Many organizations often choose to include attendees’ family members at meetings, whether or not they’re included in official functions. Incentives easily lend themselves to family-friendly gatherings, but even corporate meetings focused squarely on business can benefit by allowing attendees to bring family along, creating an easy way for employees to enjoy family vacation time before or after meetings. That can give employees an increased sense of work-life balance, and perhaps increase meeting attendance at the same time.
In-person meetings of all kinds decreased over the past couple of years, but they’re coming back strong, including those that welcome families. “We see family incentives rebounding strongly,” says Amy Pfeiffer, director, convention sales & services, Disney Destinations. “Many companies have not been able to reward their incentive winners and employees with travel experiences for two years, so they’re eager to restart these programs. The pandemic helped refocus people’s priorities on family, so we expect ‘bleisure travel’ to continue growing in the months ahead.”
Walt Disney World Resort and its theme parks are uniquely poised to meet this demand with their proven track records in motivating top performers and their status as bucket-list destinations for families across the globe. “Regardless of the Disney destination they choose,” Pfeiffer says, “incentive planners know their programs will be flawlessly executed and unforgettable experiences for their attendees.”
Ron Black, director of human resources for Southern Pipe & Supply Company Inc., last year brought multiple programs to Walt Disney World Resort. A Champion’s Club event for top store managers and a President’s Club event for top salespeople were held at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, with 225 and 240 attendees, respectively. A Chairman’s Weekend event for top customers took place with 250 attendees at Disney’s Yacht & Beach Resort.
Black says some invitees chose to put off travel a bit longer, but that overall attendance was up. “Those who did attend brought more family with them,” he says. Last year’s meetings were part of a rotation. The three main recognition programs noted are at Disney World every five years. In the interim years, they’re at other Southeastern U.S. resorts.
“We allow and encourage invitees to bring immediate family,” Black says. The company’s recognition events are “100% fun and family,” and everything from the welcome event to the closing event includes all attendees and families.
Disney World is an obvious choice for a gathering, Black says. The company selects Disney World because of its family appeal and the excitement it creates within the employees.
Black acknowledges that planning a family event is more complex than a couples’ retreat, which some of the incentive programs are. “Travel, menus, activities and entertainment are more complex. However, in our case, it helps that we are connected to the families.”
Given that family is a core value of the company, these meetings are important. “We refer to our employees as ‘family members.’ Allowing family to attend is another extension of the Southern Pipe family and an important part of building stronger relationships across the company,” Black says. “For example, our family members from Georgia develop relationships with our families from Louisiana. We began this strategy with our main recognition events in 2006. Family is a key component of our culture.”
Great Wolf Lodges are also ideal for programs that include family. With 19 lodges from North Carolina and Georgia, to California and Washington, and multiple states in between, as well as Canada, they’re especially ideal for groups that book multiple events across multiple regions. Carrie Laparry, senior travel buyer, Maritz Global Events, assists with some 300 regional meetings throughout North America for one of her corporate clients. After canceling 2020 and 2021 meetings, the group was back to in-person meetings in the summer.
Laparry cites collaboration, social interaction, creating relationships within a region, team building and quality family time among the positives of regional family-friendly meetings. As part of the events, the company contracts rooms specifically for attendees’ children, separating them into age groups so the kids can enjoy age-appropriate playtime and games. Other than the awards dinner, families are welcomed at all breakfasts and dinners. “They have afternoons to do as they wish,” Laparry says. “And sometimes the regional leader will arrange off-site activities as well.”
As for Great Wolf Lodges, Laparry says, “GWL typically fits within our budget, and with the number of regions across the U.S. that we currently have, the lodges work well.” Not surprisingly, Great Wolf’s water parks are a major hit. “The water parks are a huge draw for our regions as they keep the kids happy, which in turn makes for happy parents.”
The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, Colorado, is a superb choice for upscale groups that include families with children as well as couples looking for quality time. The highly regarded historic resort is able to provide exactly what both groups want.
“What sets The Broadmoor apart from other properties, aside from its elegance and history, are its many activities and amenities,” says M.H., meeting event manager for a global consulting firm. “A visitor could stay an entire week and still not have time to participate in everything the resort has to offer its guests. For families, there’s plenty to keep children occupied, yet it doesn’t feel like an exclusively family resort to couples who want to relax and unwind.”
Including family at meetings, M.H. says, helps with program goals such as “reconnecting and making new connections, fellowship and allowing loved ones to get a glimpse into the business.”
The global firm hosted its recent Travel Award Program with approximately 150 guests in each of four waves at the Broadmoor this summer. M.H. says COVID-19 did not have a lasting effect on registration, pointing out that attendance, including family members, was the same as that of pre-pandemic meetings. At this program, all meal functions included all family members and guests, and the company arranges meetings, meals and child care.
“Having a domestic destination allows for our guests with children to travel with more ease,” M.H. says. “That, along with the natural beauty of Colorado and the service at the resort, makes choosing The Broadmoor a no-brainer.”
In terms of meeting facilities and services, “The resort offers plenty of meeting space, FedEx offices and in-house A/V partners that make it easy for us to host our meeting,” M.H. says. “Family amenities include babysitting services, plenty of outdoor family-friendly activities and even indoor entertainment such as a bowling alley and movie theater.”
