In 2007, 15 percent of incentive programs managed by Maritz Travel included children. By 2010, it was 21 percent. “It’s a different era,” says Jim Ruszala, director of marketing. “People are more time-pressed than ever.” And when an incentive conference means more time away from the family, it can sometimes feel like a burden instead of a reward.
There’s a range of options for companies considering the shift to family-friendly incentives. They might welcome children every other year, for example. Or, kids may be invited without the conference location, agenda, or entertainment choices necessarily being affected. Or the company might go right past “family-friendly” to “family-focused,” Ruszala says, where the attendance of families is factored into all aspects of a program.
Of course, at some companies, including many in the insurance and financial services industry, incentive conferences are a long tradition. The Principal Financial Group, for example, has held a family-oriented incentive conference for decades. “Our senior leaders feel this differentiates us from our competitors who may not allow children to attend,” says Lynne Schueler, assistant director, supplier relations and development, at the Des Moines–based company. “The positive feedback we continue to receive from our winners tells us how much they value this opportunity. They see us as ‘one big family,’ and a large part of that comes from winners’ families seeing each other annually. They build relationships.”
The typical size for this program is between 550 and 700 total attendees. “Location can drive how many children we get,” Schueler says. The average number is between 100 and 125, but the 2010 program at Disney’s Yacht and Beach Club drew 200 children.
One of the big challenges for planners like Schueler is pricing the participation of spouses and kids. “Our winners struggle to understand the actual cost of meals, ground transfers, and activities,” she says. “Wediscounted menu pricing for children and also try to get discounted activities. But we do not pay for the children to attend—they are a full buy-in at the winner’s expense. We charge them for a meal package to attend all meals. We try to avoid an a la carte option as the tracking is very difficult for our large meetings, and people tend to change their minds constantly which impacts our food guarantees. We may allow a few exceptions for our Hall of Fame Inductees and their families. Activities and ground transfers are also packaged. They can choose whether they want them or not—but all are at the same prices we would pay for our winners; there is no company subsidy.”
Another insurance conference planner whose company has hosted a family incentive conference for decades says that the tradition is critical to the corporate culture and to motivating qualifiers. “This conference is designed to reinforce the qualifiers’ affiliation with the company, and seeing ourselves as an extended family is part of the culture,” this planner says. “We also believe that spouses and children have a big influence on whether people qualify and attend. And it helps families understand the nature of the careers the qualifiers have chosen.”
Then again, once they’re on site, some of these attendees think more of the family vacation than the corporate relationship-building. “Attendance at general sessions can be a challenge,” this planner says. “Many of our agents do not show up for the meetings. We’re looking into RFID attendance-tracking as a possible solution.”
4 considerations before you invite families
At NFP, Todd Zint, CMP, CMM, has found ways to meet that challenge with the family-oriented incentive conference he plans every third year for PartnersFinancial. “From a business perspective, the balancing act of having adequate networking, meeting, and family time is a factor in the planning process,” he says. “Key sponsors who are financially supporting the event want quality time with qualifiers, while the qualifiers want adequate time with their families. There are ways to satisfy everyone by creating fun and innovativeactivities and corporate social responsibility programs that involve everyone. Additionally, hosting the trip at a family-friendly resort is important to provide a variety of activities for all ages, thereby keeping everyone engaged.
“Creating a memorable trip for everyone becomes the meeting planner’s biggest challenge. It seems daunting but is actually easy to overcome with creative hotel and destination management partners.” And it is certainly worth the effort. “I was talking to a repeat qualifier this year,” says another financial services company planner, “and he said, ‘My family would never forgive me if I wasn’t here.’ These families look forward to seeing each other every year. Their kids grow up together.”
For companies considering inviting families to their next incentive conference have many factors to consider. Here are four that Jim Ruszala, director of marketing at Maritz Travel, puts at the top of his list.
