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Drop-in daycare: business as usual?
A growing number of businesses are enticing patrons by offering child-care services.
March 22, 2004: 12:16 PM EST
By Leslie Haggin Geary and Sarah Max, CNN/Money staff writers

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Iseult Devlin and her husband Wayne Lavertu met while sharing the rent on a winter ski lodge with a bunch of other singles.

One thing led to another, as they say. The athletic couple fell in love, got married, and kept skiing. When their son, Ronan, was born four years ago, Devlin worried that she and Wayne would not be able to ski as often as they liked.

"But I knew I'd find a way," she says.

Sure enough, the Hoboken, N.J., couple are able to hit the slopes nearly every weekend thanks to a drop-off daycare center at Stratton, a Vermont ski resort that keeps a watchful supervision over kids as young as six weeks up to four years old.

A childcare center may not be the first thing you'd expect at a ski lodge. But Stratton's daycare center is equipped with the gear you'd find at any daycare facility. There are cribs made up with personalized linens for each child, as well as toys, movies, bottle warmers, pint-sized furniture and other child-friendly amenities.

"I started using it when he was four or five months old. I was still nursing and I was able to go back and feed him, then go back to the slopes," says Devlin. "You can leave your child there all day and know he's in a nice environment."

It turns out that parents are finding it possible they can do many other things other than skiing. Drop-in childcare centers are cropping up in a variety of places you might not expect, from shopping malls to casinos, gyms, grocery stores and country inns.

Accomodating businesses

While working parents may bemoan the dearth of childcare opportunities at work, consumers are finding that businesses are beginning to accommodate their need for safe, enjoyable places to stash their kids for an hour or two.

Kroger, the country's No. 1 supermarket chain, has outfitted 85 of its roughly 2,500 stores with free drop-in babysitting rooms equipped to care for 18-month-old toddlers to 6-year-olds. Besides the usual array of toys and Nintendo games, the rooms have a video monitor so parents can check in on their kids remotely, while wandering through the dairy section.

"When we first did this, the thinking was that parents would rush back to their kids. It would hurt sales," says Kroger's Gary Huddleston. "What we found is that the customer takes more time and does a more thorough job shopping and our sales do improve when we provide the center."

The Athletic Club of Bend in Bend, Ore., also found that offering a kids play area was a huge selling point with moms and dads in the area, which is known for its athletic, outdoorsy population, says Jani Sutherland, the kids activities director for the club.

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For $2.25 an hour (or $3.50 for two kids) parents can check their children into the club's in-house daycare center, "Kids Club," for up to three hours. Those prices are a great deal for the area. Moreover, both members and nonmembers can dine at the club's restaurant, Scanlons, and check their kids into daycare for free.

"Now, people join the club just for the kids programs," says Sutherland.

Parents also are demanding daycare services when they're on the road. In fact, family vacations may now mean a time-out for Mom and Dad to unwind for a few hours without the kids. Hotel concierges are prepared to arrange for in-room nannies to come watch the kids while the parents pop out for a romantic dinner or take in a show.

"I probably get a call [for a nanny] about once a week," said Laura Meith, a concierge for the Argonaut Hotel, a boutique hotel near San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf.

Expanding chain

New Horizons Kid Quest, a national chain that runs drop-in childcare centers for other businesses, now has babysitting programs at 20 casinos nationwide and at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn.

The first Kid Quest drop-in center opened at a casino in 1992, says company COO Troy Dunkley, who admits that he was initially surprised when the casino approached them.

"Twelve years ago, I would have said it doesn't make a whole lot of sense. But since the early 1990s casinos have been developing themselves as resort destinations," says Dunkley. "They have hotel rooms, golf courses, restaurants, movie theaters and entertainment, bowling alleys. In order to be a stopover point for families they need childcare."

That's not to say running a childcare facility is easy.

New Horizons eventually closed one of its Kid Quest daycare centers at the Eden Prairie Center mall in Minnesota. Several obstacles led to the closure, says Dunkley. The mall didn't get enough traffic, which made it difficult to anticipate demand and staff centers appropriately.

State regulations on hourly daycare centers vary, but most require them to meet minimum staffing ratios. (One exception: state laws don't apply to centers located in Indian gaming casinos.) In Vermont, for example, there must be at least one adult per baby.

Finding qualified workers is a constant challenge. "Retaining them is even harder," says Dunkley.

That's not to say it's impossible. Many of Stratton's employees are 20-somethings who "follow the snow" and want to work where they can ski. But while they may be enticed by skiing, the staff has gained a reputation among parents and kids as fun, outgoing and caring.

Anne Marie Forehand from Southport, Conn., has used the Stratton daycare center for the past four years, and is thrilled with the quality of the staff. "I don't know how they find them," she says. "As a parent, it's nice to know you can go off and know that everyone's fine."  Top of page

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