What do plush couches, lemon-scented candles and yellow sticky notes have in common? They are all tricks of the trade for turning a stuffy meeting into a creative groundswell of ideas.

When a group of decision-makers goes to an off-site venue to discuss organizational challenges and collaborate on next steps, their success depends greatly on how the planner sets up each aspect of the retreat. On one hand, participants must be made to feel comfortable and somewhat relaxed so that they can focus on business. However, these experienced professionals must be willing to listen to their colleagues, and be open to other perspectives in order to move the organization down the right path.

Try these three strategies to set the mood for creative confabs.

  1. Add cozy furniture: “To get senior participants comfortable at retreats, planners request that couches, oversized soft chairs, coffee tables and household lamps be brought into the meeting spaces,” says Laura Manriquez, director of sales and marketing for Visit Santa Cruz County, where many Silicon Valley startups and established firms hold executive events.
  2. Invest in a diffuser: “Aromatherapy is another element that’s being used a lot, both in meeting spaces and in break areas,” Manriquez says. For instance, citrus scent is known to stimulate the brain, while lavender scent is known to relax the brain. Using each scent at the right moment helps participants perform better and feel healthier throughout the day.
  3. Trade sticky notes: Once participants are comfortable, planners could consider using unusual formats to maximize creative thinking and spur progress on organizational challenges. Art Markman, professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas, suggests a unique format for a brainstorming session where participants’ input isn’t overly influenced by their colleagues’ input. Called the 6-3-5 method, it works this way: Six people sit at a table and each person writes down three ideas. They pass their ideas to the person next to them, and that person adds their own thoughts to each idea. When each person has seen the other five sets of ideas, the brainstorming session is complete—and the amount of individual thinking has been maximized, even as participants shared their thoughts with each other.
  4. Pump up the Play: Venues themselves can also help create unique session set-ups to promote creative thinking. At Marriott Sawgrass Golf Resort & Spa in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, the Mighty Oaks room is the hub for children’s programming, but also doubles as meeting space. Executives can brainstorm on chalkboards, chat while they play foosball, or discuss issues and possibilities in an area that overlooks acres of manicured lawn flanked by moss-draped live oaks and a lagoon. Planners are also encouraged to incorporate quick bursts of exercise or play to jump-start participants’ energy.
Read more about executives retreats in the September 2017 issue.