Tame the Attendance BeastDecember 1, 2012

The Beauty of Family-Friendly Venues Lies in Their Value and Universal Appeal By
December 1, 2012

Tame the Attendance Beast

The Beauty of Family-Friendly Venues Lies in Their Value and Universal Appeal
The newly expanded Fantasyland in Walt Disney World Resort features the "Beauty and the Beast" attraction. A family joins Belle and Lumiere in a storytelling adventure at Enchanted Tales with Belle.

The newly expanded Fantasyland in Walt Disney World Resort features the “Beauty and the Beast” attraction. A family joins Belle and Lumiere in a storytelling adventure at Enchanted Tales with Belle. Credit: Kent Phillips/Walt Disney World Resort

How important is it for association members to be able to include family and friends at an upcoming meeting or convention away from home? Very.

That is the conclusion of a recent survey of 4,300 global business travelers of all types by Wyndham Hotels, said to be the largest hotelier in the world with more than 7,000 properties in its portfolio.

Backed by impressive statistics, Wyndham revealed that 52 percent of U.S. business travelers have had family members or guests join them while away from home at one time or another, as compared to 33 percent of rather reluctant business travelers from the U.K.

Furthermore, among all who do travel on business, nearly half have tacked on some leisure time while on the trip, while a quarter of those polled say that they always do.

This may be even more the case for convention-goers whose companies may or may not be paying for their attendance at an industry association event. Beyond the desire of a shared experience is a golden opportunity to combine a family vacation with business by extending the stay for a few extra days in a value destination rich in entertainment and attractions.

Association meeting planners, who are tasked with identifying ideal family-friendly meeting properties, already know that theme-park granddaddies such as Walt Disney Parks and Resorts and Universal Orlando Resort can be counted on to deliver a successful experience. But they’re also finding that less-familiar themed resorts are gaining in popularity, from the northwoods-themed Great Wolf Lodge resorts to the Africa-inspired Kalahari Resorts and beyond.

Rustic Recreation

The rustic Great Wolf Lodge resorts are distinguished by their impressive indoor water parks. Great Wolf offers 10 meeting-style, but very family-oriented resorts located throughout the U.S.

Last April, the Michigan State Police Troopers Association (MSPTA) based in East Lansing, MI, booked the Great Wolf Lodge in Traverse City, MI, for a quarterly meeting. Due to the group’s statewide membership, events are generally held at different locations throughout Michigan.

The Traverse City resort features state-of-the-art meeting space for smaller groups, with flexibility for conferences, training sessions, workshops, catered banquets and networking events. In addition, there are themed dining rooms for individual diners or small groups. Family-oriented suites, which incorporate specialty sleeping quarters for kids, include the Wolf Den, KidKamp and KidCabin. There also are Whirlpool Fireplace Suites and Loft Fireplace Suites.

The amusement side of the lodge includes the Northern Lights games arcade for the whole family and MagiQuest just for kids, but the real attraction is a 38,000-sf, year-round, indoor water park called Bear Track Landing. It offers nine slides, two pools, a four-story, interactive water fort, plus other water features such as jumbo whirlpools, individually allocated for adults or teens.

MSPTA’s Marketing Director Pat Strzalkowski sums up the experience: “Our members love that they can bring their families. It enables them to spend time together and stay involved with the association. And, while at the lodge, everything is under one roof. Attendees are able to check in with their families during meeting breaks, and can quickly meet up with them when business is completed. There are so many entertainment options to choose from that, aside from our dinner buffet, we have not found it necessary to organize any specific activities for our members, which is great for planners.”

At the April meeting there were approximately 165 departmental members in attendance from all over the state, and most of them brought their families, totaling more than 400 people, including spouses and children. This was the association’s fourth meeting at the Great Wolf Lodge since 2008, and its popularity with the group has been proven by both attendance numbers and the number of requests it gets to return.

“Our members also appreciate that the Great Wolf Lodge extends a special discount through its Howling Heroes program to military, law enforcement, firefighters and other first-responders,” Strzalkowski says. “It provides an option to visit the lodge when the MSPTA is not holding a meeting onsite. This relationship has developed into more than just a business partnership. We will definitely return in the future.”

Strzalkowski says that the troopers utilized meeting space to accommodate an executive board session for approximately 20 people. “Concurrently, meeting space was used to conduct a training session for 125. Finally, there was a session for all attendees at this conference. We held a pizza buffet that provided an excellent dinner option for all. The staff at the lodge did an outstanding job serving our members and keeping food stations supplied. We timed dinner so everyone could return to the water park before story time in the lobby — something both children and parents thoroughly look forward to and enjoy at the end of the day. We also held evening hospitality rooms where our members visit, share stories and reenergize,” Strzalkowski says.

