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SMERF Stars Shine Bright

By Martha C. White

It’s rare to find a vendor at a hotel or destination who is attuned to the unique needs and requirements of the SMERF market. Turnover on the supplier side is often very high, and many sales staffers serve many different audiences. With convention services managers or sales people who understand the SMERF market in short supply, SMERF Meetings Journal sought out some of the top supplier experts in the country. Here, we share their tips for getting great service at your next meeting and celebrate their achievements and dedication to this sector of the meetings market.

Takis Chondrogiannis: Hotels in His Blood

Takis Chondrogiannis, national sales manager at the Peabody Orlando hotel, has hotel management practically in his blood. “I grew up in the hotel business,” he says. With nearly a decade of experience at the Peabody, Chondrogiannis says he sees every day how SMERF groups bring value to one of the nation’s biggest hotel markets.

“Knowing how important this particular market was for the growth of our hotel, we decided this was a market we really needed to pay attention to. It’s been a very god market for us for the value dates and times, and in getting repeat customers,” he says. Since the Peabody is one of the few hotels within walking distance to the Orange County Convention Center, Chondrogiannis says he has the opportunity to welcome even very large SMERF groups at his 891-room hotel.

The Peabody’ SMERF business is primarily religious groups, Chondrogiannis says. “The religious sector is very good for a lot of reasons. There’s a lot of loyalty with the customer and the brand.” This means the potential to turn one piece of business into several, forging a relationship that carries over to other events held by those groups at the Peabody’s sister properties.

One planner who has personal experience with Chondrogiannis’s hands-on, relationship-building mindset is Christi Baum, CMP, meeting planner for Clint Brown Ministries. Every summer, she brings the 2,500-attendee Judah Music Conference to the hotel. Baum started working with the Peabody only because she needed last-minute overflow rooms several years ago. “He worked with us on the spot to get us some rooms,” she says. “Because of the incredible service we got, we ... move[d] our entire program over to their property.”

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Ray Shepard: 30 Years Experience

Ray Shepard, director, field marketing, for Crowne Plaza Hotels and Resorts, has a history with the SMERF market that goes back more than three decades. “I’ve been involved in it since I became involved in the business 33 years ago,” he says. Over time, he’s learned to appreciate – and to share with his fellow salespeople at Crowne Plaza – what SMERF groups bring to the table.

Crowne Plaza seeks out SMERF groups despite their rate sensitivity, Shepard says, because they help the brand fill gaps when traditional business and association groups are less likely to meet. There are other advantages too, he says. “They book long term, so it allows us to secure dates and book things around their business so we can [create] a more balanced level of occupancy.”

Shepard also welcomes SMERF groups with open arms because he recognizes that each member of a SMERF group represents a potential new avenue for business. “They do bring a great cross section of travelers who may not have been exposed to our brand,” he says. “Here’s an opportunity for us to introduce to them who we are and hopefully [get them to] use our product more in other locations around the country.”

While most hospitality professionals note that SMERF groups tend to be tougher to work with, because the planners may be volunteers who inherit planning duties, Shepard sees that as a potential gold mine for future business. He points out that if a member of a SMERF group has a good experience at a Crowne Plaza property, he or she is likely to remember that when they are tasked with putting together a meeting for their group down the line.

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Laughlin, Nev.: Little Pond for Big Fish

The city of Laughlin, Nev., has carved out a satisfying niche catering to smaller SMERF groups, who appreciate being the “big fish in the little pond,” according to Meg McDaniel, senior manager, regional sales at the Laughlin Visitors Bureau. McDaniel, a 13-year veteran of the bureau, says her destination has a loyal following of regular SMERF groups who return again and again. “Groups that come out need a destination that’s going to be able to accommodate their individual needs. We have an awful lot of repeat business.”

A good deal of Laughlin’s SMERF business is military, McDaniel says, owing to the city’s close proximity to the military installations of southern California. She credits that – as well as Laughlin’s popularity as a leisure getaway for weekend travelers from California – as the reason SMERF groups find the city such a good fit. Since the hotel rooms fill up with vacationers mainly on the weekends, local hotels are willing to offer SMERF groups low rates to fill up their rooms on weekdays. Laughlin is also a popular destination for social groups, McDaniel adds.

Jack Richardson, past national president and convention site selection committee chairman for the US Submarine Veterans of WWII, says his group has met eight times in Laughlin over the past seven years, seven times for regional meetings and once for a national meeting, this past September. Richardson says it’s been a joint effort on the part of the bureau and the host hotel to help his group arrange what they need. “Both of them have helped considerably. When we need something or want something or have a question, we call.”

