The frequent lack of child support at events has barred many parents from attending due to high child care costs, though there are signs that the industry is waking up to the issue. So, what's the state of child care at events, and what steps still need to be taken?
Business events (and the corporate world in general) have long marginalized working parents by often forcing them to choose between their professional opportunities and parental responsibilities.
At business events, the consensus seems to be that children are disruptive. But is that really the case?
Working mothers and fathers are faced with a challenge that other event attendees don’t have to confront, which, in many cases, severely limits their ability to attend conferences within their field.
We wanted to take a closer look at this often under-discussed and non-gender specific issue within the events industry and see where organizations are making headway — and how they can still improve.
A Rundown on Child Support at Events
Child support at events is a relatively complex issue. It’s costly, and there’s no one solution to accommodate everyone.
According to research done by Science Careers, about 64% of conferences in the US currently provide some form of child care. This may come in different forms: some events offer professional child care services onsite — either free or paid — while others provide a grant program that reimburses parents for child care expenses incurred as a result of their event attendance. Child care can include things like lactation rooms, family rooms where parents can spend breaks with their kids, and efforts to ensure the event space is generally kid-friendly.
64% sounds like a long shot — at least if we consider how many of these initiatives are planner-driven or just services offered by the hotel where the conference is happening.
Ironically, the types of conferences that were least likely to offer child care were in the life and social sciences, while the fields of math and computer science, which traditionally have a lower female to male ratio, had child care available at all of their industry-related conferences.
Anh Nguyen is the Principal of Spark Event Mangement Inc. and has over 14 years of experience in the industry. Her pragmatic attitude towards child care echos many of these concerns but recognizes realistic limitations and the fact that there are different interests to contend with.
That said, Nguyen recognizes the necessity for many working mothers who may not be able to be apart from their children. “I would like events to consider nursing spaces for moms who have gone back to work who are still breastfeeding,” she offers. “More and more women are going back sooner, and a space for them at events should be more often thought about.”
One thing we are certain about in the event industry is how difficult it is to capture the state of events. The industry is too fragmented, and a correct estimate is always complicated.
We also spoke with Sholeh Munion, owner of Sholeh Events, LLC, who shared some insights with us about the current state of child care at events. Having worked on both the planner and the supplier side of things, Munion has over 13 years of experience in the events industry and is also a new mother.
Munion notes that while she’s seen some improvement in child care at events, there’s still a long way to go.
This incredibly thorough analysis by Quartz highlights how the initiatives are sparse, uncoordinated and out of rebellion rather than a standard. In the same fashion that only some events care to have mixed-gender restrooms, only some events are making a proactive effort to offer child care solutions for events.
Nguyen views this as a de facto reality of the professional world. “As much as it may remove a barrier for some to bring their children to your event,” she contends, “there are certain times when it is just not appropriate.”
For Nguyen, it boils down to whether you can provide quality child care in a way that integrates with the rest of the event experience. “I would rather a conference not set up child care than set up low quality child care,” she notes.
When it comes to child care, we are looking for more than listing a babysitter’s number. We’re talking about a voluntary action to provide child care facilities and activities.
Nguyen adds that any child care that is set up “should be part of a larger children or spouse program, designed to be a part of the event.”
These are not only limited to infants. As events transition to human-centric experiences, inclusion means creating an opportunity for families to travel to events. While parents may attend the program, children may be engaged in fun activities.
This is a concept that the hospitality industry understands well. In fact, ‘kids clubs’ have allowed parents to enjoy a holiday destination without leaving children behind. To a certain extent, many conferences understood the concept of extended attendance by allowing spouses to enjoy a separate program.
So what is the deal and why is there such a lack of drive from the event industry?
The Impact of Child Care — and Lack Thereof — at Events
There are numerous obstacles for parents interested in attending a business event. Many people are not in a position to hire a long-term caregiver to either stay home with their child or accompany them to the event.
Bringing children to an event is not an easy decision either — it’s not even an option for many. It depends on the availability of lactation rooms, cribs, and trained staff that parents have a limited opportunity to vet. Even with child care, they probably won’t be getting much sleep.
Indeed, parent attendees face a number of challenges that translate into challenges for the planner trying to accommodate them. “It means that you do not have their undivided attention,” Nguyen reminds us. “You need to design your program to fit that. It can’t be day long sessions that bleed into evening networking events for three days in a row.”
