Quality Family Time at a Congress
Grasp the opportunity to take the whole family to conference locations – and gain a new perspective on the places you visit.
Nicole Kretz |
- Working vacations are an opportunity for the whole family to have new experiences
- A well-planned itinerary and a sensible approach is crucial
- Flexibility around work commitments is a must
- Connect with the families of colleagues and make new friends
- An inquiring mind guarantees a rewarding experience
Our family is pretty typical. My husband, Florian, and I have two children: a son, aged thirteen, and a daughter, aged four. Florian’s regular attendance at ophthalmology conferences around the world presents us with a choice: the rest of us either stay at home, and miss our father/husband, or we pack our bags and go to the conferences together. We often choose the second option. Doing so needs careful planning, but we are rewarded with being together, seeing the world, and (with a little effort) having some amazing experiences along the way.
Communication is the key to planning a working vacation that’s fun for all of the family. The first task is to map out Florian’s schedule, to determine when he needs to present his work, which sessions he would like to go to, and what activities he needs to attend in the evenings. From that starting point, it’s surprising how much time the family can have together – I definitely see more of my husband when we travel than when he is at home.
The second issue to factor in is schooling. With our eldest child, schooling comes first. We try to travel during school holidays, but when that isn’t possible we bring homework bags and set strict guidelines about study times. That means there’s no arguing, and when we do explore the cities that we visit, we can do it together and have fun.
The third consideration is where we will stay. Often the congress hotels are quite expensive, and as a family, we’re paying our own way. In addition, when you’re with children it can be awkward being in a luxury hotel, and a five-star restaurant is a waste of money if I can’t sit with my daughter singing quietly or drawing in her coloring-in book. I don’t want half of the clientele wishing we were on a different planet. However, some business hotels are family-friendly and most restaurants will make a special effort to make some toddler-friendly food or a treat younger children.
There’s a good alternative to hotels: it’s often much less expensive for our family to stay in an apartment with a small kitchen. We can prepare meals, have breakfast together and just generally have more room to relax in. The criteria I use are a good location, affordability, comfort and practicality.
We study maps, and read the reviews on websites like Tripadvisor and Airbnb.
You can’t have a successful vacation without good packing organization. Children – particularly toddlers – add a new dimension to packing for a working vacation. Sure, pack enough clothing, toys and reading materials to make it through the trip, but the most important holdall is the travel bag: include everything you might need for an unwell toddler. In addition to diapers and diaper cream, I pack fever medication, sun cream, nasal spray, wipes, baby teething paste, and so on. It’s not fun when a distressed, snotty infant with a fever wakes up all of the family at three o’clock in the morning, but it’s so much more worse if you are not prepared.
If Florian is travelling at his own expense we book flights and hotels together as a family. Things are more difficult if the trip is paid for and arrangements conducted through a travel company. We can ask if the children and I can also travel on the same flights and stay in a bigger room in the hotel at our expense, but flights are sometimes fully booked or prohibitively expensive. We then have to consider later flights and alternative accommodation.
When you’re there
Sometimes the family and Florian’s work can mix – it all depends on the environment. A cocktail dinner is not appropriate for children, but a dinner at a museum with nibbles can be – we can walk around freely and explore the venue – and I find that our most congress-goers are quite happy to talk about topics unrelated to eyes! Keeping children entertained is important (some museums are more interesting to them than others) so I bring small games or a coloring-in book with crayons, and iPhone apps, particularly educational ones. Being flexible is the key: if the dinner is boring, I may take the children outside to play. Sometimes other congress attendees have brought their children along, and they all quickly become friends. It’s always a pleasure to meet other parents who want to include their children.
When Florian is working, we get out and explore. Orientation group tours are great for helping to discover the area with the aid of a guide. Tourist centers are usually fantastic, offering all the help you need find interesting places to visit and everything you need to navigate, including maps, timetables and the best advice for dealing with taxi drivers. Of course, good hotels always have someone to help too. I find concierges to be really helpful and full of great advice. Even your smartphone can help. Google and Google Maps can give you almost everything you need (assuming you can obtain free Wi-Fi), and Yelp is fantastic for finding good restaurants, museums and fun things to do.
We’ve had some memorable trips. For example, AAO 2012 in Orlando was great. The kids loved Sea Life and Disney World and afterwards we had a beach vacation in Daytona. For ASCRS 2013 in San Francisco, we rented an apartment and included Florian’s colleagues into our family, which was fun and a fantastic bonding experience. ESCRS in 2011 was in Vienna, and for that we rented an apartment that was close to the conference, with Florian’s aunt and uncle. When Florian was working, we saw all the sights of the city, visiting museums and the Prater, and when he had time off we did the activities he most enjoyed. Planning ahead meant it worked out perfectly.
The best advice I can give when you are out and about with your children is to talk to people. For example, when we visited Morocco, we learned so much from local people just by being interested in the culture and asking questions. I was even invited into kitchens to learn how to make bread and a real tagine, and we were shown the real off-the-tourist-map city. That was a bumpy ride (honestly, it really seemed that the car door might fall off) but we were always safe and well taken care of. A small gesture that comes with a big heart is always appreciated.
Overall, working vacations can be a great way of combining work and quality family time. With good communication, organization, realistic goals and a relaxed approach you can explore the world together and make lasting memories for your family and great connections with your colleagues.
Nicole Kretz is a mother of two young children, wife of an ophthalmologist, and a keen world traveler.