Family Friendly Events
By Kathy Chin Leong on April 02, 2007
Starbucks district manager Karen Mahoney brewed up a pretty cool idea when she organized a store managers camping trip with their families at El Capitan Canyon in Santa Barbara, Calif. While some balked at the thought of getting their caramel macchiatos cold, they shared so many laughs that the campout has become an annual tradition. Recently, when Mahoney promoted a new manager, she was more excited about the prospect of camping than about the promotion. “She told me, ‘All I hear about are your camping trips’. She didn’t even care about the salary,” says Mahoney. “This is a great retention strategy.”
Meanwhile, thank-you gifts are still pouring in for special events coordinator Joy Engle of Gold Coast Tours, Brea, Calif. And Coca-Cola executives from the western business unit are beaming. Engle pulled off yet another successful three-day Superbowl event for Coca-Cola’s premium customers, sales executives and their families at The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Las Vegas. From in-room goodie bags to a ballroom-turned-kid zone with childcare staff dressed as referees, the Coca-Cola Ultimate Big Game party was a blast for the 465 attendees. “The group vice president and executives just kept hugging me,” says Engle.
Mahoney and Engle are convinced that corporations which welcome families at off-site meetings are instilling pride and loyalty while gaining increased productivity. Workgroups bond and attendance climbs, for no one can say the sitter bailed out at the last minute.
Meeting planners across the nation agree the trend in family-friendly meetings is on the rise. “We are getting more phone calls to include children in the programs we organize,” says Cheryl Willcocks, owner of Pinnacle Pursuits, an “action-based” event-planning firm in Vancouver, B.C. “We are at the beginning phase of this trend, and momentum is growing.”
Maritza Rudisill, CMP, of Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, agrees. As catering and convention services assistant director, Rudisill has seen an increase in the number of corporate huddles with kids in tow, even though Disneyland is already a Mouseketeer magnet. She says that since 9/11, more families are aware of the need to carve out quality time together.
Meeting planners say that employees are ecstatic when their families are invited. There’s less guilt for the staff, and they can focus, knowing that their kids are nearby.
“Getting buy-in from the spouse is invaluable,” says Mike Jenkins, vice president of sales at Borges USA, Fresno, Calif. Jenkins, who plans the sales incentive getaways, stresses, “Last year I was on the road 68 days. That’s a lot of pressure for the family.” He adds that when his company can pay for his family’s expenses on a trip, his family members feel positively toward both him and the company.
“If we didn’t allow families to come, our attendance would be nonexistent,” says Richard Dibblee, the assistant director of the Utah State Bar, Salt Lake City, and veteran meeting planner for its annual convention. “If we barred families, we might as well close up shop.” With more young attorneys with small children joining the ranks, “the last thing that these younger members want to do is leave their families,” he says.
Every July, 800 lawyers and families from Utah flock to Sun Valley Lodge, Sun Valley, Idaho to conduct business and have some fun…lots of fun going horseback riding, ice skating and taking part in carnivals and barbeques. Dibblee says the event is more like a family reunion than a business retreat.
If your organization is warming up to the idea of family-inclusive meetings, plan early. With kids in the picture, attention to details needs to quadruple. Will cribs be needed? Are there special-needs children in the group? What will you do with the little ones during the closing night gala? Get involved with the kids’ itineraries and have the resort’s meeting planners partner with you on formulating ideas so you can work as a team.
Over in Palo Alto, Calif. Gwen Colley, director of human resources at Cooley, Godward, Kronish, LLP, starts making calls and gathering resources a year and a half in advance. But she has good reason to. Last October she organized a company retreat at the La Costa Resort & Spa, Carlsbad, Calif., for some 1,000 attendees. “This is a tough coordination piece,” she says. “There are many variables, and we could have been overwhelmed if we did not plan ahead.”
Getting names and ages of the 220 children in advance helped her begin the planning process. Colley considered resorts in attractive family environments where group sales directors were used to catering to youth.
She also let the attorneys know that they were allowed to bring one adult guest and their children. Any others, such as nannies or grandparents, would have to book and pay for their own accommodations, meals and activities.
She worked with the La Costa Resort catering chefs to make sure they cooked simple and recognizable fare for children. Chicken nuggets had to look like chicken nuggets. Macaroni and cheese like mac and cheese. She notified the chef of possible peanut, wheat and miscellaneous food allergies.
KNOW YOUR PURPOSE
Keep the purpose of your retreat at the forefront of your mind. Is the objective to allow families to have privacy, or is the objective to mix the clans and strengthen ties?
