How To Reach The SMERF Market And Book More Recurring Groups

Audrey Fairbrother
August 9, 2022
How To Reach The SMERF Market And Book More Recurring Groups

What is SMERF? This silly-sounding acronym stands for Social, Military, Educational, Religious and Fraternal groups — and when targeted correctly, this audience segment offers significant revenue potential for hotels.

The hotel industry tends to overlook attracting SMERF bookings in favor of the greater bang-for-buck that comes with booking business meetings and conferences. But if you want to diversify your hotel’s clientele or fill rooms during the off-season, reaching the SMERF market is an excellent strategy.

In this in-depth guide, you’ll learn what the SMERF market is in the hospitality industry, the advantages of leveraging the SMERF market and how your hotel can attract SMERF guests to gain more recurring group bookings.

Table of Contents

1. SMERF Defined
2. Key Benefits Of SMERF
3. How To Attract More SMERF Business To Your Hotel

SMERF Defined

In addition to the categories listed above, SMERF also includes recreational, entertainment and sports groups.

Common SMERF events include family reunions, weddings, religious seminars and meetings for organizations, such as the Rotary Club or Elks.

However, there are two key factors about SMERF groups you should know.

First of all, these events are usually unrelated to the full-time jobs of the attendees. Secondly, their guests often pay for their own expenses.

Since these groups typically pay out-of-pocket for their expenses, the SMERF segment is more price-sensitive than corporate travelers.

Nonetheless, SMERF groups still book room blocks, event spaces and food and beverage services like corporate travelers do. Furthermore, SMERF bookings typically fall outside regular working hours.

Key Benefits Of SMERF

Now that you understand what SMERF groups are in the hospitality industry, it’s time to discuss their key benefits.

Even though these bookings are more budget-conscious than your typical business traveler, this market segment does offer many compelling advantages.

Getting a foothold in the SMERF market can be an excellent strategy to fill up lower-priced rooms and increase overall occupancy at your hotel.

Here are four key benefits of the SMERF market:

1. Fill Gaps Outside Of Working Hours

As we mentioned earlier, SMERF events usually occur outside work hours. If you typically book a lot of business events, the SMERF segment can be the perfect counterbalance to keep occupancy consistently high.

SMERF groups can fill up your hotel’s restaurant during the evenings when there is less foot hotel traffic. Furthermore, SMERF groups can help increase your RevPAR (revenue per available room) with events held on weekends and nights.

2. Supply Off-Season Periods

Room prepared for SMERF cliens

SMERF groups can drive hotel business during your off-season. Since they are generally more price-conscious than regular business travelers, these groups are looking for discounted travel packages.

Therefore, SMERF groups typically choose the least expensive dates, which is when you likely need a boost in hotel occupancy.

Hotels across the nation were significantly impacted by COVID-19. As such, SMERF groups can be an excellent way to fill up empty hotel rooms as pandemic conditions gradually improve.

3. Recurring Group Revenue

SMERF groups are reliable in any market condition.

While economic and travel trends vary each year, there are always events and meetings happening within the SMERF market.

Weddings are a great example of a recession-proof event. Corporate travel may take a big hit when businesses tighten their belts, but couples will still be getting married.

You can count on SMERF groups to generate steady and recurring revenue each year as they travel to your hotel and rent out room blocks.

4. Versatile Market Sector

The last thing to keep in mind is that SMERF groups come in all shapes and sizes. They also have different needs and budgets.

This means any hotel can target SMERF groups, even smaller hotels with limited event meeting spaces and food and beverage offerings.

How To Attract More SMERF Business To Your Hotel

As you just learned, SMERF groups can significantly impact your hotel’s bottom line. From recurring group revenue to filling your hotel during slow seasons, you shouldn’t ignore them.

So, here are six ways your hotel can reach the SMERF market to attract more group bookings.

1. Nurture The Relationship

First, it’s important to understand that SMERF planners are not usually professional event planners. Although there are exceptions, most SMERF planners volunteer their time, have limited event planning experience and may stress about putting everything together.

