Sometimes, you need a change of scenery to get things done or introduce new ideas. That’s where the corporate retreat comes in. Part business meeting, part leisure, a retreat can be a valuable experience for teambuilding, brainstorming, and innovating. Or, it can be a colossal waste of time and money.
The difference between those two outcomes lies in some goal-setting and planning upfront, says veteran event planner Justin W. Ball, founder of Bespoke Event Group in Denver, Colo. Here are six steps to making sure your next retreat is a good investment.
Start with the end game. Before you begin planning, you need to identify exactly what you’re trying to accomplish. That will determine the best format and agenda. Do you need fun teambuilding or a more focused, hands-on skill-building session. When you have an objective, choose your agenda and location based on what you want to accomplish.
Find the right location. If you’re introducing a new product, you need a facility that allows you to effectively present the specs and which may accommodate stations for hands-on demonstrations. If you’re working on new skill sets, you’ll need a good balance between training time – along with the right equipment to do so – and break time. Brainstorming sessions may work best in attractive, comfortable settings that put employees at ease. But you don’t have to spend a fortune on a fancy hotel or resort, Ball says. Many types of organizations have little-known meeting facilities. Check out local parks, museums and universities for budget-friendly options that still provide interesting new surrounds for your meeting.
Invest in a facilitator. There are many “cheesy facilitators,” Ball says, but this is an area where you shouldn’t skimp. A good independent facilitator can be an objective listener and help your team think in new ways. He or she brings knowledge in how to ask questions and encourage creative thought and discussion. If none of your colleagues have referrals, start looking on nonprofit web sites, Ball suggests. Most go through a strategic planning process with a consultant or facilitator. When you see an organization excelling, reach out and find out who helped them with their strategic planning process. Even if that person’s expertise isn’t a good fit, he or she will likely have contacts who are.
Make time for break time. After about 90 minutes of discussion or lecturing, participants will begin to lose focus or go into what Ball calls “the Blackberry prayer – heads down, hands under the desk, on their smart phones,” he says. Avoid that by breaking up the day into subject-specific segments with break times in between. But plan something fun for those times so people don’t just retreat to the corners and start texting or talking on their phones. Have an activity or plan a snack or meal in a picturesque part of the facility so people mingle and interact.
Prep in advance. Explain to your attendees in advance what you want to accomplish and encourage them to come prepared with questions, problems or ideas to discuss at the retreat. It’s not realistic to expect them to arrive cold, with no preparation, and get the best benefit. Supply them with an agenda in advance and let them think about how to best contribute. Instead of projecting your PowerPoint and having people take furious notes, use tools like Airdrop or SlideShare to distribute your presentation so people can follow along on their own devices. It costs nothing and prevents the distraction of having to go back a slide because someone isn’t finished taking notes or needs to take a photo of the slide.
Do a test run. Before the meeting, do a walk-through of the facility. Does it have adequate accommodations for what you’re going to need? Is the lighting appropriate – for example, will attendees be able to see the presentation or the screens on their devices? Are there charging stations and enough room for participants to get coffee or snacks without long lines? Act as if you’re an attendee and try to anticipate the needs of the people who will be at your retreat, Ball says.
“Simple annoyances like having the program end at noon when hotel check-out is at 11 can be distracting. Eliminate as many of those distractions as possible to make sure your people are fully present,” Ball says.