Crystal Lowe spent years going to conferences with her husband, sitting in her hotel room alone and bored while he was away at the meeting. So in 2008, she started Spousetivities, a company that plans and coordinates events for people traveling with conference attendees.
Before delving into how to put together a good spouse program, Lowe started with why conferences should offer a program for spouses. For years, companies have been touting how they support work/life balance or are a family-friendly company — and rightly so.
At the same time, companies have increasingly asked for more time from their employees. They expect employees to respond to emails after hours and ask them to travel to events and meetings. Many employees travel on weekends to be at an event Monday morning or even travel out of the country, which cuts into family time, time that “isn’t compensated in any way and most certainly can’t be recovered,” Lowe said. “Time lost is time lost.”
Organizations that offer a program for spouses or significant others can say, “Yes, we need your time and attention, so come to this conference or training, but this time, don’t leave the family behind.”
“It could mean the difference between retaining an employee and losing them to a competitor,” Lowe said.
For nonprofits or associations whose members usually pay their own way to attend a conference, offering a spouse program is an added incentive, said Jay Kaltenbach, services manager for the Sioux Falls Convention and Visitors Bureau.
‘It’s always a plus.’
More organizations are offering spouse programs, and doing so seems to boost attendance.
“It’s always a plus; I’ve never had it be negative,” Kaltenbach said.
Though Lowe has heard from attendees that they went to a conference because they could take their spouse, many meetings are required by the company, so an employee has no choice but to attend. Rather than looking at how a program affects meeting attendance, companies should consider how spouse programs affect the meeting experience.
More often than hearing that someone attended a meeting because they could bring their spouse, Lowe hears “that their experience at an event was enhanced because of having this opportunity.”
For example, she recently returned from a tech conference in Europe. Several conference attendees told her it was the best conference they’d been to because they were able to be with their spouse at night and enjoy the destination together.
Keep It Fresh
Spouse programs are becoming more common, but the activitities spouse programs offer need to be less common. To clarify: More organizations are adding spouse events, but the pressure is on to make those activities more intriguing.
Everybody’s schedule is so busy these days that people cherish their free time, said Whitney Kirkland, a partner with Florida-based Firebrand Event Productions.
“It is putting the burden on us to come up with something unique or different or with an unusual twist to make it that much more interesting,” he said. “We need to offer something they can’t just come in with their family on the following weekend and do.”
If planners pull from the same old playbook for spouse activities, a spouse program is no longer an incentive.
“When somebody is sitting at home in front of the program, we want them saying, ‘Wow, we want to check this out.’”
Putting together a good spouse program takes time and planning, Lowe said. First, planners must decide whether they’re going to make activities appropriate for children or offer an adult-focused activity each day in addition to a family activity for people with children. Alternatively, they could opt to offer child care during a spouse program.
Planners also must understand the destination: Is there a good public transit system? Is it a relatively safe city to walk or ride public transportation? Are there ample places to eat and drink? Are there hotels that offer enough space for families?
“There’s much research to be done to create a successful program,” Lowe said.
Kirkland said a key element is to offer a selection of activities that cover three main areas of interest: adventure, education and leisure. That could mean zip lining or cycling for the active group, an art gallery tour or a visit to a cultural district for those who want to learn something and maybe a boat cruise for the leisure crowd.
How Much To Offer, How Much To Spend
Both the amount of programming and the budget vary widely depending on the client, the event and the type of trip.
Kirkland said a typical program is a half-day, usually a four-hour window. Some groups offer a spouse activity every day of the conference. Kaltenbach said shorter conferences often won’t have a spouse activity, but a three-day event typically adds at least one, often a lunch followed by an afternoon event.
As for budget, clients usually designate an amount per person for an activity, and Firebrand helps assemble a program that fits that budget, Kirkland said. Factors include transportation, staffing and stops along the way, but a reasonable minimum would be $75 to $100 per person per activity, he said. Less than that would probably mean an activity at the hotel, like a speaker or a fashion show.
In Sioux Falls, many of the city’s most popular attractions are free, which makes it easy to put together spouse programs that are both effective and inexpensive, Kaltenbach said. Most spouse activities he recommends include a meal followed by a SculptureWalk tour in downtown or a trip to Falls Park.
Lowe has offered walking city tours that included lunch and a local guide for less than $50 per person. She has also offered exclusive access to wineries that included wine blending and pizza making, which was far more expensive.
“It’s really all about what kind of experiences you want to offer for your clients,” Lowe said.
So, who pays?
“There’s no right answer on this one,” she said.
Oftentimes the meeting or convention pays for the spouse program. In Sioux Fall, that usually means organizers pay for the meal. Firebrand’s incentive clients go to great lengths to thank not only the employee, but also the people supporting that employee, so the spouse program is all-inclusive.
In Lowe’s experience, she has found that if there’s no cost, people tend not to be dedicated to attending. Then again, a company may choose to make the program free as a perk to attendees, which circles back to the discussion of budget.