The Rise of the Family-Friendly Meeting

Where does the average employed American parent spend more of his or her time - at work or with the kids? According to the "2011 American Time Use Survey" conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employed adults spent an average of 7.6 hours a day working. By comparison, adults living in households with children under the age of six spent an average of just two hours per day providing primary childcare. Those with children between the ages of six and 17 spent only an average of 47 minutes per day providing primary care. That's a big difference.

No wonder, then, that many workers might welcome any opportunity to spend more time with their families. Smart associations and companies, eager to boost attendance numbers, are catching on, and family-inclusive meetings are becoming more popular than ever.

"We are definitely seeing more requests and have more conversations these days about adding more family components to our clients' incentive and meeting programs," says Megan Barry, lead travel buyer for Maritz Travel. "Allowing people to bring their families is helping them drive attendance and achieve their business objectives and sales goals at the same time."

More meeting planners are also incorporating family-friendly events into the actual meeting agendas. "It's not necessarily just about bringing your family and negotiating special hotel packages and pre- and post-stays," says Tammi Runzler, senior vice president of convention sales and services for Visit Orlando.

The belief that you shouldn't mix business with family time is also fading away.

"In the past, [a family-friendly meeting] might have seemed a little bit more taboo," says Runzler. "But people understand that that's no longer true; having families present simply adds a level of quality."

What's the ROI?
Many associations and companies are finding that including families is a win-win all around.

"Having a family-friendly meeting makes employees more apt to go the extra mile for me," says Bruce J. Newman, chairman of the Business Direct Group, an industry trade group for B2B direct-marketing companies. Newman has organized a variety of different meetings for his own companies. He adds, "In meetings where my kids have attended, I think they've created more relationships for me, professionally, over networking, than I might have created for myself. We're competing for talent and whatever we can do to add high-value benefits for the employees, we're looking to do. It's a great trade-off."

Newman's philosophy is shared by recognition expert Roy Saunderson, author of Giving the Real Recognition Way and president of the Recognition Management Institute. "Having the family at a meeting shows that the company values the employee's time and they value the family," Saunderson says. "Greater employee appreciation just naturally builds better employee satisfaction and engagement. Recognizing employees' families will only increase their loyalty, and will give employees greater peace of mind to focus on the event by having their families there."

Barry says that one of her client's attendees personally told her that he worked all year to meet his sales goals, just so he could bring his family to the company's annual meeting and treat his family to a vacation.

Dr. Mel Borins, a practicing family physician and author of Go Away - Just for the Health of It, says vacations have the power to relieve stress and motivate employees. "Research shows that burnout decreases during a vacation and that people are more interested in their jobs when they return after a vacation," he says. "Absenteeism goes down after workers return from a vacation."

The concept of holding a family-friendly meeting ties in perfectly with achieving a better work-life balance. "People are looking for an overall healthy experience - physical, mental, spiritual, and what have you," says Runzler. They're looking for somewhat of a richer experience over the course of the meeting and that often includes having family there."

For some families, these meetings substitute for annual family vacations, and many opt for pre- and post-stays.

"With us being in a down economy where people don't always have the money to take several vacations a year, this allows our attendees to have a family vacation experience in some way," says Tina Mannices, manager of continuing medical education at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Every year, Mannices plans a five-day pediatric cardiovascular medicine meeting for more than 1,300 medical professionals and their family members. This year's meeting was held at Universal Orlando Resort.

"[The attendees] think, 'I know we can have a nice family vacation in February and I can obtain credits for my license at the same time,'" she says. "People are trying to save money and they know they need to do this for their career, so it's great that they can combine the two."

Money Matters
Just as employees are minding their pocketbooks, so too are employers and associations. While most organizations are less concerned about families being a distraction, they are more concerned about one thing: the bottom line.

"There's definitely a cost factor," says Michael Murray, vice president of the Hawaii Visitors & Convention Bureau's corporate meetings  and incentives division. "From the planner's perspective, it's case by case, and it depends on how much you want to involve the family."

At the American Pet Products Association's (APPA) Global Pet Expo in Orlando, Tracey Wilson, trade show manager for special events and meetings, contains costs by limiting  family programming to childcare services for show days. The APPA started providing childcare services four years ago and, while it does not actively promote the service, Wilson says the number of children in the program has grown over the years. She says that cost and liability concerns have prevented APPA from adding additional off-site children's programming in the past, but adds, "I don't rule [adding more activities] out at all. We're taking baby steps."

Newman says that including families in his meetings doesn't put him in the red. "I don't pay for families to come," he explains. "I pay for the attendees to come. During the meeting, I'm already paying for the hotel room, so what difference does it make to have an attendee's family members in the same room?"

He says that picking the right location can make all the difference, which is why he's hosted four global meetings at Walt Disney World Resort, in years past. "The room configurations and the dining options at Disney allow me to design something creative and economic so that when I add up the total bill, that extra cost is actually very small in the overall context."

Barry, like Newman, seeks out locations  and venues that offer family-friendly accommodations such as double-double guest rooms or condominiums, as well as on-site kid's programs. She even saved money at a recent meeting in Sea Island, GA, by having separate adult and children buffet lines. "The lighter kid's menu was actually less expensive," she explains.

Traditional family destinations like Orlando and Hawaii, and major attractions like theme parks, also add value to a planner's bottom line.

"That's our mission every day - to cater to families," says Eric Marshall, vice president of park sales at Universal Orlando Resort. At Six Flags Great America, Special Events Representative Krystal Bern says that, because Six Flags offers so many family options, it's not a challenge for organizations of all budgets to host an event. "We have the space. We have the activities and attractions. We are really creative."

At the Conference of Western Attorney Generals (CWAG) Annual Meeting, families are always included in the agenda. CWAG Meeting Manager and Event Coordinator Janine Knudsen attributes this year's record attendance of 850 attendees and family members to the venue: Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, CA.

Hosting the event at Disneyland also helped Knudsen with planning special activities. "I don't really need to plan anything else for off-site activities because it's all there," she says. While morning sessions were only for attendees, families were invited to nightly events, including a private barbecue at Big Thunder Ranch Jamboree and a preferred viewing area for the "World of Color" light-and-water show.

Something for Everyone
A planner's biggest challenge in hosting a family-friendly meeting might be trying to find activities that appeal to every age group. But, as with every meeting, customization and doing your research are the keys to ensuring success.

"Understand what the client's goal is for the event, and how much time they want to spend with the meeting, and how much free time  is available for families," Barry advises.  "Find out the approximate number of kids  before sourcing. Ask where that client has been before. Consider the budget; ask if every meal is included. No matter what, sit down and make sure your clients' expectations are met."

Newman says even the smallest touches can leave a lasting impression. "There's nothing funnier than seeing Mickey show up and watching all the adults pushing the kids out of the way to get their photo taken with him," he says.  "The impression you leave on an employee by doing a good job on planning the family part of a meeting is very powerful. Don't be shortsighted or short on effort."

Many planners and industry experts believe the family-friendly meetings trend will only grow. Anne Hamilton, vice president of resort sales and services for Disney Destinations, even noted that she's seen some groups inviting grandparents. Barry says that more family-friendly meeting groups are beginning to  consider national parks, as well as exotic locales as far flung as Costa Rica and Beijing.

"I hope [this meeting trend] becomes more of a norm, and that's exactly what I'm hearing from so many planners and exhibitors," says Runzler. "I hope it becomes more of a way of life, and more of a way of conducting business."

Runzler is not alone. After reflecting on some of the special family meeting activities she's arranged for her clients, Barry exclaims, "I wish I were a kid these days!"