Richard and the guys sit in the hospitality space for what seemed like hours—joyful for their annual time together, yet sad at the loss of a few more. Their wives, having heard their stories before, had already retired to their rooms. In the men’s reminiscing of days gone by, the women get prettier and the waves, bigger. For four days they talk and laugh, and at times, shed a tear or two. They venture out of the hotel to visit local attractions, most often of a military or historic theme. On the last night, they dine together at a special banquet that often includes a memorial service to those fallen. This is the military reunion.
Outsiders looking in will probably see a bunch of self-described “old farts” with their blue veteran hats, connecting them to the aircraft carrier they served on. They meet every year— or at least those that can do. Some bring their children or grandchildren along. While it may seem like just a bunch of old guys getting together to swap war stories, there is an indescribable calm and perhaps healing with these reunions. Together they served. Together they experienced the horrors of war, the deep rooted “got your six,” and, for many, the challenges of returning home to an ungrateful nation. These veterans understand each other because they have been through it together. Words never uttered to anyone else flow freely among them.
The military reunion market is comprised of more than 14,000 annual reunions, with an overall hospitality industry spend tipping $100 million dollars. Although it’s small compared to corporate or association meetings, the strength of this market comes in its timing amenability—its flexibility to fill soft dates between April and October. Hoteliers are advised to review gaps, holes and need dates and promote those as alternate options when responding to RFPs. Simply put, reunions can book when you need them. Within that sevenmonth reunion season, September is by far the most popular month for veterans holding their reunions. The 2018 Military Reunion Market (MRN) survey concluded that September is also the month preferred by the hospitality industry to welcome these reunions to their cities. It’s a match made in heaven.
The heartbeat of the reunion is the hospitality space. Reunion planners are looking for a 700- to 1,500-square-foot space for tables with reunion merchandise, memorabilia, raffles, food and beverage, and of course fellowship. While “presidential suite” guest rooms are lovely, they are too small for the overall needs for the reunion hospitality. They need a banquet room. This need can create a conflict, as reunions routinely want to bring in their own alcohol without charge as they have for years. Liability and hotel policy have come into play in the past five to 10 years, forcing planners to shift to the new restrictions. Savvy hoteliers realize the benefit of a piece of business filling need dates and will negotiate pricing down to cost plus a dollar in some cases.
Military reunions are rated business with a range that keeps them below $119 nationally. Low guest room prices are critical to keep the events affordable. Reunion planners look for destinations within 40 miles of a major airport, full-service hotels, complimentary parking, breakfast included if possible, area attractions that include a military theme or historic theme, and, most importantly, a local partner that is patient as well as patriotic. Reunion planners are retired and have nothing better to do then talk to their tourism partner. Patience on the part of the tourism representative is required.
Those fortunate to work with reunion planners are rewarded with a business relationship that turns into a long-lasting friendship. Be prepared to host them for site inspections. The MRN survey noted that military reunion planners will make at least one pre-trip more than 85 percent of the time. They rarely book without seeing and experiencing the venue and destination first. Contracts are signed 18 months out. They also book with who they know. Conversations with veterans often end in stories of service and sacrifice giving sales representatives a deeper appreciation for our nation’s finest. It is hard to believe the kind, humble, gracious planner endured watching his battle buddy die in his arms so many years ago. Sales reps that work this market fight to keep it and continue working with veterans.
To be successful in this market takes a strong convention and visitor bureau partner, as planners will start there. In addition to site inspections, be prepared to support them with RFP distribution assistance. Any additional services such as lapel pins, reunion attendee badges, free T-shirts to reunion attendees, or gift bags are also appreciated.
The sellers’ market and record revenues over the past few years have priced many destinations out of this market. There is little to no interest in securing business at such low rates. Smith Travel Research reports suggest these record revenue days will not sustain in the years to come. New inventory coming on line in 2018 and 2019 will soften rates in many markets. Nashville alone will have more than 5,000 new rooms coming on line by the end of 2019. The time to start working with the reunion market is before the shift occurs, as business secured now will arrive when needed.
Military Reunion Friendly partners in the Northea st includes Mystic Seaport Museum, Intrepid Sea Air Space Museum and Battleship New Jersey
Sharon Danitschek is the president and CEO of The Military Reunion Network and brings over 25 years of hospitality sales and marketing experience to Reunion Friendly Network. During her career, Sharon has held sales positions at downtown, resort and suburban hotels, representing properties on a local, regional and national level.