Road Warriors share their experiences – good and bad – about toting kids on business trips. Longtime financial journalist Achs delivers the bottom line on how to make a productive business trip a successful family outing.
I remember when I thought that business trips were glamorous — all-expense-paid vacations with smart luggage and ironed clothes. Then I actually took one.
I spent my days seeing the insides of office and conference rooms, my evenings in mock jocularity at hotel-ballroom Theme Nights, dancing the conga line with a hundred business associates stiffly trying to shake their "groove thang." Throw in the prospect of being away from the family, and I quickly saw how business travel could be considered a sacrifice, not a perk.
But these days, more and more working parents are eschewing the idea of lonely hotel rooms and are combining business with family time, getting work done while sharing memorable experiences with their kids. Last year, 4% of business trips in America included kids, according to the Travel Industry Association of America.
Business trips "are no longer belly-up-the-bar weekends away from home," observes Chris Tempesta, who in 1986 founded KiddieCorp (858/455-1718) to provide kids' programs at conferences. The programs offer crafts, field trips, games and social activities for children six months through 16 years during conference hours. Tempesta says her business has exploded in the 1990s, as conference planners began drawing better attendance when parents can bring the kids.
Many hotels provide bonded babysitting services, and some have toy and video libraries for junior guests. Some resort hotels have special camps for kids, with water sports, adventure trips, crafts and carnivals; others offer "kids suites"- an attached kid's room with bunk beds, VCR and play area (See "Hotels Who Mean Business," below).
Leslie Dashew, president of the consulting firm Human Side of Enterprise, has been bringing her daughter Baileigh on business trips since she was 10 weeks old. That first trip was to a conference in New York at which Leslie was giving a speech. A 16-year-old niece came along to lend a hand.
When Baileigh was 16, she accompanied her mom on another trip to New York. This time, she met her mom's client in the morning, went off to explore the city, then joined them for a business lunch. "She had not really sat in on a meeting like that and it was a new experience for her, " Leslie says. "She got to see a little bit of what I do. It has been really useful for her to travel with me and get to know the kinds of things parents do at work."
When Leslie, a divorced parent, traveled with the younger Baileigh she was often the only caregiver. She had Baileigh play with her clients' kids, left her with friends or relatives in the area, or let her play in the office with art supplies and the computer while Leslie worked.
Parents differ on how old they want their children to be before bringing them along. Daphne Telfeyan, an immigration lawyer, has brought her daughter Chloe, now five, to an annual trade convention every year since Chloe was 18 months old. Her husband comes along to watch their daughter; she, in turn, plays caregiver on some of his business trips. "At lunch time when I have a break I'll put on my bathing suit and get in the pool with her, and after the conference ends I'll get back into the pool. The big highlight of the trip for me is getting a break and spending time with my daughter."
Klaus Haasler, a Frankfurt, Germany-based lumber import agent, began bringing his son Matthias on transatlantic trips when Matthias was 18. "I wouldn't have taken him when he was younger," says Klaus, but now, "it gives me a direct and personal contact with my son. You have eight to twelve hours on the plane each way to talk, you have weekends."
Not all travelers have such positive experiences. "It was hard not to be torn while at the conference," says Miriam Roccah, associate executive director of a rehabilitation project for the homeless, about a trip she took with her seven-month-old. The baby was being looked after by a grandmother she didn't know very well, and she cried constantly. "I thought it would be a good opportunity for her to get to know her grandma. But because she was so young, it was traumatic."
I recall a situation I had with my own mom, Abbey Achs, when she brought me, then 16, and my sister, 13, on a three-week business trip to Spain. One afternoon she met a client in a dilapidated industrial town and left us to wander the streets outside. When the meeting lasted longer than expected, we got fed up waiting and stormed back to the client's office, demanding to know when she would be finished. "I was extremely embarrassed and uncomfortable," she says. "It was hard to have your private, personal life laid on top of your business life like that."