Safari So Good

The Kalahari Resorts and Convention Centers in Sandusky and Wisconsin Dells are designed for family fun all under one roof, and are purpose-built to accommodate conventions large and small. They both feature huge indoor and outdoor water parks along with their authentic African art and artifacts, and safari-style décor, restaurants and retail outlets. Sandusky’s indoor water park is the nation’s largest while the Dells indoor water park is the biggest in the Midwest. The Sandusky Kalahari Resort also offers the 115,000-sf Safari Outdoor Adventure and Animal Park for all ages. The Wisconsin Dells resort boasts a 110,000-sf indoor theme park with Ferris wheel, climbing walls, bowling, mini-golf, go carts and more. Also on-property is a 15-screen cinema and Trappers Turn, a 27-hole golf course featuring golf carts with GPS technology.

The 884-room Sandusky resort claims to have the region’s largest resort convention center with 215,000 sf of flexible space including a 38,000-sf ballroom, after a recent expansion. The convention center now can accommodate up to 5,200 attendees. The Kalahari Resort in Wisconsin recently invested more than $1 million in upgrades and contains approximately 750 rooms and suites, and its own 100,000-sf convention center. The African theme is carried throughout the convention centers as well. Conference attendees who elect to stay beyond the meeting are offered discounted group rates.

In 2014, the safari travels east and lands in the Poconos, PA, where Kalahari will open its first resort in the Northeast. It will offer 450 guest units, 65,000 sf of flexible space as part of its phase-one opening, spa venues, an 18-hole golf course and popular outdoor activities such as horseback riding, archery, fishing, snowshoeing, sporting clays and more. It also will feature an indoor and an outdoor water park, a 30,000-sf theme park, and two full-service restaurants, among other options. Phase two (2017) and phase three (2020) will see additional guest rooms and meeting space, as well as other features.

Caribbean Cool

Nelson Flores of the Puerto Rico Manufacturers Association (PRMA) in San Juan, PR, has given the El Conquistador Resort, a Waldorf Astoria Resort in Fajardo, PR, a “thumbs up” for 10 consecutive years now. “El Conquistador is simply the best hotel for conventions in Puerto Rico,” notes Flores, director of special events. “We use it for every aspect of our annual four-day meeting including lodging, meals, meetings, evening events, shows and dancing, all in one location.”

It’s easy to see why the famous resort (a member of The Waldorf Astoria Collection) is such a winner with the group, as it drives attendance year after year.

Located in an old fishing village, some of the grand hotel’s special features include five themed villages, a championship golf course, a casino, tennis courts, a Golden Door spa, and almost two dozen restaurants, eateries, bars and lounges. But the newest addition is a $12 million water park, which makes the resort perfect for kids who come along with a parent or two.

The Coqui Water Park is a state-of-the-art aquatic playground for both children and adults. It is themed after the nearby El Yunque rain forest. Special water features include a tower with three high-speed water slides, an 8,000-sf river where guests swirling around in inner tubes can flow along its waters through the park, and an infinity-edge swimming pool among many other highlights. In addition, the resort provides golf demonstration clinics, guided environmental tours in the El Yunque rain forest, novelty sports such as beach baseball and a kids club call Camp Coqui.

Palomino Island, the resort’s private, 100-acre tropical island for water sports, from snorkeling to windsurfing, and from hiking to horseback riding, is also a hit with groups that bring family members and guests.

The 750-room El Conquistador is also impressively designed for meetings, exhibitions and conventions with 100,000 sf of flexible indoor/outdoor meeting space including the 21,090-sf Grand Atlantic Ballroom — the largest in Puerto Rico — and the 19,982-sf Grand Caribbean Ballroom.

When PRMA held its 84th annual convention at El Conquistador this past June, they booked 400 guest rooms for the 225 members who attended the convention, plus hundreds more by way of family, friends and other visitors.

“We are always very happy with the turnout of our convention at El Conquistador,” says Flores. “To us, it is very important that our members are treated to excellent service, and we get that level of treatment year after year from the people at the resort. In fact, we just signed on for two more years.”

Big Parks for Small Groups

Meeting planners who organize small events should not be deterred from investigating the many attributes of holding a meeting in a themed or amusement park — even big ones like Six Flags, which has 17 amusement parks in the U.S. According to a Six Flags source, association groups are made welcome by “walk-right-in” benefits, and special pricing arrangements for groups of from 10 to 1,500 people.

