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Volume 2 Issue 2 - Feature Article 2

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So You May Know
Wisdom & Insight
Supply Chain
Study & Research



SERF Advisory!

The term, SMERF, has been used in the travel & tourism industry for many years. For VolunTourism, however, this acronym needs revision, and as a VolunTourism Practitioner you need to be aware of the challenges that must be addressed when working with these groups.

To begin, let us define what we refer to as SMERFs. SMERF is an acronym for a set of group travelers that fall into the following categories - Social, Military, Educational, Religious, and Fraternal. These organizations have been blessed and cursed by various sectors of the tourism industry for many years. A blessing is bestowed because SMERFs can support sales in annual “down-times;” a curse, because they can “nickel and dime an entity to death” with their special requests for greater or fewer services at either no additional cost or a reduced rate respectively.

The Web has a few articles on SMERFs that can assist you in further understanding the term and the markets represented by it. I discovered an article inked by Don Bauder for the San Diego Reader in which he refers to the SMERFs in a blessing/curse manner. In one paragraph he writes:

“Smerfs have their peculiarities, of course. The trade publication Association Meetings warns host hotels that members of fraternal organizations might want to bring their own booze. A gospel group ‘brings along a ten-dollar bill and the Ten Commandments, fully intending not to break either,’ says the publication. Back in the 1980s, when Brigham Young University's teams regularly played in the Holiday Bowl, the coach, now-retired LaVelle Edwards, made the same observation in almost identical words. It wasn't funny to San Diego hotels, restaurants, and bars.”


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In another paragraph he adds…

“The smerf business is ‘immune to downtimes.’ After 9/11, corporate travel and the convention/meetings business collapsed. But smerfs remained a robust market, suddenly courted by cities that once had snubbed them.”

This certainly provides an indication about how the audience is perceived within the hotel industry, but how do other tourism industry professionals perceive this audience?

I discovered an October 1998 document that was published by the National Tour Association’s (NTA’s) Market Development Council entitled “MAP – Market Assessment Plan – for the Religious Market” and sponsored by the Alabama Bureau of Tourism & Travel. In the introduction to the document the authors state:

“There are many potential components of the religious tourism market. These include:” and skipping to item seven we find “mission work…” The text picks up later with these words: “American congregations perform missionary work in the United States as well as overseas. Some plan annual or semi-annual trips to other countries, many even to Third World countries.”

October 1998 certainly seems part of the distant past with all that has happened over the last eight years, but this market is likely even more important today, because of the tremendous need around the world. In another passage from the article:

“One NTA Operator says, ‘SMERF describes our operation’s success. Clean, moderate accommodations, chosen for quality and/or location,…’”

This certainly helps to clarify the terms and conditions necessary to satisfy SMERFs.


We are fully aware that the VolunTourism industry holds an attractive appeal for four of the five SMERFs - the Social, Educational, Religious, and Fraternal groups. But the Military group does not, at present, participate in VolunTourism experiences. Therefore, we need to reconfigure our acronym to represent a more accurate picture of the VolunTourism universe. Henceforth, we will use the term SERF when discussing these groups.

Photo Courtesy Of People And Places , All Rights Reserved

This article will address the “issues” that SERFs pose to operators, suppliers, and recipients. What are they?

1. Proselytizing,

2. Lack of Travel Experience,

3. Lack of Perspective, and

4. The “Service as a Favor” Mentality


It is easy to identify which letter in our acronym will be our focus when discussing proselytizing. The Religious group can perform unconscionable damage to relationships that have taken decades to establish between community residents and NGOs. As a VolunTourism Operator you must educate members of these Religious groups about the importance of maintaining “silence” in regards to the beliefs that they hold. Most assuredly they can practice these beliefs amongst their group members, but they may not speak of such things in the presence of destination residents.

No "soft" language can be used when expressing this point with your clients. You MUST create and establish a policy regarding proselytizing and explicitly deliver this policy to your guests in no uncertain terms. It will save you time, at the very least, embarrassment, assuredly, and potentially far worse can be avoided by instituting a firm hand from the beginning. Do not let fate or chance make this determination for you. NO PROSELYTIZING!