Kid-toting business travelers offer the following advice:
Be sure the trip and the settings are conducive. "My first obligation when the kids are with us is to be present for them," says Peg Eddy, CEO of Creative Capital Management, a fee-based financial planning and investment firm, who regularly brings her teenage boys to conferences. "If I'm giving a speech, I won't bring them, because of the level of energy and attention that requires. After the presentations, speakers are expected to be on call to answer questions [and] I don't think it's fair for my family to have to share me with a hundred people."
At some conferences, particularly those held in family destinations like Orlando, Anaheim, San Diego, San Antonio and Las Vegas, you can be sure you won't be the only one with children in tow. At others, children may be more of an anomaly. It is easier to bring children along when parents have a set schedule and are not in danger of being held late at meetings.
If your child is young, have a caregiver along. The closer the caregiver is to the child, the more comfortable he/she will be with your absence and the likelier you are to be able to stick to your schedule in the event of sickness or other complications.
If your child is older, arrange for him/her to have some time with peers. Resorts hotels often sponsor group social activities for young people, as do some conference programs. If you are going to visit business associates, they may have children of the same age as yours. Or you may be able to convince colleagues traveling with you to bring their children, too. It may also be possible to arrange some activities for your child with family or friends who live in the area.
Before you go, have a basic itinerary of what your child will do each day. Nothing can sour the experience more quickly than if the children are bored. Have fall-back activities in case it rains for three days, or the cousins who were supposed to take Junior skiing back out at the last minute. If your hotel offers a wide range of indoor and outdoor activities, you are probably in good shape. But call ahead, as some hotel's children's services rely heavily on Boob-Tube Babysitting, ie. in-room movies.
Carve out family time. Plan a family vacation around the trip. Make sure there will be a reasonable amount of time every day — such as at lunch and in the evenings — to put work aside. Many business travelers plan to arrive on Saturday so they can check out the destination with their kids before launching into their work schedule. Taking some time off after the conference for a family vacation gives everyone something to look forward to, particularly for the parent stuck in meetings while the rest of the family is having fun.
Consider bringing your child to some of your business engagements. Many parents report that their associates are quite welcoming to their children, and more than happy to have them along for luncheons or dinners. When visiting people you have known in business for years, Mr. Haasler points out, introducing them to your family adds a new dimension. "It becomes a more personal relationship when you bring your child."
If you are going to a conference, tell them you would like a youth program. "I don't think parents realize how much power they have [in determining conference services]," says Ms. Tempesta. "If you get three or four people requesting child care at a conference, the association is going to listen."
While the two often seem mutually exclusive, work-related travel can create meaningful family time. The kids get to see a place they might not have otherwise, the working parents get to see the kids they might not have. With a little preplanning, it need not be difficult to bring them along. And family is a great excuse for opting out of that conga line.
Hotels Who Mean Business
These hotel chains have system-wide programs, although several others like Marriott, Ramada, and Radisson offer programs that vary at each location.
Hilton's Vacation Station: Available at 61 Hilton hotels, Memorial Day through Labor Day for no additional cost. Provides souvenir gifts, a "Family Fun Kit " for parents listing local family-friendly attractions, and a toy lending library. Select resorts hotels also offer supervised children's activities, including pool games, field trips, crafts and theme parties. Call Hilton at 800/445-8667.
Camp Hyatt: Available for children 3-12 at more than 100 hotels, year-round, with extensive programs running during the summer at 15 resorts. Regular activities include barbecues and sing-alongs, while more extensive programs offer scheduled cooking classes with resort chefs, nature and wildlife hikes, and educational programs on local culture. Plus, if you download an online coupon, your kids will get to enjoy a free ice cream sundae. Call Hyatt at 800/233-1234.
Holiday Inn: Here, children 19 and under stay free with an adult, and those 12 and under eat free with a paying adult. The Holiday Inn Sunspree Resorts offer the KidSpree activity program. [Editor's Note: We've found their schedule unreliable.] Includes arts and crafts, sports and themed activities geared to location, plus a movie and book library. At Lake Buena Vista, Florida, they offer "KidsSuites " within the parents' room, consisting of an adorable play fort with bunkbeds, VCR and game player. Private babysitting is offered at some properties – call ahead for availability and prices. Call Holiday Inn at 800/465-4329.
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