Smerfs Up in Vegas

Agents find opportunity in the Vegas-bound small-group market

By: Kathy Espin

LAS VEGAS Smerfs love Las Vegas. Not the cute little cartoon characters though they would probably love the town, too, since it does seem to offer something for everyone. We’re talking about the SMERFs of the small-group tour and travel business. The “Social, Military, Education, Reunion, Fraternal” groups that fill the space between individual travel and large conventions.

Las Vegas loves Smerfs, too. These groups of less than 50 to a couple hundred people provide a valuable source of revenue for resorts that don’t have large convention halls, and afford weekday and off-peak business to resorts that do.

Groups of fewer than 500 make up around 85 percent of the groups that come to town, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitor’s Authority.

Professional meeting planners usually handle small business meetings that fall in this size range, but people planning weddings, reunions and family events a large part of the “social” aspect of Smerfs often call on a travel agent to help with the arrangements and negotiations.

Agents can turn their knowledge of the city and contacts at the resorts into a valuable source of revenue if they market themselves as a resource for these events.

According to Richard Harper, vice president of sales for the MGM Grand, there are many reasons Las Vegas is a popular destination for these small groups.

“The infrastructure of Las Vegas is all built in,” he remarked. “You don’t have to invent an experience per se.”

JoAnn Richards, director of catering and convention services at the Imperial Palace, also noted that the availability of entertainment and other activities makes Las Vegas attractive to these groups.

“Because there is a lot to see here, you really don’t have to plan the amusements like you would in a different city,” she said.

The range of activities, including gambling, shopping, golf, sightseeing and big-name entertainment, means no one will be bored definitely a major hurdle to conquer when putting together a successful group trip.

Accessibility and cost also figure into small groups choosing Las Vegas, Harper said. “There’s a price point. If you go to a beach or a resort in, say, Scottsdale, it can be extremely expensive,” he stated. “In Las Vegas, you can spend $19 per night or $150 per night. This is a city that offers something for everybody.”

The cost of airfare and the number of flights into Las Vegas’ McCarran International Airport also provide an incentive. Then there’s the fact that the city is within driving distance of the huge Southern California market. This allows more group members to participate and makes the city even more attractive, Harper said.

Las Vegas is a famous destination for weddings, but today, when the bride and groom slip off to tie the knot at the Elvis chapel, they are more likely to bring the entire family and a bunch of friends.

That’s why hotels as diverse as the Bellagio, the Rio All-Suite Resort and the Imperial Palace have wedding chapels and a wide range of services appropriate to weddings, both large and small.

At the MGM, for example, receptions can be held in a suite, a banquet room or even in one of the hotel restaurants, according to the size and budget.

“It just depends how elaborate they want to get,” Harper said.

Since weddings, small groups and family events are so big in Las Vegas, most hotels have designated staff to handle just that. The Bellagio’s newly expanded spa even has a designated concierge to handle wedding pamper parties, bachelor parties or any group who wants to enjoy the spa experience en masse. The Rio has a team that handles weddings exclusively.

The Imperial Palace, with 40,000 square feet of meeting space and two wedding chapels, has also designated someone to handle the Smerf business. Sales manager Cyndi Rieger specializes in giving small groups the attention big groups get at larger hotels, according to Eloise Orndoff, the Imperial Palace’s executive director of sales and marketing.

“The person putting together these events would work directly with Cyndi,” Orndoff said. “She is a warm, sunny person who gets involved with each one of these groups. She takes you by the hand and guides you through the program. She’ll even remind them of deadlines that they have to meet.”

The resorts don’t provide commissions for travel agents on catering or entertainment sales; the revenue for the agent comes strictly from room sales. There are additional revenues available by booking tours directly, with just about all tour companies offering 10 or more percent commissions for groups.

Technology is having an impact on both the groups and the organization of sales, according to resort executives.

One growing market involves people who meet on the Internet, Orndoff said. People with shared interests meet online, then when it’s time to meet face to face, they choose Las Vegas as a convenient and economical location.

The Internet is also coming into play when booking these small events, and hotels, such as the MGM Grand (see sidebar), are working on innovative online reservations systems.

Reina Herschdorfer, executive director of sales and pavilion operations at the Rio, said her company could provide links from a group’s Web site to the hotel’s reservations system to facilitate bookings.

One of the best advantages of booking small group business is that prices and conditions are more flexible and negotiable than individual bookings.

“When we book a small group, we look at the business and make a decision,” Herschdorfer said. “We evaluate the business and rate the timing and space needed, to see if it’s a good fit. Then we negotiate the rate accordingly.”

Better rates, convenient bookings and the wide range of entertainment offerings Las Vegas has to offer make the destination very attractive to small groups and family event planners. And those same advantages can mean a valuable source of income for travel agents.

Smerfs may be small, but they are mighty.


MGM Grand


Rio All-Suite Resort

Imperial Palace

MGM’s new online SMERF reservation system

The MGM Grand is developing a special online reservation system for groups that will make booking SMERFs (Social, Military, Education, Reunion and Fraternal groups) a breeze, according to vice president of sales, Richard Harper.

With the new system, travel agents or event planners can contact the hotel and establish the room block and other arrangements for the group. Once the event has been set, the agent will receive a code and a special Web site address that he or she can distribute to potential attendees via e-mail or promotional material. Using that information, individuals can make their own reservations on the site and directly request any upgrades or special accommodations needed. “We are shooting for first quarter,” said Harper. “I think it’s going to make life a lot easier for the person booking the group.”

The Internet booking system will be supported by live telephone staff to assist those who are not technically up-to-date or have questions or problems with the system.