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What's New in Spousal Programs at Meetings and Conferences

Planners are offering unique, customizable, and gender-neutral activities for spouses at meetings.

By Adele Chapin November 13, 2017, 7:02 AM EST

At the Paws Up ranch in Montana, spousal programs include activities such as horseback riding.

Photo: Courtesy of Paws Up

Professional photography lessons, architectural tours, and even songwriting sessions with a Nashville music pro aren’t typically what you would find in spousal programs available at meetings or conferences. But beyond simple lunches or spa days, unique activities for meeting attendants’ guests have evolved into unique and local experiences planners hope leave a lasting impact.

“A Miami city tour sitting on a motor coach is not going to drag someone away from sitting on their laptop. It’s not something that we offer,” says Whitney Kirkland, partner at destination management company Firebrand Event Productions in Miami.

About 85 percent of Kirkland’s clients book spousal programs, and Kirkland plans everything from acrobatics classes overlooking Biscayne Bay to wading in the Everglades with a naturalist—things that even people who have visited Miami before likely haven’t done. “Unique is the name of the game,” he says.

Local Flavor
Creative experiences for spousal programs are what planners are asking for now, ideally ones that showcase a destination’s local flavor. At new hotel the Main in Norfolk, Virginia, planners can set up guided kayaking tours of the downtown waterfront’s Elizabeth River for plus-ones. Across the country at L’Auberge de Sedona in Arizona, spousal activities include private stargazing outings, inner-peace-promoting forest bathing meditation sessions, or sound healing meditation with crystal bowls.

“I have a group coming up to do the sound healing in January. We’re excited because we think it’s going to be the one item while they’re here they’ll never forget they experienced at L’Auberge,” says Megan Kulfan, the resort’s sales manager for corporate groups. “Sedona is kind of all about inner peace and yoga, meditation, finding yourself, so it really works well with what we’re known for here.”

Kulfan has noticed more and more groups booking spousal programs in recent years. “We’re seeing a lot of return groups who decided it just wasn’t long enough the last time. They came for two days for a meeting, and now we’re seeing them extend to four or five days so that they can bring their spouses and enjoy what Sedona has to offer,” Kulfan says.

For the Whole Family
Not everyone is seeing an uptick in spousal programs, however. “We’ve seen such a shift in convention attendance, because both husbands and wives work,” says Carol A. Norfleet, executive vice president and C.O.O. at Destination Nashville. “Someone has to stay home and run the family while the one who the meeting is centered around has to go for business reasons. Our [spousal] programs are not nearly what they were probably 15 years ago.”

But for incentive trips and retreats, planners at resorts are noting that companies are encouraging attendees to bring their significant other or family and make a vacation out of it. Erin Medina, director of events at Hyatt Regency Hill Country Resort and Spa, says she’s booking more spousal programs now than when she first joined the resort three years ago.

Custom Content
Medina tries to find out as much information about attending spouses from planners beforehand. “Tell me about the spouses: Do they know each other? Or is this going to be the first time they’re meeting each other? Those kinds of things are really important to us to help us recommend [an activity],” she says. For a recent group of spouses who knew each other well, she planned a class at a nearby glass-blowing facility. “You definitely have more fun in more of an intimate setting when you know the other people and can let down your guard and have a good time.”

Meanwhile, Graham Stanley, director of group sales at luxury Montana ranch and resort Paws Up, always tries to give spouses the freedom to choose their own activities. “We want to make sure that everyone gets to participate in his or her dream activity, and we realize that spouses like to do different things, too,” Stanley says. “There are going to be horseback riders, cattle herders, fly-fishers, ATV enthusiasts, and, of course, spagoers. We just want our guests to have the time of their lives, and I think giving them different options helps to make that a reality.”

One thing is a definite when planning spousal programs in 2017: Don’t make any gender assumptions. “I think a big thing to note with a spousal program is you need to go gender-neutral,” says Norfleet. “Spouses are both men and women. Thinking you can send a group of folks on a shopping trip is long dated. Don’t assume that women don’t want to go fishing and men don’t want to go for a facial.”

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