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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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
One of the best advantages of booking small group business is
that prices and conditions are more flexible and negotiable than
“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
Smerfs may be small, but they are mighty.
Rio All-Suite Resort
|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.