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TAKING THE KIDS

All's Suite in Hotels That Keep Families in Mind

April 15, 2001|EILEEN OGINTZ

The Johars couldn't believe their luck. Every day the family spent in Orlando, Fla., their two boys were uncharacteristically willing to leave the theme parks when their parents had had enough.

"They wanted to go to the hotel and have fun," said Maria Johar of Toledo, Ohio. "It was more than a place to sleep. It was really special for them."

That's because the Johars were staying in a Kidsuite at the Holiday Inn Family Suites, paying a little more than $100 a night. The boys had their own small room, with bunk beds, rain forest mural, TV, VCR and video games.

"Kids don't share beds or a room with their parents at home, and they shouldn't have to on vacation," said Terry Whaples, one of the developers of the Kidsuite project, which includes about 500 Kidsuites in Orlando hotels. They are decorated in themes ranging from outer space to Disney.

The idea has started to catch on around the country. There are 1,100 Kidsuites in Holiday Inns in the U.S. (Telephone [800] HOLIDAY or [877] 387-KIDS, or visit http://www.basshotels.com/holiday-inn or http://www.hifamilysuites.com.) These types of suites also can be found in some of the other major chains that appeal to budget-minded families, including Howard Johnson (suites starting at less than $70; tel. [800] 446-4656, http://www.hojo.com) and Travelodge (tel. [800] 578-7878, http://www.travelodge.com). They can also be found at the newly opened Hard Rock Hotel at Universal Studios in Orlando ($345; tel. [800] 232-7827, http://www.universalorlando.com).

San Francisco's hip Hotel Metropolis has a family suite that includes an extra room for the nanny ($325; tel. [800] 553-1900, http://www.personalityhotels.com). The I-don't-care-what-it-costs crowd will love the Junior Presidential Suite at the Ritz-Carlton in Boston, which has a special child's bathroom, toy box, arts and crafts, and a fridge stocked with healthy snacks ($700; tel. [800] 241-3333, http://www.ritz-carlton.com).

"Families staying in hotels want an experience, not just a room," said Kathryn Potter of the American Hotel and Motel Assn. "They are traveling more and want more bang for their vacation buck."

Chekitan Dev, a marketing professor at the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration, has been observing this trend. "Kids that are growing up in a media-rich environment expect to be stimulated, even in a hotel room," Dev said. "I think we're going to see more fun stuff in all parts of the hotel."

Parents don't seem to mind paying extra. "These suites go faster than other rooms, and we never have to discount them," said Loews executive Michael Sansbury, who oversees Universal's two hotels.

That's because parents like Bonnie Hoffman appreciate the value the specialized space affords. The Atlanta mom liked that her baby could nap peacefully in one room while her two boys played video games in the small adjacent kids' room, about half the size of a regular hotel room.

Parents and kids alike enjoy the various themes of these suites, even when they amount to thinly veiled corporate sponsorship. Holiday Inn Family Suites, for example, offers rooms created with the help of U.S. Space Camp, Coca-Cola and Kellogg, among others. Young guests at Howard Johnson can draw their hearts out at a big Crayola easel; the rooms are decorated with kids' artwork, Crayola lamps and alarm clocks.

Young Travelodge guests get a Sleepy Bear toy to cuddle up with in their Sleepy Bear's Den.

"My 3-year-old is still talking about Sleepy Bear," said Sherrie Beneda, who lives just outside Chicago. "It was so much better than an old, sterile hotel room. The kids remembered the trip a lot more."

Many parents who have tried these special rooms say they'll now look for hotels that have them. That's the idea, of course. Potter says that with so many hotels and motels in this country, hoteliers are trying to distinguish themselves by offering all kinds of amenities and services.

Whaples, who is recognized as one of the top innovators in the hotel industry, first saw the potential for kid suites five years ago, when she was vacationing with her family in Texas. Initially dismayed that her daughter was assigned to a space no bigger than a closet, Whaples soon found out that her 9-year-old loved the tiny room, which was decorated to look like an Old West jail cell.

"What mattered was the space was special, not how big it was," Whaples said.

As soon as she got back to Orlando, Whaples and her Holiday Inn partners started working on redesigning conventional hotel rooms for families. The first Kidsuites opened a year later in two Orlando hotels, and though the partitioned rooms were cramped, families loved them.

The roomier Holiday Inn Family Suites-the Kidsuites are all two bedrooms with a separate living room-followed last year and have been winning raves since.

"The best part was not having to sit in the dark after the kids went to bed," said Anne Gray, a Canadian visiting Orlando with her grandchildren.

Taking the Kids appears twice a month.

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