LIKE FIRST-TIME PARENTS, planners who haven't had children at their incentive programs often can't imagine the details of their new responsibilities: assuage picky eaters, design activities that appeal to 5-year-olds — and 12-year-olds — find Mary Poppins wannabes, cope with tantrums and other parental distractions …. And that doesn't even touch on the liability issues. Despite everything, however, as in parenthood, the rewards of having kids on-site often outweigh the hassles.

“When we do an incentive program that includes children, it usually generates a special buy-in,” says Harith Wickrema, president, Harith Productions, Philadelphia. “It generates more attendance.” Recently, he arranged the evening functions for a group of about 600, including about 80 children, at the Atlantis resort in the Bahamas.

While the daytime activities were handled by the resort's Discovery Camp, for the evening parties, children had their own programming and were included — as part of the entertainment — in the final night's festivities, appearing in a Bahamian festival parade. “The parents were awestruck to see their kids as part of the show,” he says. “And it makes the kids feel they are a central part of the evening.” Although he counsels that kids can be distracting at a business meeting, for incentives, he says, “definitely include them. They can be a real asset — if you plan it correctly.”

Peter Morgan, vice president of sales for Peerless Heater Co., Boyertown, Pa., says that by providing family programming, you get the whole family working for you. “When the spouse and kids come on an incentive trip, they're all getting Peerless-ized. You can build incredible loyalty with a good program.”

Programming ABCs

As with any meeting, the first step in planning for kids is to set goals. Why are you including children? Why are you providing programming for them?

Usually, children are included because that's what their parents want. And usually, kids' programming is provided so that parents are free to participate in training and motivation sessions, award banquets, and networking events. Very few incentives are purely vacations these days, and providing children's programming allows the trip to serve both needs.

“People like to travel with their children,” says Diane B. Lyons, president of Accent on Children's Arrangements Inc. Lyons' company, headquartered in New Orleans, has been providing kids' programs for meetings since 1991. “They may put them in daycare all day, but at the end of the meeting, they can go out together. If your target group is young parents in their 30s and 40s, and you want them to be able to come to your meeting and focus, providing children's activities makes it easy for them. And for single parents, who have to juggle as it is, being able to bring a child may be the only way they can attend.”

But providing a children's track is also very different from putting together an adults' program, or even a spouse schedule. If a spouse misses the bus from the outlet mall back to the hotel, he may be late for dinner, but most likely he'll call to let you know where to find him or hail a cab. If an adult is allergic to shellfish or peanuts, chances are she'll tell you about it or avoid the offending food. You've got no such guarantees with children. In addition, there may be special legal and liability issues that require both special expertise and special insurance.

That means there are a lot of advantages to working with a firm experienced in children's programming. The easiest solution may be to bring in a turnkey vendor such as Lyons' Accent. “We can come in from the outset, create the registration form on our Web site that allows parents to register their children online, and answers all the parents' questions,” she explains. “If you've never done this, you don't realize how many parental concerns there are. Parents will ask, ‘Are you going to cut my kid's sandwich?’ And the meeting planner doesn't know. But because we are providing the children's services, we do know.

“We also become a complete partner with the client for this aspect of their meeting. We'll be on-site, and set our curriculum to match the parents' meeting schedule. So when you're in session, the kids are taken care of.”

But you may not need such a comprehensive solution. Consultants can offer a little guidance or a lot. Thomas Smith, CMP, director of meetings and events for Health Net, an HMO based in Woodland Hills, Calif., works with the hotel to find baby-sitters, children's entertainers, and interesting places to go off-site. “I give them my shopping list, and the hotel will let me know about local services or refer me to a local organization that I can bring in,” he says.

One caveat: Most folks involved in children's programming warn against relying on a hotel baby-sitting service for your entire meeting. A big meeting with lots of kids may overwhelm the hotel's capacity, it's probably not much cheaper than providing a group activity program, and the parents may not feel as comfortable with an individual baby-sitter as they will with an organized program. Plus, sitters may not be available for the hours your attendees need them.

