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Hit the Trail: How outdoor recreation can benefit a business team

If your idea of corporate retreats came from Hollywood, the idea of going on one probably makes you cringe. You might be thinking of trust exercises where one person dives back into another’s waiting arms, motivational pep talks or oversized t-shirts emblazoned with your company’s logo.

The truth is so much better than that. Taking a corporate retreat with your co-workers doesn’t have to be a cliché experience—especially not in Utah, where the bounty of outdoor recreation is unparalleled. For most companies who take their teams outdoors, they can expect to blow off steam in a healthy way, to de-stress, to learn new skills, to see co-workers in a different light and to gain new perspective.

“A lot of the jargon that gets thrown around in the corporate world—synergy, all hands on deck—it’s nice to take those overused buzzwords and remind people what’s really behind them,” says Steve Sandberg, marketing manager for Sorrel River Ranch Resort and Spa. “[Outdoor recreation brings] a fresh perspective of what’s glossed over in the corporate world because it’s heard too much.”

The great outdoors

There are plenty of ways to do a company retreat, from a week-long stay to an afternoon adventure—and there are plenty of reasons why companies should invest in the experience. As the need for good talent swells in growing industries, employee retention more and more comes down to corporate culture. Millennials want a job they believe in with peers they enjoy working with and a culture they fit into. While it’s great to have conversation-starters and de-stressors like ping-pong tables or video games in a workplace, getting outside with colleagues offers the possibility to do something completely different. It’s a way to refresh everyone’s perspective, says Diana Hogg, purveyor of fun at Rocky Mountain Outfitters, a Coalville-based company that offers a variety of outdoor adventure opportunities.

“While a lot of people think that team-building events are weird, silly games you have to play, it’s not about that. It’s about getting people out of the office, decompressing and doing things that they haven’t done before or haven’t since they were a kid,” says Hogg. “When they’re finished with their day, all laughing with each other, the conversation around the water cooler isn’t going to be about the TV anymore, I promise you that.”

According to the Feb. 2015 article “How to Make a Corporate Retreat One Employees Actually Want to Attend” in Forbes, retreats are a great way to “pop the bubble” that employees often find themselves in: the same job, day after day, with the same people in the same place. Feelings of stagnation can lead to discontentment. A good corporate retreat—one that doesn’t fall into any of the corny clichés—can “can boost team collaboration [and] creativity.”

There are plenty of options to incorporate outdoor recreation into a corporate retreat. Some companies plan months in advance and take employees for overnight trips close to the Mighty 5, where outdoor activities are at their most breathtaking. For others, a better idea is booking a sleigh ride or snowshoeing, an activity that acts as a winter holiday party. There’s even the option to just hire a guide to refresh your team by leading them in a hike after a particularly grueling project.

Target the issues

When planning a corporate retreat, don’t be shy about looking at lingering team problems that need to be solved. This doesn’t mean your employees need to sit around a fire and talk about their feelings. If you have issues with team collaboration, decision-making, or with certain employees not speaking up enough or taking initiative, plan events around that. Many places already have itineraries available, with activities available to address a variety of issues.

“[We love] using the outdoors, using recreation, as an opportunity to achieve your goals. Recreation is developmental and should provide some lasting benefits to all participants,” says Michael Kane, Ph.D., general manager of Zion Ponderosa Ranch Resort, a 4,000-acre ranch-resort on the border of Zion National Park. “When a company calls [to book a corporate retreat], we get together and we identify target issues. If you wanted to come, I’d say: ‘what do you want to achieve?’”

Every issue has a corresponding activity. Need to de-stress? Hogg recommends fly-fishing. Need to encourage teamwork? Kane recommends canyoneering, while Sandberg recommends river rafting. Is conflict resolution your problem? Have any shrinking violets? Kane recommends paintballing. Also, try making sure that you switch up the leaders in each activity or project—you may be surprised with who excels.

“Groups are coming to stretch their comfort zones,” says Sandberg. “A little of what we provide can be unfamiliar to businesspersons. It’s a stretch into an adventure mindset, but it’s a goal of the retreat. They’re encouraged to try new things and take risks.”

