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Go Out and Play

Company retreats can help you attract, keep and inspire productive teams.

Say "company retreat" at the office, and suddenly employees cringe imagining stuffy conference rooms and mind-numbing lectures. That's not a retreat; that's a meeting--and it's neither inspirational nor effective. If you want a new way to motivate a dream team, try "play" first and "work" second.

Drew Warmington, 41, founder and CEO of iLeads.com in Newport Beach, California, lets his employees choose where to hold their annual retreat. The multimillion-dollar business, which matches professionals in the insurance and mortgage industries, has taken trips to Hawaii, Las Vegas and Wyoming.

"People like having the power to say where they go," Warmington says. "You also learn a lot about your co-workers by getting to know them outside the office. Everybody comes back ready to move mountains, and they're juiced up for months."

What kind of retreat fits your team? Extravagant escape? Thrill-seeking adventure? Cultural immersion? Here are a few possibilities to explore at a range of prices:

Community Culture
Today's highly mobile, technology-dependent work force often lacks a sense of community. By providing an opportunity to connect with your city's culture, you can generate company and community loyalty. So take your team out on the town. Here are two ways to taste the local flavor you've been missing:

Culinary School of the Rockies: Let's face it. Food brings people together. And a company quest in gourmet cooking is a delicious low-cost activity that includes the ingredients for success. Chefs from the Culinary School of the Rockies in Boulder, Colorado, teach up to 30 participants to tap into their inner chefs while handling time constraints and optimizing resources. Don't worry if your team members are toast burners or top chefs; the school designs cooking events for all skill levels.

Corporate kitchen programs start around $175 per person and include a take-home Culinary School of the Rockies apron and recipe packet, pre-selected menu, chef instructor, photographs of your mouth-watering event and a multi-course meal made with quality ingredients. Because every person gets hands-on experience, your team will discover how to work together more efficiently while enjoying the fruits of their labor.

Gray Line: The possibilities are endless with Gray Line tours. With close to 4,000 guided tours in 150 worldwide destinations, employees can learn more about their city. For only $25 to $80 per person (average), this investment has many happy returns in generating location loyalty.

Care for a lesson in espionage? Washington, DC, is home to a "spy tour" offered by Gray Line and the International Spy Museum, which covers the time from World War II to the Cold War. Tennessee natives can check out Gray Line's "Discover Nashville" tour to visit Fort Nashborough, the State Capitol, the Parthenon, Music Row, Ryman Auditorium and the Country Music Hall of Fame with backstage and behind-the-scenes tours.

For an even closer connection with your community, consider adding a volunteer experience. For example, Gray Line New Orleans and Travelocity partnered to combine the Hurricane Katrina Tour, which ventured through many of the hurricane-ravaged areas of New Orleans, with a five-hour volunteer project at a local school. Lending a helping hand provides a great bonding experience and does good for the heart and for the community.

Luxury Living
Many employees can't, or won't, spend time and money pampering themselves. By treating them to luxury, you not only provide a relaxing retreat, but also show your employees that you value them. Look for resorts that offer unforgettable experiences, such as the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa and Miraval.

Ojai Valley Inn & Spa: Set on 220 lush acres in a secluded valley 83 miles north of Los Angeles, the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa invites relaxation with Spanish-inspired architecture and quiet elegance. If the cost (rooms start at $305) is beyond your budget for ultimate pampering, you can customize a day of decadence.

One popular activity is the mixed media art class at the resort's new, sun-drenched, 1,200-square-foot Artist's Cottage. Prices begin at $50 per person; up to 12 participants (depending on the chosen class) are led through two to three hours of creativity to enhance communication and risk-taking back at the office. No Van Goghs wanted--stretch past your comfort zones and recreate the child-like joy of exploring art and trying something new.

If art isn't your thing, the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa can arrange for a golf expert like Dr. Joseph Parent to demonstrate principles for business success through golf on its on-property championship course. This program starts at $2,000 for up to eight people. Golfing fees are extra.

Miraval: Miraval is not just a destination; it's an inspiring journey of self and team discovery. Nestled at the base of the Catalina Mountains, Miraval encompasses 400 acres of Sonoran Desert north of Tucson, Arizona. In this tranquil paradise, you'll find more than 100 "mindful" programs designed to enhance your self-awareness in all situations. This doesn't mean meditating under a tree all day; Miraval's transforming programs are geared to maximize communication and team performance.

