Few initiatives in the business world can consistently generate enough ROI to compete with what a well-planned and well-executed executive retreat can do for you and your team. Of course, the benefits are not always the hard and quantifiable type you can point to on a balance sheet; but when done the right way and for the right reasons, an executive retreat can pay huge dividends over the long run, enhancing your C-suite’s chemistry and improving your company’s bottom line.
While there are myriad business catalysts that can drive a CEO to plan an executive retreat, the overarching goal for most is usually the same: To get a leadership team out of the office to spend some quality time together while focused on top-of-mind issues and away from the interruptions and distractions of day-to-day office life.
“I hold retreats because I need multiple people to hear the same message, digest it and give me constructive feedback,” says Annette Catino, CEO of QualCare, a Piscataway, New Jersey-based provider-sponsored managed care organization. “They have to bond with each other around a particular message, break bread with each other and share rest and play time together. It can be very hard, if not impossible, to do that in the typical work environment.”
Corporate Quality Time
At New Jersey-based Jennifer Connelly Public Relations, retreats are becoming a regular occurrence. “We’re very productive at the office, but I find that getting away and having two or three days to have uninterrupted conversations in a relaxed setting is very helpful,” says founder and CEO Jennifer Connelly. “Everyone leaves feeling closer, more bonded and focused on the core strategic initiatives we’ve discussed.”
For Connelly, taking executives off-site for a few days on a regular basis is first and foremost a way to foster alignment and strengthen relationships among her management team members. “My feeling is that we are in business to serve clients,” she says. “When our respective house is in order, we can serve clients fully, [but] when our house is a train wreck, we can’t. As long as our team is bonded together, everyone will be more inclined to root for the agency and not for [his or her self]. It can’t be about you or me; it’s got to be about the company. Retreats help me ensure that my team stays focused on that.”
Often, however, retreats are spurred by the need to address a more businesslike challenge or transition. “My usual goal for a retreat is to take my senior team offsite for a deep-dive discussion of a new product or perhaps a new strategic direction; but in all cases, we’re there together because the issue demands our isolated concentration,” says QualCare’s Catino.
CEOs often turn to executive retreats when looking to prepare their management teams for potentially disruptive change, agrees Mary Lynne Heldmann, a consultant at Santa Monica, California-based The Achieve Institute, which works with companies to plan effective retreats. “In some instances, the CEO sees the company is entering a new market or changing its business model, or it sees the business environment changing around them and feels the need to respond to that change,” she says. For example, a CEO who was hired by the board to [transform] a company has to find a way to bring the leadership team into alignment around that change—and that’s where an offsite can help.”
Define Your Purpose
While the inspirations and desired goals for retreats may vary, the more specific a leader can be about the event’s purpose and what will be expected of participants, the more likely he or she will feel good about the result.
At QualCare, Catino always takes a hands-on approach to her executive retreats. “I pick the venue, select the topic, set the agenda and even determine room assignments because I think it’s important that the senior leadership team really gets to see each other in [a] different light,” she says.
One of the most successful retreats Catino planned centered on the theme of executive succession. “On Day One, I gave everyone in the room a hypothetical scenario to react to: They are at work and receive a call from a doctor in a nearby emergency room informing them that I’m in a coma resulting from a major car accident,” she explains. “Their assignment was to plan on how to deal with my immediate absence.” The group was charged with writing up [a] plan of implementation, taking into consideration everything—from who would deal with the board, who would deal with customers, who would run the office and who would make decisions on financial matters.
“I left it wide open to see who would grab each topic, and I walked out of the room,” says Catino, who was pleased with the results. “The next morning, they reported back to me, and they had thought of things I hadn’t even talked about, worked through issues that might come up in my absence and handled all of the important matters.”
Catino ultimately presented her team’s succession plan to her company’s board. “Their hard work to put that plan together made me feel like I could actually get hit by truck, and that makes me sleep easier at night,” she quips.
Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
You may know exactly what you want out of your executive retreat, but does your team? Sharing your goals and game plan with all participants before you set out is crucial to make the most of the resources and time you’ll be investing. “If you don’t talk to everyone upfront about what you’re trying to achieve at your retreat, some of them may arrive wondering, ‘Why are we doing this?’ or ‘I have nothing to say; how does this help me?’” says Dr. Charles J. DiComo, vice president and global head of laboratory operations for the international life sciences company Eurofins.