Photo Courtesy Of People And Places , All Rights Reserved

Lack of Travel Experience

Regardless of which SERF group you may be engaging, count on the fact that lack of travel experience will apply to some, if not all, of the participants.

As a VolunTourism practitioner, you have experience. Sure, you may have forgotten what it was like the very first time you had a customs agent filter through your possessions, but think back, reflect on the experience, and share some of your first impressions with your clients. The more humor you can bring to the process, even if you have to utilize hyperbole and other techniques, do so. You will be conveying valuable information, from experience, to those who have none.

90% of the world lives in impoverished conditions. Volun-Tourists may have their first experience with abject poverty through your itinerary. Don't let the opportunity to share what you know about this with your clients. Tell them how long it took you to be able to buy a cup of coffee or a soda for yourself after connecting with this type of situation. What did you do to process it? Tell them; share with them; don't leave them to discover this completely on their own. Not every "rubber band" is prepared to be stretched; nor is every person's conscious-ness ready for the stretching that comes from Volun-Tourism experiences.

Lack of Perspective

How does this differ from Lack of Travel Experience?

Photo Courtesy Of People And Places , All Rights Reserved

Perspective can certainly be shifted, remolded, and expanded through travel experience, but, some of the most well-traveled individuals have maintained their perspective on the world at large. (I do not need to offer examples here. You most certainly have ones of your own to review.)

But someone may also have a very broad perspective about the world while having very little travel experience. The great Horticulturist, Luther Burbank, is said to have had travel brochures that he kept in the top drawer of his desk in order to travel because he could not leave his plants unattended. He was responsible for the development of countless varieties of plants and conducted amazing experiments to enhance the growth cycle of such varieties as the walnut tree.

Lack of Perspective is a thorny issue for VolunTourism Practitioners. Some individuals may carry prejudices and uninformed views of cultures, people, and places. These cannot be foreseen in all situations, but education can be provided in advance of excursions to support individuals in properly maintaining their "public silence" and keeping opinions to themselves.

Having a protocol for pre-departure education as well as handling "emergency" situations during trips are the best methods for dealing with such challenges.

Part of the challenge is that when the body begins to weaken in the hot sun or under the pressure of voluntary labor, the mind can quickly lose control of the tongue. It may "wag" against the newly-painted fence of your service efforts and undermine all that the group has done in very swift order.

Watch this issue carefully.

The "Service As A Favor" Mentality

Photo Courtesy Of People And Places , All Rights Reserved

Probably next to the righteousness of proselytizing, the self-righteousness of "I am doing you a favor" is one of the ugliest strains of thought, or worse yet, spoken language, that can enter the VolunTourism environment.

The biggest way to outflank this worthy opponent is to present the REAL truth of the matter: VolunTourism is a Favor to the VolunTourist ONLY - first, last, and all the time! Yes, the lives of those who receive the benefits of the services rendered may be improved, even if momentarily. But to think that a VolunTourist is doing a favor for anyone other than her/himself is simply a non-truth.

Share testimonials of past VolunTourists with your upcoming group well-in-advance of their arrival date. If you have a blog or other means by which individuals can share their experiences, then make this a first stopping place for your future VolunTourists. Don't leave this to chance. Make the communication strong AND clear. Favor is a realized experience of the VolunTourist. She/he recognizes in short order that the favor-nature of Volun-Tourism is self-imposed. Setting your personal course to indulge in such travel itineraries is the biggest favor you can provide to only one being - YOU!


Education is your biggest defense when dealing with SERF Advisories. You can try to ride this wave without addressing these issues but be prepared to extricate your operations from the sandy bottom of potential embar-rassment, at the very least, and, perhaps, far worse should a real issue emerge.

VolunTourists and the VolunTourism experience can only be as great as you determine they can be. Chance is something that you can enjoy at the poker table; "rolling the dice" with your VolunTourism operations is simply a foolish endeavor that will ultimately end poorly.

Recognize the preemptive power that you possess through education and provision of information. You and your VolunTourists will be most glad that you did!

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