Happy together: Mixing business and pleasure boosts attendance numbers and fills hotel rooms

A chance to swim with manatees is among the unique activities at Florida's Plantation on Crystal River
A chance to swim with manatees is among the unique activities at Florida’s Plantation on Crystal River.

After working from home for nearly two years, many workers have gotten used to being around family 24/7. A desire to keep the family together has contributed to the increased popularity of bleisure travel. These business travelers bring family along and stay for a few extra days of leisure before or after their meeting. Destinations are shifting their focus from solo business travelers to family-friendly getaways, and resourceful planners are recognizing the attraction of offerings beyond the sessions.

Travelers combining business travel with additional leisure time have become serious business for hotels, but the trend has been gaining strength for years. Even before the pandemic, more than 60 percent of business trips included a leisure component, according to a study by Expedia Group Media Solutions, a global travel advertising platform. That number is expected to remain strong.

Encouraging people to tack a family vacation onto a business trip increases attendance and lengthens stays. That’s a win-win for planners whose attendance numbers have been devastated by the pandemic and for hotels that have seen business travel revenue plummet by nearly $60 billion in 2021 compared to 2019, according to the American Hotel & Lodging Association.

Now is the perfect confluence: Families are ready to get out of the house; planners are looking to boost attendance numbers; and hotels across the South are getting creative with family-friendly occupancy-increasing amenities, experiences, and top-of-the-line technology.

Curate packages

When Kalahari Resorts & Conventions opened its newest property in Round Rock, Texas, in November 2020, it wasted no time highlighting everything it offers families—from an outdoor waterpark and the country’s largest indoor waterpark to an 80,000-square-foot adventure park and a range of onsite dining options. The property also offers event planners 200,000 square feet of flexible meeting space and state-of-the-art lighting and audio-visual equipment.

Despite the pandemic, the resort’s General Manager Tim Arnold says the timing was fortuitous. “We were fortunate to open when we did because our property was one that fit what families were looking for, which was entertainment for the whole family,” Arnold says. “We really have some great options that span across generations. So, whatever a family member is seeking, you can do it here.”

The property gives families the option to plan their visit ahead of time to ensure plenty of opportunities to create special memories with no wasted time. “People are looking to customize or curate a visit that’s going to include something special instead of just booking rooms, checking in, and then finding their way through and what’s available,” Arnold says. “They want to plan out the visit before they ever get here, and we’re giving them opportunities to do that.”

To help make it easy, Kalahari offers a variety of packages that include special rates and waterpark and adventure park passes. Guests also can customize the packages with various add-ons. “In combining attractions into a package, we are also able to provide more value,” Arnold says. “We see families looking for opportunities to celebrate special occasions, and we are making sure to have all of that information out there online.”

Plantation on Crystal River entices meeting attendees to stay a few extra days with discounted rooms and family relaxation spots that put the "leisure" in bleisure.
Plantation on Crystal River entices meeting attendees to stay a few extra days with discounted rooms and family relaxation spots that put the “leisure” in bleisure.

Deliver an experience

Families also are looking for experiences, and venues with enhanced attractions beyond the convention floor will attract a crowd. That’s something Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center has been delivering for years. The Nashville, Tenn., property is an experience in itself, with nine acres of indoor gardens, waterfalls, and a riverboat ride, all enclosed beneath a soaring clear dome.

The resort is well-known for its festive holiday decorations, activities, shows, and events. Since the pandemic started, it has been looking for ways to deliver even more unique experiences.

“We’ve always tried to provide experiences that fit the needs and demands of our customers, but we’ve really leaned into our bread and butter in events and entertainment over the past couple of years to amplify those offerings,” says Michelle Murray, vice president of brand marketing and management for Gaylord Hotels. “We looked at the hours of activities and events during our Christmas programming and its success and saw the need and desire from customers for those sorts of opportunities year-round.”

Now, Gaylord Opryland goes beyond its popular holiday programming to offer family-friendly activities and entertainment 365 days a year. “That’s in addition to the beautiful atriums waiting to be explored, water attractions, and other amenities for which we’ve been known as well,” Murray adds.

Tap into touchless technology

Technology, including secure and fast Wi-Fi, has been an important hotel amenity for years. But as health and safety has moved to the forefront of people’s minds, travelers want technology that promotes cleanliness and hygiene, especially if they are bringing their family along.

Contactless service is in demand, with guests using mobile check-in and keyless room entry, bypassing the front desk and the lines altogether. Gaylord Opryland uses the Marriott Bonvoy mobile app to harness technology that gives guests access to hotel services, including ordering food, online chats with hotel staff, and locating the hotel shuttle, all through a smart phone, Apple Watch, or iPad.

“At our properties, contactless experiences are very much at your disposal,” Murray says. “Not only are the rooms spacious for you to work from or have the kids learn from, but you can do it all in a way that makes you feel comfortable as far as those sorts of health and safety standards.”

The Kalahari Resorts & Conventions location in Round Rock, Texas, taps into the bleisure travel boom with opportunities to work and play. Their convention center and indoor waterpark each measure 200,000 square feet.
The Kalahari Resorts & Conventions location in Round Rock, Texas, taps into the bleisure travel boom with opportunities to work and play. Their convention center and indoor waterpark each measure 200,000 square feet.

Extend stays

Some properties are highlighting their spaces as great destinations to both work and play. Hyatt originally launched its Work from Hyatt extended stay package in August 2020 to draw remote workers and virtual learners. The program provided a variety of options, including an office for the day, extended-stay opportunities, and even relocation for a month or more. People took to the idea of a working vacation where family members have room to spread out while taking advantage of the hotels’ high-speed internet to connect with the office and school. Many participating properties have extended the program through the end of this year.

Property managers across the South agree the bleisure trend will continue. “We were very popular pre-pandemic, as we have two seasonal activities you can’t participate in in many parts of the world: snorkeling with manatees and scalloping. However, we became even more popular during these past couple of years, as the bleisure market likes to go to locations that are more nature and adventure-driven,” says Laurie Pike, director of sales for Plantation on Crystal River in Crystal River, Fla. “Most of what we offer is outside, so it provides a safer environment
for families.”

To increase bleisure stays, the property offers special discounted packages around meeting dates. “With every conference or meeting held here, we offer the discounted group meeting rate three days before or three days after the meeting to encourage attendees to come early or stay later to enjoy all of our activities both off and on the water,” Pike says.

When more in-person meetings and events resume, bleisure travel will get another boost. So, properties will continue showing business travelers all their areas offer to entice them to stay a bit longer.

“Bleisure travel will be at a heightened focus because that’s how consumers are working today,” Gaylord’s Murray says. “These travelers have the desire to bring their families and want opportunities to do so, and we want to work hand in hand with them to have the right programs to accommodate what they need.”

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