A casual SMERF meeting in the park.

Anyone involved in meeting planning should be very familiar with the needs of Social, Military, Educational, Religious, and Fraternal (SMERF) groups. After all, SMERF meetings are the “old reliable” of the meetings market, continuing even while demand for many other types of conventions and meetings has shrunk. Still, no planner can take SMERFs for granted. Like every other market, the SMERF market has changed and evolved. Successful planners must stay alert. Social Groups It is essential to remember that social groups want more opportunities for togetherness. As always, these groups require careful balancing between limited budgets and memorable experiences. But there are new opportunities too. Family reunions and other social events are no longer limited to a mimeographed letter sent out in the mail to announce the event. Now there are e-vites, Facebook messages, emails, Pinterest, and smartphone apps to spread the news about the event. Unfortunately, this can be both good news and bad news for the social event planner. Cassie Brown, president and CEO of TCG Events, notes that planners for social groups are often overwhelmed by electronic input and burn out. Military Groups Military group members often consider the reunion to be a major vacation. They tend to drive to the location and want more time to sightsee. According to Sharon Danitshek, president of Reunion Friendly Network, other factors to consider include:
  • Space for memorabilia
  • A good hospitality room, preferably one that allows participants to bring their own snacks, alcohol, and other beverages
  • A planned banquet for which the group can choose the menu and the portion size
  • An appropriate site for a memorial service
Educational Groups Joan Eisenstodt, president of Eisenstodt Associates, acknowledges that education groups are a steady business but that they can be somewhat tricky to plan for. One new trend is the desire for first-tier destinations to increase the potential draw of the conference while keeping the budget small. Eisenstodt advises making use of local destination management organizations and convention and visitors bureaus to determine what similar groups have stayed in the area and how the destination has catered to those groups. She cautions to be very aware of the budgets for these groups. Participants are likely to stretch the occupancy limits of hotel rooms and look for every other budget extender available. The participants need to know about every charge that might come up: costs of getting to the destination from the airport, taxes or fees at the destination, and other extras. Religious Groups Don’t think religious means old-fashioned. In fact, one thing Reverend Cricket Park, assistant rector at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church in Washington, DC, finds very annoying is when a meeting space charges for Wi-Fi. Her diocese is moving toward a paperless system as much as possible, and that means that meeting spaces need sufficient room for each participant to have his or her own electronic devices and access to a large enough bandwidth for all the participants. Reverend Park also points out another trend she has seen in 30 years of event planning: more persons with disabilities attending meetings and conferences. She urges planners to be sure there is access for wheelchairs, medical equipment, and other adaptive devices. Fraternal Groups Big fraternal organizations like Elks and Shriners have continued to meet in almost any economic climate. But other parts of this market, such as college fraternities and sororities, are very budget conscious during more austere times. Kelly Sabol, account executive for Baltimore Area Marriott hotels, reports that many of these groups are booking more locally to save travel expenses. Their planners are cutting back on food and beverage choices and, says Sabol, “They are negotiating more and requesting fewer concessions.” Fortunately, fraternal groups tend to be more flexible regarding the time of year their meetings can take place. This makes hotel accommodations somewhat easier to negotiate.

