ITB 2024 Special Reporting
Move over MICE, here come the SMERFS!
Abacus International
Wednesday, 1st November 2006
Their reasons for travelling are as diverse as war and peace - study and learning - seeking their god or just to catch-up with like-minded people but what they have in common is a will to travel even if times get tough. They don't mind even gathering in non-peak times if it will help keep the costs down.

They're the SMERFS. No relation to their cuddly namesakes of television fame, they are the resilient groups travelling to and around Asia in their millions for social, military, education or religious reasons, or as part of fraternity groups such as alumni, workplace re-unions or special interest groups.

Abacus International President and CEO, Mr Don Birch says that despite being budget conscious, the SMERFs collectively form a huge market and have vast untapped potential for developing or recovering Asian travel markets.

"Abacus International estimates that the SMERF market across Hong Kong, Thailand and Singapore alone is worth US$1.7 billion a year, based on an accepted US formula that the SMERF market is equivalent to about one third of the total meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE) market."

"Whereas their better known cousins the MICE are serviced by specialist divisions within major hotel groups, travel agencies and dedicated Government programmes, the SMERFS are often ‘below the radar' and therefore harder to measure."

"They are hardy and budget-conscious travellers which make them ideal for developing or recovering markets or as a complementary segment in peak markets," Mr Birch continued.

"The SMERFs helped sustain the US hotel and airline industry in the period following the 9/11 terrorist events, and have shown themselves to be very resilient in the face of international in the face of international events," Don Birch said.

Who are the SMERFS?

The SMERFs are part of a wider trend in the travel market towards more ‘outcome' based travel – travel for a purpose other than just to see things, and they're more prepared than ever to travel abroad to achieve their aims according to Mr Birch.

"This seemingly diverse group is united by a willingness to travel despite the economic cycle, to go off-peak and even off the beaten track if that's what it takes to track down budget transport and accommodation," Don Birch said.

Social travel traverses the fields of sports, special interest, ethnic, talent and dance organisations, with more and more diverse ethnic and professional associations adding to the growth. Examples include women's groups, volunteer workers and social sports teams travelling domestically or inter-country for tournaments.

The growing number of car owners joining clubs in Singapore such as BMW.sg, TeamChevy Singapore and the Toyota Club Singapore, are a case in point. Aside from their regular monthly meetings where enthusiasts exchange tips on the technical aspects their cars, these clubs also serve as a rallying point for trips overseas, either to Sepang in Malaysia for a day of track racing or to other regional destinations for leisure trips.

Further afield, fans of the Lord of the Rings have travelled to New Zealand in their thousands to experience in person some of the magic of the film. A guide book to the filming locations has now sold over 300,000 copies becoming the fifth largest ever selling non-fiction book in New Zealand in the process.  

"The Lord of the Rings has created the largest film tourism event the world has ever seen. Thousands of people have flocked to Middle-earth New Zealand to follow in the footsteps of the hobbits and to bring back some of the emotions they felt when watching the film or reading the book," says Ian Brody author of the Location guide, which is selling just as well a full three years after the last movie in the trilogy.

Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) Director of the Strategic Intelligence Centre (SIC), Mr John Koldowski says there is also a well-beaten path from India to the exotic film locations of Switzerland and Austria, as fans of Bollywood seek out the sets of their favourite movies.

"The social category is a good market for hotel sales staff who want to fill room blocks in off-season and weekend periods, but attracting these bookings is reliant on repeat business, word of mouth from existing customers, and direct marketing to social organisers and providing the right kind of accommodation offers," Mr Birch said.

"We used to think about SMERF groups as a market niche for budget hotels and hostel-style accommodation, now they use convention and conference centres, university facilities, suburban hotels, downtown hotels, resorts and even unsold apartment complexes."

Military travel  

Asia's estimated 32 million soldiers are often on the move – usually by military transport, but often by civilian travel networks in countries such as Thailand, Taiwan and Singapore. Not surprisingly, the Philippines is one of the largest military travel markets in the region. With its more than 400,000 strong army and vast territory of 7,000 islands, even the coming and going of soldiers on leave is a highly significant market. 

