The SMERFs, a hardy and growing bunch, are travelling Asia for Social, Military, Education, Religious, and Fraternity reasons, offering vast untapped potential for this regions developing and recovering travel markets says Abacus International.
Their reasons for travelling are as diverse as war and peace, learning, and study, seeking their god or just to catch up with like-minded people, but what they have in common is a desire to travel even if times get tough. They don't mind even gathering in non peak times if it will contribute to keep the costs down.
They are the SMERFS. No relation to their cuddly namesakes of television fame, they're 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 workplace re unions, alumni, or special interest groups.
Abacus International President and CEO, Mr Don Birch says that despite being budget conscious, the SMERFs collectively form a vast 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 equal to about one third of all meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE) market.
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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 aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist events, and showed themselves to be highly resilient in the face of international in the face of international events, Don Birch said.
The SMERFs are part of a larger trend in the travel market towards more outcome based travel for a purpose other than just to see things. They are more prepared than ever to travel abroad to realize their aims according to Mr Birch.
This seemingly diverse group is united by a desire to travel despite the business 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 area of sports, special interest, talent, dance organizations, and ethnic, with ever more diverse ethnic and professional associations to add 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 be used 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 part 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 steps in the hobbits and to carry back a number of the emotions they felt when watching the film or reading the book, says Ian Brody author of the Location guide. This is selling just as well a full three years after the final movie in the trilogy.
Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) Director of the Strategic Intelligence Centre (SIC), Mr John Koldowski says there's 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 favorite movies.
The social category is a fine market for hotel sales staff who wish 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 organizers and providing the right sort 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.
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 either 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 very significant market.
While exact figures are hard to procure, owing to the sensitivity of military travel, the growing number of websites specializing in military travel in this region, attest to the extent of interest in this market and present a highly focused audience for travel suppliers seeking to reach this market, Mr Birch said.
The Singapore experience demonstrates the potential of the education travel market. 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 experience 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 new 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 set up 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 strong growth potential but travel operators need to know the challenges inherent in conducting educational tours for school groups. Parents expectations, differences in cultural understanding and catering for homesick young students are just a few of the many issues that tour operators will have to deal with through equipping their people 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 said 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 is one or two star, with as many as 3 or 4 children sharing each room, but they are unquestionably a valuable market, because schools come back a number of times, as do families of the sons as they grow up, so it's a valuable part of marketing, Mr Saravanan said.
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, said that the requirement for educational programmes at its Maekok River Village Resort & Outdoor Education Centre has been growing at an average annual rate of 25 to30% over the last five years and recorded 7, 500 room nights in 2005. With a market base that has grown to include students from Singapore, Bangladesh, Thailand, and Hong Kong, Track of the Tiger now offers programmes at Pang Soong lodge, its new Outdoor Education & Research Centre in Mae On, Chiang Mai, covering a wide range of environmental, and outdoor programmes for student groups, as well as team building and 'voluntourism options for the corporate sector.
Mr Beary commented, Our experience has shown that there are several overlaps between educational, volunteer and eco tourism. These we have tried to draw on in developing our programmes.