7-13-2015 5-05-24 PM Personalization is in. In 2014, Coca-Cola took the 250 most popular names in the United States and put one at random on individual cans and bottles of their product. According to The Wall Street Journal, this campaign was responsible for reversing a decade long decline in US Coke consumption. Put simply, people like to know it’s all about them. But how do you use personalization to your advantage when you’re planning your meeting? Tagging It Take a look at the ubiquitous name-tag. Obviously, you want to provide a pre-printed name-tag for all your registered meeting attendees. And surely, we do not need to remind everyone that the name-tag and all other materials should be in a clear font (put away the script and Old English fonts for another time) and in a type size that does not require binoculars to read. But what name goes on the tag? Take Josiah Pickford Wellington III, who just happens to go by “Trey.” Do you put his legal name on his name-tag? All his friends and business associates knew him as Trey. Regardless of what name he used on his registration paperwork, which name should appear on his pre-printed name-tag? And shouldn’t he, and not the clerical person preparing the name-tags, be the one who chooses what he’s called? And what else goes on the name-tag? With some planning from the registration materials, you could determine what the attendee would like to publicize. For example, would he like his email address to be visible? His Twitter handle? The name of the product he is promoting? Or, at the cat fanciers’ convention, a picture of his beloved, pure-bred Persian cat? If you can add information that makes the attendee feel more connected at the conference, isn’t it worth it to you to go that extra mile to discover and share these details? More Sophisticated Identifiers Don’t forget the other personalization options you might want to make available at the conference itself. At an extended family reunion, perhaps stickers might be available to identify what state the attendee hails from, or a badge might identify what line of the family tree she is descended from. This would create an instant place to start conversations as the participant meets far-flung relatives. At a large company meeting, perhaps a ribbon identifies whether the participant specializes in the manufacturing side or the sales side of the business. This would allow similarly affiliated attendees to easily find people who share their interests. Strategically Designing Your Event There are more ways to personalize an event experience beyond customizing identifiers. For instance:
  • - Create custom Twitter or RSS feeds for each person or similar group of attendees
  • - Create a personalized agenda for each attendee that is built on that person’s personal or professional interests
  • - Use apps like Guidebook or Double-dutch that allow attendees to manage their own schedules efficiently and securely
Remember, every attendee experiences an event differently. Take advantage of those differences strategically by personalizing the event for a unique experience that makes you stand apart and sends your attendees home with a “Wow, that was made for me!”

In June, we reached out to some of the best and brightest in the meetings industry to get their input on the best career advice they had ever received (or had learned the hard way). Considering how well that post was received and also considering that 2012 is coming to a close, we thought we'd reach out again to get their 2013 predictions. 


Behold! Here are their predictions:


Venues will focus more on "local" flavor

Jessie States--Editor, meeting industry at Meeting Professionals International"In MPI's future of meetings research, architect Robert Hopkins says, 'Flexibility is often badly interpreted as sliding and folding walls where spaces attempt to do many things badly. The key is to be more specific.' We see venues becoming more and more specific in terms of their time and place.

We'll see fewer isolated and cookie-cutter institutions, and more venues that embrace their place—from design of space to décor. They'll "go local" by featuring local materials, local foods, local artists, local icons and local talent. Meanwhile, delegate needs are changing. They want more peer interaction and learning and less lecture time, and meeting professionals are relying on their suppliers to provide spaces for these kind of experiences."

--Jessie States, Editor, meeting industry at Meeting Professionals International

More generous budgets and quicker turnarounds

Lisa Kraus Director of Business Development & Events for Plan Your Meetings"I believe we'll start to see wider booking windows for corporate events, with more generous budgets and quicker turnaround with decisions and commitments. With so many online booking tools and mobile apps, planners will continue to be more tech savvy and web-based when researching and sourcing their meetings, but there will still be a strong demand for customer service and planner/supplier relationships that will ultimately secure the business."

--Lisa Kraus, Director of Business Development & Events for Plan Your Meetings

2013 is the year for planners to start thinking about sustainability

Shawna McKinley, Director of Sustainability at MeetGreen"The meetings industry is impacted by several global sustainability trends. Food prices have increased over 6% in 2012, and are expected to continue to rise in 2013. Climatic events present risks as well, increasing pressure on companies to manage and reduce their carbon footprint, in addition to having a response plan to emergency situations.

Fortifying ourselves to be resilient to these issues will be a key challenge, and opportunity for innovation. Solutions include taking practical steps to reduce food waste, control portion size, and promote healthier alternatives on event menus. Planning to measure and reduce event carbon by 5% per year is also critical, so think practically about how your property uses energy, how much air travel is necessary, and where footprint can be reduced. This includes embracing the trend toward hybrid meetings."