Companies need to get their education, messaging, and networking goals met. Communicate expectations with earners upfront, so there are no surprises. Identify activities for guests to do while earners are occupied, which gives families something to look forward to and builds pride on the part of earners when families come back together afterward.
2. Non-parent attendees.
In a recent survey, Maritz found four out of five respondents without children believe children should be invited to incentive conferences, Ruszala says. But every company is unique, he notes, “so it’s really important to take the time to understand participants and what’s motivating to them.”
Your budget shouldn’t increase if you are charging for kids who attend. Help your qualifiers wallets by negotiating discounted rates for kids’ F&B.
4. Family-friendly or family-focused?
In the former case, children are invited. In the latter case, you choose the venue, activities, and entertainment with families in mind. And you send promo materials to producers’ homes, so the entire family feels a part of the process of earning the reward.
How do you pay for kids?
For financial services companies complying with Financial Industry Regulatory Authority rules, pure incentives are out. Companies are allowed to pay for producers to attend education meetings. They are not, however, allowed to pay for their guests.
“We used to subsidize the fee,” says one financial services meeting planner. “In 2007, we started moving toward ‘real’ costs, and by 2008 we were charging the full price.” There are two buy-in rates—one for guests age 18 and older and one for age 6 to 18. (Kids under 6 years old attend for free.) All guests pay their own airfare and ground transportation as well. “These days it can be as much as $4,000 to bring your family. Now that we have to charge the real costs, we’ve seen a drop-off in qualifiers bringing entire families.”
Then there’s the enforcement challenge. “We had attendees say, ‘My wife is coming but she’s not going to eat anything.’ We tried to ‘a la carte’ some things but it’s an accounting nightmare. Now, either they come or they don’t. You pay or you don’t.”
Another planner charges kids for the opening and closing dinners. “We charge the actual cost of the F&B, but I negotiate. Age 4 and under are free; age 5 to 12 get a separate buffet; and for age 13 to 20, I negotiate a cost that is 50 percent of the adult menu because there’s no alcohol.” Children are not invited to other meals—which presents challenges. “Do we have people who pile their plates at breakfast and carry them up to their rooms to feed their families? Yes. We explain that it’s not that the company doesn’t want to pay, it’s that we are not allowed to pay.”
Resorts Get Kid-Focused
All the major chains and most independent resorts have “kids clubs,” which combine baby-sitting with resort amenities and activities. Planners can provide information to qualifiers about these programs, or work with the properties to create specific kids’ events.
Nick Wagner, director of recreation at the Marco Island Marriott Resort, has created events for groups of from 25 to 250 kids. With the resort’s plentiful meeting space, groups can book their awards dinner in one ballroom while kids have their own special evening in the ballroom just below. The kids’ area gets separated into sections: arts and crafts, board games, movie, Nintendo Wii—even nap time, for the littlest guests. The event opens with a kids’ buffet and can be topped off with a laser tag. “That’s our marquee event for groups—and not just for kids,” Wagner points out. “We’ve done it on the beach as a teambuilding event for adults, too.” Wagner says he’ll work with planners to arrange basic day care or customize an elaborate program. “I’m like an on-site destination management company,” he says.
Some resorts have turned their kid activities into signature programs. At The Ritz-Carlton, Naples, for example, the former Ritz Kids space has been transformed into an environmentally focused education center called Nature’s Wonders (pictured at left), with hands-on activities for kids and families. Certified naturalists lead programs that include shell hunts, nature walks, a butterfly garden, and learning about “the last dinosaurs” (alligators). Kids can act as budding marine biologists amid aquarium tanks and microscopes in the center’s “lab.”
Another resort with programs that really give kids a sense of place is the Hilton Waikoloa, where Club Keiki activities are centered around Hawaiian culture. Learning about the Volcano Goddess Pele includes a hike for petroglyphs, and a clay volcano craft. Hula lessons and lei making are part of an overall program about the great chiefs and chieftesses, and kings and queens, of Hawaiian history.