A Family Affair

It's no revelation to say that the line between home and work life is more blurred than ever before. But what may be a surprise to many in the meetings business is how conferences and events are moving rapidly toward that line—and that it just might be a very good thing.

Many corporations and associations have started making accommodations for attendees to come to a meeting with their families in tow. The primary goal is to keep attendees free from excessive stress while on the road, allowing them to better focus during the meeting and be more productive once they go home. "Family involvement at meetings tends to keep the late-night partying to a minimum. They go to bed earlier, so they are rested for the business sessions," says Betsy Kang, director of sales and catering for a family resort with meeting space, the Great Wolf Lodge, outside Cincinnati.

Another goal is to create goodwill by affording them the opportunity to have some personal time with their families—a mini-vacation—in a fun destination. Of course, "There are always two schools of thought with regard to productivity if the family comes along to a meeting," says Terri Breining, former chair of Meeting Professionals International and president of Concepts Worldwide, an independent planning firm in Carlsbad, CA. "One school holds that the attendees are less anxious because they don't have to take time away from the family to attend a conference. The other holds that they may be too distracted by family matters."

To alleviate the friction between these two views, some planners take steps to actively incorporate families into some aspects of the meeting. The level of involvement by families will vary by group, but the results, say planners and hoteliers alike, are generally quite beneficial to both attendees and the host organization.

First Things First
Destination selection is far and away the most important decision planners will make when organizing a family-friendly meeting. "The right place will give families the chance to do things on their own, making minimal work for the planner," says Fred Shea, vice president of sales for Chicago-based Hyatt Hotels Corp. "That's why resort- and attraction-heavy places are popular for such meetings. You should also consider whether a destination has less-expensive airfare and a good volume of direct flights from many other cities."

When that resort has its own attractions it's all the better. Kang, whose properties feature water parks, says that a mere scheduling shift may be all a planner needs to do to satisfy attendees and their families. "We see a lot of meetings start right at 7 a.m. so that they finish by 3 p.m., and then people can join their families at the water park for a few hours before dinner. Even those attendees with no family on site enjoy a few hours to themselves, too."

At the resorts in Anaheim and Orlando, an early start to meetings allows attendees to take advantage of discounted afternoon admission offered to resort guests for the massive theme parks next door.

"We tell meeting planners that if they set the agenda right, attendees won't be in the meeting thinking, 'Wow, I really want to be out with the family having fun,' " says Kathy Cattoor, director of group sales for Universal Orlando Resorts. "Attendees can focus on work because they know the personal time will be there later." One alternative Cattoor has seen is the scheduling of early-morning events such as fun runs, where family members are welcome to join attendees.

Lastly, one simple way to create more free time is to eliminate one reception from the agenda. "It not only saves you money, but it creates goodwill among attendees with families," says Hyatt's Shea.

Meal Appeal
If you don't want to eliminate a reception or dinner in lieu of free time, one possibility is to include family members in these events. In fact, it could help colleagues forge stronger bonds if they meet each other's families, and family members also get a better appreciation of an attendee's work life. But Roselle Foley, vice president of the Association of Meeting Professionals and director of meetings and exhibits for the National Association of Chemical Distributors, in Arlington, VA, stresses that "you might want to confirm with attendees how many extra people will most likely attend the function; if many of them don't show up, you are still responsible for your contracted food and beverage minimums."

Another option, says Great Wolf's Kang, is to coordinate adult supervision for kids during the reception, and let the resort create an activity for them in a nearby meeting room. For fuller family interaction, it might be best to use breakfast as the opportunity to bring family members into the agenda.

But if dinner is a more convenient time at your meeting to promote family interaction, Universal Orlando's Cattoor notes that a kids' area adjacent to the main function space can offer dishes more suited to young palates. "We'll even bring in face painters and costumed characters," she adds.

Above and Beyond
At the far end of the spectrum, some meeting groups will go so far as to offer educational programming not just for spouses, but also for children—with separate breakout sessions for preteens and teens.

Finally, to create a true mini-vacation for attendees and their families, planners can negotiate a discounted room rate for extra days on either side of the conference, say both Kang and Cattoor. "Some planners simply say, 'We don't want any family involvement during the meeting itself, but we know many folks would have their families arrive early or late in the meeting for a few days of leisure,'" notes Cattoor.

"The ability to involve family in any of these ways actually helps keep attrition down among meeting groups," she adds. And with the business climate for hotels becoming more uncertain in 2008, lower attrition combined with the extra revenue that comes from more meetings-related guests should offer planners solid negotiating leverage.

The Family Plan
Leora Halpern Lanz, director of marketing for hospitality consulting firm HVS International, suggests that planners ask for these items to make the family experience easier and more enjoyable:

* A number of guaranteed adjoining guest rooms. Properties may charge an extra per-room fee for this, but the value to families is significant.

* Free or discounted in-room video games, which are hot commodities among preteens and teens.

* On-property food and beverage credits for families spending a certain amount on guest rooms or other items.

* Healthy food options for kids at joint meals, not just chicken fingers and french fries.

* Complimentary parking for at least one night, or discounted parking throughout the stay.

* Some spa services geared toward children, including manicures and pedicures for little girls; stretching and very basic massage for little boys; and somewhat fuller massages for "tweens" and teens.

* Free transportation via regularly scheduled courtesy vans to local attractions.

Marriott, Nickelodeon to Create New Resorts
The fall of 2010 will see the debut of an interesting joint project between kids entertainment company Nickelodeon and Marriott International: The 650-room Nickelodeon Resort by Marriott in San Diego.

Dubbed a "family resort with a business twist," the new concept is designed to provide a plethora of family entertainment so that guests don't need to go off-site to theme parks. Property offerings include a large water park and themed pools; a Nick Studio with frequent live performances; Nickelodeon-themed entertainment, costume characters, and games; themed restaurants and food courts; and more.

But perhaps the most unusual offering within this resort and its planned sister properties is the sizable amount of dedicated meeting space; the San Diego property, for instance, will have 35,000 square feet. And this space will be sequestered from the entertainment areas so that meeting-goers can keep from being distracted.

Marriott says rates for the new properties will be well above those for traditional Marriott properties because of all the built-in entertainment, but that the value is better than if guests had to go off-site for theme-park experiences and other leisure activities. "A cruise line on land" is how one Marriott executive described the experience the company seeks to achieve.

By 2013, Marriott expects to have nearly 20 Nickelodeon Resorts open throughout the country.

Originally published March 01, 2008

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