The word “hybrid” has new meaning in 2023. With travel demand up and pandemic restrictions down, the number of people blending business travel with leisure is growing. Add to that U.S. Census Bureau statistics showing the number of people primarily working remotely has tripled since 2019, and it creates a perfect opportunity for planners to increase attendance by choosing family-friendly destinations.
“People have more flexibility in their work schedule today, and with that, we’re seeing more of an integration between business and leisure,” says Jim Evans, vice president of marketing and sales for Great Wolf Lodge. “Business and leisure are more connected than ever before.”
Planner Kimberly Bean of KBT Creative Support Services in Brentwood, Tenn., is noticing conferences book up earlier than in previous years, with most attendees adding extra nights to their stay. “It used to be that maybe 15 percent would extend their stay, but it’s easily up to 40 percent,” Bean says. “That obviously can be driven by the destination of the event, but it really illustrates that bleisure travel is not reserved for just the C-suite executives any longer.”
The uptick in bleisure travel is getting noticed. Groups and planners are taking the popular trend into consideration to entice attendees as in-person meeting numbers rebound. “Groups are striking while the iron is hot,” Bean says. “I’m seeing groups putting more thought into the destination they pick to drive attendance for sure. That includes destinations that not only offer prime meeting and event space and amenities, but offsite offerings that will interest attendees.”
That’s precisely what Evans is seeing at Great Wolf Lodge, which has 19 properties, including resorts in Georgia, North Carolina, Texas, and Virginia, with new locations scheduled to open in Maryland and Florida. The family-friendly properties, touted as North America’s largest family of indoor waterpark resorts, are seeing a wave of group bookings.
“If people can bring families pre- or post-event and make a mini-vacay out of it, it’s more likely that they will attend,” Evans says. “Groups have certainly noticed you can do that at any of our properties. A recent event we hosted saw tremendous attendance because they were able to accomplish multiple objectives here, including hosting a professional meeting while also providing family-friendly amenities for attendees to experience with their families.”
Destinations that deliver
Often, destinations delivering increased attendance are top tourist spots all about fun family experiences. That includes perennial favorites, such as Florida’s Walt Disney World Resort and Universal Orlando Resort.
The award-winning Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin and the new Swan Reserve in the heart of the Walt Disney World Resort near Orlando are a magnet for groups. The properties offer 333,000-plus square feet of meeting and event space, 87 meeting rooms, four ballroom options, and state-of-the-art electrical and audiovisual capabilities. The attraction for attendees to bring the family is obvious: four world-class theme parks. Exclusive group Disney Benefits and free onsite transportation complete the magic of a meeting at the happiest place on Earth.
Universal Orlando Resort is an attractive bleisure destination, with three theme parks, multiple meeting spaces, and an entertainment complex guests can walk to or hop on a bus or water taxi to reach.
“For guests looking to add leisure into a business trip, Universal Orlando offers three key advantages: simplicity in accessing the theme parks and Universal CityWalk, proximity across the campus, and exclusive benefits for resort guests,” says Kathy Cattoor, the property’s vice president of resort sales. “For pre- or post-meeting vacations, we have eight hotels on property, all of which
are creatively themed and are destinations unto themselves.”
Complimentary guest benefits include early admission to the parks, and those staying at the resort’s Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, Hard Rock Hotel, or Loews Royal Pacific Resort can get a pass to skip the lines at some rides and attractions at Universal Studios Florida and Universal’s Islands of Adventure—added value planners can promote to entice attendees.
“We are proud of how our destination has continued to evolve and raise the bar with attractions and experiences that encourage business and leisure guests to plan their next visit,” Cattoor says.
Georgia’s DeKalb County offers more than 80 hotels and many event venues that can be more affordable than those in downtown Atlanta just to the west. The county is easily accessible by four interstate highways and is only 10 miles from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, one of the largest and busiest airports in the world. Once there, getting around is easy on the MARTA (Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority).
In addition to the many attractions in nearby downtown Atlanta, DeKalb County has family-friendly attractions of its own. Stone Mountain Park boasts it is the most-visited attraction in the state. Set on 3,200 acres, attractions include the elevated SkyHike family adventure course with suspended bridges, vertical nets, and ropes; four levels of slides, trampoline floors, climbing structures, and interactive games; and a high-speed cable car ride to the top of Stone Mountain. The recently opened SeaQuest is a 20,000-square-foot land-and-sea adventure where visitors can get up close and personal with exotic mammals and aquarium fish from five continents. At Fernbank Museum of Natural History, guests can stand at the feet of replicas of the largest dinosaurs ever discovered or take in a movie on a four-story IMAX screen.
Gaylord Texan Resort & Convention Center in Grapevine, Texas, was built for hosting, housing nearly 500,000 square feet of flexible meeting space, a lakeside events venue, and 1,814 guest rooms. Significant investments also were made in family entertainment, including the 10-acre Paradise Springs Water Park, four-and-a-half acres of indoor garden atriums to explore, and rotating entertainment and attractions. The combination makes it an inviting place for business and leisure. In fact, Gaylord ran a marketing campaign called Work From Here.
