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Out of the Office

Jumpstart Business Planning with Corporate Retreats and Meetings

Marie Mischel

January 23, 2012

High-profile junkets to exotic locales drew the ire of the public when it came to light that companies like Lehman Brothers and AIG were taking such trips while bleeding red ink. Since then, executives have become much more conscious about public perception, but corporate retreats still offer plenty of return on investment, experts say. Reasons to Retreat Team-building, rewarding performance, improving morale and setting strategy all are common reasons for a corporate retreat. “One of the first objectives in planning a corporate retreat is to identify the objective that needs to be achieved as a company,” says Cynthia Mitchell, president and CEO of GEP Utah, which was named Best of State for destination management. The company has offices in Salt Lake, Sun Valley and Jackson Hole. “With the corporate economic conditions what they are today, huge bonuses, high-profile incentive trips or retreats with no planned outcome are things of the past.” One consideration is whether the retreat is intended for top executives who need to focus on the company’s strategic planning, or if it’s meant for overall employee morale. The primary motivator for workers to put extra effort into their jobs is their belief that senior management has their best interests at heart, according to the 2007 Towers Perrin Global Workforce Study, which surveyed nearly 90,000 workers in 18 countries. However, the study also revealed that only four out of 10 workers think this is true of their companies, and more than half think that senior management “treats us as just another part of the organization to be managed” or “as if we don’t matter.” With the economic downturn, many employees are being asked to do more with less, leading to a high-stress environment. “People today in their jobs, especially in the service industries, have a high level of burnout because the clientele requires so much of them and there’s so little money and so great a demand and so few staff,” says Jill Carter of Salt Lake’s Carter Consulting. As a result, employees end up not liking their jobs, the people they work with and the company they work for. Retreats can build camaraderie, trust and morale. “We have to take care of people in the workplace first, so that they can take care of the client and the customer,” she says. You Need to Get Away Constantly ringing telephones, the steady stream of e-mails and people dropping in for a chat are facts of life in the office, but they are also distractions when there’s a team-building exercise or a motivational speaker. So, to get the most from a corporate retreat, “You take it out of the work environment, because that’s the environment that’s so stressful, and put it into an enjoyable environment where people get a break for the day,” Carter says. “In the office, long-term planning is what to do in next 20 minutes,” agrees Mark White, vice president of sales for the Salt Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It is so imperative for executives to step back, to get away from the beehive, so to speak, and take a broader visionary view. Getting into a different physical setting enables you to do that.” Where to Go From Logan to St. George, Utah is blessed with spectacular natural scenery that the convention industry has happily taken advantage of. “There are practically endless opportunities throughout the state” for corporate retreats, White says. “There are many, many places that they can go. Practically every hotel or resort has conference facilities that can provide food and beverage, can provide for audio visual needs and, if necessary, also sleeping rooms to go along with meeting space.” While budget dictates in large part the decision of where to hold the retreat, another consideration is where the attendees are located. “If everyone who may be attending lives in the Salt Lake area, it may make a little more sense to go to Snowbird or Park City,” White says. “But if the people you’re attracting are from all over the state or you have a regional offices in Nevada or Arizona, then St. George makes a little more sense.” The type of activity also will determine what type of venue will be considered. If the retreat’s primary goal is to impart information, then a conference room will be best, he says. “On the other hand, if goal is to reward for hard work or get to know each other better and have a little fun, you’re not going to achieve that by putting them into a classroom and talking to them.” The weather must be considered for outside activities, he adds. “If you’ve come to the conclusion that a golf tournament for your staffers is a great way to build camaraderie or reward them, then you might want to go to St. George if it’s a January meeting. Conversely, if it’s a July meeting and you want to have golf, it might be a little warm in St. George; you might want to come up to the northern part of the state.” With the myriad of choices for a venue, White suggests contacting CVBs for information. CVBs typically are funded by transient room taxes, “so they have no vested interest to steer you to one hotel; they’ll share information in a neutral sense about all venues that would be appropriate. And because they interact, in many cases, with literally hundreds of groups that utilize these facilities year-round, they’re very familiar with all of them, so they can give you a list of maybe five or six that may be appropriate, the contact name at each, maybe some types of events that have been held there before that seemed to work very well.” Make it Work For a corporate retreat to be effective, the goals must be determined in advance, Mitchell says, and each planned activity should achieve at least one of the goals. Attendees should be asked what goals they think should be accomplished, and their demographics should be taken into account when planning activities. “A group of executive women would not enjoy attending a monster truck rally,” she says. Those who are attending should have a chance to review information in advance so they can be prepared for the retreat’s educational component, Mitchell says. Also, “involve as many of the attendees in roles during the retreat, either to head up a break out, lead a discussion or to be a team captain in the activities.” Any information should be presented in the morning, she suggests; reserve the afternoons for activities or relaxation. “Over planning and not leaving enough free time for the bonding and interactions is major pitfall,” Mitchell says. “Have optional activities that people can participate in, but also if they want to hang out with another co-worker or executive to bond, let it happen. Be flexible and willing to make changes as necessary. Life happens, and if one of the planned activities is not coming off as planned, be OK to make changes. If your attendees are having an exceptional interactive experience in a game of beach volleyball and it is time to leave and they groan and say ‘Just a half an hour more,’ what does it cost to have a motor coach wait for another half hour? Your activity has been a success, as they want the interaction to continue.” Corporate retreats can keep leaders in front of people, create collaboration, recognize workers who go the extra mile and reinforce why a company is a great workplace – all factors that the Towers Perrin study found were necessary to engage employees in their work. Having engaged employees has a dramatic effect on the bottom line, according to Towers Perrin data; firms with the highest level of employee engagement had a 3.7 percent increase in operating margins over three years, while those with the lowest levels had a 2 percent drop.
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