October 2010

Family-Friendly Meetings

by Katie Morell

Gone are the days when kids stayed at home with a babysitter for the weekend while mom and dad ventured to a business meeting. Today, kids are as common as briefcases in the meetings landscape as more and more venues try to make themselves family-friendly.

"I've really seen an increase in families coming along to meetings within the last five or six years," says Joyce Wagner, executive director of the Jefferson City, Mo.-based Missouri Association of Public Employee Retirement Systems (MAPERS). "I am seeing venues becoming more family-friendly and, if families are allowed, it almost always means higher meeting attendance."

Wagner speaks from experience. Eight years ago, the MAPERS annual meeting brought in less than 200 people. Since then, the organization has begun inviting families and has seen interest spike.

"Last July we had 380 registrants," Wagner says, adding that the association holds its yearly event at Tan-Tar-A Resort in Lake of the Ozarks, Mo. "That is almost double in just eight years. I believe it is all because we are family-friendly; people almost see it as a three-day vacation."

Ann Walters, director of sales for Tan-Tar-A Resort, says she's also seen a sharp increase in groups wanting to bring families along in recent years.

"We've definitely seen an upswing," she says. "Families are looking for ways to stretch their vacation dollar and spend more time with their kids. People's schedules are crazy and I think time away on vacation is very important to families right now.

Rossie Williamson, director of sales for the Ramada Tropics Resort & Conference Center in Des Moines, Iowa, has also seen an increase.

"Families don't have a lot of time for vacations anymore," she says. "If mom or dad is going to a meeting and the hotel room is paid for, that is a great opportunity for the kids to come along. We have a water park at our property and I think for that reason we are seeing more and more groups bring their families along for meetings. We are definitely getting more requests lately."

While Walters and Williamson cite an increase in families coming along to meetings, not everyone sees the same trend.

"We don't see families coming along to meetings all that frequently," says Mike Roebuck, director of sales and marketing for the Hyatt Regency Minneapolis. "The only time we see them is if it is a church group in which kids come along anyway or if it is an association meeting and there is something going on in the city such as a Vikings [football] game.

"I would say we see about one in every 10 groups bring their families along," he estimates.

Family Meetings 101
Why do some venues see an increase and others don't? It all comes back to the first rule of meeting planning: choosing an appropriate venue.

Case-in-point: Tan-Tar-A Resort offers a waterpark. The Hyatt Regency Minneapolis, while a well-appointed meeting venue with more than 74,000 square feet of meeting space, does not.

"Planners need to take a close look at what property they are going to," says Bob O'Connor, director of sales and marketing for the Hilton Chicago/Indian Lakes Resort in Bloomingdale, Ill. "For example, an airport property or downtown property may not be the best bet. In my opinion, resort properties are most conducive."

Wagner agrees.

"You really have to consider the venue when kids are involved," she says. "The whole venue and the whole plan have to be kid-oriented. You have to rethink your get-togethers. You may not be able to have cocktail parties or go to the casino or spa. Instead, you have to think of events and venues where there are things for children to do."

According to Wagner, each year the association puts on a kid-friendly reception for its attendees.

"We have a reception that is geared toward kids," she says. "One year we had a Wizard of Oz theme and last year our theme was Wild West. We gave favors to the children such as cowboy hats and stick-on tattoos. It is a lot of fun."

What else should planners consider when inviting the little ones along?

"Make sure to structure the meeting accordingly," O'Connor advises. "If the meeting doesn't allow for any free time at all, it may not be conducive for a family to come along. Also, make sure the meeting lasts around two to four days to allow for time to have fun."

Tan-Tar-A's Walters also says it is a good idea to factor in flextime.

"You could schedule a meeting to start early, then cut it off at noon and let everyone utilize the resort's facilities during the day," she says. "Then, gather everyone together in the evening for a catered event."

Childcare is another important consideration when planning a family-friendly event, Walters says.

"If an organization wants to hold an event that is for adults only, it is important to consider babysitting services," she says.

While figuring out meal arrangements for a group of adults can give planners pause, organizing food service for children is a whole different ball game.

"I really have to watch it when I plan breakfast," Wagner says. "If kids are involved, I always have cereal for them. A lot of kids don't like eggs and you really need to keep in mind that a kid's pallet is completely different than an adult's pallet.

"I try to extend the time of our breakfasts to accommodate families," she continues. "I can expect fewer families in the morning because mom and the kids don't want to get up at 7:30 a.m.; it is their vacation. I usually extend breakfast for at least 30 minutes longer than usual to accommodate them."

What types of meetings are most suitable for family tagalongs?

"I see it mostly with association and SMERF [social, military, education, religious and fraternal] groups," says Hilton's O'Connor. "I don't see it as predominantly in the corporate segment."

Beyond demographics, Wagner says families lend themselves well to general meetings, not those that are top secret.

"I'd say the meeting has to have a large number of attendees, it shouldn't be just a 12-person group that will meet for an afternoon," she says. "It needs to be a few days and the meeting content shouldn't be anything secretive."

Looking Ahead
What does the future hold for family-friendly meetings?

"I think more groups are going to bring their families along in the future," says Ramada's Williamson. "These days, both parents are really involved in their children's lives, not just moms. Families are always trying to find things to do together. And because everyone seems to work more hours than they used to, it offers a great opportunity to spend time together."

O'Connor concurs.

"I don't think our world will ever get back to the point where it was 10 or 15 years ago where people were planning a ton of meetings and had lots of disposable income," he says. "Today, we all have less time and less money to plan our own vacations. Therefore, if a hotel is family-friendly, it will increase its chances of winning business opportunities."

Katie Morell is a Chicago-based freelance writer and former Meetings Media editor:

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