Special markets

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Special or niche markets have always had a prominent place in the meetings industry. These markets consist of two primary categories Government and Social, Military, Education, Religious, and Fraternal (SMERF) meetings. When combined with the two most prominent market segments corporate and association they make up the total mix of the meetings industry. For clarification, Market Segments is the ‘categorization of people, organizations or businesses by professional discipline or primary areas of interest for the purposes of sales analysis or assignment’ (APEX Industry Glossary, 2008).

The term ‘special market’ in this case should not be confused with the same meetings industry term identifying ‘Foreign countries with high potential for U.S. travel, but without a USTTA office. U.S. promotional activities under the guidance of Visit USA Committees. Often with the cooperation of the U.S. and Foreign Commercial Service, an agency of the U.S. Commerce Department’ (APEX Industry Glossary, 2008).

Specifically, special markets include government meetings as well as the components of a meetings industry acronym ‘SMERF’ identifying the category of meeting marketing segments consisting of Social, Military, Education, Religious, and Fraternal. It is clear from the type of segments involved, this market encompasses much of the not for profit sector. In general these groups hold meetings and events that are very similar to those of trade and professional associations conventions, board and committee meetings, training and educational seminars.

Social meetings are defined as ‘lifecycle celebrations such as weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs, anniversaries, birthdays,’ (APEX Industry Glossary, 2008) and class or family reunions. In addition, social clubs, fundraisers or society events also comprise this category. In many cases, volunteers, or friends and members of the family plan most of these events with a growing number of professional of planners specializing in fundraising, family and class reunions.

Military meetings attract attendees who are affiliated with one of the armed services, or are suppliers to the armed forces. The fastest growing component of this segment is the military reunion held for the veterans of various divisions, companies, or crews of the armed forces. In many cases these events are held in the military towns and cities of the forts and bases headquartered nearby.

Education meetings are those events designed for elementary, high school and college faculty and administrators, education supporters and vendors, school sports groups and academic disciplines where original research and opinions are shared on a given area of study and interest. Every state in the USA has a teachers’ or education association holding one day or weekend conferences and in most cases, educators are required to obtain continuing education credit by attending various classes.

Religious meetings are so prominent a market segment that the industry has an association solely for the religious meeting planners. The inter faith Religious Conference Management Association (RCMA) was founded in 1972, and has over 3000 members. With international, national, statewide, and district wide organizational structures and memberships, this segment requires a wide variety of venues from 40,000 seat arenas to small breakout rooms. Religious organizations may require their meeting planners to have a familiarity with the faith and an understanding of specific rituals and rites.

Fraternal is defined as those groups where membership is based on common personal interests rather than common job or career responsibilities. Such groups as Rotary International, Lions or Elks Clubs, college fraternities and sororities, or socio political groups such as the National Organization for Women, the National Rifle Association or the World Wildlife Federation help train their members and volunteers, build a sense of community and help to further their cause, issue, or concern.

The SMERF market is much like the association market with their marketing approach to potential attendees. Attendees are often members and non members of the organization and/or persons with close relationships to the organization. In addition, the trade press and students and families involved in the concern or interest of the organization may be involved. In most all cases, attendance to the event is voluntary. Because of this, SMERF groups must provide an appealing program to attract registration. Advance notice of dates, locations, topics, program, speakers, and special events must be provided a number of times prior to the event through direct mail, advertisements, broadcast fax, e mail, and Web sites. Registration fees and procedures must be established and communicated while costs are kept low.

While each of the SMERF groups are unique to themselves, they all have three things in common: 1) They tend to be very price conscious and sensitive; 2) They often book meetings during the ‘low’ or off season (over weekends, holidays, or when demand by corporations and associations is not at its peak); and, 3) Their meetings are often managed by volunteers who change from year to year, or from location to location of the event. However, SMERF organizations with larger and/or complex events are increasingly turning to professional planners for their logistical and contractual expertise.

Today many hotel groups now refer to the SMERF market as a primary or special market since they fill in those dates with business not usually booked by associations or corporations. To capture this business, many hotels have sales personnel designated to sell specifically to these particular markets.

In a category unto itself, and separate from the SMERF market, is the government market segment. Government meetings bring together attendees who are civil servants, elected officials, or service providers to governmental entities. (APEX Industry Glossary, 2008) These meetings are held by the agencies or departments of city, county, state or province, and national or international governments. It is in this category that quasi government meetings, such as political party conventions or lobbying groups, can also be found.

A variety of government meetings are held for the purpose of employee training, inter departmental or inter agency operations and programs, agency meetings with the public, and legislative hearings and retreats. Government agencies might also be involved in legislative or policy making events. One aspect of government meetings is ‘Governmental Conferences,’ defined as technical or political events between governments with the aim of discussing national or international topics (APEX Industry Glossary, 2008).

As with the religious groups, government meetings are such a specialty that planners of government meetings have formed their own professional Society of Government Meeting Professionals (SGMP). Founded in 1981, the organization has over 2700 members and is primarily a USA based organization.

SMERF and government meeting remain a critical component of the hotels’ marketing mix. While these groups tend to spend less over all than the corporate or association markets, these ‘special markets’ fill in the gap over holidays, during a soft season, and on weekends providing properties with much needed revenue, and hotel employees with work during a down time.


Astroff, M. T., & Abbey, J. R. (2002). Convention Management and Service (6th ed.). Lansing, (MI): Educational Institute, American Hotel and Lodging Association.

Fenich, G. G. (2004). Meetings, Expositions, Events, and Convention: An Introduction to the Industry. Upper Saddle River, (NJ): Pearson Prentice Hall.


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