Christal Rogers, president and founder of Precise Plans in St. Louis, MO, planned one such event at the Six Flags St. Louis location several years ago as a third party for a small religious organization. It was so successful that they are repeating the event in 2013.

“We selected Six Flags because of its convenient location, plus they have more activities to choose from than the smaller parks in our area,” notes Rogers. “Six Flags offers arcades, a wide selection of cuisine ranging from Chinese to French, not to mention water rides.”

According to Rogers, the purpose of the day’s outing was simply to allow the members of the group the opportunity to know one another outside their normal setting. “The group is a very tight-knit organization that normally meets three times a week for various faith-based purposes. These get-togethers were always on a strict schedule and time frame. So, the purpose of this Six Flags outing was an opportunity to get together at a fun location and just ‘let their hair down,’ ” she says. “They didn’t want a lot of scheduled meetings or strict time lines to adhere to, so any planned activities that we did have for the day were kept to a minimum.”

Although the group — nearly 40 ranging in age from 10 to 55 years old — did not use any formal meeting space, they met up at designated times and places throughout the day in order to maintain some cohesiveness.

“The younger set immediately ran off to hop on the nearest ride,” adds Rogers. “The rest of the group (35 and older) explored the park and got to know each other. But at 3 p.m., the group convened at the American Thunder restaurant for mid-afternoon lunch. Later on at about 7 p.m., the group met up again at the Old Glory Amphitheater for a concert of headline performers. So it was a long day but a rewarding one, so much so, we’re hoping to repeat it again in the spring.”

The main thing for this small nonprofit was that there was something for everyone at the park. “We didn’t organize any specific activities because there is already so much to do at Six Flags,” she says. “We did receive a group discount by purchasing the tickets in advance through the corporate office and ended up paying about a third of the regular ticket price.”

For larger groups, Six Flags St. Louis is surrounded by a dozen hotels/motels surrounding the park, appealing to every budget, including Holiday Inn Six Flags where kids eat free and Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park Resort, less than a mile from Six Flags, where “Yogi” makes daily appearances, and a new conference center has been added to the complex.

What’s New at Disney and Universal

According to Global Industry Analysts’ March 2012 business report on the status of theme parks, the world’s fascination with theme parks remains strong, with the U.S. continuing to lead the global theme park market. GIA also predicts that over the coming years the “park within a park” concept will become a more evident trend, and that even now, the majority of theme parks are expanding to include more hotel rooms and add secondary attractions to attract more visitors.

One only has to survey the Walt Disney Parks and Resorts brand to see how true this is. The Disney empire in America includes the original Disneyland Park and Disneyland California Adventure, located in Anaheim, CA; while the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, FL, includes Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios and Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

Orlando’s Walt Disney World
Fantasyland will nearly double in size as Magic Kingdom’s largest expansion ever is completed in stages through 2014. The expansion will be completed with the opening of the Princess Fairytale Hall in 2013 and the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train in 2014. Officially open on December 6, 2012 are the Storybook Forest and the Enchanted Forest areas. The many experiences in the Enchanted Forest include Under the Sea — Journey of the Little Mermaid, a ride-through attraction based on Disney’s popular animated classic film. The attraction also will provide large groups with a variety of venues for private events, as well as other entertainment options. Enchanted Forest attractions with a “Beauty and the Beast” theme include the interactive adventure Enchanted Tales with Belle and the 550-seat Be Our Guest restaurant, housed in a recreation of the Beast’s castle.

Walt Disney World Resort recently debuted the Art of Animation Resort, featuring themed guest rooms and suites celebrating some of Disney’s most acclaimed animated films such as “The Lion King,” “Cars,” “Finding Nemo” and “The Little Mermaid.” Approximately 2,000 units offer 1,120 suites and 864 guest rooms.

Avatar is coming to Disney’s Animal Kingdom with themed lands from the James Cameron blockbuster movie. Construction of the first Avatar attraction will begin in 2013.

Downtown Disney soon will welcome Splitsville, a 50,000-sf multipurpose entertainment complex with bowling and billiards, dining and dancing. Other new Disney Downtown options include AMC Theaters’ first “fork-and-dine” theater in Florida.

The Star Tours 3-D attraction, which opened in 2011 at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, plays off the legendary movie “Star Wars” and is available for group events.

Kouzzina by Cat Cora, of celebrity chef fame, offers a new private dining room perfect for small events of up to 24 people. Kouzzina is located on Disney’s BoardWalk.

