Targeting Your Niche: Conference Travel

Non-business trips from spelling bees to reunions offer specialty options

By: Dennis McCafferty

Looking for a broad niche that’s booming? Try conference travel.

Personal trips for everything from organized religious gatherings; self-improvement or educational seminars; hobby-related events; alumni, fraternity or sorority reunions; political rallies; or conventions and military reunions is rising.

In a recent Travel Industry Association of America poll, 36 percent of respondents said they had traveled for such a conference in the last three years.

That’s a significant increase over 1999, when 29 percent of poll participants reported attending such types of conferences.

The travel demand has gotten the attention of cities around the country.

Redding, Calif., for example, has aggressively tapped into this market known as SMERF, which stands for Social, Military, Ethnic, Religious and Fraternal conference travelers.

“The SMERF market tends to be very rate-conscious and we have offered guaranteed hotel rates, sometimes two to three years out,” says Sherry Ferguson, convention sales manager for Redding. “We’re booking more rooms for this market than any other.”

Travel agent Danny Tucker of Discount Travel in Las Vegas is now booking as many as 15 such trips per month, each creating revenues starting at $400 and going as high as $3,000.

Tucker estimates this niche has essentially doubled in the last decade. And he’s taking steps to remain in the hunt for more.

“Of course, being in Las Vegas the largest convention city in the world probably gives us an advantage,” Tucker said.

“However, we have also seen an increase in travelers going out of Vegas,” he said. “Religious and self-improvement seminars are getting the biggest numbers now.”

Tucker said that when the agency gets a call for airfare to one of these seminars, it immediately does research and offers a travel package.

The TIA poll found that baby boomers and Generations X and Y are among the most active in pursuing non-business conference travel.

“There are a lot of people with kids now,” says Andrea Stokes, director of marketing and international research for the TIA.

“Those families are traveling to the spelling bee tournaments and booking hotel rooms,” said Stokes.

“There are reunions and alumni organizations that are very active in organizing events,” she says.

For travel agents, getting involved is the key, says John Poimiroo, president of El Dorado Hills, Calif.-based Poimiroo & Partners, a travel communications consulting firm.

“These groups are rotary clubs, religious groups, service groups and military organizations. All of this makes for an active community,” he says. “Introduce yourself to these groups.”

The hobby/pop culture conference market is also booming, Poimiroo says. “It’s not just Star Trek conventions anymore,” he says. “It’s motorcycles, toys, cars this just grows and grows.”

Kathy Sudeikis, national vice president of the Alexandria, Va.-based American Society of Travel Agents, specializes in this kind of travel at her agency.

Sudeikis, who is also a vice president of corporate relations at All About Travel in Mission, Kansas, estimates that this kind of business has increased 80 percent over five years ago.

By spring, she had 15 bookings in cities such as Seattle, Las Vegas and Portland, Ore.