Family-Friendly Meetings Made Easy

By: Jeff Waddle

To attract more attendees, some associations are turning their annual meetings into family affairs.

In an era of tight budgets and increased work demands, busy association members can be faced with the unenviable choice of attending a conference or spending time with family. Savvy associations are finding ways their members can do both by adding family-friendly features to their events.

And what better place to do it than Florida, where warm weather, natural beauty, and a wealth of world-class attractions make family-friendly meetings as easy as a day at the beach. Here's what some associations have done to make their meetings in the Sunshine State more appealing to members who may want to bring their families.

Appeal to Parents

When the American Osteopathic Association (AOA) noticed that the majority of the physicians attending its annual conference were older men, it set out to determine why.

"We are graduating 5,000 osteopathic physicians per year, and half of those are women, so why are we not attracting women to our conference?" says Deidre Irwin Ross, MHA, CMP, CAE, director, department of meetings and administration, for AOA. "After asking some younger women on our conference committee for input, we decided we needed to make our conference a little more family friendly."

Coincidentally, AOA's 2011 conference in Orlando fell over Halloween, a holiday many parents don't want to miss for fear of not getting to take their kids trick-or-treating. AOA decided to use the family aspect of Halloween and entice younger members by adding Halloween-themed events to the program.

First, the association purchased several hundred advance tickets to the Disney and Universal Studios Halloween parties and offered them to interested attendees. Then, they created a trick-or-treat event on its tradeshow floor: Parents were encouraged to bring their children in costume, and exhibitors were asked to pass out treats. AOA also set up a supervised area on the show floor, where kids could play games while their parents interacted with exhibitors.

"This turned out to be the biggest boon ever," Ross says. "People were flocking down to the exhibit floor in costume, including the parents." She adds that AOA offered supervised childcare during the conference.

Due to the success in Orlando, AOA also invited children to participate in its opening reception at the 2012 conference in San Diego.

"We think it does [attract younger members]," Ross says. "Young families of today take their kids everywhere because they're busy and they have two working parents. You've got to know your audience and how many children will be attending and what ages they are so you can plan activities that are age appropriate."

Plan Theme Nights

The Florida Association of Wholesale Distributors also includes children in some of its annual convention's social events to entice more members to attend.

"One of the goals of the association is to have a family-friendly event because it certainly helps attract some of our members," says Executive Director David Shepp, whose association held its 2012 annual conference at The Shores Resort & Spa in Daytona Beach. "It's why we typically schedule it for late June [when kids are out of school] at a beachfront resort."

For the casual Friday-night social event, he says, children are encouraged to participate in a Monte Carlo-style evening where they can earn prizes while feasting on a kid-friendly buffet. On Saturday, teenagers are welcome to attend the more formal awards banquet, while younger children have a separate event designed especially for them by The Shores staff.

"They have a wide variety of activities at The Shores," Shepp says. The resort's Kid's Club offers movies, sand-castle-building contests, and surfing lessons.

"We have even rented video games and pinball machines for the kids to play on because we don't want them to feel they've just been left with the babysitter for four hours," Shepp adds. "It's important to work with the resort coordinators to make sure they have age-appropriate activities that are entertaining."

A beach Olympics event involving the entire family was a big hit at a convention the association held on Marco Island, and it plans to include the activity at The Shores this year.

Look for Variety

Another Florida resort that stresses family offerings in its meetings package is the Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort in Destin. Penny Jackson, the resort's director of group sales, says one of the most popular group activities is a family movie night, where a large screen is inflated on its 10,000-square-foot grand lawn.

"We bring in popcorn machines and set up a gourmet ice cream sundae station, so it's a good time," she says.

Jackson adds that another fun option to get the entire family involved is a "fun run" loop course Sandestin has set up.

"You can get T-shirts made up and do awards by age group so it gets the kids excited, and it's a healthy thing the parents and kids can do together," says Jackson. She adds that Sandestin also has an Adventure Zone attraction with a ropes course, a zipline across its lagoon, and a EuroBungy trampoline—which allows users to reverse bungee jump—that are popular with hard-to-please teenagers.

"It's all within walking distance of where the parents are enjoying their festivities, and it's supervised, so they have that sense of comfort while those teenagers who aren't interested in other children's programs get a great night," Jackson says.

Jackson advises associations seeking to attract more families to their events to make sure the host property offers a variety of accommodations.

"If you're bringing three children and extending your stay, you'll probably want more room to spread out, and maybe get villa-style accommodations with a kitchen and even washer and dryer," she says.

Plan Ahead

"We just finished a $50 million renovation, and a lot of it was inspired by the demand for our clientele to offer more family-friendly recreational activities while they're here on property," says Jeff Abbaticchio, public relations director for the Gaylord Palms Resort & Convention Center near Orlando.

Among the new attractions is the Cypress Springs Family Fun Water Park, which has 60 interactive water games and a permanent LED movie wall where groups can have special "splash-and-screen" movie nights.

"With our partnership with Dreamworks, some groups are adding a family-friendly element into their events by including Dreamworks characters like Shrek or Puss 'n' Boots in their awards ceremonies or a meet-and-greet at a reception where attendees can have their picture taken with them," says Abbaticchio. He advises planners to work ahead and book early if they plan on having events at both Gaylord and a popular attraction offsite.

And don't forget to keep family budgets in mind, says Jim Gauntt, executive director of the Railway Tie Association. "Keep the registration fees for spouses and children low and use sponsorships to make up for it," he says. His association increased attendance at its annual conference last October at the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina by adding more family elements to the program.

"We have spouse breakfasts, spouse excursions, and a themed banquet where we dress up in the theme," Gauntt says. The theme last year in Tampa was "Return of Gaspirilla: A Pirate Mardi Gras"—to highlight legends of swashbuckling pirates plying Florida waters.

"It does help benefit attendance, and some of our family businesses end up treating it like a family vacation," Gauntt says. "We think that it helps us moderate the fiercely competitive nature of our member companies by softening the experience, and we also feel it helps members connect with each other in more meaningful ways."

"Consider locations where everything you need to entertain a family is already there," advises Jennifer Collins, CMP, CGMP. Collins, who has planned several association conferences in Florida as president of The Event Planning Group, believes customization is a key to success.

"From room capacities to menus to security and overall flow of attendees, the conference becomes a different environment when including children," she says. "Through customization and being thoughtful of family inclusiveness, it definitely can be considered a value-added option."

Jeff Waddle is a Cincinnati-based freelance writer. Email: [email protected]