Results Count

Meeting Planning

Sponsored by: Holman Ranch

These days, if you’re prying your execs out of the office for a retreat—away from their iPhones, their families and their comfort zone—you need to have a solid, results-oriented agenda that goes beyond meet-play-golf-and-go-home.

Sure, chief executives, board of directors’ members and department managers know they can’t develop long-range plans and solve major issues in an afternoon. They know they have to disconnect and focus. And they know there are always areas for self-improvement, painful as the idea may be.

But they are also likely to be veterans of those deadly PowerPoint-heavy retreats that weren’t focused enough or were poorly executed. They know that time is money—and they’re wary about how both are being spent.

That’s where planners, in their expanded role of meeting designer, come into play. Going beyond logistics, they are now involved with the content or actual objectives needs of retreats—what actually has to happen in that room or in that program to achieve the meeting’s goals. “Savvy planners are listening carefully to those needs, and seeing if they can help their executives find creative ways to meet them,” says Edward Quinn, president of The InnerWork Company, a leadership development organization.

Is that so difficult to do? No, but for many it involves a reimagination of the planning process.

Retreat Results that Count

Among the objectives that are bandied about in the meeting arena, two are most familiar: ROI [return on investment] and ROO [return on objective]. While ROO is easier to measure, it’s still possible to achieve ROI in your retreats as well, says Quinn.

“If planners want to hit a home run in terms of ROI,” he says, “the needs assessment [prior to the retreat] has to identify the right kind of issues to work on: What do we want to have happen during and after the meeting? The meeting design leads them to engage the issues and sets up the action planning, so that when they walk out of the room, the group agrees on the issue’s action steps, who is going to do them and when. This results-based process potentiates ROI.”

Your retreat may have a strategic purpose: the annual budget, a product launch, a marketing plan, etc. Or it may single out an internal company issue, such as integrating many new managers after a merger, dealing with a virtual team or silo and turf wars.

In any case, the desired result is the same: increased functionality for the company and increased self-awareness for participants, both personally and professionally—key components in the leadership that’s required to execute a strategy.

Fortunately, there’s a good way to achieve all this. It combines the intense mental challenges of a retreat inside the walls with a program conducted outside the meeting room that has no walls at all.

The Mind-Body Connection

Companies have long recognized the advantages of off-site retreats—the lack of distractions, the intimacy of the experience, the privacy that many properties offer.

Even in the darkest days of a recession, organizations still venture outside their own buildings—although they may meet for fewer days or stay closer to home. (The current trend is to spend three days and two nights for meetings of this caliber.)

Here, we’re dividing the retreat experience into two different yet symbiotic elements: mind and—not versus—body.

   Castlerock Ranch & Resort

The Mind

Your executives are primed for this portion of the retreat. They arrive armed with facts, figures, ideas, possible solutions to challenges and a clear vision of the ultimate goal (you did give them homework prior-to, right?).

They meet, brainstorm, perhaps break into smaller groups (depending on the size of the overall group) to tackle various aspects of a challenge. Interaction and spirited debate is critical.

At one point, attendees collectively decide on a plan to accomplish the goals—um, sometimes. Will your lead executive still have the final yea or nay for any plans or action items? If so, this participatory approach won’t always have a happy ending for all—which may discourage honest dialogue and act as a detriment to innovative solutions.

An antidote to boss-led retreats is the use of a facilitator, an unbiased, neutral professional whose task is to move the meeting along in general and, specifically, to keep it on track toward its goal—the details of which have been established long before the actual event.

They also help to prevent the perception of a boss-dominated event. “When the boss tries to run the retreat and participate in it, it sends conflicting messages,” says Bruce Withrow, president of Meeting Facilitators International, headquartered in Toronto. “[Attendees] wonder, ‘Is he or she speaking with the facilitator hat or the boss hat?’”

Facilitator or boss, the lead executive should work with planners to create a targeted plan that prepares the group for what is expected of individual participants and how that contributes to what the group should accomplish overall.

The Body

   Team building with Adventure Associates.

Over the past few years, the concept of team building has come into vogue. It’s a loose term that encompasses everything from fun and friendly activities that contribute to a social and collegial bond among colleagues, to experiential adventures with a further, business-related purpose that’s integrated into the goals of the overall event.

The popularity of these exercises has risen exponentially, driven in part by the long-awaited recovery of the meetings industry. In fact, the majority of our interviewees reported anywhere from “nearly all” to 50% of their groups incorporating team building into their retreat programs.

