Conference Childcare, Part 1: Helpful thoughts for Conference Organizers

Ok folks, let’s talk about childcare. I’d like to share my take because I have a toddler and I love attending and speaking at conferences. Thinking through all of the logistics of childcare at events, I’ve discovered what I want to know from conference organizers in order to feel comfortable leaving my child in conference care and make it easier for me as a parent to attend. I’ve also learned what I, as a parent, need to come prepared with in order for my son and I to have a good experience. This post is the first part in a two part series about conference childcare. Part one will focus on conference organizers and part two on parents. One caveat to all of this… my son is 1.5 years old which means he is small and not verbal. Concerns, instructions, and parent preparedness will likely be different based on the age of your child. I’m writing this post based on my perspective… a first-time mom traveling to a conference solo with my 1.5 year old. Feel free to leave additional thoughts, ideas, comments, checklists, etc. in the comments.

With that out of the way, let’s talk about why this is important.

When my son Devin turned one, I decided I wanted to bring him to a conference with me for a few reasons:

1. When I travel for 4 or 5 days for a conference, I miss him and often it’s fun to have him with me.

2. I think it’s important for him as a little man to come with me to conferences and to see his mom, a computer programmer, as the norm and not something out of the ordinary.

3. More practically, when I leave, it puts a lot of strain on my husband. See, I work remotely and my husband works longer hours than I do. This means that our childcare hours are based on my schedule. When I travel, we have to figure out how we’re going to get an extra hour and a half of childcare in the morning and an extra 30–45 minutes of childcare in the afternoon. That extra two hours a day costs money.

Recently I’ve been traveling around once a month for a conference. When I’m gone for a week every month, it’s often exhausting for my husband and expensive for our family.

More and more conferences are starting to offer childcare, it’s complicated to organize and pretty underutilized making it sometimes difficult to justify. And, in my opinion, this is because bringing a child to a conference is more than just dropping them off at childcare. It’s overwhelming to think about all of the pieces. For organizers, I VERY much appreciate as a mother in a two-parent working family that many of you are either thinking about or putting in place childcare at conferences. It’s not easy! There are liability issues, questions from parents, getting sign ups, and that’s on top of all the other conference organizing you’re already doing (and more than likely not being paid for), so first and foremost THANK YOU!

So, here I am… I’ve decided, Devin is coming to a conference!!! As I looked into different conferences that I was attending with childcare, I started thinking through the logistics of it all. My hope is that outlining and thinking through the questions below will make it both easier for you to organize childcare at your conference AND get more parents to sign up and bring children to events. I was going to bring him to write/speak/code in June and then I chickened out. Then I was going to bring him to Abstractions in August, but I chickened out. I finally brought him to Strange Loop in September, in St. Louis. Here is what I would like to know.

  1. Is the conference venue close to the conference hotel?

This is actually one of the reasons I ended up not bringing Devin to write/speak/code. The childcare seemed like it was going to be great BUT the conference venue was about a 15’ish minute walk from the conference hotel. Something people often don’t know is that you can’t take Uber with a small child because legally they need to be in a carseat in order to ride in a car. That means you either need to walk or taxi. I really only like to get in a taxi with Devin not in a carseat if there is NO other option. So, a 15 minute walk is a longish stroller walk that you need to do in the morning and evening. It’s possible the conference ends late in the day which could also mean walking back to your hotel at night with your small child, their diaper bag, and your conference bag. If the area isn’t safe (or if you don’t know if the area is safe or not), this is sometimes a scary thought.

2. Who is providing the care?

This is the biggest one. There is a HUGE difference between grabbing some random/available folks off of care.com or urbansitter and hiring a company with vetting, approved caregivers who have experience with conference-style childcare. I also want to be able to research the group providing care beforehand. This is one of the main reasons I didn’t bring Devin to Abstractions. When I was looking to decide on the option and start thinking through the logistics, they didn’t know yet who was providing the care which made me uncomfortable. I know I could have always signed him up later but it takes time to work out the logistics whether I’m leaving Devin at home or bringing him with me and so by that time, we’d already worked out our additional childcare needs for leaving him at home.

There is also a big difference in what the providers supply. If they’re a company that does conference childcare, they can often provide age appropriate toys, crafts, etc. and usually have some sort of agenda (ie- start with free play, then snack, then a craft, then singing, then a story, then lunch, then nap, then walk around the lobby or something, etc.) The more a provider can provide, the better. I know at Abstractions, they had the kids building a cardboard fort which can transcend lots of age groups and looked like a fantastic conference activity. As a parent, I’m always concerned that my kid isn’t getting outside for a number of days so I want to make sure he’s both burning energy and being engaged in some sort of mindful way.

