Now that companies are again robustly using meetings and events to drive their bottom lines, many planners are looking for new weapons to add to their arsenals. One tactic that is quickly becoming more popular than ever before is the inclusion of children as attendees to make the meeting a family experience.
Garen Gouveia, founder and president of 13-year-old Corporate Kids Events, a Grass Valley, CA-based provider of onsite child care services and activity planning, has seen a healthy uptick in the inclusion of children as attendees over the past two years.
“It has been a recent trend, but it has also been a strong trend,” Gouveia says. “Although the majority of our business was corporate when we started out back in 1999, that percentage really dropped during the recession. But now we’re seeing a strong upward trend in the number of corporate meetings and incentive programs that include kids. That now represents about half of our total business.”
However, he adds, one lingering effect of the deep recession is tight budgets. “That means that many companies are again including children in their events and providing child care as a service, but they’re doing it on a smaller scale than before the recession,” Gouveia says. “For example, we’re not seeing as many offsite trips or activities for the kids, or they aren’t as extravagant as they were before.”
The types of activities that clients ask for vary from group to group and by region of the country, Gouveia says. “But another trend that we’re seeing now is younger families with younger children being involved in these meetings. For example, we’re seeing more and more toddlers, which pretty much negates the idea of any offsite activities.”
For older children, popular activities include offsite excursions to local museums, zoos and amusement parks, as well as tours that exemplify local history or culture, according to Gouveia.
When the inclusion of children is properly incorporated into meetings and incentive programs, the practical effect is similar to a teambuilding exercise, Gouveia says. “The feedback we get from clients is that when kids are involved, when the whole family is involved, the event is perceived as being more successful and offering real benefits. Families get to know each other better. Their children get to know each other. They then tend to have friendships and more communication with one another after that. And more and more, we see that companies come to understand the benefits of that. In some instances, there are companies we’ve been working with for 10 years, and they regularly tell us that they see the benefits of including families and kids in their events.”
Based on her experience as a meeting planner and parent, Chandra Orme, event planner at Provo, UT-based Sawtooth Software, corroborates Gouveia’s point.
“For us, the inclusion of families, including children, in our annual recognition programs is absolutely critical,” says Orme, who hosted back-to-back eight-day employee appreciation trips for 80 and 30 attendees in August and September at the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim, CA. “It’s a very cohesive group. One of the reasons we do the recognition program is to create that feeling of unity within the company. That’s one of the main goals of having the retreat. And including children in that so it’s perceived as a family event is very important to the overall culture of the company. We consider it critical to our well-being.”
Sawtooth Software, a 30-year-old enterprise that has virtually no employee turnover, is extremely family-oriented. “For example, we are very, very cognizant of the time people have to take away from their families to go to meetings,” says Orme, who has seven children. “We don’t ask people to work overtime or work on weekends. So, because we are that kind of company, it’s just important to us that we include families and children whenever it’s appropriate.”
Given its long history of including children in its employee appreciation trips, Orme says, company management has no doubt about the business benefits of the practice.
“Sawtooth is a very stable company,” Orme says. “Our employees have been with us a long time. So, many of the kids know each other because they’ve grown up together. And they enjoy being together whenever that’s possible. It’s like an extended family in many ways. And including children in a program also makes the parents more comfortable. And , speaking as a parent, it’s not always easy to find someone to take care of your kids if you’re going to be out of town for eight days. So it’s just really helpful to parents, from a practical point of view, to include children in this program.”
For her recent programs, Orme took full advantage of what the sprawling Disneyland Resort complex has to offer. Attendees were given access to the concierge lounge at the hotel. She also staged a dinner at Ariel’s Grotto, a themed “character dining” restaurant built around popular Disney princesses such as Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. Attendees also got passes to Disney’s World of Color show, and on another evening, Orme hosted an event at Fantasmic!, a musical and multimedia extravaganza starring Mickey Mouse and other famous Disney characters.
And it wasn’t just the kids who were impressed by the experience. Orme, who plans meetings and events all over the world, says she was astonished by the level of service delivered by Disney.
“I have been planning meetings and events for 10 years,” she says. “And there is no other company that I have ever found that provides the level of service that Disney does. Their standard of service is just far and away above anything I have ever experienced before. And I say that without even taking into consideration the family-friendly aspect of it. The service is just unparalleled. And the food and the venues are equal to the service. Everything is immaculate, and the attention to detail is incredible.”
Jenny McCullough, director of training and events at KOA (Kampgrounds of America) in Billings, MT, is another longtime loyalist when it comes to including children in the annual, four-day owner-operator convention she hosts in family-friendly destinations such as Savannah, GA.
KOA held its 2011 event in Orlando at the kid-friendly Gaylord Palms Resort & Convention Center — and set a new record with 750 attendees, primarily because it was the company’s 50th anniversary celebration.
Because KOA campgrounds are typically owned and run as family operations, the inclusion of children in the company’s annual meeting has been a 40-year tradition.
“We picked Gaylord Palms partly because of the fact there were things for the kids to do, such as their new Splash Park and arcade, which meant we didn’t have to take them offsite,” McCullough says.