--Shawna McKinley, Director of Sustainability at MeetGreen

2013: upping the ante for online social engagement

Michelle Bergstein-Fontanez Marketing Maven Event Industry Marketing by BeatCreative"2013 is all about upping the ante for online social engagement ROI that transfers back to the real world and for businesses to actually reap the results of their marketing efforts. We will see experiential incentives like Viggle and social incentive sharing platforms like Expect Referrals  and tools in all types of markets become more prevalent and cross over into the meeting and event industries. Foursquare and Instagram will also integrate into events with wide spread force and will evolve into more ROE (Return on Experience) for event planners and marketers. Social curation utilizing visual platforms like Pinterest and Loveit will remain hot and will transition into a must need tool in the event industry. The help of these visual boards allow #eventprofs to transfer ideas more visually and get real time feedback from clients to gain better synergy."

--Michelle Bergstein Fontanez, Marketing Maven Event Industry Marketing by BeatCreative

Still scaling back on event budgets

Julie Ann Schmidt, Managing Partner at Lithium Logistics Group" I think 2013 will see the industry staying as is or a very slow increase in the industry – with the outcome of the 2012 election we continuing to see layoffs in many industries. This slower economy will continue to negatively impact growth in the meetings and events industry. My global clients say that the US economy has an impact on all of their business globally, and that other regions of the world have slowing economies. When the economy is down it impacts our industry as for many meetings and event are deemed to be a luxury. My clients that are not cutting events have continued to scale back the event budget."

--Julie Ann Schmidt, Managing Partner at Lithium Logistics Group. (LinkedIn Profile).

Social media and technology is allowing for 3 BIG changes

Mike Malinchok, Vice President of Strategic Partnerships at"Looking at how social media is evolving to support the business needs of the meetings & event industry, we clearly see three specific trends that have gained significant momentum in 2012 with full expectation of even more in 2013:

1. Increased use and power of peer networking over traditional informational databases: Social media driving a shift in the primary source of supplier and destination information from traditional supplier-provided databases to peer references, informational blogs, and experiential webcasts/videos.

2. Event Life Extension: The value and life of an event has moved well beyond the dates of the actual event. Social media makes it possible to build collaborative and engaging communities for attendees both pre and post event dates to richly expand the life and influence of a single event.

3. The beginning of the end of the RFP: Information gathering, supplier services evaluation, and reputation checking have moved into the social media arena which circumvents traditional RFP processing. Buyers have access to richer, deeper sources of information to make decisions without having to go the historical route of engaging the supplier UNTIL they are ready to buy. This is changing the way suppliers create and nurture relationships that drive actual business."

--Mike Malinchok, Vice President of Strategic Partnerships at

Online engagement skills will be no longer optional

Elizabeth Glau, Owner and Chief Foundation Strategist at Building Blocks Social Media"Online engagement skills will transition from being delegated to the youngest person at an organization to being expected of every professional. Suppliers who have established a personal brand and are comfortable building relationships online will be more successful. Meeting planners are being asked to incorporate online elements into all aspects of their meetings (virtual/hybrid, mobile apps, social media) and the ones who have practiced the art of the online relationship will be much better equipped."

--Elizabeth Glau CMP, Owner, Chief Foundation Strategist at Building Blocks Social Media.

Tight budgets, smarter social media, and a tougher job for the planner

Sue Pelletier, Editor of Medical Meetings, a MeetingsNet Magazine"Prediction #1: Budgets will stay tight in 2013, leading to more SMMP development and implementation in corporations, more procurement involvement involvement in meetings, more short lead times, continued emphasis on cutting costs, possibly more local/regional meetings, unique venues.

Prediction #2: More and smarter use of social media to not just promote events/meetings, but also to engage participants before, during, and after an event.

Prediction #3: Hotel and air rates look to continue to rise, and we can expect both to find new and creative things to charge a fee for. Planners will have to work harder than ever to provide compelling reasons to pay increasing costs to attend. Will that lead to better, more engaging, interactive, wow-inducing meetings? I sure hope so!"

--Sue Pelletier, Editor of Medical Meetings, a MeetingsNet Magazine.

Digital extensions of face-to-face events will accelerate

Tony Lorenz, Founder at bxbOnline"The industry's adoption of technology, particularly the digital extension of face to face events, will accelerate. Those extensions in aggregate will drive stronger attendance at market facing events.

