Image: Eldorado Hotel & Spa
Courtesy of Eldorado Hotel & Spa
Retreats can vary in size and style. Doing an over-the-top meeting on a private island in the Caribbean can set a company back $500,000 while picnicking in the park can cost about the same as fueling your SUV.
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updated 10/13/2006 3:27:08 PM ET 2006-10-13T19:27:08

“After dinner, a lot of people went down to the bar, but it was closed. So they went to their rooms, raided the minibars and brought all this booze back down to the bar area. Then they ordered room service to be delivered there,” recalls Jane Ellis, an executive at a multinational music company.

“The next day, the bartender cut everyone off. That didn’t go over very well. The bellhop also told me someone was running around the halls in her bra and panties.”

Ellis isn’t remembering keg night during spring break at Delta House, but a corporate retreat at a four-star hotel.

Amusing as that episode may be, these aren’t the kind of memories companies expect their employees to take home when they schedule business retreats. But for people planning corporate getaways, alcohol consumption and naughty behavior are just some of the obstacles they dodge on the way to creating a successful business meeting.

Fancy or stark, the goal of most company off-sites is simple: to improve the bottom line through concentrated meetings and employee camaraderie. That doesn’t happen by accident. Planning a corporate retreat is like readying for battle, in that every detail and possible glitch must be considered. Surprises — such as employees wandering the halls in their skivvies — are bad.

Corporate retreats can be small and extremely intimate — with only eight or nine people involved — or they can be huge, with more than 1,000 employees attending. Naturally, costs also vary wildly. Doing an over-the-top meeting on a private island in the Caribbean for 30 staff members can set a company back $500,000. But picnicking in the park can cost about the same as fueling up your SUV. Or less.

But large or small, you need a plan. Big meetings in popular destinations may need to be booked more than a year ahead.

Philip Fryer, senior catering sales manager for Marriott and former senior event manager for the Seattle Downtown Marriott, says, “Every Tuesday and Wednesday my hotel would sell out. Always. So I recommend booking big blocks of rooms almost a year in advance.”

Ultimately, location says volumes about the company for both the people on the retreat and those who stay at home. Ben Dattner, founder of Dattner Consulting and an adjunct professor at New York University, says, “There is a lot of symbolism in these meetings. They can convey real meaning about the organization. If you have ten people coming from all over the country and one of them is pregnant, the team can go to her location, just to send a strong message about life/work balance.”

There are also less subtle issues in picking a spot — like proximity to an airport. A property can have everything you’d ever need, but if it’s not convenient, your staff will spend half of their time getting there. Even the size of the airport matters.

Cheryl Vaccarello organizes huge yearly off-site meetings for environmental consultant Tetra Tech EM. She recalls a meeting in Monterey, Calif., a few years ago. “The airport wasn’t far from the hotel, but it was a small airport, and when all 700 people left on Sunday it was a little challenging.”

Still, the most important and formidable issue may be the agenda. Dattner reminds clients to see the big picture. He says, “You should think long-term and on fixing things at a higher level. These should not be standard management meetings. There’s always a temptation to think, ‘Oh, we’re all together so let’s do some long-term planning and whatever, but we can also get some work done.’ What you should be thinking is, ‘Let’s get together and look at things really differently from the way we are used to.’”

All attendees should have input about the agenda. According to Vaccarello, prior to each Tetra Tech retreat, a different office develops the agenda and forwards suggestions to the main office. After all, Dattner reasons, “If they’re important enough to bring to a retreat, they should be asked what they’d like to address.”

For some companies, spending time chatting isn’t enough. It’s increasingly popular to force staff together through team-building exercises. These can range from simple treasure hunts to the weird. There’s a legendary and possibly apocryphal tale involving team chicken wrangling at a major Holly­wood agency retreat.

Some firms lean toward extreme sports and competitions such as rock climbing, paintball and parachuting. Not such a good idea. “Corporate retreats should not be auditions for Fear Factor,” Dattner says flatly. “It doesn’t have anything to do with work; it just shows how macho people can be.”

Even seemingly innocuous exercises can have negative consequences. After an off-site that involved character analysis tests, Judy Asman, formerly of Southern California Edison, was devastated. “It was horrible, an awful, demeaning experience,” she says. “It brought out a lot of passive-aggressiveness, and people were mean. For me, the whole experience just made me feel even more alienated. I ended up leaving the company a year later.”

On the other end of the spectrum, employee bonding can definitely go too far. That’s what happened during the last off-site meeting planned by Sharon Anne Waldrop, formerly the director of HR for a Southern California hotel chain. She recalls: “A married male associate started having an affair with a female associate. Soon afterward he left his wife, son and infant daughter and married the co-worker.”

Definitely not the result the corporation was hoping to achieve from that retreat. Indeed, most bad retreat behavior can be traced directly to alcohol. So at the Tetra Tech EM meetings, there are no open bars. “Everything is a cash bar, which does not mean that some people don’t spend a lot,” Vaccarello says. “We’ve had a few individual problems, but we have never had any huge issues.”

When there are problems, says Marriott’s Fryer, hotels don’t hesitate to get involved. “I’ll call the contact person at the meeting and go break up parties with security if I have to,” he says. “But in all the years I’ve been doing this, that’s only been an issue two or three times.”

While practically every retreat boasts at least one employee with a hangover and a ruined reputation, most don’t involve seminaked staff members trolling the halls or visits from security. In fact, the reason retreats and off-sites are so popular is that they do work. If employees just bring back a good feeling about the company and a renewed excitement about their position, that can translate into increased productivity — the point of having a retreat in the first place.

Sharon Liveten writes for PINK magazine. This article from PINK was featured on Forbes.com.

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