Another reason for team building’s popularity with executives and staff: Given the isolating technology of business today—smart phones, computers, even social networking—the opportunity to work side by side and interact personally with colleagues is huge, says Steve DeFelice, director of sales and marketing at Hyatt Regency Tamaya Resort & Spa in Santa Ana Pueblo, N.M.

The possible forms these activities can take are nearly endless. There are outdoor adventure-based opportunities, such as whitewater rafting, ziplining and sled dog racing. There are the ubiquitous ropes courses, ranging from low to 20–50-foot high courses (which have more of a perceived than actual danger but are exhilarating nonetheless). Depending on the property, the locale and the season, there are geocaching, orienteering and sand-castle competitions on the beach.

And there’s boat building—a fun, innovative way to involve participants in decision making, conflict resolution and handling feedback. Adventure Associates, based in the San Francisco Bay Area, offers a program where teams brainstorm, design and construct a boat from start to finish. The completed vessels then compete in a regatta—and, oh yes, only the lucky entrants stay dry for the prize!

Team building is not limited to the outdoors, however. Some programs, like Team Cuisine—a staple of the Experiential Learning Center at The American Club in Kohler, Wis.—feature a cooking competition that divides a group into teams, each creating an appetizer, a main course and a dessert out of a set of given ingredients, and is judged by one of the resort’s professional chefs. “It improves communication and breaks down barriers,” says Missy Dortman, director of meetings and events for the resort.

Outdoors or indoors, these activities also create shared memories for attendees to take home, providing a friendly opener when they’re picking up the phone to ask a previously unknown colleague for assistance, information or advice.

Where to Retreat

   The Barn, a dining room at Blackberry Farm.

Whether you’re looking for an off-the-beaten-path lodge, a guest ranch or a Four-Star resort, there are plenty of choices for a venue that matches your group’s intent and can help meet objectives.

Eric Plam, director, enterprise sales for T-Mobile in San Francisco, wanted a dynamic event for his 2011 sales kickoff, one that would complement the high-energy culture of his company. He took his group of 20 to the Hyatt Regency Tamaya and arranged a horseback ride through a local ranch for the conclusion of the retreat. “In general, most of us were city slickers, so there was a lot of apprehension at first,” he says. The horses were friendly and his team’s confidence quickly grew. “It was interesting to see the transformation. Some natural leadership emerged.”

Nadene Smith, executive assistant at the Funeral Directors’ Life Insurance Company in Abilene, Texas, knew her group included enthusiastic skiers, so she looked to Colorado this winter. She booked her team at Mountain Lodge in Telluride, where the group held its annual management retreat and hit the slopes. For team-building purposes, she worked with the local branch of CBST Adventures, which arranged a historical Telluride GPS Orienteering Quest and a San Juan Off-Road Rally.

Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort near Santa Barbara, Calif., is now a must-book for Ronda Shelton, an executive administrator at DaVita, Inc. For the past few years, her 125 facilities administrators, regional directors and division and senior vice presidents have taken over the entire ranch for 2.5 days, meeting and participating in a variety of team-building exercises, including ropes courses and Olympic-style lawn games. The property isn’t necessarily easy to get to, she says; some participants have to fly in from out of state. But, as is often the case with more secluded properties, “once you get there, it’s so relaxing,” she says.

Washington state’s natural environments are the draw for Seattle-based Chloe Ross, owner/event coordinator for A Little White Dress Weddings and Events, and many of her corporate clients. Ross recently arranged a retreat for a regional company at Lakedale Lodge on San Juan Island, a rustic property surrounded by woods and water. “They took their entire team [of 25] up there for a planning meeting and to train new associates,” she says. Ross scheduled several group activities geared toward welcoming and getting to know the new employees, but also some free time in between the last meeting of the day and dinner, to let everyone follow his or her own bliss—whether it was hiking, fishing, swimming or boating. The feedback was great, she recounts. “They said [the location and activities] helped in their creative process.”

There’s a third result that counts beyond financial gain: return on experience (ROE). It comes from the attendees’ perspective and is both subjective (perception: worth the time and money) and measurable (reality: worth the time and money because of actual improved skills).

A positive ROE can generate enthusiasm for your next retreat.

Carolyn Koenig is a freelance writer and former editorial director of Smart Meetings.

Main image: Mountain Lodge at Telluride.

Retreat Resources

Myriad properties throughout the country offer meeting groups ideal accommodations, space and activities for executive retreats. Here's a sampling:

Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort
Solvang, Calif.
–73 guest units; 6,000 sq. ft. of indoor meeting space
–Set on a 10,000-acre working cattle ranch in Santa Barbara’s wine country, it offers a variety of team-building opportunities, including ropes courses.