More importantly, our smarter and smarter utilization of technology available to us will also become evident."

--Tony Lorenz, Founder at bxbOnline.

More content marketing, more virtual meetings, and more hybrid events

Jenise Fryatt, Co-Owner and Director of Icon Presentations"As a result of my experience marketing my Icon Presentations blog, I have become very involved as a blogger, presenter and consultant on Social Media Strategy and Content Marketing.

1 - With the advent of content marketing and the plethora of tools for dispersing a message and engaging with attendees online, the importance of quality content creation will gain a renewed focus among event planners. Planners will begin to realize the value of capturing conference content and dispersing it in an easily digestible way with the goal of increasing the value of events and marketing them online throughout the year.

2 - Meeting planners will adjust to the fact that many face to face meetings are no longer necessary due to the ease with which multiple parties can now meet online. They will begin to take more of a lead in mastering the skills needed to organize virtual meetings and more and more face to face meetings will feature experiences that cannot be duplicated in a virtual context.

3 - You will see more targeted use of hybrid event experiences: for instance, streaming only certain sessions and offering an online Q &A with the speaker afterward; separate virtual tracks targeted to the audience that couldn't attend in person; streamed sessions lasting 10 to 20 minutes at the most geared toward the easily distracted remote attendee. "

--Jenise Fryatt, Co-Owner and Director of Icon Presentations

Gen X and Gen Y will take over

Doreen Ashton Wagner, Chief Strategiest at Greenfield Services"I believe one of the biggest trends to affect the meetings industry in 2013 will be the accelerating shift in demographics, as more and more boomers retire and Gen X and Gen Y take over. It's a trend I've written about earlier this fall.

With this will come a fundamental shift in how organizations regard meetings. Younger generations want more information about the purpose of meetings (unlike boomers who often were happy to meet for the sake of meetings). They are more protective of their private time and will resent meetings being scheduled on weekends or taking them away for extended periods. Of course younger generations will continue to bring mobile technology and social meeting into meeting rooms, forcing planners to accommodate them with free WiFi and opportunities to share and engage. Finally because of the increased used of social media, and the inherent multi-tasking this brings about, younger generations will look for agendas with more frequent breaks and more dynamic presentation styles."

--Doreen Ashton Wagner, Chief Strategist at Greenfield Services and The Meeting & Event LEAD Blog.

Meetings are becoming more unique

Janis Ross, Vice President of Convention & Sports Marketing at Eugene Cascades Coast"One important new trend we are seeing in meetings is delivering content in new and different ways, whether it’s through CSR and teambuilding activities, TED formats, or the use of technology and social media to engage attendees before, during and after the conference. As a convention and visitors bureau, we are being called upon more often to assist planners in suggesting unique activities – such as for the Pacific Tree Climbing Institute or Iron Chef Competitions – as well as to add lift to the conference’s social media channels. This has become so important, in fact, that we recently added a complimentary Social Media Toolkit for Planners as a download on our website."

--Janis Ross CMP MBA, Vice President of Convention & Sports Marketing at Eugene Cascades Coast.

2013 will Be a year of growth

Randall Whatley, President at Cypress Media"I believe 2013 will be a good year for the meetings industry. Now that the Presidential election is over, businesses will get back to focusing on sales and growth and meetings are necessary to accomplish such. Company executives are now looking back and seeing that several years of budget cuts on meetings may have helped with incremental improvements in their bottom lines but did nothing to improve top line sales growth."

--Randall Whatley, President at Cypress Media Group

Social media has hit prime time

Cameron Toth, Owner at Toth Event Staffing"Social Media integration seems to have hit prime time this year. Caterers that I work with have all moved to having in house folks working on their social media campaigns or at least making sure they set up a Facebook page. In 2011 people were skeptical, in 2012 they thought it was necessary and in 2013 they will be looking to maximize presence.

Email marketing is still effective but the power of social is still growing and I think we will see many more tools that utilize technology in 2013. As we become more connected and information is more easily attainable we will see lower cost web events aimed at wider audiences to utilize the power of volume. On the same note we will see large conferences shrinking to 'hyper target' qualified buyers for their sponsors and main stake holders."

