Do hotels lie about being “family friendly”?

Somewhere between a booster stool at the check-in desk and a DJ spouting profanities at the kids’ pool lies the definition of a “family-friendly” resort. No one seems to agree. Maybe it’s time we did.

Let’s start with that step stool, which I saw at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge’s check-in desk a few months ago. Fairmont is known for catering to its littlest visitors, but I’d never seen a booster before. It allows youngsters to come eye-to-eye with a check-in clerk while Mom and Dad register.

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The step-ups were also in the lobby bathrooms. When I told one of the hotel employees that my kids, who were traveling with me, thought the furniture was “really cool,” she shrugged as if to say, “Doesn’t every resort do it like this?”

Not really. Janis Turk, a writer and mother of two from Seguin, Texas, remembers checking into a “family-friendly” beach resort recently. The experience left her and several other parents traumatized.

“There was a DJ near the kids’ slide at the hotel’s family pool, and he was playing hip-hop songs with racial slurs and dropping the F-bomb,” she recalls. She called the hotel manager. To his credit, he cut the DJ loose.

Not a week seems to go by without a hotel announcing a new family travel special or trying to rebrand itself as family-friendly. There’s a good reason: Family travelers are a sought-after demographic because they spend like pirates and represent the next generation of customer.

How valuable are they? It’s difficult to say because no one seems to agree on an exact definition of a family traveler. Eileen Ogintz, a syndicated columnist who publishes the website Taking the Kids, says it’s the leading segment of the leisure travel market, “bringing in billions in revenue” to hotels. The travel services marketing firm MMGY Global suggests family travelers have a lot of disposable income and that the most affluent — those making more than $250,000 a year — are also likeliest to take a family vacation this year.

Yet, some of the efforts to attract kids and their big-spending parents are a little pathetic.

“I have seen kids’ clubs that were Formica-furnished guestrooms with early interrogation lighting and a collection of used coloring books,” says Kyle McCarthy, who edits the Family Travel Forum, a website for family travelers. “And worse.”

Too often, families are lured with amenities such as a “kids’ club” that falls short. Amie O’Shaughnessy, who publishes the family travel website Ciao Bambino, says some kids’ programs amount to nothing more than “glorified babysitting” for young kids and video games for older ones.

How do you know if your hotel is the real deal? Not by looking at its “for kids” webpage, which shows staged photos of children tumbling down the resort’s waterslide or playing near the beach. Instead, a hotel’s family-friendliness is written into policies that aren’t always disclosed.

For example, does the property offer a second-room discount for large families? If you stay in the same room, will a hotel charge more for the extra bed? “I’ve never been to a major U.S.-flagged chain property that offers anything more creative than two double-occupancy rooms for a large family,” says Powell Berger, an editor from Hawaii who frequently travels with her family.

Perhaps it’s time to end the gimmicks. We may never agree on the definition of “family travel” — we can’t even agree on a definition of a family — but let’s start by calling out the fake family hotels. A summer “family” sale and a kids-eat-free program do not necessarily qualify.

When I asked my own kids, ages 6, 8 and 11, what they liked in a hotel, I was surprised by their answers. Although they appreciated the comprehensive kids’ programs, such as the one they recently experienced at Disney’s Aulani Resort on Oahu, everything took a back seat to the way they were treated by the hotel.

The key is when the hotel treats all its guests — not just those old enough to qualify for a credit card — as if they’re important.

Do hotels lie about being "family friendly"?

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