For example, in the Equine Experience participants learn to improve their nonverbal communication skills by interacting with horses and translating those skills in the work environment. In Miraval's new outdoor challenge course called "Desert Journey," participants collaborate to complete low-ropes activities successfully, and they discover how to support each other in high-ropes activities. Thanks to facilitators who customize each experience to the group's needs, these challenge programs give participants powerful take-home tools while also having fun.

Though tempting, don't overbook your team's schedule with activities. Let them enjoy the luxurious accommodations, gourmet cuisine and spa to recharge. After all, indulgence is all-inclusive at Miraval for $450-$750 (average) per person per night.

Adrenaline Adventures
Do daredevils threaten to break office furniture with in-office chair races? Or does your team need to experience more thrill? Perhaps your company needs an adrenaline rush at the Utah Olympic Park or Skip Barber Racing School to create camaraderie and risk-taking skills.

Utah Olympic Park: Home to the 2002 Winter Games, the Utah Olympic Park in Park City gives anyone the chance to train like Olympic athletes in schools for ski jumping, luge, skeleton and bobsledding. If roaring down an icy, twisty track with a colleague in a bobsled sounds like your company's cup of tea, then this is for you.

In the Stephan Bosch Bobsled Driving School ($500 per person; eight maximum), each participant will reach up to 50 mph four times during this one-day camp. Bosch, a five-time German national champion and current U.S. national team member, personally leads this team-building experience.

For a shorter thrill, consider a one-time ride on "The Comet" ($200 per person) or a half-day camp ($300 per person). Then pair that heart-pounding experience with a team meeting in one of the Utah Olympic Park's inspiring rooms, such as the K120 Start House, perched on top of the highest Nordic ski jump in the world.

Skip Barber Racing School: Want to learn the art and science of race car driving while developing team-building skills? Check out the Skip Barber Racing School's five U.S. locations, where you can engage in a little friendly competition, and learn skills that make you a better driver.

To kick your team into high gear, the school's Introduction to Racing program fits perfectly. Feel the wind rush past your helmet in an open-wheel race car, which can launch from 0 to 60 mph in about five seconds. Your team will learn how to overcome obstacles efficiently through a series of accelerating, braking and cornering exercises at controlled speeds. This corporate performance driving program has half-day ($8,800 for 1 to 15 participants) and full-day options ($15,700 for 1 to 15 participants).

For training in road and track driving skills, go for the one-day corporate combination program ($28,150 for 1 to 15 participants). This includes Introduction to Racing and high-performance driving, taught in Mazda sports cars or BMWs and Porsches (additional fee). Breathtaking exercises such as panic braking and induced slides teach your team how to "correct, pause and recover." Don't worry; the only prerequisite is having a driver's license. The Skip Barber instructors, competition champions or current racers, will teach your team life-saving skills for the road as well as the office.

Things to Think About
Be sure to work with HR and the destination meeting planner for any issues regarding medical conditions and legal liabilities. With a little preparation, you'll create a retreat that is safe and fun for all. And remember to prioritize some "free time."

"The greatest incentive that companies can give to their employees is quality time to reflect and learn simple tools to incorporate into their daily lives," says Lori Stapp, 46-year-old owner and founder of Bella Vita Journeys, which made nearly $1 million in sales last year. This health and beauty company, based in Phoenix, Arizona, currently offers about five wellness retreats a year on cruise ships and at resorts such as Miraval. A minimum of four days away from the office is ideal, according to Stapp.

"Giving employees time off to relax reduces their stress. Not only are individuals grateful for their employer's commitment to them, but they are then able to give back more to the company and are motivated to watch the company's bottom line," she says.

To contribute to the long-lasting impact of your retreat, hire a professional photographer or invite employees to bring their cameras. What better way to advertise your company culture than with photos of your team in race cars or bobsleds, playing golf or jumping off a 35-foot pole? Photos and videos can be memorable gifts for your team--and can be something for new employees to look forward to.

Catherine Seda is an internet marketing strategist, and Jen Seda, M.D. , is a wellness consultant.

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