“[It] showed how someone could be working from a chair by the pool, inside their room, at an onsite restaurant, or in the coffee shop to illustrate that Gaylord is the kind of place you can enjoy an extended business or leisure stay,” says Martha Neibling, the property’s director of marketing and public relations.
“We’re proud to say that in the fourth quarter of [last] year, we’re seeing stronger results than ever before,” she continues. “Attendance in our holiday activities is even greater than it was in 2019, which had been our peak year.”
Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism in Alabama also launched a Work From Here campaign, strategically marketing the area for workations, as well as meet-and-play trips. The coastal cities offer a variety of meeting and convention spaces, as well as many things on the family-friendly must-have list. Attractions include Waterville USA waterpark, amusement park, and escape rooms; Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo; Gulf State Park; and 32 miles of sugar-white sand beaches.
The campaign continues to draw bleisure travelers to the area, says Michelle Russ, vice president of sales, sports and events. “It has proven to have a long shelf life,” she says. “We continue to see many meeting attendees stay longer and bring their families along for the ride, particularly when meetings coincide with school breaks.”
Similarly, Kiawah Island Golf Resort in South Carolina is taking advantage of its natural beauty and sought-after amenities to promote itself as a top bleisure destination. The resort has been running a marketing campaign called Happy Hour, matching common phrases with idyllic images of the property.
“For example, we paired ‘your morning commute’ with an image of a guest riding one of our iconic bikes through our maritime forest,” explains Bryan Hunter, the resort’s director of public relations. “This subtle messaging communicates that, yes, groups
seek us out for our diverse, world-class meeting spaces and turnkey conference services capabilities, but what really sets us apart is our world-class amenities and recreational offerings, beguiling scenery,
and culinary abundance.”
The JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort & Spa in Texas is among the largest JW Marriott resorts in the world, boasting 1,002 newly renovated guest rooms and more than 265,000 square feet of recently refreshed event space. But its family-friendly offerings are just as big, including the nine-acre River Bluff Water Experience with a sandy beach, two 47-foot-high body slides, a rapid river ride, an 1,100-foot-long lazy river, and a 261,000-gallon pool. And all outdoor water features are heated during cooler months for year-round use.
The resort has a recreation team that offers activities for children, including s’mores by a firepit, “slime factory” craft projects, animal experiences, bingo, movie nights, rubber duck races, and birdhouse building. For some sporting fun, guests can play basketball, tennis, pickleball, and golf.
To the east along the Gulf Coast of Texas, Galveston welcomes more than eight million visitors a year, with approximately 20 percent coming for group business. Because tourism supports one in every three jobs in the area, attracting meetings and conferences is a priority, says Bryan Kunz, director of group sales for Visit Galveston. Visit Galveston finds the best approach is to sell the area.
“We don’t sell the space, we sell the destination,” Kunz says. “That’s been our approach and will continue to be. That’s where we have a competitive advantage, as we are an attractive leisure destination. It’s really core to our sales efforts in the meetings market.”
Top attractions include the Moody Gardens’ pyramids housing an aquarium, rainforest environment, and an interactive science museum. Galveston Island also offers 32 miles of shoreline. Cost-savings programs help expand business travel into leisure stays. For example, the Galveston Island Pass offers a 40 percent discount when purchasing tickets to four or more participating attractions, and the Visit Galveston Savings Pass is a mobile passport offering deals and discounts at more than 20 local attractions, shops, and restaurants.
Kunz says it’s becoming more frequent that meeting planners ask for extensions of the group room rate. “It has never been uncommon to be asked to do that for a day before and day after,” he says, “but now we’re seeing RFPs come through asking for upwards of three days or more and even the whole week.”
The demand for travel and competition for space require meeting professionals to start planning earlier than in past years. “What many don’t realize is just how booked up everything is,” Bean says. “That’s the biggest misconception right now. People get close to meeting time and say, ‘Oh, I’ll extend my stay,’ but you can’t do that four weeks out. It’s more like six months out you have to be making those types of decisions. Pre-planning is more important now than ever. You can’t judge a city on what it used to be.”
Increased bookings by tourists, businesses, and bleisure travelers mean there are no slow nights during the week and fewer deals or availability on traditional “shoulder” nights like Thursday and Sunday.
“In Nashville specifically, just recently people were extending their weekend stays into Tuesday,” Bean says. “I’m also seeing people booking Wednesday as part of their stay in advance of the weekend. People used to make the decision to arrive on Sunday night to get ready for a Monday meeting, but that’s no longer what I’m seeing.”
Planning ahead for meetings in destinations that offer something for everyone has become the go-to way to entice attendees. The Texas Computer Education Association (TCEA) offers a prime example. A driving factor in hitting its goal of more than 1,000 attendees for its annual Elementary Technology Conference is hosting in a family-friendly destination. For TCEA, Galveston has provided the necessary bleisure appeal, says executive director Lori Gracey.
“About half of our attendees bring their families with them; even many of our staff members who work the event bring their families and add on a day or two,” Gracey says. “We did try hosting somewhere else one year, and it wasn’t well attended because it didn’t have the same draw as Galveston. A family-friendly destination like Galveston has been great for us, and it’s why we keep coming back.”