When it comes to providing everything children and parents might need at a meeting, M.H. has this suggestion: “My biggest piece of advice for family-friendly meeting planning is to look at what is needed for a family from sunup to sundown,” she says. “This might include special meals due to dietary restrictions, additional bedding and cribs, as well as plenty of activities to keep children entertained. With children, simply hosting a group dinner with food and music is not enough.”
The meetings team at LinkedIn manages four to eight events each year, including three annual, regionally based incentive programs. In early spring, a group of 325 met at the Conrad Punta de Mita in Riviera Nyarit, Mexico.
Location, airlift, ease of access, cost and quality of lodging were all factors in the decision to meet at Conrad Punta de Mita, says Aline Whitman, CMP, senior manager, global events, at LinkedIn. Additionally, having the exclusivity of the resort was definitely a positive. The fact that family members would be attending didn’t affect the decision.
Like other planners, Whitman has been faced with pandemic-related challenges over the past couple of years. “COVID definitely had an impact,” she says. “Unfortunately, we had to cancel our 2020 events. Then we had to postpone our 2021 events from fall 2021 to March 2022.”
Whitman says including family members can definitely complicate the planning process, however. “One simple example: On the day we have our scheduled activities, we’re unable to include children in any of the activity options. This often means we need to shuffle times and appointments to ensure that one parent is able to be with the kid(s) while the other participates in his or her chosen activity, and vice versa.”
Whitman adds that her team does try to provide helpful information to parents. “We work with the resort to gather all information about kids’ clubs or babysitting services available. We then share that with our attendees, but they make their own arrangements.”
In terms of advice to planners who may be considering a meeting with family in attendance, Whitman says finding balance is key. “We’ve found a good balance of being family-friendly so that those who choose to bring their children are able to do so, but those who do not [or do not have children] don’t feel they’re getting less than anyone else. It’s also important to clearly communicate all parameters in advance,” she says. “If details are shared in advance and there are no surprises [on either side], it helps make it a better experience for everyone.”
Kalahari Resorts is another hospitality brand where families and meetings converge. “We’re experiencing a very healthy recovery in meetings and conventions,” says Kyra Popp, corporate director of sales, Kalahari Resorts and Conventions. “The chasm between work and life got closer during the pandemic. With a remote workforce, companies became more accepting and connected on a personal level. Our family-friendly resorts offer a natural transition back to in-person events.” She adds, “We’re definitely seeing corporations and associations embrace and promote the amenities available for the entire family at Kalahari. With water park passes included in guest room rates, Kalahari offers a perfect platform for productive business, and at the same time, offers a perk that the attendee’s entire family can benefit from.”
Ann Elizabeth Christensen, of Houston-based Ace Events, worked on the late winter Scots Mining Conference at Kalahari’s Round Rock, Texas property. She says she cannot say enough positive about the resort. “The entire team was invaluable to me as an event planner going to a new city and a new resort with a new conference.”
The property, about 20 miles north of Austin, opened in November 2020, yet was unknown to Christensen and many attendees. But Christensen says some attendees have already booked vacation stays there as a result of the conference. Although a global meeting dedicated to bitcoin doesn’t seem like a natural for a family-friendly event, the goal was always to set this event apart from other industry conferences.
“Including family was purposeful from the start,” Christensen says. “That’s why it was set at Kalahari, an ideal venue and location that gave the conference a different spin than other bitcoin conferences. About 25% of the nearly 1,000 attendees brought children, but we heard from many attendees that next year they’ll definitely make the conference part of a family vacation.”
Kalahari’s family amenities were a huge hit, especially, Christensen says, the 228,000-sf water park. While children weren’t allowed in any business sessions, the group used almost every aspect of the resort for both business and free time. “We used every available restaurant on the property for functions or sponsored dinners, and companies also used them to entertain clients and employees,” she says. “The resort’s 12-lane bowling alley was the site of a large sponsor party. There was a lot of camaraderie and networking outside of the traditional meeting space and day because of all the amenities, activities and venues at the resort. All of this kept people on the campus so that networking was ongoing, even during family time.”
The group booked the larger lower level of the resort’s conference center and used the 40,000-sf Kilimanjaro Ballroom and all breakout rooms. “Even though there was also a group upstairs, we were not impacted at all,” Christensen says. “We got amazing attention. The staff was always available, pleasant and professional. Any issues were immediately resolved.”
As a new conference, Christensen says they were unsure what to expect, so requirements for rooms and space changed frequently throughout the planning process. “Things were constantly evolving, but the resort staff just said they’d handle it and get it done — and they did.”
Arguably, “the wow” moment of the event was the wrap-up party set in the new, 6,000-sf Barn off the conference center lawn. But it wasn’t just about the space, which Christensen calls “amazing.” It was about how the resort once again went above and beyond.
“We wanted to have a s’mores party on the lawn after the barbecue dinner in the Barn, with chairs set around a fire pit. Unfortunately, the resort didn’t have a fire pit and there were no rentals to be found,” she says. “It was starting to look impossible. Then the Kalahari staff simply went out and purchased four fire pits. That’s what can happen when a resort is family owned and the owners are involved. The purchase of the fire pits was immediately approved, and we were able to have the party we really wanted.”
Christensen thinks the inclusion of family not only made the recent conference a hit, but will increase registration at future conferences. “There’s definitely a plan right now to have a conference next year and to set it at a Kalahari resort,” she says.
Companies that include family at conferences and programs say there are huge benefits to doing so, and there’s ample evidence to support them. Resorts across North America are on board, leveraging their business, family facilities and amenities to help planners make those conferences successful. C&IT