Family Travel: The New Perks


At first glance, Carly Roitz’s spa visit looks like any other vacation day indulgence. The Little Rock, Ark., native sits swaddled in a cushy robe, relaxing in the lounge at the Hyatt Regency Hill Country Resort and Spa with a drink in one hand and a glossy magazine in the other.

Any moment, her “facialist” will arrive, and the real pampering will begin. But a closer look shows there’s something a little, well, different about this spa – not just the hot pink walls and bean bag chairs, but the Hannah Montana soundtrack and tables stocked with Teen Vogue.

Did we mention that Roitz is 13 years old?

Looks like the travel industry has finally called off the family feud. Indeed, family vacationers, many of whom say they’ve gotten short shrift of late, are now finding themselves in the VIP line, thanks to the latest shift in the topsy-turvy travel market. New York University hospitality professor Bjorn Hanson estimates that family vacationers made up about 35 percent of U.S. hotel business in 2009, up from 25 percent in 2007.

On the high end, the Four Seasons recently debuted a range of Family Values packages, featuring no-charge extras like baby-sitting and in-room sundae making. More affordable properties are also in the game, with Park City Mountain Resort launching a new Web site,, to provide tips on making family ski vacations easier and more wallet-friendly.

And it’s not just classic kids’ destinations that are in a family way. Tour operator Abercrombie & Kent has added family-friendly tours to India and Morocco, while Loews Miami Beach Hotel, located in the heart of South Beach clubland, is betting on families bonding over raw fish with SushiSkool, a class on chopstick basics and “sushi etiquette.”

Of course, this isn’t just about the travel industry suddenly craving some family time. Business travel, usually the sector’s biggest cash cow, has taken quite a hit, with corporations spending about 15 percent less on travel in 2009 than in 2008, according to research firm PhoCusWright. What’s more, a recent survey from travel-trend watcher YPartnership found that 43 percent of leisure travelers reported traveling with children in 2009, up from just 26 percent in 2000.

All of which makes homing in on families a no-brainer for the travel industry. “In good times, family is a bad word,” says Mark Lunt, principal at Ernst & Young’s hospitality practice, noting that families tend to spend far less than expense-account-wielding business travelers. “Now they’d rather have heads in beds than worry about people who visit the minibar.”

But as many travel companies are finding out, catering to today’s family takes more than a pool and tired old crib. Sure, some family travelers’ gripes are minor. (Offering kids cookies at bedtime? Great idea, provided you’re not the one putting them to sleep.)

But other issues, like assuming that “family” equals two adults and two kids, can leave single parents or grandparents out in the cold. And many of these amenities can come with not-so-family-friendly price tags; the Mother and Daughter Teen Re-TREAT package at the Spa at Pinehurst in North Carolina, for one, costs an allowance-busting $395 for two and a half hours of pampering. (The spa says that’s a $50 savings over a la carte prices.) To see who’s getting it right – and who needs a time-out – we look at the latest in multigenerational getaways.

Family vacations have been around since the first child uttered the immortal words, “Are we there yet?” Still, the sector didn’t come into its own until the rise of the Magic Kingdom, which introduced vacationers to the idea of a whole trip built around kids.

Next came resort-based kids’ clubs, with full- or half-day programs offering activities and child care, typically marketed as a way for parents to take the family along but still enjoy a french fry-free dinner or two. This divide-and-conquer strategy still has plenty of fans, but an increasing number of travel companies are offering services intended to keep families together from arrival to checkout. After all, says Marla Block, founder of family travel Web site PlanetZee: “You’re going on vacation because you want to spend time together.”

One ioneer of the new togetherness movement is Tauck Bridges, the family-oriented branch of Tauck tours. The company runs 15 itineraries, all structured to encourage “shared enrichment.” The idea? As tour director LeAnne Brennan puts it, “If grandma doesn’t do it, the kids don’t do it.” (On the “Blue Danube: Family Riverboat Adventure” tour, activities include scavenger hunts and strudel making.) And to cater to this all-ages crowd, the company tweaked its standard tour setup – moving between hotels less frequently (families aren’t known for traveling light), trading five-star perks for kid-friendly pools and starting later each morning to avoid tired, grumpy little faces.

Still, keeping everyone happy can be a challenge. No one knows this better than Brennan, who’s led more than 100 family trips. Her first Tauck Bridges tours were “a real eye-opener,” she says, recalling an incident where she launched into her spiel about the geology of the Teton Mountains. “I usually explain that ‘teton’ is French for ‘breasts,”’ she says. “Suddenly, I was like, ‘Can I say that?”’

She also quickly learned that while grown-ups can happily listen to her lecture for hours, “a kid is going to freak out.” Now Brennan tries to balance adult-friendly info with a delivery system youngsters can tolerate, like having them act out the history of an attraction for the group. And she frequently spends an hour mapping out seating charts for the coaches, since seating too many kids together is “just chaos.”

While some vacation pastimes seem to have made a relatively graceful transition to the multigen model, others have had a tougher time. Hitting the spa, for instance, can be less than Zen if you’re just watching the massage: Most family spas require that an adult be in the room when any minor gets a closed-door treatment. And when parents duck out for their turn on the table, younger kids often get upset, says Michelle Carpenter, spa director at the Hyatt Regency Hill Country. (She occasionally has to defuse the situation with ice cream.)

Other types of pampering can go awry too. Timid kids might not be big fans of the $45 “pirate tuck-in” offered by the Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island, where “Pirate Luis Aury” visits kids’ rooms for a bedtime story. And sugary treats like the cookies-and-milk turndown service at London’s Athenaeum hotel can rub parents the wrong way.

Companies can also skim over the fact that families take many forms. Single parents regularly end up paying twice, since most all-inclusive resorts and tours assume double occupancy, and even many “kids eat free” deals require two adults. Large families don’t have it much better. Theresa Jorgensen’s travails trying to find a hotel room that could accommodate her family of six (Orbitz won’t even allow a search for more than four people per room) led the Denver mom to start, a Web site devoted to listing hotels that accommodate large families.

Occasionally, travel outfits even forget that children come in different sizes. When Kamari Alexander, an attorney from Brooklyn, N.Y., recently took her family of four to a jazz festival in Hartford, Conn., she called ahead to make sure their hotel had a crib for her 2-year-old, Aziel. But when she arrived, the only available crib was so tiny “that his leg was actually popping out of it.” (Aziel ended up sleeping in a bed for the first time.) “Kids adapt,” says Alexander, “but you’d hope the hotels would get it by now.”

Some in the industry do seem to be edging closer, with companies like Beaches Resorts now offering selected dates on which solo parents can avoid being levied the higher single-traveler charge. Still, some say they’d prefer less family-friendly hype and more basic hospitality. Mara Gorman, a freelance writer from Newark, Del., says her best-ever stay was at the Hotel Lancelot in Rome, a property that doesn’t go out of its way to tout family-friendly features.

But when Gorman’s 1-year-old woke up at 4 a.m. every day, her husband, Matt, would tote him down to the lobby where the front-desk staff would entertain the boy while Matt caught a few more winks in a lobby chair. “A dish of microwaved cookies doesn’t impress me,” she says. “It’s the simple things.”

2010 Copyright The New York Times Syndicate