In Defense of Team Building


Last spring, when the U.S. Government’s General Services Administration (GSA) agency came under fire for holding a lavish conference in Las Vegas, one of the most biting criticisms came from Alexandra Petri of the Washington Post: “They spent $75,000 for a ‘team-building’ exercise in which they attempted to construct a bicycle,” she lamented.

“I can think of dozens of better things to do in Las Vegas—and that includes buying every conference attendee a ticket to fly from Vegas to Duluth, Minn. If you are going to waste that many taxpayer dollars, waste them right. See Cirque du Soleil…Buy a tiger. Have one of those magical evenings no one involved can remember afterward.”

Costs Under Attack

Petri was not alone in zeroing in on the bike-building team-building exercise. The congressional committee lambasted GSA leaders, making it sound as if the entire point of the $75,000 program had been to create 24 bicycles. Of course, as any meeting planner could guess, the point was to bring 300 members of the agency together to focus on communication, collaboration, leadership and other business skills, while introducing them to the concept of volunteerism—that is, at least, according to Michael Green, senior vice president for MVP Associates/ Delta 4, the California-based company that put together the controversial event. “[The GSA] wanted to support the President’s drive to volunteerism, and at the same time do team building,” Green explains. “They looked at a lot of options, and that was considered to be the best one.”

The bike-building exercise was not the only detail from the GSA event that drew fire, of course—hiring a mind reader, ordering up lavish breakfasts and other extravagances were clearly outside the bounds of federal policy—but whether the agency got its money’s worth on the team building would be difficult to assess. It raises a valid question: Would any team-building program in Vegas (or anywhere) have been considered justifiable as a way to spend $75,000 of taxpayer dollars? What does it take to get a demonstrable ROI when it comes to group activities?

The Case for Team Building

One valuable model for delivering business-focused benefits comes from Royal Caribbean International, which recently hired Las Vegas-based R&D Events to organize an Amazing Race-style scavenger hunt (pictured) around Las Vegas. Divided into teams of five, attendees sprinted along The Strip pursuing clues and taking photos, all while completing various tasks. What helped make the case for ROI was that the cruise line company asked R&D to customize the clues based on a real business question: How has Las Vegas successfully diversified itself with venues other than hotels and casinos to become a hub for restaurants, nightclubs and shopping—a subject with obvious lessons for the cruise-ship industry? Participants were sent into different businesses to find out how they worked; for example, they entered Three-Star and Five-Star hotels to ask managers about their different business approaches.

If GSA had signed up for R&D’s default Mission Las Vegas scavenger hunt, they would have worked through clues designed to promote skills like critical thinking and cost analysis—just the kind of thing the GSA is supposed to do well. Teams are asked to figure out how much money the average high roller spends inside the high-limit baccarat room at the Mirage, for example, or they can choose to figure out how much the roller coaster at New York-New York makes in profits over the course of a year, based on number of seats, frequency of rides and other factors.

Or what if GSA had signed on with the Palms Casino Resort for the Fantasy Rock Camp, using the property’s in-house music studio to collaborate on recording a song? “We’ve had Fortune 500 companies come with 20 to 25 members of their executive team, and we bring in an artist of their choice, like Lenny Kravitz,” says Scott Thrasher, sales manager for the Palms.

Or imagine if they had chosen to cruise out into the desert with Pink Jeep Tours? The company offers Desert Dash, a mix of Survivor and Amazing Race that challenges groups to perform such tasks as putting up a tent, deciphering petroglyphs and cooking on a camp stove. “It’s a great way to get beyond the hotels, conference rooms and casino floors,” explains Tara Schaup, group sales coordinator for Pink Jeep Tours Las Vegas.

Perhaps the best choice for the government agency would have been Spy Game, a scavenger hunt described as a “high-energy game of espionage featuring preferred local hot spots,” which “starts with a video message from headquarters [inviting participants] into the sexy underworld of corruption and scandal. Anything can happen as you exploit salacious spies and uncover indulgent double agents in fashionable VIP style.”

The point is, team building is what a group makes of it, and a planner needs to make sure the client has clear business goals to achieve ROI. Beyond that, there’s little doubt these activities can be invaluable enhancements to meetings. “You can create unique dynamics and cross-pollinate people from different regions,” says Geoff Rhodes, director of fun for R&D Events. “It gets people talking together, and having fun opens up a world that wouldn’t exist if you put everyone in a meeting room for three days. You push people to interact in a more active environment.”