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Hotels giving children the VIP treatment

Upscale youth amenities key to attracting families

Finn Maitland (left), 8, and Christian Petty, 12, played on Wii at the Hotel Marlowe. Finn Maitland (left), 8, and Christian Petty, 12, played on Wii at the Hotel Marlowe. (Essdras M. Suarez/ Globe Staff)
By Katie Johnston Chase
Globe Staff / August 24, 2009

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Chefs are whipping up record numbers of chocolate chip pancakes at the Fairmont Copley Plaza. Recorded readings of “Make Way for Ducklings’’ are in demand around bedtime at the InterContinental Boston. At the Omni Parker House, the number of backpacks filled with canteens and mini flashlights being handed out by front desk clerks is through the roof.

Occupancy is down at hotels across the country, and business travel in particular has taken a beating, but hotels are finding a new group of customers to cater to: children. According to D.K. Shifflet & Associates, a travel and tourism research company, the percentage of hotel rooms with children has been slowly but steadily increasing nationwide, from 25 percent in 2006 to 27 percent in 2008. And some local hotels have been rolling out the red carpet to attract these young guests, putting magicians in the lobby on Saturday mornings and stocking child-size bathrobes and slippers. Gone are the days when hotel extras were limited to adult-oriented features such as whirlpool bathtubs and froufrou cocktail lounges.

“Hotels are trying to maximize their busi ness, and since they have been doing well with the family market, they’re trying to capture more of it,’’ said Joe McInerney, president of the American Hotel & Lodging Association.

Upscale operations in particular are attracting more families, according to the Massachusetts Lodging Association. If little Suzy wants a visit from the ice cream man and his make-your-own-sundae cart, she can get it at the five-star Four Seasons Hotel as part of the $500-a-night VIK (Very Important Kids) package. If Joey feels like taking a bubble bath before bed, an employee at the four-star InterContinental will draw one for him, complete with rubber ducky, confetti, and milk and cookies - as long as mother and father shell out $50 for it. And at the Liberty Hotel on Beacon Hill, every pint-size guest gets a stuffed animal and can have a Nintendo Wii game system hooked up to a 52-inch screen in their room.

Proprietors are finding that many hotel guests are coming from nearby - families from New Hampshire or Maine taking weekend vacations to Boston instead of longer, more expensive trips to far-flung destinations. “We’re marketing a lot to the suburbs because we understand people are staying closer to home,’’ said Stephanie Loeber, public relations director at the InterContinental Boston. Many local hotels aren’t specifically advertising their child-friendly features though, instead relying on their websites, in-house campaigns, and e-mails to past guests to get the word out.

“Staycationers’’ aren’t the only guests taking advantage of the family-friendly options at local hotels. Paul Tormey, general manager at the four-star Fairmont Copley Plaza, where a weekend room for a family of four in August starts at $329, said he thinks more business travelers are extending their trips and having their families join them after they are done with work.

The Fairmont has one of the city’s more unusual draws for children: Catie Copley, a Labrador retriever who serves as the hotel’s ambassador - as well as an unofficial barometer of the number of children staying at the hotel. “Catie is getting walked more than she did last year,’’ Tormey said.

Tormey is not the only one who has seen more children at his establishment this summer. Kristan Fletcher, spokeswoman for Four Seasons, has also noticed more children running through the lobby. The five-star hotel rolled out its VIK package, including cupcake demonstrations in the kitchen and scavenger hunts through the hotel, last summer, and will begin its fall version of the package in September. “I think we’re seeing that families are definitely traveling again,’’ Fletcher said.

John Murtha, general manager of the three-star Omni Parker House, said he has seen 25 percent to 30 percent more families this summer compared with last year. The hotel recently unveiled the Freedom Trail Suite, which includes a children’s room equipped with bunk beds, bean bag chairs, Colonial costumes, and a mural of the Freedom Trail - and runs from about $250 during the off-season to $450 at peak travel times.

“It’s been so successful that we’re looking to convert another suite into a family-oriented suite,’’ he said.

Lauren Lane and her family from Guilford, Conn., recently stayed in the Freedom Trail Suite. Usually Lauren, 16, and her family stay with her grandparents in Arlington, but after their cruise to the Bahamas was postponed because of work, they decided to stay in a nice hotel instead. Lauren said that she and her 19-year-old sister were a little too old for the room, but they liked it anyway. “I have always wanted bunk beds,’’ she said.

Hotels have long offered summertime specials for families, but some have proved so popular that they’ve decided to keep them year-round. At the four-star Hotel Marlowe, near the Museum of Science in Cambridge, officials installed a Wii system in the lobby in June to accompany its regular 5-to-6 p.m. wine hour - as did fellow Kimpton hotels Nine Zero and the Onyx. It’s been such a hit that they all plan to keep the Wii up and running.

“It’s a huge draw,’’ said Tom Thorn, area director of sales and marketing for Kimpton Hotels. The Marlowe has been trying to create a young, hip vibe all summer, he said, in part by granting room upgrades if a guest can hula hoop for 20 seconds or beat a clerk at rock-paper-scissors.

Jens Maitland and his 8-year-old son, Finn, were playing Wii Bowling at the Hotel Marlowe on a recent evening - Finn whirling the controller around his wrist like a gun slinger and his father sipping white wine between frames. The Maitlands, who were in town from Bermuda for four days and paid $165 a night for a room booked through hotels.com, plan their holidays around what amenities are available for children, And Jens likes it when those extras for his son - like the daily Wii hour - coincide with his own interests. “This will make it easier,’’ he said, “to get back for the 5 o’clock happy hour.’’

Katie Johnston Chase can be reached at johnstonchase@globe.com