Therefore, to be the go-to hotel for SMERF groups, you need to understand the market more than everyone else — and how to help these organizers make the planning process as painless as possible.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • What are their financial constraints?
  • What are their exact needs and requirements for the event?
  • How can my hotel best help them?

This way, you can offer as much guidance and help as possible to each planner. Remember, the goal is to nurture the relationship with the SMERF planner to make them as comfortable as possible.

If you give them a great experience, they’ll be likely to come back again and again for their future events. Because they’re not professional organizers, they’ll stick with the hotel that can make it easy and convenient for them.


Take some extra time explaining the booking process, answering questions and offering advice. SMERF planners who don’t have much experience want to feel optimistic and comfortable. They will appreciate more guidance and reassurance throughout the planning process.

Hotel managers should also provide timeline information. That way, the SMERF planner can quickly forward necessary information to the rest of their group.

The timeline should include when paperwork is due such as contracts, deposits and a signed BEO (Banquet Event Order).

Providing Points Of Contact

We recommend your hotel offers each SMERF planner a single contact throughout the entire process.

This transparency will help the SMERF planner feel safe and reassured as they plan and book their group trip.

As the hotel’s sales manager or director of sales, your goal is to foster and maintain a healthy relationship with each SMERF planner.

2. Add on Complimentary Services

Complimentary services for SMERF clients

Since SMERF groups are relatively budget-conscious, you should add on as many complimentary services as possible.

Furthermore, these events are usually more personally impactful to attendees than work or business events. Therefore, adding a few free services can make a big difference in their experience.

A few hotel services you can provide for free include:

  • Free airport pickups
  • Free hotel parking
  • Discounted stays
  • Room upgrades
  • Express check-out
  • Early check-in

In addition to these complimentary services, you can offer specific services for each individual event.

For example, if a SMERF group is holding a wedding in your hotel, you can provide audio and visual equipment for free. This way, the SMERF planner doesn’t need to worry about finding the equipment and how to transport it to your hotel.

Another example could be providing complimentary notepads for events like annual women’s retreats. You should think of anything your hotel can do to make the trip more memorable for the SMERF group.

Again, we recommend going above and beyond expectations.

Furthermore, make sure to keep detailed notes in your hotel’s CRM (Customer Relationship Manager). These pointers will be helpful when you need to work with similar SMERF groups or if the same group returns.

A few more specific perks to offer your SMERF groups include:

  • Allowable Attrition: You can offer a percentage of allowable attrition up to a week before the SMERF group arrives. This is valuable for SMERF groups with stress and tension about budgeting and providing for each attendee.
  • Room Upgrades: You can provide one room upgrade for every five or ten rooms, depending on your hotel. This is outstanding for groups bringing an honorary member or speaker and wanting to reward the attendee with a special room.
  • Complimentary Refreshments: Everybody loves food and drinks. So, why don’t you have your food and beverage staff customize a complimentary refreshments menu for each SMERF group? You can provide free food and drinks during a morning break or reception.

Check out how to save some money on your own corporate travel.

3. Pinpoint And Expand Existing SMERF Sales

The next step is to identify and expand your current SMERF sales. Since your hotel has likely serviced SMERF groups before, you can analyze your historical data.

We recommend using your hotel’s CRM data to determine what types of SMERF groups your hotel has been able to attract and which segments are most profitable.

You should also look deeper for a more detailed analysis.

For example, you can compare weekend versus weekday business and busy season versus off-season.

This analysis will help you see which SMERF segments already provide value for your hotel.

One key strategy for attracting more SMERF bookings is building your profitable segments through marketing outreach and high-touch customer service.

To attract more SMERF groups, you should brainstorm undiscovered sources for your target segment.

For example, if religious groups have held events at your hotel, you can contact churches, mosques, synagogues and other religious communities in your area.

When you reach out to a new group, ask if they have retreats or events throughout the year. You should begin developing a rapport and relationship even if the SMERF group isn’t ready to book an event.

Lastly, you should actively contact existing customers to win their continued loyalty. Repeat business is especially valuable to hotels because it costs less to acquire, usually spends more and can act as ambassadors for your hotel.