"While exact figures are difficult to procure due to the sensitivity of military travel, the growing number of websites specialising in military travel in this region, attest to the scale of interest in this market and present a highly focused audience for travel suppliers seeking to reach this market," Mr Birch said.

Education travel

The Singapore experience demonstrates the potential of the education travel market. Last year more than 16,000 Japanese high school students visited Singapore, a healthy 16% increase on 2004 according to TTG Asia. Ongoing, prospects for inbound educational travel are promising with the number of international students in Singapore for long-term studies (one month +) growing from 60,000 in 2003 to well over 70,000 in 2005 according to the Singapore Tourism Board. The Singapore Government is targeting to achieve 150,000 international students by 2015, particularly from China, India, Indonesia, Korea, Malaysia and Vietnam.

From summer camps to immersion programmes, travel operators in Asia are beginning to discover the value of outbound educational tourism in the region. 

One of Singapore's most established travel operators, Chan Brothers Travel, set up its own Educational Travel Centre (ETC) in 2003 to cater to the emerging educational travel market in Singapore, conducting tours for student groups to destinations such as China, England, Germany, Australia and Turkey during the student vacation months of June and December.

Another relative newcomer on the educational tour scene, Wing On Travel in Hong Kong offers English-language and activity tours to Britain, Australia, Singapore, Canada and mainland China. Reflecting their commitment to cater to this emerging travel market, the agency decided to create a dedicated educational tour division. The company launched its first study tours in 2004 and this year plans to take 14 groups to Britain alone.

Mr Birch says, "This travel segment has a high growth potential but travel operators need to be aware of the challenges inherent in conducting educational tours for school groups. Parents' expectations, differences in cultural understanding and catering for homesick young students are just some of the many issues that tour operators will have to address through equipping their staff with the necessary skill sets and expertise."

While students from Hong Kong and Singapore are venturing to foreign shores for a comprehensive educational experience, Indian students are discovering India's own cultural identity and heritage. Mr P Saravanan, from Viking Tours and Travels in Chennai, South India says that school groups are mainly travelling to experience the history, culture and monuments of other Indian states – generally in groups of 25-40 people. 

"The school groups are ‘very budget' in their accommodation needs. That's 1 or 2 star, with as many as 3 or 4 children sharing each room, but they're definitely a valuable market, because schools come back a number of times, as do families of the children as they grow up, so it's a valuable part of marketing," Mr Saravanan says.  

A pioneer in the educational travel segment, Thai tour operator Track of the Tiger has been running educational tours for students from Australia and the UK for more than ten years. Mr Shane Beary, Director, says that the demand for educational programmes at its Maekok River Village Resort & Outdoor Education Centre has been growing at an average rate of 25 – 30% over the past five years and recorded 7,500 room nights in 2005. With a market base that has grown to include students from Singapore, Hong Kong, Bangladesh and Thailand, Track of the Tiger now offers programmes at Pang Soong lodge, its new Outdoor Education & Research Centre in Mae On, Chiang Mai, covering a range of environmental, and outdoor programmes for student groups, as well as team building and ‘voluntourism' options for the corporate sector.

Mr Beary comments, "Our experience has shown that there are many overlaps between educational, volunteer and eco-tourism, which we have tried to build on in developing our programmes." 

Religious travel 

As one of the world's most populous and largest regions, Asia is also recognised as the birthplace of Buddhism and Hinduism. 

"Countries such as China, India, Sri Lanka, Taiwan and the Philippines have a cultural heritage steeped in some of the world's major religions, and government policies to develop joint tourist attractions such as the Buddhist circuit in Taiwan, China, Sri Lanka and India have definitely grown the pie for their respective religious tourism markets," says Mr Birch.

Agreeing, PATA's John Koldowski says, "Religious traffic tends to be fuelled by domestic bookings but increasingly, there are more pilgrimages being organised for inbound tourists which usually cover more than one destination. For example, there is a distinct Buddhist circuit such as the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic in Sri Lanka and a trail covering revered Buddhist sites in India". 