For Starbucks district manager Mahoney, the goal is clear. Camping trips are meant to be unstructured and meeting-free so adults can have fun together and with their children. “One year the kids surprised us with a play, and it was hilarious,” she recalls. “They were only ages 3 to 9, and we were floored at what they could do.”
When you want participants to mingle without wandering off the premises, consider properties in a private, secluded setting. These include: The Bishop’s Lodge Ranch Resort and Spa, Santa Fe, N.M.; Sun Valley Lodge, Sun Valley, Idaho; and Alisal Ranch and Resort, Solvang, Calif. The laid-back nature of these ranches gives way to low-stress interaction while hiking, horseback riding or visiting the barnyard with the kids.
You can also plan one or two events rounding up all the troops for a carnival, 5K run, softball game, or “dive in” movie night by the pool. At Seascape Resort, Aptos, Calif., retreat attendees cook s’mores over a bonfire prepared by the staff or sit down to a formal dinner, complete with tablecloths, on its private beach.
Hog calling is perfectly acceptable at The Bishop’s Lodge during its Hillbilly Olympics, notes Josh Belcher, recreation manager. “We do things like seed spitting, pie eating, hog calling. People really open up so you see who they really are.”
On a more refined level, businesses and associations often provide corporate chest-beating time as well as individual family opportunities at Disneyland Resort in Anaheim. A private picnic on the lawn or afternoon tea with Minnie Mouse in her finest apparel brings everyone together. Afterward, families can scatter and enjoy the park themselves.
Some firms like to conduct business in the morning and work until lunch before meeting up with loved ones. Others prefer to work solidly for the first few days and then fly in the families for the weekend. This is what executive assistant Kaarin Simpson does for her bosses at The Bakersfield Californian daily newspaper, Bakersfield, Calif. With a three-day strategic planning meeting set at Alisal Ranch, the agenda loosens up by Friday when spouses and kiddos dash in.
The key to a successful family-inclusive retreat is keeping the kids happy and safe. Happy kids mean happy parents. Happy parents mean happy companies. As munchkin meetings increase, resorts are ratcheting up services to the next level and beyond. “If your kids feel like you are dragging them off to Oregon, the activities have to exceed what they are used to. It better be better than summer camp or your ratings will suffer,” warns Willcocks of Pinnacle Pursuits, which specializes in youth and family programs.
One trend includes offering high-tech games to keep the wow factor high. Resorts and group event planners are utilizing handheld GPS devices for adventure races and scavenger hunts. At the Four Seasons Resort Whistler, British Columbia, ski instructors comment on student techniques using wireless headsets as they swoosh down the mountains.
Fancy kids’ clubs with a clubby atmosphere have arrived. The newest facilities for preschoolers and the elementary-aged set are equipped with more than a bone pile of Legos. The La Costa Resort, Carlsbad, Calif. recently unveiled Kidtopia, a wildly colorful, 6,000-square-foot tyke center boasting a saltwater aquarium, a real cooking station and diner, and a custom tree house where kids can hide and slide. The facility is one of the first in the nation to provide infant care. Babies as young as six months old can be dropped off for up to two hours.
And while high-tech wizardry and cutting-edge kids’ clubs get a thumbs up, parents enjoy having their kids learn something new, such as local history or stories that bring a sense of place to a location. At the North Shore, Oahu Turtle Bay Resort, child recreation counselors tell Hawaiian legends. The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua, Maui has its own culture advisor to assist in cultural immersion during all facets of the guest stay. At The Ritz, when kids check in, they receive a gift wrapped in a ti leaf called a puolo which symbolizes good wishes, wealth and happiness, says Mark Malone, director of meetings and special events.
And, at The Bishop’s Lodge in Santa Fe, Native American dancers and musicians perform for conferees. The resort can also hire an astronomer to lead star gazing. For those with an adventurous spirit, families can go llama trekking. Participants hike to a destination with a llama that is girded with equipment and picnic supplies.
As organizations mature, so do employees and their children. Getting a teen excited about going to Mom’s corporate retreat is the ultimate meeting planner’s challenge. However, resorts are rising to this task with activity teens can’t get at home. What’s cooler than having your own surf butler at the St. Regis Resort, Monarch Beach, Calif.? At Shutters Hotel on the Beach, Santa Monica, Calif., big kids can cruise through town on a Segway, a two-wheeled, space-age scooter. Teen golf clinics are all the rage at the Resort at Squaw Creek, Lake Tahoe, Calif. And at the Stein Eriksen Lodge, Park City, Utah, cool dudes hang out in a spanking new game room peppered with built-in speaker lounge chairs, plasma TVs and game consoles.
