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5 Surprising Ways Hotels Are Catering to Families

With interactive apps and extensive kids programs, hotels going to great lengths to attract families.

U.S. News & World Report

5 Surprising Ways Hotels Are Catering to Families

Family fun in Mexico!

To court families traveling with young kids, tweens and teens, hotels are offering immersive, destination-focused activities and educational apps.Getty Images/Moment RF

From crab hunts to organic toiletries, hotels are catering to children in innovative ways to meet the demands of millennial families, one of the most lucrative segments of the global travel market. According to a 2015 Embassy Suites by Hilton survey, 40 percent of millennials travel more than three times a year with children. To help you customize a vacation that's authentic to your selected vacation destination, we found family-focused programs that are as diverse as major hotel brands and offer creative and free programming geared toward kids. Here are five unique and unexpected ways the hospitality industry is attracting families.

 A Focus on Activity and Cultural Learning

The most innovative programming is coming from the Asia-Pacific region, where competition to attract larger families who stay longer is rapidly growing. "Marriott Rewards created MAX! in response to the changing nature of family travel in Asia, including the rise of multigenerational travel and parents' desires to provide their children with learning experiences even when on vacation," says Anka Twum-Baah, vice president of Customer Loyalty & Content, Asia Pacific at Marriott International. 

All regional Marriott brands will offer kids ages 5 to 12 free or low-cost activities based on the four pillars of childhood: Be Active (think: pool games or Zumba); Stay Curious (think: cooking, robot-making and art lessons); Go Explore (think: outdoor adventures) and Just Relax (think: laid-back activities for families craving serenity). 

Kid-Focused Amenities and Apps

Holiday Inn KidSuites, which include sleeping alcoves with bunk beds, TVs and a bit of privacy are now standard at a variety of Holiday Inn resorts. The Holiday Inn's free supervised Kid's Club has unique local options such as surfing, swimming in the pool with mermaids and swordplay with pirates (available at the Holiday Inn Resort Wrightsville Beach in North Carolina). And at all Holiday Inn properties, kids ages 19 and under can stay free in their parents' room, and up to four kids ages 12 and under per room can dine for free. Plus, grandparents ages 62 and up can receive room discounts.

Four Gaylord convention hotels also cater to families during slow business periods. For example, the 63-acre Gaylord Palms Resort & Convention Center in Kissimmee, Florida, has an atrium lobby with an Everglades theme (think: baby alligator grunts) and a Key West theme (read: stingrays in a 161,000-gallon lagoon). Plus, imaginative time-fillers for younger guests include word translations, a list for ideas on making the world a better place and a seed-embedded gift to plant at home.

Forward-thinking resorts are striving to court teens and tweens, too. At the Grand Hyatt Playa del Carmen Resort, for example, the #Hashtag teen lounge is an airy loft featuring basketball, bowling and board games, as well as a private mini-theater with Netflix streaming access. Meanwhile, the upscale properties in the InterContinental Hotels & Resorts portfolio offer a free, educational "Planet Trekkers" app. Created in conjunction with National Geographic, kids can explore their destination, play interactive games and upload photos. 

[See: 6 Family-Friendly Adventure Trips You Can Afford.]

Suites, Kitchenettes and Pools Have Become Family Magnets

At Embassy Suites properties, you'll find two-room suites appointed with sofabeds and kitchenettes. And to cater to families, Embassy Suites hotels offer free breakfasts and complimentary evening receptions. Plus, cocktail napkins have been redesigned with tic-tac-toe and Sudoku, and the wait staff is trained to assist families. What's more, the company's #PrettyGreat Family Travel Tips community provides inspiration and tips for like-minded travelers online.

Meanwhile, Springhill Suites by Marriott properties, which typically feature pools, plus rooms with an eating and work area along with a sofabed, strive to offer more for groups. "Our guests – about half leisure travelers – are always looking to take something away from their trips," says Loren Nalewanski, the brand's vice president, pointing out the ocean mural where guests can pose as surfers in the Springhill Suites San Diego Oceanside/Downtown lobby. Props and costumes are available so guests can use designated selfie locations on the pool deck to capture the best sunsets and share the hotel's Southern California scenery.

Immersive, Destination-Focused Children's Programs

Ritz-Carlton Hotels & Resorts launched premium on-site children's programming two years ago that is so special, families choose their brand just to experience them. Renowned French oceanographic explorer Jean-Michel Cousteau's Ocean Futures Society designed exclusive Ritz Kids resort activities, which are adapted to different destinations based on the local water, land, environmental responsibility and culture. For example, kids ages 5 to 12 study coral reefs at The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island or plant rice seedlings in Bali; at The Ritz-Carlton, Dove Mountain in Marana, Arizona, children can appreciate the local culture with desert hikes, storytelling, art and cuisine.

Donna McNamara, senior director and global brand leader for The Ritz-Carlton and Ritz-Carlton Reserve, recalls one family at their Sarasota resort whose girls returned from the Mangrove Tour absolutely thrilled about seeing a butterfly – an insect unknown in their native Iceland. "When parents know that their children are doing something fun, learning and coming away excited and wanting to share it with you, that engenders brand loyalty," McNamara says.

And many luxury brands offering special guest experiences now extend them to kids. At the Waldorf Astoria Park City, for instance, families bond nightly over complimentary s'mores at outside fire pits. Meanwhile, at the Hilton Fiji Beach Resort & Spa, the free IKA Kids Club teaches Fijian craft classes and sulu tying, plus the spa offers kid-friendly treatments, such as henna tattoos and hair braiding.

Urging Kids to Appreciate Green Designs and Modern Hotel Amenities

Westin properties, known for their focus on well-being, greet kids with a travel journal to record nutritional cooking classes and even crab hunting adventures at The Westin Blue Bay Resort & Spa in China. The revamped Kids Clubs are made from responsibly sourced and recycled materials where cartoon characters and plastic are out; gardening on a live wall is in.

At Le Méridien, clubs are little gems of mid-century modern design, reflecting the chain's sophisticated French origins. Activities that draw out creativity, culture and curiosity include local elements such as musical instruments kids can play, as well as maps, language learning and an Imagination Playground. Starwood also offers free kids clubs and dining for guests under 12, connecting rooms and discounted rates if you book two rooms.

The Bottom Line: Do Your Homework to Maximize Value and Guarantee Success

In an era when hotels are aiming to meet the needs of guests of all ages and interests, families can easily have fun and learn something, even if they never leave their hotel. Compare each property's programs, however, because local child welfare laws govern them. Westin La Paloma in Arizona, for example, runs a unique nursery for guests ages 4 and under (infants must be at least six months old to attend the nursery) so parents can enjoy adults-only time with a massage or a round of tennis. Comprehensive child care may sound old-fashioned, but for many travelers, it's reason enough to book one resort over another.

About En Route

Practical advice on the art of traveling smarter with tips, tricks and intel from En Route's panel of experts.

Contributors have experience in areas ranging from family travel, adventure travel, experiential travel and budget travel to hotels, cruises and travel rewards and include Amy Whitley, Claire Volkman, Holly Johnson, Marsha Dubrow, Lyn Mettler, Sery Kim, Kyle McCarthy, Erica Lamberg, Jess Moss, Sheryl Nance-Nash, Sherry Laskin, Katie Jackson, Erin Gifford, Roger Sands, Steve Larese, Gwen Pratesi, Erin Block, Dave Parfitt, Kacey Mya, Kimberly Wilson, Susan Portnoy, Donna Tabbert Long and Kitty Bean Yancey.

Edited by Liz Weiss.

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