The new Cypress Springs Family Fun Water Park at 1,406-room Gaylord Palms — part of a $50 million renovation and enhancement project — features a multilevel treehouse with 60 interactive toys, four waterslides, more than 35 pool game activities and a Splash ’n’ Screen stage that shows Dreamworks movies.
As a much-anticipated offsite activity, KOA hosted an evening at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando Resort.
“Once the news spread through our office that we were going to be doing an event at Harry Potter, there was a lot of excitement, even before the meeting,” McCullough says. “People were really pumped.”
All of the children in attendance knew Harry Potter from the wildly popular books and movies, so they, too, were exceptionally excited about the event. “A lot of people brought their families in partly for that evening, because everybody was so excited to be part of it,” McCullough says. “And then they could also take advantage of the family attractions in Orlando.”
For KOA, Orlando was particularly appealing because of its status as the world’s No. 1 family vacation destination and the built-in appeal of Disney World and Universal Orlando Resort and its two theme parks.
“A lot of the families, especially the ones with children, spent time at Disney World and Universal — and sometimes both,” McCullough says.
“Because campground owners work really hard for most of the year, for a lot of them this meeting is their only chance to go on vacation, so a lot of our attendees arrive early or stay later and do a lot of things in the area. Because of that, family-friendliness is always something that we look for in the destination. And that was one of the great things about Orlando as a destination.”
KOA also incorporates a half-day of community service in its annual meeting and includes children in that activity, too. For the Orlando meeting, attendees pitched in for projects at Forever Florida Eco-Safari and Clean the World. “Participating in community service events and learning at a young age to give back to your community is another wonderful thing for kids to do,” McCullough says. “And that kind of activity really reflects the corporate values of KOA.”
John White, general manager at K/E Electric Supply Corp. in Mt. Clemens, MI, oversees his company’s 25-year-old annual incentive program. Every aspect of the program, from decisions on the destination and hotel, as well as whether to include children in any given year, is determined by a democratic process that involves input from employees.
In October, K/E Electric, which sells electrical supplies to the construction industry, hosted 150 attendees, including children, at the Kalahari Resort and Convention Center in Sandusky, OH.
The company’s incentive destination is always within a five- to six-hour drive, White says. And sometimes it is family-friendly, while in other years it is adult-oriented.
“And when we include children, we pick a family-friendly resort such as Kalahari this year or Great Wolf in Traverse City, Michigan, or King’s Island in Ohio,” says White, who has planned the program for 13 years.
“The choice as to whether we bring children depends on whether or not our employees want to in any particular year,” he says. “We announce the program each May, because it covers the summer months, which are the most important part of our year because we sell to the construction industry. We poll our employees, and each year they make suggestions on where they’d like to go and whether they’d like children to be included or whether they prefer an adults-only trip. But it’s a totally democratic process based on what our employees tell us they want in any particular year.”
Despite the fact that the inclusion of children is not an every-year practice, White says that he and company management do recognize the benefits of family-friendly outings.
“A lot of it has to do with the business climate at any given time,” he says. “We use this program as a morale builder, as a motivator for our people to get the job done in terms of sales, and when families are being included in the program, it helps get the spouses more involved. And that’s true when the kids are involved, and we’re going to some place that has attractions like a water park or something else that kids will enjoy. And when that is the case, the wives also get involved in terms of helping decide where we go and what we do.”
And just as everything else is determined by democratic consensus, so is the selection of each year’s hotel property. “We chose Kalahari Resort and water park in Ohio because many of our employees have been there before and a number of them suggested it. And oftentimes what happens is that our employees choose a place that not only has things for the kids to do, but also has entertainment for adults. And that was the case at Kalahari. And as far as our budget goes, they do things like offer passes to the water park with your room. So we also got good value. And the service was very good.”
As the meetings market continues its recovery, more and more companies are seeing the light when it comes to including children in some of their meetings and events, Gouveia says.
And one of the most common benefits, he says, is increased — and more enthusiastic — attendance.
“We definitely find and have talked to clients and prospective clients about the fact that they have better attendance and more successful meetings when they include children and provide child care and activities for them,” he says. “Making parents comfortable about bringing their kids definitely enhances the success of the event.”
And for companies that are so inclined, there is a surprisingly long roster of potential destinations — in addition to marquee names such as Orlando or Anaheim — that are very family-friendly. Among them are Virginia beach, VA, Branson, MO, and Florida beach resorts such as Destin, where the Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa has been attracting family-friendly meetings for years. In addition, famous historical destinations such as Boston, Philadelphia and Williamsburg, VA, offer the advantage of educational benefits for children who are eager to learn more about their national heritage.
For those companies that decide to include children for the first time, Gouveia offers some advice based on his 13 years of experience.
“The important thing is that if you’re going to be inviting children to your meetings or events, there needs to be time put into planning that,” he says. “Oftentimes, it’s just secondary and companies think they can just hire a local babysitting service to get the kids taken care of so adults can focus on the meeting. But what companies find very quickly is that if you put the extra effort into finding a truly qualified vendor that is going to create wonderful things for the kids to do with themed events and age-appropriate activities, that is going to be reflected in the overall success of the program. The bottom line is if you have happy kids, you’re going to have happy parents, regardless of what else happens or doesn’t happen. If the kids come home raving about the great experience they had, that goes a long way toward the overall success of the meeting.” C&IT