Here are a few ways to win back existing customers:

  • Provide discounts to local attractions.
  • Create a list of must-see tourist spots in your area.
  • Offer complimentary room upgrades if available.

It’s also a good idea to request testimonials from these groups, so that you can earn trust and win more business from similar organizations.

4. Discover and Acquire New SMERF Group Sales

In addition to expanding upon existing SMERF sales, it’s crucial to discover and target new SMERF groups. This way, you can add completely new business streams to your hotel and boost your bottom line.

We recommend analyzing your CRM room and event space reports to learn how to expand into new SMERF groups. It would help if you understood what size groups you can add and the best time to add them. Think about weekday versus weekend segments as well as seasonal timing.

We recommend starting with SMERF groups within your community.

First, you can list the top ten most prominent wedding event organizers, associations and religious institutions. Then you can visit each organization during a walk-in to introduce yourself.

You can bring a friendly gift such as a box of doughnuts and a pamphlet that summarizes your hotel’s offerings. Remember to exchange contact information so you can follow up with a thank you message and some additional information tailored to any specific points that are relevant to their group.

Even if the organization isn’t ready to book an event in the immediate future, they will remember you when they do have an event to book.

Here are a few sources of potential prospects and ideas:

  • Trade shows
  • Meeting planners
  • Toastmasters
  • CVBs (Convention and Visitor Bureaus) and DMCs (Destination Marketing Companies)
  • Local amateur and youth sports teams
  • Parks and recreation departments

Don’t be shy about reaching out to new SMERF groups and explaining how your hotel can provide a fantastic experience for future events.

In addition to physical walk-ins, you can implement targeted email marketing campaigns for specific SMERF groups.

To get even more creative, you can directly target party supply stores and other complementary businesses like photographers, then offer a referral if they recommend your hotel to a SMERF group that ends up booking.

5. Be Visible

Don’t rely solely on small-scale marketing techniques. By casting as wide a net as possible, you can capture the attention of SMERF bookers.

Social media can be a perfect starting point for this far-reaching marketing plan. Roughly 4.6 billion people have social media accounts now, and many of them use social media platforms as a starting point for research. Purchasing targeted ads can make it easy for them to find you.

You can also become a partner of hotel-specific sites like Hotel Engine. While Hotel Engine is a closed platform primarily for business travelers, it’s a great way to get your name out there. You never know what business traveler you’ll host who spends their free time organizing meetups for their local Lions Club or church group.

Questions about Hotel Engine? Read more about the world’s largest lodging performance network!

6. Analyze and Refine Past Experiences

Experience is the best teacher. Along with analyzing your previous SMERF hosting experience for marketing opportunities, you can also jot down notes to help improve future events. When you host an event, note all the positives and negatives.

You can aim to answer these questions:

  • Were your food and beverage services enough to satisfy the guests?
  • Were there any amenities or services the group especially enjoyed?
  • Did the SMERF group have any complaints about its experience?
  • What can we do to provide a better experience for future events?

It’s crucial to analyze where your hotel did well and where you fell short in your hosting efforts. You should be honest with yourself to better prepare for the future.

After a few months of hosting SMERF events, you can look at a summary of your data. We recommend running a report from your CRM on your lead sources to see which SMERF segment offers the most profitability.

Your goal is to refine the experience for future groups and analyze data to see how your hotel can focus on the correct segments.


While SMERF groups may not be the first customer base to come to mind when you consider your hotel’s marketing plan, they shouldn’t be ignored. The non-traditional nature of these hotel booking groups make them an ideal revenue stream during the off-season, or even to supplement income in the busier months.

SMERF groups are always looking for hotels to book — and with a little effort on your part, you can be the first name that comes up.

Attract more group bookings of all kinds on the Hotel Engine platform. Learn more about partnering with us.

Article written by
Audrey Fairbrother

Audrey Fairbrother is the Content and SEO Manager at Hotel Engine. She spends her days writing about all things business travel, researching topics that are important to Hotel Engine's audience and cultivating the company's brand voice.

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