American Club Resort
Kohler, Wis.
–Two hotels, The American Club (240 rooms) and Inn on Woodlake (121), have access to multiple meeting spaces.
–Kohler Experiential Learning Center provides retreat venues, programs and a staff of seven consultants and facilitators.

Blackberry Farm
Walland, Tenn.
–62 accommodations; 3,000 sq. ft. of meeting space
–Luxury boutique retreat on 4,200 acres in the Grand Smoky Mountains offers a wide range of sports, adventure, equestrian, culinary, farm and other activities.

Brasada Ranch
Bend, Ore.
–32 rooms; 13,530 sq. ft. of meeting space
–Situated on 1,800 acres near whitewater rafting and fly fishing. Features include golf, an equestrian center, 17,000-square-foot fitness center and farm-to-fork and locavore dining.

Castlerock Ranch & Resort  
Utopia, Texas
–Six cabins, two ranches; various meeting spaces and mini movie theater
–Located in Texas Hill Country, west of San Antonio, the resort includes an exotic game ranch and a hilltop seven-bedroom lodge, and works in tandem with Coverdale, a consulting, coaching and training company.

Holman Ranch
Carmel Valley, Calif.
–10 rooms; 4,800 sq. ft. of meeting space
–Private estate with 250,000 sq. ft. of outdoor space, a vineyard, an olive grove and horse stables.

Hyatt Regency Tamaya Resort & Spa
Santa Ana Pueblo, N.M.
–350 rooms; 70,000 sq. ft. indoor and outdoor function space
–The resort is set between Santa Fe and Albuquerque at the base of the Sandia Mountains and features golf, stables, hot-air ballooning and a team of recreation and cultural coordinators.

Lakedale Resort at Three Lakes
San Juan Island, Wash.
–10-room lodge; six cabins; 15 “glamping” canvas cabins and RV and tent camping (seasonal); two meeting rooms
–Located on 82 wooded acres; accessible by passenger and auto ferry and by air. Provides access to fishing, biking, swimming, canoeing, kayaking, hiking and boating, among other activities.

Mountain Lodge
Telluride, Colo. 
–Cabins, suites, condos, hotel guest rooms; meeting space for 30 guests
–Located slopeside. Minutes from Telluride Conference Center. Works with OWLS, Inc. and CBST Adventures for team building.

Pan Pacific Hotel Seattle
–153 rooms; 5,500 sq. ft. of meeting space
–A boutique hotel for retreats where groups can work with team-building organizations or participate in CSR initiatives.

Saddle Creek Resort
Copperopolis, Calif. 
–61 rooms; largest space holds up to 168
–Located in Gold Country foothills, two hours from the San Francisco Bay Area. Onsite golf course, designed by Carter Morrish, is ranked in the top tier of public courses in California.

The Sea Pines Resort  
Hilton Head Island, S. C.
–60 rooms; villas; 17,000 sq. ft. of indoor meeting space
–The 5,000-acre oceanfront estate features three golf courses, tennis and a marina. Extensive team-building options include a ropes course, water-based activities, construction activities, team games and scavenger hunts.

Villas of Grand Cypress  
Orlando, Fla.
–146 rooms; 10,500 sq. ft. of meeting and function space
–Resort is close to attractions and has 45 holes of Jack Nicklaus Signature-designed golf, along with a 24’ rock climbing wall, jogging, biking and fitness trails.

Case Study

Becca Saunders, of GE Healthcare, worked with the Kohler Experiential Learning Center at the American Club Resort in Kohler, Wis., to put together a custom program for 23 senior executives. Saunders says the program, which included a little bit of The Amazing Race, Survivor and American Idol TV show concepts, provided her team with an opportunity to achieve their goals: team building, stress relief, fun, physical and intellectual challenge, something out of the ordinary and engagement of new members of the team.

“The program also included a good deal of competitiveness sprinkled with personalization, which perfectly suited our highly competitive team!” she says. A few of the unusual activities: horse grooming, chocolate making, yoga poses, outdoor sculpture searches, mixing cocktails and singing karaoke. “GE Healthcare got great feedback from globally savvy executives who have ‘seen it all and done it all.’ Comments such as, ‘Who knew I would ever groom a horse’ and ‘We couldn’t predict what was coming next’ show how the program achieved, and indeed surpassed, our goals.”


Adventure Associates
The InnerWork Company
Meeting Facilitators International