Conference Centers Get SMERF-Happy

You book your group in a room with state-of-the-art A/V equipment and the best in ergonomic seating; there are teambuilding activities available on the golf course, top-notch service, and excellent food options for both meals and breaks—all at a lovely conference center tucked away in a quiet location. Perfect. Until the mother of the bride at the Johnson wedding in the next room starts belting out her rendition of Sister Sledge’s We Are Family.

A Market Evolution
Conference centers are playing host to more and more SMERF events, particularly weddings, which can largely be attributed to two factors: the economic downturn, which has made conference center sales staffs go after a more varied type of business; and the increasingly luxurious amenities available, which makes them more appealing destinations for weddings, family reunions, and those scrapbooking conventions. And while much of the SMERF market is all-business, the social and fraternal sides can bring with them a level of noise and chaos that planners might not be used to at a conference center. 

“Conference centers are very different than they were five years ago,” says Ted Davis, Benchmark Hospitality International’s senior vice president of sales and marketing. “Conference centers started as very serious meeting spaces. Now you have that serious approach if you want it, but they are set up more like luxury resorts.” 

The result is that conference centers now hold genuine appeal for brides, leisure travelers, school retreat-coordinators, and any number of other clients, as well as meeting planners. 

According to Davis, the SMERF market as a whole has increased for Benchmark by 5 percent, with the religious market seeing the strongest gains at 12 percent, followed by the military market with gains of 8 percent. Gains of 15 percent in the wedding market, Davis says, are the result of both more sophisticated marketing and capital investments such as china, silver, and decor.

“With the economy, everyone is a bit more aggressive. Ten years ago we probably didn’t value the social market as much as we do now,” says Lisa Green, director of sales and marketing for the Inn at Pocono Manor in Pennsylvania.

“Every quarter we probably do a weekend of scrapbookers,” says Julie Berry, director of sales and marketing for the Eaglewood Resort and Spa outside of Chicago. She estimates that 30 percent of Eaglewood’s business is social; many executives at other conference centers Successful Meetings spoke with cited numbers between 25 and 30 percent social business. 

Seasonal Shifts 
Many properties actively market themselves for weddings and social events by highlighting different features of the facility—which can extend to adopting a different moniker for each market. 

“We go by two different names, really. Fifteen years ago we used to be recognized as the Chaminade Executive Conference Center. We dropped “executive” for group business and we are really just known as Chaminade. For leisure business, including SMERF and weddings, we go by Chaminade Resort and Spa,” says Sherrie Huneke, Chaminade’s director of sales. The Santa Cruz, CA-property does a brisk wedding business—averaging about 65 a year—but Huneke says that “the corporate market is our primary focus.” 

To that end, the property has become adept at offering private dining options to groups, to both keep them from running into wedding guests and offer a high level of service.

Adam Portnoff, director of catering for the Glen Cove Mansion Hotel and Conference Center in Glen Cove, NY, which in addition to weddings, does significant bar and bat mitzvah and sweet 16 business on the weekends, says that one way to give your group the illusion of exclusivity is to incorporate teambuilding activities into the program. Groups at Glen Cove are encouraged to try an Iron Chef-style competition, or karaoke, or outdoor games. This gives them sole use of areas of the property. Also ask about spaces that can offer a modicum of privacy; Glen Cove has a speakeasy-style bar that attendees could have to themselves, for example. 
Planners should also inquire about the conference center’s “seasons.” At Eaglewood, universities and school districts generally come for spring break or during the summer; family reunions are a summer business; and the quietest time for corporate groups would be November through March, on weekends. 

“Our downtime is not related to seasons, but to federal holidays,” notes Eric Whitson, director of sales and marketing for The National Conference Center near Washington, DC.  

Eaglewood’s Berry recommends that planners not only ask what other groups will be in-house with their group (“Is it a soccer team next to me or Allstate Insurance? It’s important to know who’s in while they are in,” she says), but also to request a “no-noise policy.” Eaglewood’s policy limits noise between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekdays, and can be used as appropriate on weekends. 

No Need to Panic
The nature of corporate business and social events means that tremendous overlap is unlikely—groups tend to meet Sunday through Thursday, while social events tend to take place on Fridays and Saturdays. Most overlap would take place Fridays or Sundays. Portnoff says it’s as simple as “asking for honesty from us” and inquiring as to how best to avoid other groups. 

Even if you end up in-house along with a potentially loud social group, the setup of a conference center—with many permanent spaces and sound-deadening characteristics—can put your group in a better situation than if you were in a hotel with the same group. 

Planners should be aware that while, to some extent, the booking of social events was a product of the downturn, boom times are not likely to mean that conference centers will abandon this market. 

“Unless you’re a conference center in a first-tier city with a monopoly on the market, you need to be savvy and not exclude yourself from revenue generating opportunities,” explains Green. 

But the result could be a situation in which everyone wins. Conference center management is keenly aware that what makes their facilities excellent for meetings is a commitment to providing the best in technological offerings and high service levels that meet the needs of small to mid-size groups. So this remains a top priority. At the same time, the amenities—golf, spa, fine-dining—that draw planners of other types of events will be enjoyed by your attendees as well.