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Hitting the Road With the Youngest Business Travelers

November 01, 1998|EILEEN OGINTZ

Chloe Finke nonchalantly wheeled her baby amid the booths and displays at the big Chicago horticultural trade show, greeting the vendors she knows from past years and picking up handouts as she went. Her mother was nearby in case she needed help. But the baby never cried, not a whimper.

Of course, it helps that this baby was a doll. Just 6, Chloe Finke is a trade show veteran who has had her own stroller-eye view of the action in years past, as has her older brother, Dain.

"It's added stress to have the kids along," acknowledges their mother, Luann Finke, who with her husband, Rich, owns a nursery and garden center in Lincoln, Neb. "You can't possibly operate at peak efficiency. You can't work as many hours. But the trade-off is all the things we get to do together in Chicago. And they get to see how hard we work. They understand what we do to earn our money. Many kids don't have a clue."

Whether by choice or necessity, millions are learning that lesson, as parents increasingly take kids along to conventions and medical seminars, sales meetings and executive retreats across the country and even overseas--juggling work and family on the road just as they do at home.

"I couldn't have afforded to take my daughter to Disney World otherwise," said administrative assistant Pat Smith, who counted herself lucky to work an Orlando convention for her employer, Austin, Texas-based Schlotzsky's Delis.

"I was accomplishing something, and I got to go to some great places with the kids. It was the perfect blend," said New Yorker Kip Gould, who took his family with him to London last spring.

The number of children going along on business trips has jumped a whopping 230% in the last decade, reports the Travel Industry Assn., the trade group that monitors such trends. Last year, more than 24 million business trips included a child. And they're starting to change the complexion of corporate life on the road.

"You can be in the middle of some high-pressure meeting and you'll see a kid bopping through the lobby. It kind of puts it all in perspective," observes Marriott spokesman Gordon Lambourne, who recently brought his own son along to a meeting. Rather than fight the trend, many companies and professional organizations--like the American Bar Assn., the National Conference of State Legislators and the Mid-America Horticultural Trade Show, which Chloe Finke attended--now make it easier for parents, routinely providing and subsidizing child care at the convention center or hotel.

"Parents don't want to leave their kids home, and this is a way to get people to come to the convention," said Carol LaBrake, a meeting planner for the Subway sandwich shop chain. San Diego-based KiddieCorp and New Orleans-based Accent on Arrangements, in turn, have built successful businesses providing the service. "Companies now are hiring us to accommodate a few parents at a small meeting," observes Accent on Arrangements' Diane Lyon.

Nursing mothers can't leave their babies behind. Other parents have no one who can pinch-hit while they're gone. But what's really driving the change is that business travelers who a decade ago tacked a weekend of golf or sightseeing onto their company-paid trip now prefer to share that R&R with their children.

It's not always easy, especially when you're surrounded by colleagues and, worse, bosses. What if your 4-year-old has a tantrum? KiddieCorp's Craig Leweck says the biggest mistake he sees parents make is neglecting to give their kids time to adjust when they're joining a day-care program.

Luann Finke suggests arriving a day ahead so "you don't have to wait until the meeting is done for all the fun with the kids." Before planning a business trip with kids, you should talk to them--about your expectations for their public behavior and their expectations for the trip. They won't be able to monopolize your time as they would on vacation; you can't expect them to behave perfectly every moment. "I don't think we'll bring him next time. It was a tough balancing act," said Christopher Decre, who took his baby to a convention.

Ask yourself how you'll manage if a child gets sick. What will you do if the children refuse to go to the organized activities, and you can't miss your meeting?

It's smart planning--and a lot less stressful--if you can bring along another adult, unless you're traveling with teens or preteens able to fend for themselves in a hotel room for a few hours.

But even with a helpful spouse or first-rate nanny, and with just the right toy choices (not to mention pay-per-view movies), be prepared for the kids to disrupt your focus, just as they do at home when you're trying to take a business call. That's why a big presentation or a high-stakes negotiating session isn't the time to bring the kids.

Taking the Kids appears the first and third week of every month.

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