--Cameron Toth, Owner at Toth Event Staffing

More mobile apps

Jessica Levin, President at Seven Degrees Communications"I think that the biggest trend that we will see widespread is the use of mobile applications. More and more, planners are implementing mobile apps into their events. Because there are so many great providers out there, organizations no longer need to develop apps from scratch. They can simply go out to the market and find an app that has features That meet the needs of their attendees. Attendees are starting to expect quick access to information and a high level of engagement and the majority are carrying smartphones making the adoption of mobile event apps easier. "

--Jessica Levin MBA CMP, President at Seven Degrees Communications

Meetings technology will become cheaper and easier to use

Corbin Ball, Owner at Corbin Ball Associate"This trend in software programming is driven by continued advances in web services  and open-source technology. This makes it easier, cheaper and faster to create, distribute and use technology to help in meeting planning.  There are hundreds of free, freemium, low cost, and do-it-yourself (DIY) options providing lower costs and more flexibility for planners. Examples include ContantContact’s new Online Event Registration starting at $20/month, a small fraction of typical online registration costs. Guidebook offers a free meeting DIY mobile guide app with up to 500 downloads per event. Google Hangouts On Air offers free multipoint video conferencing, steaming and recording. Joomla provides free web site building and content management tools with over 9,000 plugins. …just to name a few! These forces are also driving mobile app development with hundreds of thousands for free or very low cost app available; many of them of great help to meeting professionals."

Above quote used with permission from an article on Corbin Ball's Website.

--Corbin Ball CSP CMP, Owner at Corbin Ball Associates.

Short term requests and bookings will continue

Tahira Endean, Director - Creative and Production at Cantrav and Blogger at Events, Life and Impact Points"I believe 2013 will continue the trend of short term requests and bookings as our industry continues to be responsive and reactive to creating meaningful meetings and fantastic events. I look forward to seeing how the changes in social media and technology affect our event planning, execution and ultimately the guest experience from marketing to evaluation, and all the touch-points in between. I believe this is something that will be affected partly by generation and adoption phase of both Planner and Participant. 2013 will be a year of evolution, globally and in North America as clients who understand the power of face-to-face meetings, incentive travel and responsible fundraising respond to the economic realities that we are in."

--Tahira Endean CMP, Director - Creative and Production at Cantrav and Blogger at Events, Life and Impact Points

App 2.0 should be pursued for meetings and events

Dennis Shiao, Director of Product Marketing at INXPO and blogger at It's All Virtual"In 2013, I'd like to see the meeting industry (e.g. meeting planners, in conjunction with technology vendors and providers) pursue App 2.0 for meetings and events. While App 1.0 was successful in providing the basics (session and exhibitor listings, social media integration, some degree of profile matchmaking), App 2.0 goes deeper to enable our mobile devices to be a more valuable and trusted "partner" to make the most of our meeting experience. What does that mean? That's for the industry to determine."

--Dennis Shiao, Director of Product Marketing at INXPO and blogger at It's All Virtual

Jobs will continue to be more niche oriented

Dawn Penfold, President at Meetingjobs"Social media seems to be the 'go-to' place for networking and making contacts. Personal branding (knowing who you are, what you do and what differentiate yourself from others) is an important step in 2013. It sets you apart from the rest of the pack internally within your organization and externally if you are searching for the next opportunity. Jobs continue to be niche oriented. Medical companies wanting medical meeting planners, financial companies wanting financial planners, associations seeking association planners. Specialties within the niches also have become important."

--Dawn Penfold CMP, President at Meetingjobs

The industry needs to focus on transparency and ethics

Mariela McIlwraith, President at Meeting Change"In 2013 our industry will need to focus increasingly on transparency and ethics. These are multi-faceted issues, and incorporate everything from ethical bid processes, to the social and environmental impact of our events, to intellectual property in a social media age and to acceptable elements in our events within the global economic context. We've made great progress in recent years in being able to articulate the business value of meetings, and we need to ensure that our actions and professionalism as an industry support the delivery of this message."