Shopaholics—particularly teen girls—can rejoice, for Disney Resort planners offers groups early shopping privileges upon request at Downtown Disney. Another cool activity for teens and families is its Chocolate, Chocolate, Chocolate seminar conducted by a French pastry chef. Guests make chocolate desserts and taste everything demonstrated.
Teen Concierges are now becoming increasingly popular. At Four Seasons Whistler, a teenager on duty directs peers to where the action is in language only teens can appreciate.
When in doubt, hire the services of youth-oriented event planners. These pros know what it takes to put kids at ease in a group situation. They also know what activities will spark their fire. Simla Akyol, owner of It’s a Piece of Cake, San Francisco, says moviemaking workshops, comedy shows and henna tattoo parties are its most popular services. The company hauls in its own staff, crafts, entertainers and decorations. “We promise your kids will not get bored,” she says.
KEEPING PARENTS HAPPY
When working with resort recreation directors, grill them on details. Will children be grouped with kids their own age? How will kids be picked up when the event is over? Parents must be comfortable knowing their offspring are in reliable hands and doing things that are fun, but reasonable. While meeting planners won’t put skydiving down as an option, they must consider safety for all games and sports.
When Colley’s firm held a recent meeting for its attorneys and families, the firm decided the kids would skip going to the pool with the program counselors. “We did not want parents to get worried,” she says. Colley also made sure they hired bonded babysitters to give parents peace of mind.
Experts also recommend putting families with toddlers in ground floor rooms so they don’t have to worry about their kids falling from the balconies.
Aside from safety, parents also value having in-room conveniences such as microwaves and refrigerators for leftovers or baby formula. Parents with larger families prefer adjoining rooms, and those requests must be addressed as soon as possible, note group sales directors.
Be on the lookout for accommodations with condos or villas. Oahu’s Turtle Bay Resort, in particular, has a new gated villa complex with private homes that clients can rent by the day. A few of the luxury condos at The Canyons Resort, Park City, Utah, even feature kids’ rooms with bunk beds.
Planning retreats such as these requires finding resorts that are flexible and supportive, and strive to offer a quality stay within the corporation’s budget. For that reason, Karen Sorensen has found a positive partnership with the Sun Valley Lodge when she plans her meetings for orthopedic surgeons. Sorenson, seminar director of the Robert Metcalf Memorial Meetings, Salt Lake City, says service there is well-honed. She recalls the night a family from Argentina arrived without their luggage. The airline had messed up. “They came in tears and had no clothes,” she says. “When I told the assistant GM, he took care of it and purchased ski outfits and hats. The doctor could not say enough about it.” Such generosity and thoughtfulness, she stresses, makes her life easier. “This is a place where a gentleman’s handshake is still honored.”
Look for hotels and resorts known for superior service and kid-friendly atmosphere. Your attendees will thank you when the meeting is over. When Agilent Corp. program manager Julie Lees brought her baby with her to The Ritz-Carlton at Lake Las Vegas, she wanted to find something that would calm her fussy infant. The staff ran out to the nearest store to find a baby bouncer. “That saved my life,” says Lees. “Afterwards I wanted to leave it for future customers, but they insisted on giving it to me and sent it to my home so I wouldn’t have to carry it on the plane.”
Another time at The Village in Squaw Valley, Mike Jenkins’ sales reps decided to spontaneously have a Whiffle ball game in the snowy parking lot. Village staff surprised everyone by setting up an apple juice and hot chocolate stand to warm the chilly players.
When the babysitters are finally hired, and surfing and ski lessons booked, your payoff is going to the retreat and watching the moments unfold.
“By the time I get there, I absolutely feel free to have a good time,” attests Simpson of The Bakersfield Californian.
In charge of organizing the next conference starring nursing babies and hyperactive teens? Plan early and find an attractive destination with jaw-dropping activities and supportive resort management. Before the weekend is over, you’ll be known as the company hero. “Some people think that these great meetings just magically appear,” laughs Dibblee of the Utah State Bar. “Little do they know.”
Kathy Chin Leong has written for local and national publications since 1990, including Working Woman Magazine, The Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Bay Area Parent Magazine and Silicon Valley Bay Area Parent. The former West Coast bureau chief for Computerworld and a senior editor at PC Computing, Leong currently covers travel, parenting, technology, personality profiles and business.