Seven Tips for Planning Successful Corporate Retreats

Taking small groups to remote locations will help get business back on track.

Fire pits, like this one at Paws Up Resort in Montana, are great for evening chats.

Covid has impacted the structure of almost every organization. Staffs were decimated by layoffs and resignations, entire offices left town to work from their homes, and teams were rebuilt with new faces. Executives now must regroup and refocus their companies, and their employees need to get to know each other better.

Mike Dominguez, ALHI

To achieve such goals, getting away from it all to a remote location can be a powerful solution.

"Retreats came back first because there was a need to bring people together," says Mike Dominguez, president and CEO of Associated Luxury Hotels International. "That's very encouraging for all of us to believe that face-to-face not only will never go away, but it also matters probably more than ever." 

Gerilyn Horan, Hilton

 Hilton Hotels has noticed this trend. "These companies recognize the need for new hires to be socialized into the company and its culture," says Gerilyn Horan, vice president of group sales and strategic accounts. "Understanding and embracing the current vision and strategy of the organization as they adapt to the current business environment is critical, and feeling a part of a team is even more important in uncertain times." 

Hyatt Hotels Corp. has reacted to the growth of retreats by developing Work from Hyatt: Offsite, a retreat concept that gives teams of any size an opportunity to reconnect and relax through destination-inspired team-building experiences both on- and off-property.

Trina Camacho-London, Hyatt

"We are seeing strong interest in this concept as reimagined corporate-retreat experiences continue to grow in popularity, specifically from companies in the architecture, consulting, software, manufacturing and automotive industries," says Trina Camacho-London, vice president of group sales for Hyatt.

Outline the Mission

As with all meetings, defining the "why" of the get-together will help drive the "who" and "where."

Maybe there's a new leader of a team who needs to be assimilated before they start making decisions, and the existing team is nervous about how their jobs will change. Maybe two groups are being melded and need to figure out how to marry their cultures.

Liz Warwick, industry consultant

"Sometimes with retreats, you're trying to solve a problem," says Liz Warwick of Warwick Strategic Planning, who is the former vice president of meeting management and event strategy at Liberty Mutual Insurance. "But most retreats I've done were for teams in transition."

The following are her tips for planning the perfect retreat.

Leave the City

"You want to be a little bit remote, so you want a place where people can get outside and go for a walk or look at the ocean," Warwick says. "You want people to reflect on what they just sat through the last couple of hours and figure out, 'how does that apply to me?'"

Choose a place where nature is the only distraction, she suggests. "I see natural elements as very therapeutic. It opens people to conversations that are very different from when you're in a city hotel, where distractions can diminish the reflective nature of a retreat." 

Warwick likes properties with fire pits, where people can sit and talk about their kids, or chat about the day, and build (or rebuild) the foundation of their relationships with colleagues.

Properties such as Rhode Island's Ocean House offer many spots for reflection.

Tell People What to Expect

Send a note to participants in advance, outlining the reason and goals for the retreat. 

Consider giving them homework: Ask for ideas about how to solve a problem or improve a process, or provide a few key points to think about in advance. This helps the retreat run more smoothly, and also cuts down on the anxiety some attendees might be feeling before the event. Communications should assure them that you're setting up a safe and comfortable environment.

Open Up the Agenda

Planners are used to scheduling every minute of their attendees' days, so this advice might be hard to take. Says Warwick: "Don't over-orchestrate the schedule, leaving participants no time to process the information they just heard or just shared. Build in downtime for each day." 

A looser agenda encourages groups to create their own content, designing their own paths to the solutions needed.

Hire a Facilitator

Retreats tend to be intimate and purposeful. Find a neutral and experienced facilitator to keep conversations on track and emotions steady, and to help build trust.

"You don't want another employee from the same organization leading that kind of conversation; it's just not a comfortable place to be either for that leader or for the audience," says Warwick. "I usually partner with a communication coach to lead the conversations about trust and communication styles."

Develop an Action Plan

How will ideas be recorded during the meeting? What's the plan of action after everyone returns to their homes and offices? Who will oversee progress? 

"Especially with teams in transition, if you don't follow up and it just goes into the ozone layer, all the good of the retreat dissipates," says Warwick. "Before the event begins, make sure you have a really strong follow-up plan."

Handle Executives with Care

For the special egos in the C-suite, having a facilitator is particularly important. An experienced outsider helps break down old patterns and counter comments like, "This is how we always do it."

"When executives come together, it's often to solve a problem or to hit the refresh button," says Warwick. 

After our collective experience with Covid, among other agents of change, leaders are realizing it's time to rethink their business models, but it isn't always clear how. Scheduling a retreat is a great first step in the process.