For DiComo, that purpose is to bring his team closer and to create the expectation from everyone involved that the talking and listening will continue when the retreat is over. “I want everyone involved to feel like a stakeholder and to know that [his or her] personal opinions and [life] outside of work really matters,” he says. “It’s important to set that expectation because if I can’t get you to interact with everyone else in a casual setting outside of the office, how can I expect you to do that in the office day-in, day-out under more critical situations? That’s what it’s all about—retreats help leadership teams become more cohesive, get them to talk from [the] same script and [to] open new lines of communication.”
“Everyone at the retreat should know where the company is going, and they should know what they want to accomplish,” adds Connelly, who says that having a defined purpose has enabled her company to get a real payback from its efforts. “Retreats are where many of our new and best ideas come to light.”
Connecting the Why and the Where
Choosing a venue might sound like the fun part of retreat planning. Business hotels, resorts, lodges and intimate inns in interesting locales abound—as evidenced by the four resorts profiled in the preceding pages—but finding the right one for your needs can actually be tricky. Obviously, you’ll want an easily accessible location that offers comfortable accommodations, as well as the amenities you’ll need to conduct both business conversations and team-building exercises. Beyond that, the field is wide open.
You may want to gather your team in a large resort setting, such as the 7,000-acre Casa de Campo, where your group will enjoy lush surroundings and plenty of leisure-time dining options and activities from which to choose. Or you might choose a more intimate venue, such as Creek Ranch, where your team will be the only guests on the property, can brainstorm in beautifully appointed common areas then break for activities, such as horseback riding, skeet shooting and fishing.
“Sometimes, it’s helpful to bring people out of their element. I’ve always looked to bring my heads of global or regional businesses together in a change of venue because when you put people into a non-pressurized business scenario, it’s much easier for them to think outside of the proverbial box,” says DiComo.
While Connelly’s most recent retreat was at Miami’s St. Regis Hotel, she is quick to point out that a posh venue is not strictly required. “People often joke that they do their best thinking in the shower, which is proof that you don’t need to travel to some lush tropical island to have a great retreat,” she notes. “It’s really about going someplace where you have time and the comfort to sit and talk together or one-on-one without interruption for a few days. That’s what is important.”
Catino, whose hobby is cooking, prefers a nice setting where she can rent a private home and build camaraderie in the kitchen. “I get an 8-10 bedroom home and, as part of every retreat, I cook a meal,” she explains. “I engage them as sous chefs, put someone in charge of the bar—everyone takes an active role in preparation and we prepare and then enjoy the meal together.”
The bottom line? Everyone emerges from the experience feeling closer—which is, after all, what a retreat is all about. “The executives get a better understanding and appreciation of the people they work with than you can build during the course of a normal workday,” sums up Catino. “That’s important when you’re going into battle in business. You need to know who’s with you.”
DIY Retreat Planning
Understanding what type of retreat you want to have requires a lot of thought, but identifying the venues that potentially match your needs—and then finalizing the planning details—is a time-consuming process often better left in the hands of people with specialized expertise. If you’ve defined your requirements but recognize that you don’t have the time or relevant experience to narrow down the options and finalize the planning arrangements, look no further than your local Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) for free guidance. They can provide you with all the help you need, including:
- Information on the kinds of hotels and venues in their region and guidance on the desirability of each of the different types of hotels you should be considering.
- Input on the seasonality of the destination, which can help you rank your choices when lower rates are an important factor.
- Managing requests for proposals (RFPs) from suitable venues based upon your requirements. At your request, they can even aggregate customized hotel information for your consideration.
- Assistance with on-site logistics, pre- and post-conference activities and the coordination of local transportation.
Go to www.conventionbureaus.com to find CVBs in and around the locations you’re considering.