Kane says that if the problems are tough enough, he’ll sometimes try to intentionally create chaos within a team. He’ll schedule something hectic, like paintballing, and throw participants into the game without prior explanation. “They all get frustrated and worked up, and they all shoot each other and they get shot,” says Kane. After the activity, he says he’ll bring in the participants and have them assess the chaos. “Then we say, isn’t that the way it is in business when you don’t give clear direction? Isn’t that the way it is when your employees don’t know their goals or stated objectives?”

Confronting risks and fears

Utahns rank eighth in the nation for biking activity and 10th for running, says a new survey from Strava, a popular fitness-tracking app. Still, Utahns’ documented love for the outdoors doesn’t always mean that your team will be gung-ho about horseback riding, canyoneering, snowmobiling or even fly-fishing. But taking people out of their assigned roles and comfort zones can lead to growth, says Kane. “The greatest team building benefits come from people or team members that they didn’t know had those ideas. I see it a lot where a team member will be empowered with more responsibility. They did well in paintball and shot the boss, and now the boss is listening,” he says.

The guides at Zion Ponderosa, Sorrel River Ranch and Rocky Mountain Outfitters are all equipped to handle situations where people are frightened, unsure or simply don’t know how to do an activity. Still, even facing your fears provides an opportunity for learning about business habits. What it boils down to, says Kane, is learning about risk management—whether a participant ultimately decides to go forward with the activity or not.

“People think of risk management as a thing where it’s just ‘oh, I can’t do that.’ We provide an opportunity for monitored, structured, risk management,” he says. “Risk presents anxieties. A risk is then evaluated. But we don’t want to push people over the limit. If someone says ‘I cannot do that,’ then, OK. Come and watch others.”

Hogg says the same for horseback riding and snowmobiling, two activities where she says the most people show anxiety. Watching others participate in an activity normalizes it, and possibly empowers the frightened person to take the next step.

“If they’re afraid to the point of tears or physical nervousness, we of course don’t make them do it. That’s dangerous for everyone
if someone is just so scared that they can’t overcome it,” she says. “We give them the opportunity to do so, but if they can’t, they just hang out and watch. That’s sometimes what’s needed. They didn’t get on the horse, but they gave it an apple. Maybe next time they’ll get on it!”

Kane relates a story of a young man who wanted to zip-line, but whose fear of heights wouldn’t allow him to do more than just put his foot out and then step back.

“Every day, the young man would go up to the top of the zip line with my guide. And every day, he’d look around and come back down. He wouldn’t go down,” says Kane. “The boy would put his foot out and put it back, then put his foot out and put it back. The guide said, ‘Listen to your feet. They’re telling you what to do.’ And he put out his foot and down the zip-line he went.”

Most of the time, Sandberg says that the guides manage to soothe the participants’ fears. “We’ve never had someone get on a raft or a horse and then regretted it. They learn something about themselves,” he says. “If nothing else, it’s the ‘I am able to do difficult things’ lesson.”

A new perspective

It’s important to plan downtime during a corporate retreat. According to the Forbes article, creativity thrives when activity is broken up with free periods. Schedule free time, as well as some fun optional de-stressors. During fly-fishing trips, Hogg says she can actually see the stress leaving the participants’ bodies.

“You can watch these corporate guys decompress. You can watch it happen. They’re all still doing their corporate thing and talking their business life and checking their phones—until they get to the river,” she says. “They get their fly rod in their hand and hear the flow of the river, and you watch the weight on their shoulder just leave. When they finish, they say, ‘That’s the first time I haven’t checked my email for four straight hours in I don’t know how long.’ … I think this is what these corporate retreats are looking for. Get out of the office and stop thinking about work for just a minute.”

Companies can also plan large dinners to let employees reconnect after a long day of difficult activities. Depending on the season, Rocky Mountain Outfitters offers chuck wagon banquet dinners with cowboy entertainment, while Sorrell River Ranch and Spa has outdoor garden dinners with fire pits and kits for s’mores.

Another activity Sandberg recommends for overnight corporate retreats is stargazing. At the ranch, during the summer, an astronomer will come out with a telescope once a week and talk with guests. Seeing the expanse of stars and astronomical features is “humbling,” says Sandberg, and offers guests a sense of perspective and peace.

“Almost all of our groups come from the city. They come here and they get away from the hustle and the sound and the skyscrapers,” he says. “Here, they have the river and they’re immersed in red rock skyscrapers—the change of perspective is invaluable.”

February Issue