Water World

Imagine ripping down a dark tunnel of water atop a yellow raft and then being dropped into a pool with water jets spraying you and your raft from all sides. Not exactly the image that comes to mind when deciding on a meeting venue? Strangely enough, resorts and water parks are beginning to go hand in hand and some meeting planners are catching the wave.

THE BUZZ

If you're from Wisconsin, you've probably already noticed the craze: More than half of the nation's water parks are located there. But if you don't happen to be from the water-park-resort mecca of the United States, then you may be surprised to learn that the number of such properties increased by 29 percent in 2004 compared to the previous year, according to a study done by the Rochester, MN-based JLC Hospitality Consulting Inc.

And not only are these resorts filling more rooms than are hotels without water attractions (especially on weekends and school breaks), but they are also competing with seasonal, non- hotel water park attractions, which only stay open 100 days out of the year. Apart from being great places for families to have fun, water parks are attracting another niche in the travel market—planners who are discovering that they're also good venues for meetings.

The Kalahari Water Park and Resort in Wisconsin Dells, WI, is a good example. "Forty percent of our business comes from the convention side, and the water park is the number-one draw," says John Chastan, director of sales at Kalahari. And that's why, Chastan says, Kalahari has put a lot of thought into building and expanding the meeting space it offers planners (Kalahari boasts more than 100,000 square feet of ballroom and meeting space).

It's not just Kalahari. Today there are 79 water park resorts in the United States that target the meetings market. The Great Wolf Lodge, a water park resort chain that averages 57,000 square feet of water park space per property and provides meeting space, has properties in such locations as Kansas, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Michigan, and Ontario, Canada, to name a few. The Kansas City Great Wolf Lodge's latest addition was a water rock-climbing wall. Massachusetts has a water park resort too; Cape Codder Resort and Spa features an indoor water park complete with a wave pool, slides, waterfalls, and whirlpools. Pointe South Mountain resort in Phoenix has a water park called The Oasis, which was named one of the top theme parks in the nation by the Travel Channel and features a large, outdoor water park with an eight-story-high canyon slide tower, a lazy river, and an oversized hot tub. And those are just to name a few—virtually every popular meetings destination in the United States is within driving distance of a resort water park.

"Having an indoor water park is like buying insurance to assure a completely successful meeting," write Jeff Coy and Bill Haralson in their JLC Hospitality report.

FAMILY FUN

Some meeting attendees will extend their stay past the conference just because the water park resort is so family oriented, says Paula Hough, meeting planner for Associated Builders and Contractors in Madison, WI. She brought her group to Kalahari last February and planned a Saturday afternoon pool party for them, with kid-friendly features like a water balloon toss and refreshments that included sodas, ice cream bars, and margaritas. Attendees could also spend time swimming with their kids. Kalahari is the only place where we can do large events within a family facility," says Hough.

That's the kicker: Meeting attendees like the idea of turning their work conferences into mini vacations for their families, explains Neela Johnston, vice president of events and client services for an independent meeting planning firm in Rancho Cordova, CA. Johnston planned a recent incentive conference to Mexico in which attendees and their spouses were invited to the conference at no cost and children could come for a minimal fee. She planned optional day-trip activities for attendees and their families at Xel-Ha, an ecological water park in the Mayan Riviera that has tubing, water ladders, a natural lake, and picnicking areas. Although Xel-Ha, unlike Kalahari, Great Wolf, and Cape Codder, is not attached to a resort, Johnston says it was close enough to the hotel she used that it gave guests a good alternative to the usual after-hours activities. In fact, just such a park opened in Daytona, FL in April.

"Xel-Ha offered quality family time in the middle of an incentive program—rather than having the dad golfing, the mom enjoying spa treatments, and the kids being babysat," says Johnston.

Providing a family-oriented spin on meetings is what attendees appreciate most planners find. Marge Anderson, associate director at the Energy Center of Wisconsin in Madison, planned the center's largest conference of the year at Kalahari. Anderson says that she estimates that hosting the organization's annual conference at Kalahari this past year increased meeting attendance by at least 15 percent. "There were 286 kids and it was during a school week, so the attendees were actually taking their kids out of school," Anderson said.

But even if attendees don't plan on bringing children, there are still plenty of reasons for them to attend a conference at a water park resort. According to a Walt Disney spokesperson based in Orlando, Disney World offers surfing lessons at its water park as a teambuilding activity for conference attendees.

ALMOST ALL-INCLUSIVE

Because most of these water resorts offer entertainment, meeting space, and rooms all in one facility, the planning process is simpler and often cheaper. The price of admission to the water park is usually included in the price of the room, so when guests check in, they get their room key and a wristband for the park—a cheaper alternative to off-site entertainment and a way to get attendees to stick around on property in between meeting sessions.

There's no need to worry about special safety staff for the water park, either. The overall event fee will almost always cover the cost of a full staff of certified lifeguards like those at Disney's Typhoon Lagoon Water Park in Orlando. Insurance for attendees should also be covered by the facility, but it is best to check on this during the planning process. Smaller, regional facilities might not offer to cover the cost of insurance as part of a package.

Additionally, major chains may also have stipulations about what is covered if third-party vendors are used for the event. Disney, for example, requires attendees to sign a consent waiver releasing the resort from liability if an event at Typhoon Lagoon involves utilizing a third party, according to a Disney Water Park spokesperson.

If there are families attending and a portion of the conference is not meant for children, most of these water park resorts offer built-in nanny services—like at Kalahari, which can arrange for babysitting rooms for children of different ages. Attendees can bring their kids to that room or they can hire someone to come to their hotel room, explains Kalahari's Chastan.

And because these resorts are family oriented, the flat room rates often include up to four people per room. So for the price of one, an attendee can bring his or her spouse and two kids--water park passes included.

SIDEBAR

No Slide Necessary

Great events using water attractions don't necessarily have to involve over-the-top slides and wave pools. There are plenty of resorts that feature water attractions that make great settings for receptions, cocktail parties, and other kinds of special events.

In August, I visited the Gaylord Opryland Resort in Nashville to attend the annual meeting of the American Society of Association Executives. The resort's four-and-a-half-acre atrium features a quarter-mile, indoor river cruise through a garden that is home to an 85-foot fountain, three waterfalls, numerous shops and restaurants, and an 80-pound catfish. Each evening, the resort also stages Synergy, a water and light show synchronized to music.

At about the same time I was enjoying the water features at the Opryland, the attendees of the National Business Travel Association's 37th Annual Convention & Trade Show were in San Diego, gathered around the 25,000-square-foot pool deck at the Manchester Grand Hyatt San Diego.

The Hyatt's large pool—with a beautiful model reclining on a Hyatt Grand Bed floating in the pool—was the center of attention for the crowd of 750 travel industry leaders who gathered for cocktails. Later, as the moon shone on San Diego Bay, attention shifted to a stage suspended over the pool and the rigging 20 feet above it, where an acrobatics show was staged just behind the floating bed. As this Cirque-type show wound down, a live band began performing on the pool deck's built-in stage. Four additional Hyatt Grand Beds graced the pool deck—each featuring an attractive model.