--Mariela McIlwraith CMP CMM MBA, President at Meeting Change

Content (marketing) is king

William Thomson, Head Honcho at Gallus Events"This year has been the year of "content marketing" as organizers start to see the value of promoting the true value of their content rather than relying on the old tried and tested marketing messages. In 2013 content marketing will continue to help the good events differentiate themselves from the bad and the down right ugly. "

--William Thomson, Head Honcho at Gallus Events


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When I lived in Tokyo I had the opportunity to meet hundreds of professionals who ran behemoths like Sony, Toshiba, Honda, NEC and many others. As a corporate headhunter, my job was to learn about what they did, about who they were, and to convince them that they'd be better off working for one of the companies I represented.

As you may know, Japan can be seen as a stiff and formal country, governed by rules of etiquette that most Americans would find stifling. This was never more evident to me than during a business meeting. There are rules for everything: rules for the exchange of business cards, rules for where to sit, rules for bowing, rules for beginning a meeting, rules for ending a meeting, there are even grammar rules for formal business Japanese.

Americans can break the rules

The recruiting firm I worked for hired us Gaijin because we were exempt from those rules in many ways. We spoke English in our meetings not only because it was easier for us to communicate, but because we didn't have to use all the honorifics that Japanese people were obligated to use when talking to their social superiors.

Social superiors could be anyone, a customer, someone who had a higher ranking position within a company, or simply someone who happened to be older than us. As a recruiter who often found myself talking to country managers and CEOs, usually all three of those happened to be the case. Because English was the language we chose to conduct our meetings in, however, I wasn't obligated to use certain words that would put undue emphasis on a CEO's social superiority. We could meet as equals and negotiate deals without rules of etiquette getting in our way.

As an American, I got away with a lot. Not only did I not have to school myself on the intricacies of honorific language but I also didn't have to learn the various bows for the various situations which, according to many of my Japanese friends, we foreigners never get quite right. That said, there were some customs that, even as foreigners, we were obligated to adhere to:

Where to sit

I remember when I first sat down for an interview with the recruiting firm. I went into the room and took the chair nearest the door. I didn't think much of it, but when the office assistant came back to serve me a cup of tea, she politely informed me that I should take the seat farthest from the door.

Later I found out that as a guest in that office it was my right and privilege to sit in the seat facing the door. In feudal times, it was not unheard of for assassins to stick a blade through rice paper doors and impale a guest or two. This is why, to this day guests are expected to take the honor of sitting in the "safe" chair. I've tried looking this fact up, and couldn't find any evidence for it. Still, however, it makes for an interesting story.

Business Card Exchange

There were many subtleties to business card exchange that took a while to get the hang of. Since I was an American, the routine was to first shake hands, reach into a suit pocket and produce a business card holder, or meishi ire. We'd exchange cards holding them out with two hands, thumbs and forefingers on the bottom two corners. Since they were usually the guest and social superior, I would hold my business card a bit lower than theirs.

Business cards were not to be pocketed right away, but rather to be placed on the table in front of you. If you're meeting a group of people, this can be a useful way to remember people's names as well as keep track of who does what in the company. Although I'm now in the states, I still find this to be a useful little trick.

"Yes" and "No"

One thing that I found particularly frustrating was how Japanese businessmen often avoided saying no directly. If I presented an opportunity to them, they would often act as though they were very interested when, in fact, they were just being polite.

Our headhunting firm got around this hurdle by asking questions about about a prospect's interests, background and their work history. Once we knew pretty much knew everything there was to know about them, we had a good idea which one of our positions may be a good fit for their background and interests. We knew they would be interested in what we had to offer (and not feign interest out of politeness) because we spent time (sometimes even more than 20 minutes!) asking about their interests first.

In the States, people are much more direct about what they want and don't want, but that's not to say the same "mask of politeness" phenomenon doesn't happen here as well, albeit to a lesser extent. I have found that spending time knowing people's background and interests before asking for anything on my behalf has proven extremely useful.

What about you, what have you learned from meetings in other countries?


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Photo by Danny Choo.