Delegates arrive at these destinations with families in tow
It’s official: “Bleisure” is on the rise. Combining a business trip with a leisure trip is the latest wave in family travel of the trend of taking “staycations,” vacations taken at home, or exploring close to home with short road trips. Rather than planning separate family vacations, more and more families are taking advantage of one spouse’s conferences or business trips to create vacations.
Family attendees experience a clear savings combining these trips, and meeting planners are reaping benefits as well.
“We have found an attendance lift whenever a conference has optional attendance and they choose a location like Wisconsin Dells, because the kids are excited and want to come,” said Tifani Jones, director of sales for the Wisconsin Dells Visitor and Convention Bureau.
If you’re looking to boost attendance at an upcoming meeting, consider selecting one of these destinations that appeal to families.
Ocean City, Maryland
Just north of otherworldly, uninhabited Assateague State Park and east of Maryland’s quiet, fishing-village-lined Eastern Shore, Ocean City is where the state wakes up, puts on its beach gear and a smile and goes for a good time.
Although the summer season offers nonstop beach concerts and events, some of the area’s best festivals take place during the fall, an ideal time to bring a meeting to the area. In late September, Sunfest brings major musical acts and plenty of arts, crafts and edible fun to the beach, and the Winterfest of Lights, with 1 million LED lights incorporated into 400 displays viewed from a 12-minute boardwalk tram ride, begins in mid-November and runs through the holiday season. For a festivallike experience any time of year, groups can rent out a local amusement park, like the popular Jolly Roger.
Ocean City’s Roland E. Powell Convention Center offers panoramic views of the bay, but groups looking for a family-type setting have several full-service boardwalk options. The largest hotel in terms of meeting space is the Clarion Resort Fontainebleau Hotel, which includes 40,000 square feet of meeting space spread over 40 meeting rooms, followed by the Princess Royale Resort Hotel and Conference Center, which has 30,000 square feet of meeting space. The Grand Hotel and Spa, which sits directly on the boardwalk, features 10,922 square feet of meeting space and 249 guest rooms.
Emerald Coast, Florida
In northwestern Florida, along the Gulf Islands National Seashore, Florida’s Emerald Coast offers meeting planners a low-key beach destination where they won’t feel like their group gets lost among large leisure and convention groups.
“With any kind of meeting here, people want to bring their family, and the reason why starts with the beach — there’s 200 miles of sugar-white beach here in northwest Florida,” said Emerald Coast CVB executive director Ed Schroeder. “But what separates us as a destination is what to do when you get off the beach. The HarborWalk Village in Destin feels more like an authentic Mediterranean beach town. You have the largest charter-boat-fishing fleet in North America in a place like one of the theme parks in Disneyworld, except that it’s authentic.”
With 11,000 sleeping rooms and nearly a dozen meeting hotels serving groups of up to 500, the Emerald Coast is well geared toward small and medium groups looking to carve out their own stretch of sand. The 15-acre Palms of Destin Resort and Conference Center is a stalwart, with a mix of standard hotel rooms, suites and villas, and 6,000 square feet of event space with the option to also rent the 11,000-square-foot lagoon pool area. New in the area is the 208-acre The Henderson, a Salamander Beach and Spa Resort, which is set to come online in September with 171 rooms and 10,000 square feet of meeting space.
Branson is an ideal choice for many types of meetings. Its major venues include the 220,000-square-foot, glass-front Branson Convention Center overlooking Bull Shoals Lake; the 301-room Chateau on the Lake Resort, Spa and Convention Center, with 43,500 square feet of meeting space; and the 260-unit Big Cedar Lodge, with its own 21,308-square-foot conference center. But it particularly shines for groups looking to offer attendees a destination for the whole family.
“Branson has so many attractions, and we’re getting so many new attractions this year and next year that it’s amazing how many we’re adding right now,” said Deborah Cohen, director of meeting and convention sales for the Branson/Lakes Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. The new 15-story-tall Branson Ferris Wheel, which had stood on Chicago’s Navy Pier for the past two decades, can be reserved by groups as part of a package with the adjacent go-kart tracks. A new mountain coaster and an 80,000-square-foot indoor climbing adventure park called Fritz’s Adventure, which will also include an event space, are set to open this fall.
While the summer holidays bring the highest leisure visitation to Branson, Cohen recommends January to May for availability or the fall for groups looking to soak up a special type of Ozark scenery — gold leaves on the brilliant blue lake.
For meeting planners looking to organize a family-appropriate meeting in the West, Mesa, Arizona, home to one of the 10 coolest parks in the country, according to USA Today, transcends classification as just a suburb of Phoenix.
Mesa’s $8 million Riverview Park is next to the newly opened 180-room Sheraton Mesa Hotel at Wrigleyville West with 37,000 square feet of meeting space, on the Salt River, or Rio Salado. The park includes features such as state-of-the-art playgrounds for young ones, a 300-foot-long natural climbing wall for teens, a 50-foot-tall rope climbing tower that will also give adults a rush and a 75-foot splash pad to keep everyone cool together. As a group team-building activity or on their own as a family after the event, group members can fish in the five-acre urban lake stocked with fish by the city. Organized sports fans can check out the Chicago Cubs spring training facility next door at Sloan Park, where planners can hold receptions on the patio outside of training season.
Groups looking to take their meeting or reception outside have several other options just outside the city on Mesa’s Fresh Foodie Trail. Highlights include an olive-pressing tour and lunch at the Queen Creek Olive Mill, which has been featured on the Food Network, and Schnepf Farms, a working peach farm that is one of the largest peach growers in the Southwest and offers “dinners down the orchard,” family-style meals amid the peach trees.
Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin
Billing itself the Waterpark Capital of the World, the Dells features 200 waterslides in its 19 square miles and welcomes more than 4 million visitors each year from all around the Midwest and beyond.
As water features are a given, Wisconsin Dells’ resorts all offer planners a different themed environment for their events. Groups can go Western at the 620-room Chula Vista Resort, with 100,000 square feet of meeting space and several indoor and outdoor options with views of the Wisconsin River, or at the 1,163-room Glacier Canyon Lodge at the Wilderness. An Africa-inspired experience awaits at the 756-room Kalahari Resort and Convention Center, which has 100,000 square feet of meeting space. And although it has less meeting space than some other area hotels, the Great Wolf Lodge in Wisconsin Dells is the brand’s original property, so it is a popular choice with families.
For an evening reception or a day meeting outside of the typical resort setting, groups can take over the Swan Barn Door, a new rustic-themed venue nestled in the woods, or the Cold Water Canyon Pavilion, an island venue reached by boat with an option for catering during the boat ride.
Due to the destination’s popularity, Jones encourages planners to book further in advance to secure their preferred dates. “July and August are very high occupancy, but with decent lead time, we do have groups that get in, especially smaller groups,” she said.