Putting Child Care on Your Event Checklist

Family-friendly meetings can provide a boost in attendance.

For working parents, making it through the week is a challenge in and of itself. So, when the opportunity to attend an industry event in another city crops up, many write it off -- particularly when no child-care services are provided. But meeting planners who wish to create more inclusive spaces and drive up attendance rates should consider adding babysitting and activities for children to their conference checklists.

"I rarely go to conferences solely because it's a hassle to coordinate child care and I have to justify the sacrifice my family has to make for me to leave for two to four days," said Mike Tatum, co-founder and CEO of the lead-generation company Tatum Digital. "It is definitely hardest on single parents, but even in my situation as a married man, attending a conference can be extremely disruptive. Either the kids’ school and nap schedules are thrown off by the travel, or my wife's schedule is impacted because she needs to take off work to compensate for my absence."

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Lisa Bower, a mother of four, expressed similar frustrations. After years of navigating meetings with little to no support for parents, Bower decided to quit her job as a director of marketing at Ernst & Young in 2013 and start Plus One Meetings, which offers child-care options for corporate events.

"I once flew a nanny to Palm Springs with me at my personal expense, as I was still nursing infant twins and just couldn’t be away from them," said Bower. "This is not something that is affordable for many working parents. I am lucky that it was for me."

The issue, which the National Society of Sciences has dubbed the “child-care conference conundrum," persists today. According to Rebecca Calisi Rodriguez, associate professor of neurobiology, physiology and behavior at the University of California, Davis, a lack of child care at meetings creates a barrier for parents to attend and can hinder career advancement, with women and people of color most likely to be affected.

Below are a few ways to make your next meeting more family-friendly.

Assess Attendee Needs

According to Meeting Professionals International, the first thing planners should do is assess the needs of their attendee base. This will help determine if child care is needed and to what extent.

"Not all meetings should be treated equally," said Melinda Burdette, MPI’s director of events. "Every meeting planner should look at who their attendees are. If you see that your attendees might need child care, then that's something that you should look into."

Connect Parents With Local Providers

For event coordinators who have decided to offer child care, the next question becomes how to finance it. Those operating on a smaller budget who can't work the cost in might want to consider partnering with licensed providers in the destination.

Organizations such as KiddieCorp and Corporate Kids Events provide onsite services with the option for attendees to foot the bill. Registration pages can also point guests to local nanny services that can be coordinated on an individual basis. While the financial burden falls on attendees in this case, simply adding links to child-care services on an event-registration page is an important first step, and demonstrates that a meeting is family-friendly and parents are welcome to attend.

Subsidize the Cost

Event planners working with a more flexible budget should consider subsidizing child-care costs. The International Communication Association recently did so for its 2019 annual conference, which took place in Washington, D.C., in May. Rather than paying $15 an hour per child, attendees were only charged $5 per hour.

“Child care is one of the many inclusionary initiatives ICA has created over the last few years,” said John Paul Gutierrez, associate executive director of ICA. “We decided to subsidize it because it is an issue of equity. If the choice is staying home and not attending because of child-care costs, then we wanted to provide members with an alternative.”

ICA first offered subsidized services for parents at its 2017 annual conference and provided them again this year with the help of KiddieCorp. According to Gutierrez, 28 families took advantage of the 2019 ICA Kids program. The post-conference survey revealed that 90 percent of respondents said having child care made a difference as to whether or not they would attend and 90 percent said they would use the services again.

Consider Complementary Programs and Grants

The most attractive option for parents in a bind is complementary child care, where the costs are completely covered by the event organizer. Grants are another option that can take the financial stress off potential attendees and provide parents with a range of options to pursue.

The Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, for example, offers conference grants that can be used to cover babysitting and other child-care services at the event or at home, as well as travel expenses for the child and the cost of bringing along a caregiver to the meeting. Grant values are determined based on the average cost of care.

"Since at least as far back as 2005, SIAM has experimented with different ways of offering support, ranging from providing group care through third-party vendors, to providing messaging boards that facilitate care coordination, to our current model of providing financial support through reimbursement of child-care expenses,” said Richard Moore, director of programs and services at SIAM. "Rather than insist on a specific solution, SIAM prefers to provide reasonable flexibility to the parents to find an accommodation that works for them.”

Be the (Child-Care) Change

It's become an expectation that conferences offer lactation rooms for nursing mothers, but not all events provide services for parents caring for older children. Proactive planners who make inclusivity a priority and rework their events to become more family-friendly might see an increase in attendance as a result, and can rest easy knowing they are helping to break down barriers to equity.