"Room Service, Get Me A Muppets Video"

Hotels are catering to road warriors' kids

When Tom Johnson of Tucson travels on business, he cares as much about a hotel's water slide as about its wake-up service. Along with his briefcase, the Tucson Electric Power exec often brings his wife and two children. And few things can dampen a mood quicker than being trapped in a room with a bored four-year-old and preteen. "I try to say, `Hey, use your imagination,' but they have no idea what to do," says Johnson. So, he says, "when I make reservations, I now check what they have for kids."

As more junior guests check into hotels, "what they have" is likely to be "a lot." From Howard Johnson to Ritz-Carlton, hotels are hauling out free cribs and offering exotic activities to lure travelers with kids. Conference organizers say that up to half their participants now show up with children in tow--and more parents are taking young ones on regular business trips.

What's more, moms and dads aren't content to let Janey spend her time in run-of-the-mill activities. They want her to come back with a new skill or thrill. "It's not just babysitting anymore," says Vivian Deuschl, a spokeswoman for The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. "They want to hear that the child learned some Spanish as well."

Language lessons are just part of what's on tap. Some Ritz-Carlton properties offer iguana feedings, junior facials, and even etiquette classes as part of their Ritz Kids program. Meanwhile, Marriott International's programs run the gamut from golf clinics to submarine rides.

There are so many services that parents can almost feel like they're on a separate trip. Westin Hotels not only accepts infants in its day camps, which start at $5 an hour, but has a Story Line phone service for taped bedtime stories. Guests at Hyatt Hotels can put the kids in "Camp Hyatt" at some resorts. The camps can handle up to a few dozen children between the ages of three and 12. The cost for 12 hours, including meals: $80 a day.

FREE POTTY. Parents who opt against camps can enjoy other perks. Pam Pollock, a Slippery Rock (Pa.) newspaper editor who takes her 13-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son on half her business trips, finds some freebies very helpful, like the activity book from Knights Inn, a Cendant-owned chain. Giveaways can pack surprises. Howard Johnson's FunPacks include yo-yos--and entry forms for a $50,000 college scholarship.

While gifts are always welcome, some parents are more concerned about basics. Hotels on the Radisson chain's Family Approved list offer child-proofing kits and family discounts. Loews Hotels has started a Forget Closet program, offering free use of items like potty seats.

David Van Kalsbeek empathizes with parents who bring kids on the road. The senior vice-president of marketing at Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, which manages hotels under Westin, Sheraton, and other brands, is the dad of Chase, 18 months old. "It's really scary not knowing if you'll get a clean crib," he says. Starwood will roll out free cribs and more kids' amenities at some 250 hotels this year. "You can't just stick in a video and have kids mesmerized by Barney," he says. Given all the kiddie perks available, Barney has stiff competition.

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