In a Family Way: How to Offer a Successful Children's Program

Originally published in Successful Meetings May 2006 issue

After Caprice Caster's inaugural children's program boosted adult registration to her meeting by nearly 25 percent, offering it annually was a no-brainer. "Our main reason for doing it in the first place was that our meeting falls in the summer, and the places we go are usually resorts or places you'd go on vacation," says Caster, manager of meetings and special events for the Lenexa, KS-based National Cable Television Cooperative.

An increase in single parenting and fewer grandparents serving as caretakers have sparked interest in children's programming, according to Diane Lyons, founder and president of ACCENT on Children's Arrangements in New Orleans, LA. Also, some noncustodial parents use conferences in great destinations as an opportunity to spend extra time with their kids, but need someone to watch the children during meetings. Lastly, many traditional families simply want to travel together.

Planning a children's program, however, can be even more complicated than planning for adults, and run-of-the-mill hotel camps don't excite many kids anymore. To fill the void, some companies are developing expertise in activities and educational excursions tailored for the children of your attendees.

How To Do It

According to Dana Kiffmann, general manager of KiddieCorp, a provider of children's programs based in San Diego, most groups set up programs for children six months to 12 years of age. The number of children registered in a particular program varies based on the location and time of year; May and September have notoriously low enrollment rates because children have so much going on in school. The ratio of supervisory staff to kids will vary depending on the number of children, their ages, special needs within the group, and specific requests.

Most children's programs use hospitality suites, meeting rooms, or a ballroom divided with pipe and drape to separate age groups, and it's up to the meeting planner to secure the space when booking, even if you have hired an outside company to create the children's program.

"I book my meetings a few years in advance, so I keep it in the back of my mind that I'll need space for the kids," says Caster, who also suggests asking during a site inspection what children's equipment is available—diaper pails, cribs, low tables, small chairs, and so on. If you plan on including outings, she cautions that transportation can be complicated, as small children need to be fitted in car seats. "It's mostly the usual things you would do with your own attendees, but logistics are a little harder," she says.

Fortunately, many of the logistics can be handled by the DMC or child-care provider. Michelle Visel, deputy executive director of conference services for the American Library Association in Chicago, IL, has worked with ACCENT on more than 10 occasions, and says, "They run the entire thing, and I've given them carte blanche to do that because they are experts."

To promote the children's program, Caster suggests beginning with the initial registration packet, but cutting off registration for that program before adult registration closes. "It's really important to put every detail in writing to the parents and send it not once, but twice," she says. "It saves you a lot of headaches on site."

Caster has had success defraying costs by putting each day of the program up for sponsorship, so it costs attendees approximately $250 total to enroll a child in the three-day program. She also established event and daily pricing, which allows parents to pick and choose based on their needs. Visel also offers her attendees per-day or full-conference options, but found that most opt to enroll children for the full program.

"The trend is toward broader-based care. It used to be that groups would offer children's programs in the evening, so parents could attend a reception or event. The trend now is for full-day care," says Kiffmann. Kelley Gillespie, senior operations manager for Capital Services Inc., a Falls Church, VA-based DMC, and Claudia Wehrman, regional director of sales and marketing for PRA Destination Management in San Diego, agree; both have noticed a drop-off in evening programming and an increase in daytime care.

"I would survey your attendees and find out if it's something they would be interested in," suggests Caster. "Also ask what they think a fair price would be, because that helps determine how much money you'll have at your disposal." Bear in mind that taking children off property adds to costs significantly. When scheduling for your attendees, allow an extra half-hour in the mornings and afternoons for pickup and drop-off.

No Idle Hands

With kids, the name of the game is interactivity—they need to be kept occupied and engaged. While children under age six tend to stay on property in a recreation center environment, older children take advantage of age-appropriate local attractions.

"We have done water parks, rock climbing, rodeos, broomball . . . fun, fun stuff," says Lyons. When taking a group out, she incorporates an experience they wouldn't have if they went on their own, such as a dolphin program at Sea World, lunch with an astronaut at Kennedy Space Center, or a preview of the new Xbox with Microsoft executives before it hit the shelves. Other successful programs have included tie-dye, scavenger hunts, water-gun shootouts, talent shows, karaoke with an American Idol theme, golf outings, and arcade events.

Some groups also choose to use the meeting environment to teach children about business- or career- oriented subjects. Lyons says one of her groups developed a sales seminar for teenagers that focused on confidence, expressing your beliefs, and getting your ideas across. Others incorporate children by having the kids put together a banner to hang on the show floor, creating a skit for the closing reception, or offering a "kids' zone" at a reception so parents can show off their children to colleagues and acquaintances who would otherwise never meet them.

