During a six-month backpacking tour of Southeast Asia, Maximo and Sebastian Tuscano pit-stopped for four nights at the Andaman, a 178-room Luxury Collection resort on a lush bay in Langkawi, Malaysia.
They marveled at the fauna in the surrounding rainforest — the flying lemurs, dusky leaf monkeys and more than 300 species of butterflies — and swam in the lagoon-style swimming pool. They hunted hermit crabs, helped a marine biologist feed specimens at an on-site coral nursery, and participated in pirate-themed games and crafts.
In all, it was the perfect way for Maximo and Sebastian, twin brothers, to celebrate their 4th birthday.
"I wanted the children to be stimulated and engaged. No video games or TV, please!" recalls Darcy Tuscano, one of their moms. And while they spent plenty of family time, "it was nice to be alone as a couple, knowing the kids were safe and having a blast without us."
As family travel has evolved into a $500 billion industry, based on numbers from the Family Travel Association, properties are catering to their littlest guests in ways that reflect their locales, just as for adults.
"Hotel kids' clubs used to be windowless rooms with crayons," says Julie Danziger, director of luxury travel services at Ovation Vacations, a travel agency based in New York. Now, she says, they've become interactive training grounds for budding global citizens.
Take L'Apogée Courchevel, a ritzy ski resort in the French Alps, where the Mini VIP 1850 club—named for the town's altitude, in meters—offers perfume- and chocolate-making workshops for kids. Gleneagles, in Scotland's Highlands, stocks a fleet of quarter-sized Land Rovers just for little ones. And at Chewton Glen in Hampshire, aspiring chefs can learn to bake cinnamon buns in the English countryside. Unlike Walt Disney Co. or Club Med SAS resorts, none of these properties are intended to solely (or even chiefly) appeal to families. For high-net-worth parents, that's exactly the point.
"After 9/11, people weren't willing to leave their kids at home anymore — they wanted to be with them," says Melissa Rosenbloum, a luxury-travel designer at SmartFlyer. Family time became a priority for travelers, making it one for hotels, too.
NEW SPIN ON 'FAMILY FRIENDLY'
Today, 88% of parents say they're likely to travel with their child or children in the coming year, according to the 2017 US Family Travel Survey, a joint effort of the Family Travel Association and NYU's Tisch Center for Hospitality and Tourism. Seventy percent of the survey's 1,599 respondents indicated that amenities for children were a key factor in deciding where to stay.
That's true for Long Island-based Mozelle Goldstein, a nurse, mother of three, and one of Ms. Danziger's clients. Kids' clubs have driven several of her vacations, including one to the Breakers in Palm Beach, Fla., where her 4-year-old son built a teddy bear that still reminds him of the Sunshine State.
"It made him feel like the vacation was for him, not that he was just tagging along with the adults," she recalls.
The mere existence of a kids' club can make seemingly non-family-friendly vacations work for both parent and child.
Consider the Brando, a cluster of 35 villas on the private island of Tetiaroa, near Tahiti in French Polynesia. "Would you ever think to go to French Polynesia with your 6-year-old?" Ms. Rosenbloum muses.
But with the resort's Lagoon School — where kids can learn about life on an atoll through snorkeling, treasure hunts and whale-watching excursions — somehow even an ultra-sexy bucket-list destination in the South Pacific becomes appropriate for tots.
Dollars and Cents
The Brando's Lagoon School costs about $81 per child per half-day session, pocket change for guests spending upward of $2,200 per night for a private pool villa. According to Danziger, guests can typically expect to pay $30 to $60 for half a day, or rarely more than $100 for full days, at kid's clubs with daily rates. (Most cater to children aged 4 through 12.)
"It's not a revenue play," says Rosenbloum. "Hotels are doing this to compete. Otherwise, they're not going to get business from the parents."
Every Four Seasons and Ritz-Carlton property now includes entry-level access to the kids' club in the room rate, as does the Andaman in Langkawi. "If the kids are in the club, chances are the adults are spending money at the spa," points out Ms. Danziger, who routinely books her clients at properties with complimentary kids clubs such as Nizuc Resort & Spa in Cancun, Mexico; Acqualina Resort, just north of Miami Beach, Fla.; and Banyan Tree Mayakoba in Mayakoba, Mexico.
BEST BRANDS FOR FAMILIES
For companies with brand-wide initiatives, kids' clubs don't just drive demand. They also cement loyalty.
Hyatt was the earliest adopter. It introduced Camp Hyatt in the 1980s and revamped the program in 2009 in partnership with National Geographic Kids. Among the best examples of Camp Hyatt's educational programming are the offerings at the new Park Hyatt St. Kitts, where children can take Zumba classes set to Caribbean soca music, learn about the St. Kitts Sea Turtle Monitoring Network or create their own petroglyph drawings on volcanic rocks.
At Andaz Mayakoba Resort Riviera Maya — a Hyatt property in Mexico — kids can learn to make piñatas and Huichol crafts, go on eco-themed boat tours, and even take Spanish lessons.
Four Seasons once shunted its Kids For All Seasons clubs into underutilized hotel spaces, but Scott Taber, global senior vice president of rooms, says that this amenity has lately "become a very important part of the design and construction process."
The Mansion at the Four Seasons Orlando — effectively a kids-only castle — has a volcano that can be climbed and "erupts" with the touch of a button. Not every property has something so elaborate, but every Four Seasons is on board with the program in some fashion.
Newest on the scene is Ritz-Carlton's Ritz Kids, which rolled out in 2014. Sessions can include a class with a Bedouin falconry master at the Ritz-Carlton Ras Al Khaimah in the Al Wadi Desert outside Dubai, or coconut leaf weaving and educational walks through rice fields near Mandapa, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia.
"By learning from nature and taking influences from local culture, kids learn how to take care of themselves — eating healthy and where their food comes from — as well as the stars, insects, and nature," says Mandapa general manager Ana Henriques, who helped develop Mandapa Camp.
Ultimately, Ms. Danziger says, millennial and Gen Z travelers are more willing than their parents to put kids' needs and desires ahead of their own: "They think: 'This is my kids' trip, and if we make it amazing for them, we make it amazing for us.'"
Even Aman, one the most exclusive hotels in the world, will be getting on board. Amangiri, the brand's remote hideaway in Canyon Point, is starting to offer paleontology-themed fossil hunts for guests aged 5 and up