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Bring the Kids to These Family-Friendly Meeting Destinations

More meeting attendees are choosing to make the most of their time away by bringing along their families and turning a convention into a vacation. As delegates bring spouses, partners and children and extend their stays before or after a conference, meeting planners are seeing higher attendance when they choose family-friendly destinations.

Here are five popular destinations to consider when looking for meeting destinations that will attract attendees and their families.

Pigeon Forge, Tennessee

Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, is first and foremost a family vacation destination.

“People come as kids, then they grow up and bring their kids, and it just goes on,” said Leon Downey, executive director of the Pigeon Forge Deptartment of Tourism. “They develop this ownership of this destination.”

In some ways, Pigeon Forge is a small town; it has only 6,000 permanent residents. But it’s not so small in many other ways. It had 6.3 million visitors last year, Downey said. It’s home to 70 attractions, over 90 restaurants, more than 300 shopping venues and nearly 15,000 lodging units, including 8,600 hotel rooms, 2,700 cabins or chalets and about 1,000 condos.

Two signature attractions draw visitors to the city. Great Smoky Mountains National Park sits just outside the city, and Dolly Parton’s Dollywood theme park unveiled Wildwood Grove, a $37 million expansion, in May.

Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort opened in 2015 with over 300 rooms and 6,000 square feet of flexible meeting space, along with outdoor venues like an event lawn and covered barn. The 232,000-square-foot LeConte Center at Pigeon Forge features a 100,500-square-foot, column-free exhibit hall and a 12,000-square-foot hall.

Recent additions include a 15-lane indoor snow-tubing facility that blows real snow every night “so you can go tubing in your shorts and flip-flops and not be uncomfortable,” Downey said. At the Outdoor Gravity Park, guests can roll through courses in Zorbs — like inflatable hamster balls for humans.

Anaheim, California

The Anaheim Convention Center sits directly across the street from Disneyland, so it’s easy to see why the city appeals to attendees who want to bring their families along during a conference.

“A lot of people will plan their family vacation around it,” said Jay Burress, president and CEO of Visit Anaheim.

Because Anaheim, California, is a destination for both leisure travelers and meeting groups, it allows attendees to marry business with pleasure. In addition to Disneyland, Anaheim is home to Disneyland California Adventure Park — Knott’s Berry Farm is also nearby — and Orange County has 42 miles of coastline with six bustling beach cities.

Many planners see record numbers when they hold their event in Anaheim. Disneyland offers special rates or discount coupons to attendees and their families, and some hotels will honor the event rate for attendees’ extended stays.

Once Visit Anaheim understands the client and their attendees, “you can have as much Disney and family appeal as you want, or you can not see it at all,” Burress said.

Outside the theme parks, Visit Anaheim can provide sample itineraries or help attendees’ spouses and families with beach outings, craft brewery tours and shopping. In the revitalized downtown, visitors will find the Anaheim Packing District, anchored by the restored 1919 orange-packing warehouse that has been transformed into a food hall.

The Anaheim Convention Center recently completed an expansion that added 200,000 square feet of flexible event space, and across the street, Disney’s three resort hotels and the theme parks boast dozens of meeting venues.

Wilmington, North Carolina

The most obvious reason Wilmington, North Carolina, is a family-friendly destination “is the beaches, which people love,” said Kim Hufham, president and CEO of the Wilmington and Beaches Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The city is home to three barrier island beaches, each with its own personality. Wrightsville Beach is home to many of the area’s resort hotels, including the beachfront Blockade Runner Beach Resort and the Holiday Inn Resort, both of which provide meeting space and in-house kids’ camps. All of Shell Island Resort’s 155 guest suites front the ocean, and the hotel’s 6,000 square feet of conference space includes an oceanfront ballroom.

Kure Beach has a small-town feel and few facilities, but Carolina Beach delivers a days-gone-by vibe along with meeting venues. Shops, restaurants and bars, as well as a seaside amusement park, line the wooden boardwalk.

Hufham said more planners are starting meetings on Sunday and running them through Thursday or Friday, which gives attendees and their families the chance to extend their stay before or after the event, especially during spring and fall shoulder seasons.

“I think they use that to their advantage to have higher attendance,” Hufham said.

Through its services department, the CVB can arrange spouse or family activities, connect groups with attractions and provide on-site visitor information services during the conference.

All of the city’s major attractions stay open year-round, including the North Carolina Aquarium, the Children’s Museum of Wilmington, the Wilmington Railroad Museum and the Battleship North Carolina, moored on the Cape Fear River downtown.

Kissimmee, Florida

Kissimmee, Florida, is about 20 miles south of Orlando, Florida, so it’s minutes from world-famous attractions, but it also delivers bucket-list ecotourism options, like speeding through the swamp on an airboat or seeing an alligator in the wild.

“When we talk with our meeting clients, we hear that it’s an attendance booster to have a conference here in Kissimmee,” said Michelle Moore, Experience Kissimmee’s senior director of meeting sales and services.

Disney World, Universal Studios and SeaWorld all offer some sort of prepaid conventioneer ticket or discounted after-hours pass for meeting attendees and their families. Experience Kissimmee’s badge program gives meeting attendees discounts at partner restaurants and shops, and it also works for spouses and family members.

At the Paddling Center at Shingle Creek, parents can rent kayaks, paddleboards and canoes; arrange guided ecotours through a cypress forest; or go on a manatee-spotting expedition.

Families can go on ATV adventures, tackle the aerial ropes course at Orlando Tree Trek Adventure Park or zip line over alligators at Gatorland. Boggy Creek Airboat Adventures offers airboat tours and has a Native American village that can organize classes for meeting groups.

Kissimmee has its “Big Four” meeting venues: the Gaylord Palms Resort and Convention Center, the Omni Orlando Resort at Championsgate, the Embassy Suites by Hilton Orlando Lake Buena Vista South and the Reunion Resort and Golf Club.

The 184-room Margaritaville Resort Orlando opened in January with 40,000 square feet of meeting space, and both Margaritaville and Reunion have vacation homes or cottages that work well for families.

Traverse City, Michigan

At the base of Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay, Traverse City is one of Michigan’s busiest beach towns.

Meeting planners are increasingly opting to bring their events to Traverse City during the less-busy shoulder seasons, particularly fall, and are gearing conferences to attendees who may want to make it a vacation. For families and spouses, the No. 1 attraction is Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, where mountains of sand tower up to 500 feet above Lake Michigan.

“You feel like you’re at the edge of the world,” said Jenny Jenness, media and PR manager for Traverse City Tourism. “You wouldn’t know the difference between Lake Michigan and the Atlantic Ocean.”

At the lakeshore, visitors can hike or cycle on trails, rent kayaks and paddleboards, take in fall colors, and snowshoe or cross-country ski in winter.

Downtown boasts about 150 restaurants, galleries and shops, and not far from downtown, families can explore the Dennos Museum Center and the Great Lakes Children’s Museum.

On-the-water activities include guided sailboat excursions or tours on the Nauti-Cat catamaran or the Tall Ship Manitou, a replica of an 1800s schooner.

Both Great Wolf Lodge and Grand Traverse Resort and Spa offer meeting space and indoor water parks.

Traverse City Tourism offers sample itineraries and has a dedicated staff member who can work with planners to arrange outings for spouses and families or set up an information table during orientation.