Safe and Sound

Although it's important that the children have fun, safety and security concerns are paramount for both planners and parents.

"They're much more comfortable now than they were three or four years ago," Caster says of parents. "There were lots of questions the first year, especially wanting to know who's going to watch the kids and what they are going to be doing," she says, noting that KiddieCorp, ACCENT, and other companies are prepared for parents' questions. Lyons says many questions are child-specific—"My son doesn't follow a group; how are you going to keep track of him?"—but there are also questions about the staff.

"We do a lot of management of security," says Lyons, including coding and wristbanding children. "We even tell parents, 'If this building is evacuated, this is where your child will be,' " she says. And Capital Services' Gillespie cites issues like allergies as difficult, but vital, to manage. "We have a consent form that parents complete, plus a form about their child that includes information about allergies, which are written in red on the child's nametag. That way, anyone who comes into contact with the child knows about their allergies, since younger children often can't communicate that information on their own," says Kiffmann.

KiddieCorp also runs a reference check on all employees and offers background-check results upon request. "Security-wise, we photograph every child with their parent, and attach the photo to the consent form," for pickup authorization, Kiffmann explains, a process that works well for most groups.

"You handle it in more of a secure manner than the parent anticipates, because it's too risky not to do it right across the board," says PRA Destination Management's Wehrman. She says that some parents have become upset when trying to pick up a child their spouse dropped off, so "you explain that they wouldn't be yelling if someone actually tried to come and take their child."

But according to Kiffmann, parents are increasingly understanding and demanding in their own right. "Parents are becoming much more sophisticated in what they are looking for from us in terms of safety, security, and length of programs."

Wehrman says that children's programs come up only about 20 percent of the time. Still, according to Lyons, "Kids are here to stay. Fifteen years ago we thought their presence might just be a fad."

For Visel, the children's program has become vital to the success of the ALA conference. "Seventy percent of the attendees who enrolled their children in the camp indicated that they would not attend the conference without some kind of a camp and activities for their children," she says. "You need to determine whether it will make an impact on your attendees. We have found that this option is something we really couldn't be without."


Taming the Teens

You have the little kids covered, but try telling teenagers how cool arts and crafts will be. In short, this group needs a whole different set of activities.

Teens want "what they would consider hip, and not have it appear in any way like child care. They don't feel child care applies to them, so you want to create an environment that is at their level," according to Dana Kiffmann, general manager of KiddieCorp.

"As a mother who travels with teens, I can tell you they plug in their iPods and moan about not being able to bring friends," says Kathleen Coch-ran, general manager at Loews Coronado Bay Resort, in San Diego. In response, the property developed a teen amenity backpack filled with water, a PowerBar, and local items; beginning this summer the bag will also include a photo journal that "inspires you to take photographs based on certain prompts," explains Cochran.

Cochran also worked with PBteen, Pottery Barn's teen division, to create a lounge and a teen spa room for the hotel. "We had a teen lounge, but it looked like a converted hotel room," she says. "Looking through the PB-teen catalog I realized the kind of look we wanted." The property noted the trend toward health consciousness, and offers beach olympics; smoothie-making workshops; and yoga, kickboxing, tennis clinics, and bike rides for groups. "There's been a huge increase in childhood obesity, so we're looking at ways through our own F&B programs and in other ways to encourage a healthy lifestyle," says Cochran. The hotel's recreation department can help coordinate activities tailored for any group's teens.

The Hotel del Coronado in San Diego re-vamped its teen offerings with The Coast Club, a cabana room where teenagers can unwind away from siblings and parents, and entertain themselves with magazines, music, computers, and the requisite Xbox and PlayStation 2. "It's a loun-ge where teens can come and relax. They're not kids anymore and they're not adults yet, so this is the perfect place," says Allison Mossler, activities manager at the Del. It's "things they can do that don't involve being 18 or 21 years old."

Disney Cruise Lines has offered teen areas, The Stack and Aloft, since 1998, and other cruise lines have similar areas. "Our teen passengers really appreciate having dedicated areas just for them," says Anne Hamilton, vice president of resort sales and services for Walt Disney World Resort. "Teens want something that no one else has yet. It has to be really cool and trendy, and not something that their parents or other siblings have or already know about."

But don't despair if your activities don't seem 100 percent hip. "I have a theory that when they're not at home around their peers where they have to be 'cool,' teens will do things they might not at home," says Diane Lyons, founder and president of ACCENT on Arrangements in New Orleans. "If their local YMCA has a scavenger hunt, there's no way they would go, but because it's on the beach with a different group it's okay."