Bringing the family to a meeting can strengthen an attendee’s personal connection to the sponsoring organization and boost engagement in the meeting itself. But it takes the right venue to get the rest of the family excited about joining—and if there’s one thing that ensures a good time for all ages (including parents), it’s a waterpark.

Venues that boast waterslides and lazy rivers in addition to top-notch meeting space are becoming a popular option for attendees looking to bring their families to corporate events, or unwind in a memorable way at the end of the day.

With most of the waterparks at Midwestern properties located indoors and open year-round, planners have a range of options when hosting an event there. It can simply be an exciting place for attendees to relax with their family after a day’s meeting or can serve as a part of the meeting itself.

“Whether it’s while at the session or after the session is over, we see planners incorporating family-friendly amenities as part of their program,” says Kevin Shanley, director of sales for Kalahari Resorts in Wisconsin Dells, Wis., which offers both a massive waterpark and extensive meeting space. “I’ve seen groups really benefit from incorporating family time into the event.”

Kalahari Resorts recently completed a multimillion-dollar upgrade to its convention facilities. These include more than 4,000 new ergonomic “10-hour” chairs, the addition of authentic African artwork, and 16 new chandeliers in one of its two 22,000-square-foot ballrooms. Much of the renovations have been in Kalahari’s AV offerings, with a complete overhaul of its audio system, the replacement of its convention center’s built-in projectors and screens with Hi Lumen, Hi Definition equipment, and a boardroom that now boasts two 65-inch LCD monitors.

“The only thing that rivals it is a movie theater,” Shanley says. “We looked at it from the end-user experience and talked to planners about what would benefit attendees. They said upgrades in sound, AV and chairs.”

In addition to its 65,000 square feet of meeting space, the property’s biggest draw is its African-themed, 125,000-square-foot indoor waterpark and additional outdoor waterpark. Attendees can bring their families to try out slides like the Screaming Hyena, with a trapdoor entrance, or the spiraling Swahili Swirl, as well as a lazy river and wave pool for those looking for something more relaxing. Cabana and bungalow rentals are also available for smaller groups.

Shanley adds that by bringing the family along, attendees often are likely to be engaged more in the meeting. The idea of leaving the kids for several days can be an unattractive option, especially for those with young children, and allowing the family to come along and spend the day with the attendee’s spouse—or under other supervision while the attendee is at the meeting—allows the meeting-goer parent to focus on their work without feeling guilty, according to Shanley.

These offerings have proved a repeat draw for some meetings groups, such as an insurance association that first used the Kalahari for a statewide meeting of their younger agents in 2001 and has been returning every year since, expanding the event to a four-state meeting and tripling attendees over that period.

“They incorporate meals in the waterpark and build in time with the families,” Shanley says.

Wet, Wild and Wallet-Friendly
Besides promising fun and a memorable experience, waterpark properties also can provide affordability to families who take the opportunity to turn the meeting into a modified family vacation.

“In this economic climate, it provides an opportunity for families to have a little mini-vacation while one of the spouses is still working,” says John Jessup, director of sales and marketing at Great Wolf Lodge, in Traverse City, Mich. “They can negotiate a better rate so the family looks at it and says, ‘We can go there for $100 a night.’”

Great Lodge’s waterpark offers the twin three-story Totem Towers waterslides, the four-story Alberta Falls and the interactive Fort Mackenzie tree house, which includes an elevated bucket that dumps 1,000 gallons of water on those below every eight minutes.

“Attendees can bring their families and while one spouse is meeting, the other is at the waterpark or one of the many activities we have at Great Wolf Lodge,” Jessup says.

He adds that some attendees may elect to extend their stay beyond the meeting, saving money on travel while getting time for the whole family, including the attendee, to enjoy some waterslides. This can deepen an individual’s connection to the company that was thoughtful enough to offer a family-oriented meeting choice and that essentially sponsored a modest family getaway.

The property, as well as other meeting-equipped Great Wolf resorts in Wisconsin Dells and Kansas City, also offers dry land activities such as the MagiQuest adventure game and Howl in One Mini Golf. Jessup estimates that these family activities result in planners bringing in groups that are 30 percent to 40 percent larger than those at more traditional meeting destinations.

