possible and checking all win/loss reasons that apply, not just clicking ‘price’ and moving on.
Finally, check sales activity by sales team member. Are some especially good with SMERF clients? Recognize their good work and evaluate what drives their success. Do they have a different contact schedule, longer average call length, or a demeanor that reassures inexperienced planners? Consider letting them lead a one-hour video conference to share SMERF tips with sales teams across your portfolio.
The SMERF market is great business ballast that keeps hotels on an even keel through quiet weeks and lulls in the wider market. Though it may not be the highest-grossing segment, building a portfolio of SMERF clients provides valuable stability—that pays consistent long-term dividends.
Ready to explore how Social Tables hotel group CRM can support your long-term strategy? Request a free demo!