Amanda J Dennis | Can a Meeting Be Successful with Spongebob Squarepants as the Host?
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Can a Meeting Be Successful with Spongebob Squarepants as the Host?

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, there was a distinct separation between work-life and family-life. When I was a kid, Dad was home in time for dinner and everyone I knew took at least one family vacation, generally a whole week each summer. Weekends were reserved for picnics, fishing and long Sunday drives. Now, work days extend way beyond 9-5, technology connects us to the workplace 24/7 and we find it hard to take time off even on the weekends. There’s always a deadline to meet, an appointment to keep and expectations to be managed. In many cases, parents leave for work before their kids get up in the morning and return home too exhausted to do anything more than plop comatose into the recliner. Family vacations: forget about it. Who has the time?

Last week I attended several meetings at Nickelodeon Suites Resort in Orlando, Florida. Admittedly, traveling to Orlando in the summer has never been my idea of a fun time. And a kid’s resort in June? Just pull my fingernails out with a pair of pliers. I wanted to get this one over with…quickly.

As I entered the lobby, I was fully immersed in the world of Nickelodeon: Blue (of Blue’s Clues fame) came bounding around the corner; Dora explored the food court and Jimmy Neutron dazzled poolside. I looked around warily for the Slime Squad, slightly concerned about being introduced to Nickelodeon’s famous green slime. Suddenly, Spongebob Squarepants, the star of the show, appeared, resplendent in his square pants, white dress shirt and red power tie. Here I am, an older corporate executive (whose only real contact with children is an almost grown teenage niece) and I’m grinning like a 6-year-old. Like Spongebob, I can admit when I’m wrong. Looking around, I have an epiphany: why aren’t more businesses using meetings as incentives to help employees connect with both their jobs and their families? In today’s world of single parents, dual-incomes and women executives, it’s not just daddy that’s packing a suitcase, kissing the kids good-bye and hitting the road. Moms are traveling, too.

A report released in January by Travel Leaders, North America’s largest travel agency franchisor, found that 65.7% of business travelers combine at least one business trip with a leisure or family trip. Time-starved, multi-tasking parents are constantly searching for ways to keep the family together without sacrificing their job duties. Savvy firms are realizing that attending a business meeting doesn’t have to mean more time on the job and less time with family members.  I asked Mike Lyons, Executive Vice President of AMR Meetings & Incentives, if family-friendly meetings were a viable option. “Absolutely!” said Lyons. He considers it a natural part of the conversation with his clients. “We have an obligation as a company who puts on these events to point out these opportunities to the decision maker. It’s interesting to see their reaction,” Lyons added. “They quickly recognize that family-friendly meetings are a win-win for everyone: the company, the hotel, the attendees and the children.”

What are the benefits of having the family tag along? There’s the bonus of family time at the end of the work day…in some cases more of a treat than an expectation. Imagine playing in the pool, discovering nature, exploring a museum, enjoying a show, reading a story to your kids before bedtime. It’s a terrific opportunity to spend some time reconnecting. Many road warriors say that bringing their families along erases the guilt that they experience when leaving their biggest supporters behind once again.  They need some time to relax and recharge, and the upshot is a more alert, enthusiastic and productive meeting participant. Then there are the potential cost savings. Many young families can’t afford a family vacation these days. Having part (or all) of the trip reimbursed can benefit both the employer and employee. And in some cases, including the family can actually be more cost effective for an employer. Yes, there are naysayers who are concerned about family distractions or attendees cutting out early. But those things can happen with or without a family in tow. Marketing manager April Thompson has been planning meetings for one of IBM’s software portfolios for the last five years. She sees a lot of family vacations combined with meetings held in Orlando. “Lots of people bring their kids along,” said Thompson. “It’s been a consistent trend over the last five years and now families are extending their visits beyond the meeting dates. Having part of the trip paid for by the company is a great benefit.”

Even better are those occasions where the family is actually invited to be a part of the meeting itself. Though this happens more frequently with incentive travel, clever meeting planners are now considering locations that work not only for the meeting itself, but also for family members in tow. Crucial to the success of family-oriented meetings and events is including versatile activities for all age groups, as well as for those who do not have children. Hotels are listening, too. According to Mike Lyons, hotels are making it easier to plan kid-friendly meetings.  Some, like Nickelodeon, have on-site staff that develop and manage programs for kids of all ages (even adults). Others hotels show their family-friendly side by offering programs developed by companies such as KiddieCorp, founded in 1986 and now managing 175 child care programs a year.

After staying at the Nick Hotel for a week, I find my attitude changing. It’s hard not to smile when you see such unabashed delight on the faces of the children here…as well as on the faces of the parents watching their children’s joyful reaction. Spongebob would make an excellent host for a meeting. Think about it…he has a many of the same qualities that we value in our employees:

  • He’s loyal and true, even when people aren’t always nice to him
  • He’s comfortable in his own, er, sponge (that’s skin to you humans)
  • He never waves the white flag…maybe even when he should
  • His optimistic enthusiasm is boundless; rarely does he miss the chance to laugh…or at least giggle
  • He chases his dreams, passionately throwing himself headlong into his mission
  • He has an admirable work ethic: admits when he’s wrong; works hard at a less-than-glamorous job; goes the distance to get along with grouchy colleagues

For the next meeting, encourage participants to leave the babysitter at home and pack up the kids along with the suitcase. Then prepare yourself for superhero status.

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