Baby Steps

Smith, whose meetings may include sales agents, physicians, strategic partners, and clients, says even a modest program can make a big difference to parents. “Start out small,” he advises. “Don't try to put on the world's greatest family experience the first time. Get accommodations where the family can stay together. Just including baby-sitting and childcare might be a really great first step. Number two might be to keep a list of the children, their names, ages, and genders, and have a gift for each of them. At some programs, at the closing banquet, I'll have baskets of gifts. And while the families are seated, my senior executive will walk table-to-table and thank the children and their families for participating, and give each child a gift. I'll tell you something — it makes the parents think the world of the company.”

Jane Conti, corporate vice president, agency department, for NY Life, a company with a long tradition of bringing children to meetings, counsels that programs should be designed to appeal to a broad range of ages — from babies to teenagers. Rosemarie Bellow, the consultant who works with NY Life on children's programming, adds the surprising observation that the kids don't want to be separated by age. “We've structured some meetings to have separate activities for ages 3 to 7 and other activities for 7 and up,” she says. “But what we've found is that they really like to be all together; the challenge is having a range of activities that are interesting to a 3-year-old but that a 16- or 17-year-old would also like. Another issue is scheduling enough things for them to do …, because their attention spans are kind of short.”

You also need to know when to include kids in the main program — and when not to. Smith, at Health Net, likes to have children at evening meals. At a recent event, he provided a special buffet table, low enough so that children could serve themselves, rather than inflicting a five-course meal on them. He's also counseled senior executives to give a toast during the banquet recognizing family, and children, explicitly.

Math Class

Kids' programming doesn't come cheap, although this is an area where some economies of scale can kick in. “It may cost $16 to $25 a day to hire a hotel baby-sitter,” says Lyons. “So an activity program that costs $15 or so per hour per child can be a bargain. But a lot of organizations are unrealistic about paying for it. They may think nothing of spending $30 an hour for a bartender, but they'll balk at the price of a kids' program.” She says that if a company wants the children's programming to work as an incentive, “you have to make it almost free” to families.

Although there is a wide range of policies on paying for kids' programs — from making no effort to be family friendly to footing the entire bill — companies who pick up the cost say the benefits far outweigh the expense.

“Many … programs are terrific, but they're for the adult invitee and his or her adult guest,” observes Smith. “If they want to bring their children, it's at their own expense, and they have to coordinate care for them. The kids are kind of shut out, whereas at our events, they're celebrated. Beyond whatever it does for the kids, it's great for the parents. They can come to an off-site event and know their kids are having a great time. It's worth every penny.”

Over time, the main benefit of kids at incentives may be the building of a corporate culture that families want to join. “The kids see each other every year,” says Lyons, “and it becomes a whole experience for them; they become part of the corporation. The kids start e-mailing each other, and looking forward to the next trip, and they put pressure on mom or dad to make the goals. I think more and more incentives are including family. People don't want to travel halfway across the world and not have their kids with them.”

The Mouse Knows Kids

Who knows more about what kids like than the folks at Walt Disney World? WDW has been providing children's programming in conjunction with business meetings since 1980. The Disney kids' programs now fall under the banner of the Disney Institute. (You may remember when the Disney Institute had its own facility. The facility is gone, but Disney Institute programs are available to meetings throughout the Florida resort.)

Susan Caruso, meeting planner, Merrill Lynch Credit Corp., Jacksonville, Fla., has brought incentive groups to Disney World for the past four years. The trip, a weekend for 40 to 80 families, including 25 to 40 children, offers a park-themed opening dinner at the Grand Floridian hotel and a reception with Disney characters. “These groups … just want to keep coming back,” she says. “Everybody enjoys it, and it's a particular perk for those with families.”

Disney offers six three-hour kids' programs for a range of ages. Five are designed to meet educational standards set by the National Board of Education, and one — a scavenger hunt — is just for fun. The educational offerings include Animation Magic; Millennium Cultures; World of Physics, Energy, and Waves; the Magic Behind the Show; and Synergy in Science. The price is $59 per child, per program, or may be negotiated as part of a meeting package.