With a myriad of religious sites throughout the country, India has an established group of religious tour operators to cater to the many domestic and foreign pilgrims that throng India during the peak travel periods of April, May and November. 

Mr Ashok Negi, from Rajarani Travels in Mumbai reports that the tours run by his agency and its network of six branch offices throughout India has facilitated pilgrimages for more than 50,000 tourists to various religious sites in the country. According to Mr Negi, visits to popular religious sites such as Vaishnodevi and the temple at Tirupati constitute as much as 25% of India's domestic tourism. 

Christianity is the other religion fuelling growth in another Asian destination, the Philippines. Having provided its services for more than four decades in Southeast Asia's most populous Catholic country, Catholic Travel, Inc. has positioned itself as the "Pilgrimage Specialist".

According to Ms. Carmina Orbe, General Manager, most pilgrims are from the Philippines, and they also have pilgrims from Hong Kong, Rome, Canada and Los Angeles not only joining a pilgrimage to the Holy Land (Israel) but having a pilgrimage in the Philippines. "Priests that have joined our pilgrimages to the Holy Land have found a renewed inspiration in their vocational work for the community. I guess the visits have brought new meaning to the places and events in the Bible that they had only studied in the seminary previously."

Across Asia, missionary teams are also frequent travellers, with agencies such as World Vision and Youth With a Mission (YWAM), mobilising large numbers of people annually. For example, YWAM Singapore takes approximately 150 volunteers to developing countries in the region such as Myanmar, Indonesia and India, over five to ten such trips every year. 

Fraternal travel

Although not as significant a market as educational or religious travel, a growing number of civil associations and groups such as Rotary International and Lions Club International have begun to look towards Asia as a possible destination for their international gatherings.

The Rotary Club held its international convention in Singapore, its first Southeast Asian venue in 1999, and again in Osaka, Japan in May 2004 for more than 45,000 Rotary club members from 96 countries. Lions Club International held its 88th International Convention in Hong Kong from 27 June to 1 July 2005, catering to approximately 20,000 Lions Club members and their accompanying family members and friends. This generated almost US$19 million of direct tourism spending and spin-off business for the retail, catering and tourism-related sectors. 

Mr Birch says, "Traditional MICE destinations such as Singapore and Hong Kong have paved the way for Asia's rise as a conventions venue on the world stage. This has allowed emerging economies in Thailand, India and Vietnam to offer companies and fraternal associations more variety in their choice of meeting venues."

Targeting the SMERFs

There are some commonly accepted issues in targeting the SMERF market says Abacus' Mr Don Birch. For example recent cost increases in the Asia hotel sector which saw average room rates rise in major cities (for example 17% last year in Singapore) are not good news for SMERFs. 

"More meetings and higher hotel prices can limit options for SMERFS, but SMERF planners can still find open arms in markets such as second and third tier cities eager to lure back budget groups," says Mr Birch.

For sales and marketing managers within the industry, finding SMERF planners is harder than just finding Association planners.

"Seeking local contacts that are affiliated with these types of groups is critical. Local networking is also needed to identify SMERF groups and their planners. Resources such as the research directories of organisations, affordable meetings conferences, and even the personal networks of a property's employees all have their place in pinning down the SMERFs," Mr Birch said.

The internet also plays a key role as both a research and communication channel for both SMERF planners and sales and marketing teams. 

"The internet clearly improves the chances of buyers and sellers in the SMERF universe finding a good match on location, venue and the experiences to be offered during the period of travel," Mr Birch says.

"As awareness of the SMERF market grows in Asia, GDSs such as Abacus International can do their bit by distributing highly relevant travel content such as airfares, accommodation and transport offers to meet the needs of such diverse groups as soldiers, students, sports fans and religious devotees, ensuring regional travel agents pull in a larger slice of this US$45 billion global market," Mr Birch said.

More information on Abacus can be found at www.abacus.com.sg
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