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Sally Gardiner: The Personal Touch

Sally Gardiner, director of convention sales for the Daytona Beach Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, is a well-known figure in the SMERF community. Earlier this year, she was honored by the Religious Conference Management Association for her dedication, receiving the annual President’s Award at the group’s 2006 conference.

Gardiner is deeply involved with the SMERF groups – particularly religious – that flock to Daytona on a regular basis. She says this segment has gotten increasingly sophisticated in recent years. “Religious groups have some very well-seasoned meeting planners.” Other facets of the SMERF market discover the bureau and the services it offers more by happenstance, Gardiner says. Often, a local member is tasked with arranging the gathering, and Gardiner says this person often winds up at the local chamber of commerce, an organization that happens to share a building with the CVB. Gardiner says she’ll often invite these green planners into her office then and there for a sit-down to learn about their group, their meeting and their needs.

“Often they come in and don’t know where to start. We walk them through the site visit [and] selection,” she says. “I ask them to come in and meet with me. I don’t work with them on the phone.” It’s this personal touch, Gardiner asserts, that keeps SMERF planners coming back to Daytona year after year.

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Colorado Springs: A Focused SMERF Salesforce

With both the Air Force Academy and Christian advocacy group Focus on the Family in its backyard, it’s no wonder the Colorado Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau has three salespeople devoted to various segments of the SMERF market.

“Through June [2006], 28 percent of everything we booked was SMERF,” says Kathy Reak, director of convention sales. With this many of the bureau’s bookings coming from SMERF groups, Reak and her team are attuned to the needs of SMERF planners and attendees the way few other sales forces are.

Reak is well aware of what the SMERF market brings to the table. “The nice thing about SMERF groups is they fill us in the low season,” which extends roughly from November to May, she says. Reak doesn’t just see SMERF groups as heads in beds, though. She cherishes the connections she makes with planners. “You’re building a relationship, and it’s usually a lifetime relationship,” she enthuses. “Corporate planners aren’t about building a relationship. They’re your best friend until the meeting is over. With the SMERF planners you can touch base with them after the meeting. It’s a lot more hand holding but it’s a lot more satisfying.”

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Denise Searcy: Educating and Selling

Denise Searcy, national account manager at the Sheraton Birmingham in Birmingham, Ala., has been involved with SMERF groups for the past 15 years, ever since the Sheraton opened. “I worked at another hotel in Birmingham and I heard [this would be] the largest hotel in the state. I said, ‘Gosh, that’s where I want to be,’” she says. Her involvement with her own church introduced her to the religious market, Birmingham’s largest sector of SMERF business.

Searcy goes above and beyond to help her SMERF groups get reasonable rates, she says. “Birmingham is considered an affordable city and for the SMERF market, that’s very important,” she says. “There’s nobody standing behind them with a blank checkbook.”

Despite its challenges, Searcy enjoys educating novice SMERF planners about the business of meetings. It’s no surprise, given that her background is in elementary education. “You have to have a lot of patience. I’m doing a lot of teaching,” she says. “You’re constantly educating in addition to selling.”

Her long experience in the SMERF sector makes her a particularly valuable asset to the SMERF community. Dean Jones, CMP, former convention manager for the National Association of Freewill Baptists, says Searcy’s extensive knowledge was a terrific benefit when he worked with her. “The fact she’s maintained her role at the Sheraton is a big plus for any planner,” he says. “You’re not trying to reinvent the wheel. That’s a big plus.”

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Bernie Simmons: Cultivating Loyalty

Even a property as expansive as the 2,881-room Gaylord Opryland sometimes has challenges fitting in some SMERF groups. That’s where Bernie Simmons, director of national accounts, comes in. “We like working with a [large] project. If I can get 1,000 [rooms] in at the right time frame, it helps the occupancy.”

With the many SMERF groups he handles, Simmons says he first sits down with them or spends plenty of time with them on the phone to hash out what they want, what they need and what they can afford. “The biggest challenge for me here is the rate,” he says. “Obviously, the corporate market is strong right now and the rate has been the biggest challenge.” Particularly for church groups or other gatherings with a constituency of senior citizens who are most likely on fixed incomes, Simmons says he helps the planners find off-peak dates to get them the value they need.

Simmons says he’s so popular with his SMERF clients that they continue to reach out to him even after the contract is signed. “They never want to let me go. Even when I turn it over to convention services, they want to call me. That’s been the biggest thing,” he says. Simmons says he doesn’t mind the extra time it takes to explain to the many novice planners that come to the Gaylord the ins and outs of organizing a meeting, because that investment pays off in his clients’ loyalty. “Once they feel comfortable with you, they tend to re-book,” he says.

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