3. Will the caregivers be the same for the entire time?

I didn’t think about this one before bringing Devin to Strange Loop but kids need to be comfortable with caregivers and consistency is key. It also REALLY sucks as a parent to have to explain your child’s allergies, schedule, personality, or any other information to a new person every single day.

4. Where is the childcare taking place? How close is it to the conference venue?

Leaving my child with someone new and sort of random, who I wasn’t involved in vetting, definitely triggers some of my mom anxiety. If the childcare is happening at the same venue as the conference, then I can check in and I’m super close just in case I’m needed. One caveat is that often for kids with separation anxiety, it’s NOT helpful for them to see their parents. In fact, they might cry every time they see their parent but be fine once the parent is out of view. So close to the conference venue is important but in a room or on a different floor is ideal.

5. If you’re providing some sort of snacks or food, can parents offer suggestions or thinking about offering a variety of options?

This probably sounds really annoying if you’re a conference organizer but especially while such few parents are utilizing childcare, see if there are things that can be provided. At Strange Loop, the first two days here are some things that were offered: juice, potato chips, chocolate pretzels, carrots, celery, goldfish. In that mix, there were only two healthy snacks… carrots and celery, both things that young children can’t really eat because they’re too hard. For the last day, they were able to provide some cucumbers as well after a special request which was helpful and left out the chocolate pretzels and potato chips. If you’re not into getting parent input (which is also totally ok!) make sure that you’re thinking about healthy snack options and food that children at a variety of ages can eat. If Devin was closer to a year old, there would have been nothing that he could have eaten because none of the options would have been mushy enough. Pro-tip for conference organizers: Cheerios. That is all.

6. What can the childcare venue provide?

I was pretty nervous going to Strange Loop (and thinking through the logistics at other conferences) because my child naps in a crib or pack and play. I brought a nap mat, but he has no experience with it, and I knew if there were other children playing, it’d be really hard to get him to nap. Fortunately, the childcare providers requested a pack and play from the hotel and they provided one, but it’s worth finding out beforehand if the hotel can provide some sort of curtain partition for children who nap vs ones who don’t (so you can maybe dim lights in only a portion of the room, etc.), pack and plays, or anything else that would be helpful and would be one less thing that a parent has to carry along.

7. What is the sick policy?

Having a sick child is basically the worst, especially when you have to travel. What happens if my child is sick? What happens if another child who’s signed up for childcare is sick? Is there any accommodation or backup plan if the parent is a speaker (this is something I think about when I’m a speaker at a conference and not just a participant)?

8. Is the childcare only offered during conference hours?

This isn’t such a big deal when I’m a conference participant. I understand that by bringing my child, I am likely sacrificing networking and hang out time at additional conference events and parties (more on this later). But if I’m a speaker it’s a huge bummer to not be able to participate in the speaker dinner as a result of bringing my child and definitely affects my decision to bring him or not.

9. Is there a supermarket nearby?

Here are some of the things I needed for Devin for Strangeloop (arriving Wednesday afternoon, leaving Sunday morning): 1 GALLON of whole milk, a cantaloupe, grapes, cheerios, diapers (like 5–7/day for 4 full days plus extra for travel so around 50 total), bananas. Now, Devin is a picky eater, but I needed all of this AND the conference was providing a morning snack, afternoon snack, and lunch for kids in childcare, so it would have been even more if that wasn’t the case. I’m not going to fly with 50 diapers or a gallon of milk (I mean, come on, I’m ALREADY flying with way too much stuff) so I need either supermarket nearby, a friend who can go to the supermarket, a supermarket delivery service, or a car (although a car means I need to also bring a car seat and I would venue to say it’s borderline impossible for a parent traveling solo with a young child to bring a stroller, car seat, diaper bag, adult conference stuff, and suitcase). This is one of the other reasons I didn’t bring Devin to Abstractions because in Pittsburgh, there weren’t any supermarkets within walking distance of the hotel. If you’re an organizer, please try to provide information about any local supermarkets or supermarket delivery services.

10. Where is the closest well-rated emergency room or urgent care?

This is parent preparedness as well, but things happen and everyone wants to be able to act quickly. Get this information from the people providing childcare or look it up on google.

Bonus: Can parents donate excess materials afterwards?

I mentioned before the things I needed to buy for Devin if we were at a conference. Parents always buy at least a little more than what they need just in case. It’s great if there’s an easy way to donate extra diapers, food, and anything else (ie- sometimes it’s cheaper to buy child equipment when you arrive at a location as opposed to schlepping it)

If you do all these things and really want to go above and beyond, it’d be really awesome to get conference shirts for the kids who attend (and you can offer them as an incentive to sign up early)!

I’d love to hear about things I missed from parents, or difficulties conference organizers have faced thinking through the items above and who knows, maybe Devin will end up at the next conference you organize!

Continue on and read Part 2: Parent Preparation.