Walt Disney World Resort offers six convention resorts with a total of 5,000 guest rooms and 700,000 sf of flexible function space. Planners can take advantage of the professional business programs from the Disney Institute and well as entertainment and production services through Disney Event Group, which can help design family-friendly programs.

California’s Disneyland
New private event venues and entertainment options became available when Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, CA, completed its expansion of California Adventure Park in June. Among them are the 12-acre Cars Land from the Disney-Pixar film “Cars” and the “Mad T Party” nighttime event inspired by Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” movie. The Little Mermaid attraction, which debuted in 2011 in the Paradise Pier district, offers private event options as well. In June 2012 the Disneyland Hotel received the AAA Four Diamond award, making it the second property at the iconic Disneyland Resort to receive the honor along with Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel & Spa. The Disneyland Hotel completed a two-year renovation and redesign of 969 guest rooms — and the addition of themed suites — recreational facilities and public areas last summer. New to the property are two private event lawns totaling 20,000 sf with permanent stage and special lighting.

Hawaii’s Disney Resort
Across the Pacific to the shores of Oahu, HI, the new (2011) Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa, is a 21-acre tribute to Hawaiian-style culture and arts. Aulani offers 840 rooms, suites and villas plus 50,000 sf of indoor-outdoor event space, which includes a 14,000-sf conference center and outdoor event lawns. Exotic landscapes and an Aloha spirit complete the desirability of the resort for groups. Unique to the resort is an Adventures by Disney program, which provides a special host and encourages guests to explore, hike, sail, snorkel and even swim with the dolphins, among other adventures. The resort’s Waikolohe Valley water park — Waikolohe is Hawaiian for “mischievous water” — showcases water slides and a lazy river that wind through lava formations, caverns and steam-venting hot springs. There are programs geared to teenagers, and Aunty’s Beach House kids’ club is designed for kids ages 3–12.

Universal Orlando Resort
Universal Orlando Resort had a landmark year in 2012, introducing more new entertainment experiences than at any other time in its history.

In June Universal Studios debuted Universal’s Superstar Parade, a daily affair with extravagant floats and hundreds of street performers; and Universal’s Cinematic Spectacular: 100 Years of Movie Memories, which brings to life some of Universal’s most iconic films on huge waterfall screens, with visual and audio special effects and pyrotechnics.

Other new additions this past summer: “Despicable Me Minion Mayhem” is a 3-D experience at Universal Studios that incorporates favorite characters from the hit film of the same name. “The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man” at Islands of Adventure now sports a state-of-the-art 3-D projection system, new music score and Spider-Vision glasses.

Universal CityWalk recently debuted Hollywood Drive-In Golf, two 18-hole miniature golf courses based on classic drive-in era horror and sci-fi movies; and a revamped show from Blue Man Group, which now features a new show environment, musical score and interactive technology.

What really drives attendance, however, is Universal’s wildly popular Wizarding World of Harry Potter in the Islands of Adventure. The Themed Entertainment Asso­ciation reports that Islands of Adventure posted a 29 percent increase in attendance in 2011 over 2010, in large part due to the Harry Potter effect. Groups can book specialized, catered experiences and entertainment at locations such as Hogsmeade, Hogwarts castle and Three Broomsticks tavern.

Planners also can arrange for special events to be held inside any of the other attractions or at a restaurant or club at Universal’s CityWalk dining, entertainment and shopping district. Groups also can book the entire CityWalk complex for a massive block party.

Attendees and their families who stay in any of Universal’s AAA Four Diamond onsite hotels enjoy early access to Islands of Adventure or Universal Studios one hour before they open; and can skip the regular lines during normal park hours. The three onsite hotels are Loews Portofino Bay Hotel with 750 guest rooms and 42,000 sf of meeting space; Loews Royal Pacific with 1,000 guest rooms and 85,000 sf of meeting space; and Hard Rock Hotel with 650 guest rooms and 6,000 sf of meeting space.

Updates to the meeting space and ballrooms at Loews Royal Pacific and Hard Rock were completed in September; and guest room renovations at Loews Royal Pacific will be completed in stages, with the first half scheduled for a 2014 completion and the rest in 2015. Hard Rock also will update its guest rooms at some future date. Loews Portofino Bay was scheduled to finish renovations to all guest rooms in December 2012. Construction of the new, more moderately priced 1,800-room Cabana Bay Beach Resort will be completed in 2014.

Final Say

Pat Strzalkowski attests that theme parks and themed resorts are a great draw with great value: “At Great Wolf Lodge, with activities that please all people of all ages, the opportunity to stay at the lodge for a discounted rate has served to increase the popularity and attendance of this type of venue with each visit we make. It is a win-win for all.” AC&F

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