With the pandemic ongoing and millions of school-age children learning remotely, the travel industry is beckoning families with lures of “schoolcation.”
By Julie Weed
This summer, Michelle Carucci’s family canceled its annual Jersey Shore vacation because of the pandemic. So when Ms. Carucci, who lives in White Township, N.J., learned that The Great Wolf Lodge, a family-favorite indoor water park in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains, was setting up a “schoolhouse” and socially distanced activities this fall, she jumped at the chance to take her youngest child.
Gianna Carucci, 11, has all her classes online, and during the mornings of her and her mother’s two-day stay (in the middle of the week, when rates were lower and crowds were smaller), she headed to “Wiley’s Schoolhouse”: a large conference room repurposed to be a socially distanced learning space for children ages 5 and up.
Named after the brand’s wolf mascot, each space is equipped with desks that are placed eight to ten feet apart and fitted with plexiglass partitions. Open Monday through Thursday, the room is staffed to help children connect with their schools, provide snacks and lead break-time activities. Reservations are required for the program, which costs $85 per day. All participants must wear masks.
It would be “nice to have a few hours to myself while Gianna is in school,” Ms. Carucci, 45, a health and fitness coach, said in an interview before their trip. After classes wrapped up, she and her daughter played at the lodge’s water park together.
The coronavirus has left hotels and resorts scrambling for guests as occupancy rates plummeted in the spring. Some properties have tried to drum up business by touting new cleaning regimens, rethinking amenities and offering free nights. Others closed entirely, waiting or unable to wait for the public health situation to improve. Now, with the pandemic ongoing and millions of school-age children juggling remote learning, some hotels are beckoning families with offers of “schoolcation,” including new staffed learning spaces, technology and tutors — even partnerships with museums and other educational experts.
The assorted packages, available at a variety of hotel types, aim to provide parents some help and peace of mind. Prices range from free to hefty.
‘Chief virtual learning officer’
Usually, families with schoolchildren are tied to their school’s calendar, with vacations often limited to during the holidays, spring break and summer.
But now, for those with the flexibility and desire to travel, “there’s an opportunity for a change in scenery,” said Kathleen Reidenbach, chief commercial officer with Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, a line of boutique hotels owned by IHG.
Kimpton recently introduced a “chief virtual learning officer” to nine of its properties this fall, an on-site employee who will take on this role to help with Wi-Fi, virtual meeting software or other technical needs. Some locations will also provide free school supplies, kid-sized desks or booster seats, snack packs, document printing and flexible checkout times to guests with school-age children.
Ms. Reidenbach said that while many families can now travel in September and October, they may need help managing remote work and school. “We wanted to adjust our programming,” she said, to make that possible. (Ms. Reidenbach has experienced some of the issues firsthand: Vacationing at a California beach with a fourth and an eighth grader, “we needed to find a way to print out work sheets and reading logs,” she said.)
Nancy and Jim Liddell from Darien, Conn., decided to venture into New York City for a few days this month with their three children. The family hoped to go to the newly reopened Metropolitan Museum of Art and to see the new Suffragist statues in Central Park.
The Liddell daughters, ages 9 to 13, attend public school and now have a school week that alternates between in-person and online instruction depending on the day. “We planned to go when class was online,” Mr. Liddell said. Staying at the Kimpton Muse Hotel in New York City, the girls were given festive school supplies and had the desk space and Wi-Fi they needed to attend class.
“The hotel made sure we didn’t have to worry about the girls not being able to complete their school work,” said Mr. Liddell, who works in financial services. He also rented an additional room at a reduced day rate where he and his wife, who runs a line of health and beauty products, could go to for their own meetings or phone calls.
Conference rooms into classrooms
While five Great Wolf Lodge properties are repurposing conference rooms into “Wiley’s Schoolhouses,” the brand is not alone in carving new “virtual classrooms” out of existing space. The W South Beach hotel in Miami, after closing completely in March, plans to reopen in November with poolside cabanas that can be set up with desks, including small ones for grade schoolers, as well as Wi-Fi and a sound system. Prices range from $500 to $700 a day (Private academic tutors are also available, as are personal trainers to provide physical-education classes. Pricing is ala carte.) Also in Florida, the Four Seasons Orlando Resort is outfitting a dedicated staffed learning spaces for a maximum of six children per room, with an outdoor terrace for breaks and craft time. Half-day sessions cost $50 per child.
Some hotels that don’t have the space are partnering with a local museum: Schoolchildren staying at the Wyndham Grand Clearwater Beach can complete their schoolwork at the nearby Clearwater Marine Aquarium Education Center, in a socially distanced setting, and then can participate in tours and activities with a marine biologist there. Stays include two spa treatments for the parents and start around $479 per night.
Technology offerings are expanding too. At the Domio extended stay hotels, with locations in Chicago, Miami, Nashville and New Orleans, guests can make use of laptop-expansion kits, which include a monitor, keyboard, mouse and power strip. The equipment is free to borrow for guests who book directly through the hotel website.
Existing amenities, new names
Hotels are also marketing existing offerings with language meant to catch a parent’s eye. The “Teach by the Beach” package at The Shores Resort and Spa in Daytona Beach, Fla., highlights learning “the physics of waves” at surfing class, biology lessons viewing birds at a nearby nature preserve and history with “a touch of PE” as children climb the local lighthouse. Midweek rates start at about $170. San Diego Mission Bay Resort’s “Recess at the Pool” package includes S’mores and rental bikes with midweek rates starting at $205.
Earlier this year, Kimberly Bolan, a 51-year-old waxing-center franchisee, had planned a short getaway alone with her husband from their home outside of Memphis to the Casa Marina resort in Key West, Fl. But when school for the couple’s three children, ages 13 to 19, went online, the couple decided to take them along. Casa Marina, part of the Waldorf Astoria Resorts brand, offered a “Home School Package” with tickets to local museums and a bottle of wine for “the teachers.” Prices start at about $475 per night, with a four-night minimum.
Their eighth grader, Gabriela Bolan, brought a five-day homework packet and “got started on the plane,” she said, so she would have more time for fun. The teens interspersed swimming and fishing with Zoom classes and work on schoolwork packets.
“It’s a new world and I feel like we should take advantage of it,” Ms. Bolan said.
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