IF you think attendees are risk-averse and litigious when it comes to themselves, wait until you see how protective they are of their kids. You may already know. There's been a marked increase in the number of meeting attendees bringing kids along, and the trend seems to be continuing.

Just as organizations have responded to other attendance trends-for example, the need for updated spouse programming, accessible facilities, varied educational tracks, and so on-they are responding to kids at meetings. Part of that response is deciding whether to encourage or discourage their attendance in the first place.

Meeting dates, location, room rate, and programming all have an impact on whether a meeting is more or less kid-friendly. Further, some planners clearly state in the meeting materials whether children are welcome or not.

Where kids are present at meetings, a group must be sensitive to three legal issues: liability, liability, and liability. Some groups will decide that the most prudent approach to kids is to provide no programs or services for them. If no programs or services are provided, the group likely has no responsibility and, therefore, no liability. Many groups are deciding, however, that programs for children are not only appropriate, but are an important selling point for their meetings.

The scope of a group's potential liability differs depending on whether it is providing the services itself or contracting with an outside company. By creating its own programming, a group exposes itself to the greatest possible liability. Basically, it's a bad idea. Most groups do not have the expertise or training to be professional care providers. Leave it to the experts.

Kidding Around Here are guidelines to keep in mind when launching a children's program:

1. Hire qualified professionals.

2. Ask program providers or legal counsel about state and local legal requirements. For example, professionals may need to be licensed, and facilities may need to meet certain minimum requirements.

3. Make sure all such licenses and certificates are current and valid.

4. Verify the credentials of all outside hires. Check references carefully.

5. Disclose all relevant information. Let people know what you have found out.

6. Get indemnification/hold harmless agreements from service providers. Under such agreements, the people providing the children's programming agree to be responsible for any liability that may result from their performance or failure to perform. The group also should determine whether the professionals have insurance to back up any indemnification. Without insurance, a promise to be responsible for damages and to hold the group harmless is only as valuable as the assets of the business-which are likely to be insufficient.

7. Consider obtaining liability insurance. While such insurance may be somewhat redundant, it may be the group's only guarantee that a catastrophic claim won't wipe it out. Whether to purchase such insurance is a business decision that must be made weighing the risk of exposure against the cost of the insurance.

8. Establish written rules on what kids can and cannot do. If children will not be allowed to attend the closing banquet or visit the exhibit floor, say so in advance.

9. Establish written rules on whether there are age limits on participation (e.g., no kids under 6, no kids over 12).

10. Find out what third-party rules might inhibit participation by children, and make them known to parents. Does a facility prohibit attendance by kids under a certain age? Does a site have a curfew for minors?

11. Get releases from all parents. In a subsequent article, I will discuss releases in detail. However, one special point to remember when dealing with children is that any release signed by a minor is not binding. As such, it is critical for a release involving children to state that the participant is a minor and that the person signing the release is the parent or legal guardian. (Remember: legal age of consent differs from state to state.)

Releases become even more critical when the group provides programming beyond baby-sitting. Obviously, if the group is planning hang-gliding and rock-climbing excursions, the liability exposure goes through the roof, but even if the kids are just going to the hotel pool, the risk of liability exposure is significant.

12. Consider publishing a disclaimer. If the meeting planner knows that a significant number of children will be present (even when children are not encouraged or even allowed), it may be worthwhile to print a disclaimer in meeting materials. While disclaimers are not guaranteed protection against liability, they can be helpful if properly drafted. The narrower and more specific, the better. In addition, they may discourage attendees from bringing claims.

While 90 percent of the decisions involving kids at meetings are related to liability, also consider the impact of children on the meeting itself. (Will it further the meeting's goals? What are the needs and expectations of other attendees?) Whatever decisions are made, planners still must make sure that if kids are going to be around, they have made efforts to minimize the group's liability. No kidding.