Academic conferences are very important to the careers of professors and researchers. They must present their work and get it published to move up the ladder. Conferences also provide networking opportunities with other professors, publishers, universities and vendors. Attending one, two or three conferences a year can make a huge difference in an academic career.
But while away at conferences, these people are paying a price. Not just money, but personal costs. A three-day conference can mean five days away from home with two days for travel. For someone with a family, that might equal a week of a spouse or mom taking care of the kids and the dog, or a big expense for a nanny. The traveling parent misses bedtime stories, goodnight kisses, soccer games and recitals; they might even miss their baby’s first words or first steps. No matter how major or minor these things seem, you can’t recapture them or get a do-over.
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As conference planners, we can offer attendees more options. We can make events more inclusive for families, especially if attendees want to pair a family vacation with a conference trip. A good first step is to survey attendees to find out how many might want to bring children and families. If only a few, you can work with them one-on-one for more family options. If you’ve got a lot of interest, you might want to consider some changes to your event(s) overall, and get your organization’s leadership on board, plus have conference codes of conduct to cover mothers-to-be, LGBT attendees, children, spouses, etc.
Here are some easy and low-cost changes to make your conferences more family-friendly:
- Choose family-friendly destinations. Lots of cities have children’s museums and attractions for people under 18. Beach and mountain locations with lakes and nature centers often also offer programs for children.
- Look for hotels with family suites. Include some in your room block if you know you have takers for them.
- Provide information on licensed local childcare options. Check with the CVB or hotel for suggestions (daycare, in-hotel babysitting, local day camp programs, etc.).
- Add a line or two to your registration form. Ask for the age, gender, emergency contact information and food allergies/dietary needs for any attending children. Get some markers or crayons and allow kids to decorate their own name badges. Have a small “party favor” bag for them. Use stick-on name tags or clip-on badge holders with young kids—no lanyards.
- Allow children (and spouses) to attend one or more social events. Choose something on one end of your event in case family members aren’t in town for the entire conference. This will help them feel included, and attendees with families will find common ground. Have the chef provide some “kid-friendly” finger foods (ex. pigs in a blanket, pizza bites, etc.) and non-alcoholic drinks.
- Allow presenters to ask to speak on one of the first or last days of the conference. This will minimize their time away from home. If they have multiple presentations, schedule them on the same day. And offer a discounted “parent registration rate” if they are only attending part of the conference.
- Get information on family attractions and activities. You can ask for points of interest from the CVB or a DMO.
- Make new mothers more comfortable. Offer to store breast pumps under the registration table or in the planner office (somewhere always staffed or secure) so that new moms don’t have to carry them around all day. Better yet, arrange for a small room with a refrigerator in the conference venue for mothers who need to use breast pumps. Provide labels and markers to label bottles with names. And have express shipping information available if they need to ship the milk home.
These eight ideas cost little or no additional money. Every conference will be different, and you might have other ideas for your events, or you might have a larger budget and can do more. But even with a limited budget, you can take steps to help make your conferences more family-friendly and inclusive.
Severine Bennett, PMP, is executive director at International Society of Political Psychology. She holds a Master’s Degree from Carnegie Mellon University. Her background in theater production and business administration have served her well in a career of 25 years of planning and managing productions, events and meetings for all branches of the U.S. military and association meetings around the globe. This topic was covered in two articles published in scientific journals (“Family-friendly academic conferences: a missing link to fix the “leaky pipeline”?” published in December 2017’s Politics, Groups, and Identities; “How to tackle the childcare-conference conundrum” published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, March 2018).