This was the first year the American Society for Public Administration’s (ASPA’s) annual conference was going to be family-friendly. They had planned a movie night, a family yoga session and a lactation room, and the host hotel offered a free shuttle to Disneyland just down the street.
But, like so many others, ASPA had to cancel its April conference amid the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.
Though ASPA has always let kids come to the conference, the group “wanted to be a little more above the radar this year,” said Karen Garrett, chief of communications, membership and marketing.
The reason was twofold: membership and leadership. More ASPA members are asking about bringing their children, and this year’s president, who has two young children, “decided it was time to start planning for the kid-friendly crowd,” Garrett said.
The uptick in family-friendly meetings and conferences isn’t so much a trend as it is a reflection of society “as we continue to blend the world of business and our social life,” said Phelps Hope, senior vice president of meetings and expositions for Kellen, a global association management company.
But it’s not just associations; conferences that are also enjoyable for families are rapidly gaining popularity in corporate and incentive market segments as well, said Mariya Baker, meeting and convention sales manager for the Branson/Lakes Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Here are some tips to plan successful meetings not only for attendees but also for spouses, partners, children and the organization.
Where To Begin
Planners should first decide whether a family-friendly meeting is right, both for the audience and the event, and profiling the attendance base is a good place to start, Hope said.
“There’s no point planning a family-friendly meeting if they’re all 22-year-olds in the tech industry or mostly retirees,” he said.
The next step is considering the destination. If an event is a two-day, in-and-out meeting at an airport hotel, it doesn’t make sense to bring families. But if it’s a longer conference or it’s being held in a popular family destination, it might be a good fit.
The third consideration is time of year. Avoid planning such a conference in the middle of a school year, especially with a Monday-through-Wednesday schedule. Choose summer months, or stick to a weekend conference pattern, Baker said.
Know Whom To Expect
It’s important to get as much information as possible before the event. Poll attendees, and ask who they’re bringing, including how many kids and their ages, along with any special needs or dietary restrictions. Some families also bring grandparents or a nanny to help with child care.
“Should we decide to do this in the future, we will probably do a more intensive registration process, just so we know who will be there so we can be more prepared on our end,” Garrett said. “We didn’t know how popular it would be.”
In addition to helping planners know whom and how many to expect, registration also acts as security control, Hope said. You can make special badges for kids, which makes them feel included but also ensures you know who is with them.
It’s imperative to get the proper event insurance, Baker said. There are different concerns and considerations when children are present, “and it’s important to let your insurance agents know that you’re bringing kids.”
Destinations That Welcome Families
Certain destinations practically scream to host a family-friendly events. Places like Orlando and Anaheim, Florida; Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin; and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, are common options because they’re home to theme parks and water parks, live shows and plentiful attractions. In Branson, Missouri, attendees often bring their families, whether the conference is fun for families or not, Baker said.
But if the planner is making it so attendees can bring their families and have a nice time, almost any destination becomes family-friendly, whether it’s Palm Springs, California, or Boise, Idaho, Hope said.
“Every single city has something unique to offer,” he said.
Consider resorts that offer kids’ clubs and suites, and include as many connecting rooms and larger suites in your room block as you can, Baker said.
Destinations and hotels are often booked years in advance, so if the idea of a family-friendly event pops up later, there may be some limitations. That was the case with ASPA, which couldn’t provide child care because it wasn’t included in the society’s contract.
At the Event
Planners should research, arrange and offer child care options and plan activities for kids and spouses while attendees are in sessions.
Most hotels will outsource child care for infants to 3-year-olds because they require licensed child care. For children ages 4 to 12, most resort-type hotels have an activities department and kids’ clubs, or the hotel will arrange other activities, like scavenger hunts, arts and crafts, or a Nerf battle in a ballroom. ASPA had planned a movie night to show “The Secret Life of Pets” during a networking reception.
One of Kellen’s clients, a national pasta association, held cooking competitions that brought in family members and used the sponsor’s product, so it tied in the family, the industry and the sponsor.
Organizers should also make accommodations for nursing mothers and communicate those accommodations. The ASPA worked with the hotel to plan a lactation room with comfortable seating, a refrigerator and a microwave. Another option is lactation pods, which are easily sponsored, Hope said.
Consider doing family-style seating instead of typical rounds and communicate to the banquet staff to have booster and high chairs on hand.
The menu should also offer options for younger attendees. Baker even suggests doing two buffets: one for adults and one for kids. The kids’ buffet can include favorites like pizza and chicken strips and can be lowered so little ones can help themselves. She also recommends arranging extra activities at the back or side of the ballroom during dinner to keep kids busy while parents finish their meals.
Day Trips and Tours
A corporate group of financial advisers hosts a family-style conference in Branson every June. During morning business meetings, they provide child care for kids of all ages, which allows spouses some free time. They also allow attendees free time in the afternoons for families to play in Branson, then gather in the evenings for dinner.
Planners should arrange at least a couple of family-focused activities. These allow attendees to network and engage on a different level because they meet a colleague’s spouse or their kids play together.
Kellen also identifies which parts of the conference might be family-friendly, “then we design into it,” Hope said, like choosing a zoo or a science museum for an off-site event.
It may make sense to include a day trip to Disney World or Dollywood, but don’t arrange activities during sessions that will make attendees feel left out or entice them to skip out.
If the hotel has outdoor space, use it. Schedule a family picnic, a bocce ball tournament or s’mores at fire pits. Organizers can set up lawn games, like horseshoes and cornhole, and leave them out for the duration of the event so families can play whenever they want, Hope said.