This presumably adds to the cost and complexity of an event at the risk of affecting the event experience for a possible majority of guests who may not have any interest in facilitating children at the event, going back to Nguyen’s propriety check. “Your program also needs to be respectful and accommodating of those that do not have kids who are expecting to attend a professional event.”
But because so many parents opt out of event participation for lack of child care and child-friendly programming, it’s hard to know the full impact of excluding parents who depend on it. Many parents who could be adding value as speakers or qualified attendees are missing, and these numbers aren’t being tracked. The upshot is that those evaluating the value of child care at events may not have a realistic appreciation of the opportunity cost of not providing those services — and therefore may not be in the best position to make informed decisions.
Offering child care is not a problem with women's inclusion. It is about making events human-friendly and inclusive towards families. Regardless of their gender.
However, there is evidence of child care making an impact on the willingness and ability of women to attend events: for example, the KDD 2019 conference offered child care for the first time and increased its female participation by 6%.
While this might not seem like a huge increase, Munez points out that child care has an important role to play in an event’s broader diversity and inclusion as well.
Events that don't provide any form of child care favor speakers and attendees that can afford to make other arrangements, which tends to disproportionately exclude minorities and those with less access to economic and social support in general.
These are people whose attendance would be valuable to the event but who will likely not be able to make the trip, which has a detrimental effect on their representation in business events.
A Difficult Conversation that Needs to Happen
According to Munion, the first step for those in the events industry, and the wider corporate world, can take to improve child support at events is to start talking about it.
For organizations who would like to offer child care but are struggling to cover the cost, Munion mentions that sponsorships are a great option.
Sponsors like knowing that their brands are attached to something meaningful, and Munion emphasizes that younger generations especially want to work for and support companies that resonate with their values. Child care provides event sponsors and organizers with such an opportunity to make a forward-thinking impact.
She also recommends using convention bureaus in unfamiliar cities as they can be a great resource for help looking for child care services for events. Even if an event does offer child care, many parents are hesitant to leave their children with someone they just met for long periods of time while they attend the conference.
Nguyen agrees that third party services are the way to go.
Finding a trusted provider that understands the needs of parents and children is crucial to the success of an event child care program.
The Path Ahead
I am sure many still think that we attend events to be away from families, and that may be true for some. But the fact remains that bleisure is a trend in full force, and when business travelers extend their trip, families may well join the party.
Nguyen agrees that, if you’re going to have families there, purposefully integrating them into your program is the best policy.
What it is perceived as an issue could turn into an opportunity. What if conferences offered a ticket type for children and a program of activities dedicated to them?
The conversation as it pertains to infants is typically centered around child care services — a necessary concern, but pre-teens and teens who don’t require care are completely left out of the picture.
Many parents take an active role in their children’s education and want them to experience what a day at work may look like. This is a strong case for creating a kids-only ticket option with activities designed to let the children socialize and experience what the event is about.
The responsibility to find things for the kids to do needn’t be placed solely on planners’ shoulders. It could be an activity that could be offered by choosing venues invested in children’s activities or with areas for engaging kids. Working together with the hotel partner may offer incredible opportunities to engage all attendees.
7 Steps to Bring Child Care to your event
The key question is whether you are planning a simple conference or creating a more elaborate experience. If you want to go the extra mile and want to push your comfort zone, you’ll be rewarded.
Talking practically, here are some things you can do today to take the initiative:
Bring this item up at your next planning meeting.
Pick a focus group of your attendees and ask them if they are open to the idea.
Ask them what would they expect for different age groups.
Talk to your sponsors and offer child care as a sponsorship opportunity. In an age of ‘we will put your logo on our website’ proposals, child care will stand out and give a true way to engage with attendees. The lead generation opportunities for child care activations are substantial.
Evaluate your venue selection, ask what facilities they have for kids and how they can support you in rolling out child care for your event.
Taking care of kids is no stroll in the park, so evaluate all the legal implications of running child care of your event, including health and safety requirements for the selected areas of the venue.
When in doubt, talk to a supplier specialized in child care support for conferences. An easy Google search will give you plenty of results.
The challenge of juggling a career with parenting responsibilities is nothing new, but arrangements for working parents still aren’t commonplace. Conferences are no exception. While some events are recognizing the need for child care and the value of providing it, there’s still a lot to be done before it becomes the norm.
As people strive for better work-life balance and companies make more accommodations for mothers and parents in general, we can expect these changes to start to translate to business events as well.