Barton Creek Resort Austin, TX
General description: Surrounded by 4,000 acres of magnificent Texas Hill Country, Barton Creek is nestled into its surroundings as if it grew there out of the ground along with the trees. With four golf courses (two designed by celebrated golf course designer Tom Fazio, as well as two other championship courses designed by some of golf’s up-and-comers named Palmer and Crenshaw), Barton Creek clearly attracts guests with a distinct golf obsession; but recently redesigned guestrooms, an enhanced spa, updated tennis complex and a collection of restaurants and shopping attractions round out the resort nicely for folks who simply need a break from the hustle and bustle. With 43,000 square feet of award-winning meeting space (Barton Creek was a recent Meetings & Conventions magazine Gold Key award winner), there are plenty of quiet spaces for serious conversations.
Unique features: Cocktail hotspots abound: The Rock House, located next to the 18th hole at Fazio Canyons course, is ideal for private parties, while the Resort Pavilion’s 40-foot observation deck offers panoramic sunset views of the Texas Hill Country. Don’t miss the Callaway Performance Center, where you can have your shank swing evaluated (and confirmed) by the same technology the top golf pros use.
Creek Ranch Haines City, Florida
General description: Lazing quietly at the end of a winding path of majestic oak trees draped in Spanish moss, this 9,000-square-foot luxury ranch “Bunk House” on the shores of Central Florida’s Lake Hatchineha is an unforgettable destination that offers the perfect blend of luxurious comfort, time-stalling quietude and exciting outdoor activities. Lush plant life bursts from every angle of this Everglades hideaway, and there’s ample meeting space—albeit non-traditional—both indoors and out for your formal and informal events. Be sure to carve out time for team activities like horseback riding, bass fishing, hiking and the life-affirming rides on the swamp buggy, airboat and pontoon boat—plus much more.
Unique features: Every room of the home is impeccably appointed with an impossibly eclectic array of family collectibles. The house itself sits on the border of a 1,400-acre, working cattle farm whose property plays host to alligators and a host of aquatic birds. An on-site chef whips up topnotch, down-home Southern cuisine to please any palette.
Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain Scottsdale, AZ
General description: This unique, 53-acre luxury Scottsdale boutique resort property got put on the map by Hollywood luminaries and tennis greats back in the 1950s for obvious reasons. Located high up on Arizona’s Camelback Mountain, overlooking the vast desert of Paradise Valley below, Sanctuary offers award-winning dining by Iron Chef America winner Beau MacMillan, an Asian-inspired spa, as well as tennis, hiking and a glorious infinity pool. All of these features will focus your team and render their work-related stress powerless. Flexible indoor and outdoor meeting spaces are abundant—there’s a ballroom, boardrooms, private mountainside estates and distinctive outdoor venues—and the on-site business center and ubiquitous wireless Internet access will help you and your team move seamlessly back and forth between serious work and serious relaxation, as needed.
Unique feature: How do you spell “relax?” Figure it out in the 12,000-square-foot Sanctuary Spa, which features a Watsu pool, 12 indoor and outdoor treatment rooms, a movement studio, a 25-yard lap pool and a fitness center.
Casa de Campo La Romana, Dominican Republic
General description: If your idea of a complete retreat includes breathtaking, beachside beauty at every turn, 90 holes of world-class golfing, spacious, modern meeting facilities that provide you with seamless functionality and enough on-site activities and top-shelf nightlife to rival the summer Olympics for fun and excitement, look no further than this luxury-defining, 7,000-acre resort destination. Traditional five-star hotel room accommodations (rooms and suites with or without balconies) are sure to satisfy the soul, and a broad selection of private villas (from 3-7 bedrooms, including some spectacular oceanfront villas) can provide you and your team with more than enough room and splendor to accomplish any task.
Unique feature: Guests use golf carts to transport themselves around the immaculately landscaped resort—as well as on the inspiring courses designed by renowned course designer Pete Dye, including his much-heralded “Teeth of the Dog.” (If golf carts are too tame, the nearby jungle canopy ziplines offer a more exciting route of transportation.) Don’t miss a visit or two to Altos de Chavón, the astounding 16th century-style Mediterranean village whose carved stone pathways, decorative ironwork, and a 5,000-seat, Grecian-style amphitheater were completed in 1982 after six years by local artisans. If Old World charms don’t impress you, the sparkling 90,000-square-meter marina where the Chavón River meets the Caribbean will. It serves as home for speedboats, yachts and sailboats, as well as a slew of restaurants and shops.