With a 4,000-square-foot conference center built just four years ago, the Great Wolf Lodge is relatively new to the meetings business, but it’s jumped in with both feet, providing state-of-the-art AV equipment and three 12-foot-by-12-foot screens, as well as a large prefunction space for buffets or symposiums, and smaller 800-square-foot breakout spaces.

Waterparks and other family-oriented destinations provide particular appeal to younger attendees with young children they would rather not be away from for two to three days for a meeting.

The Great Wolf property recently hosted a large law firm from Grand Rapids that brought its support staff as part of a thank-you retreat, which totalled 95 families, many of them skewing younger.

“It was one night. They all came up Friday after work and we had 95 rooms for them,” Jessup says. “They were here all day Saturday then left about six or seven—we had a nice breakfast and lunch for them and the kids played all day in the pool.”

Jane Svinicki, president of Svinicki Association Management, based in Milwaukee, has helped plan a number of meetings at Kalahari for her clients, including the Wisconsin Fire Chiefs Association and School Nutrition Association of Wisconsin, which held events there this June and July, respectively. The groups appreciated the fact that the property had the space for a trade show, banquet and breakout rooms all under one roof, but also that the whole family could come along.

“The family-friendly component makes it extremely attractive for attendees,” Svinicki says. “A lot of groups that are meeting, especially over the summer, sort of make a mini-vacation out of that.”

A Sea of Choices
The Midwest offers a wealth of other waterpark properties with extensive meeting space, each based on its own unique theme likely to enhance the experience for a family.

The KeyLime Cove, in Gurnee, Ill., brings the tropical atmosphere of Key West to the Midwest. Its 65,000-square-foot indoor Lost Paradise waterpark includes fast-paced slides like the Hurricane Vortex and 500-foot-long Splash Down for adventurous visitors, as well as the KeyLime Creek for those more interested in letting the current do the work.

It also offers 6,000-square-feet of event space, including three meeting rooms that can be combined to create one large conference room, and banquet space that can accommodate up to 480 attendees, as well as a boardroom that seats 16 guests.

The Grand Harbor Resort and Waterpark, located in Dubuque, Iowa, allows for smaller meetings of up to 100 guests in its 1,500 square feet of meeting space on-property, but larger conferences can be taken just across the resort’s skywalk to the Grand River Center. This 86,000-square-foot venue offers panoramic Mississippi River views and plenty of prefunction and patio spaces. Up to 3,000 attendees can be accommodated in the space.

To cut loose, attendees can visit the 25,000-square-foot waterpark. The area boasts waterslides, rope ladders, waterspouts, squirt guns and water cannons, all tied in to a Mississippi theme.

Some attendees prefer to keep it low-key. Four times a year, food manufacturer Lipari Foods, LLC hosts meetings at the Best Western PLUS Sterling Inn Banquet & Conference Center in Detroit, which offers a 32,000-square-foot waterpark (the only of its kind in the city), including a lazy river, wading pool and play area.

“A few of them will get a drink and hang around the pool or a few will go swimming or floating through the lazy river,” says Don Symonds, director of events and trade relations for Lipari. “It’s maybe a third of them that will use it at some point.”

While many attendees enjoy the waterpark, Symonds is especially complimentary of the property’s meeting facilities, which include a nearly 16,000-square-foot grand ballroom and 10,000 square feet of prefunction lobby space.

“I use every meeting room they have, and we spread out all over that place,” Symonds says.

Another property, the Double JJ Resort, located in Rothbury, Mich., takes a wilder approach to its waterpark—as in Wild West. The property, which also offers a number of family-friendly horseback riding and rodeo packages, includes a large indoor waterpark. Waterslides like Miner’s Plunge and Thunder Canyon can offer thrills to meeting attendees and their older children while attractions like the Golden Pond activity pool and Hot Springs hot tub welcome children of all ages.

The Western theme extends to its meeting space as well. The Sundance building includes three conference rooms, with views of nearby Carpenter Lake and the property’s Thoroughbred Golf Club. The Gold Rush building is part of the venue’s newest addition, while the Back Forty offers groups of up to 300 a meeting space surrounded by an Old West town.

Planners would be wise to include branded cowboy hats and belt buckles in their meeting packets.


Alex Palmer, a Brooklyn-based writer, believes New York City would be a happier place if it replaced some subway lines with lazy rivers.