Executive Retreat Ideas: Taking the Team to the Facilitator

Non-traditional stages and formats offer education, engagement, insight and inspiration with a difference.
All 3 photos courtesy of Cirque du Soleil

CEOs should include external facilitators sparingly in executive retreats. Some companies are more open to the idea, providing, of course, that the outside party’s knowledge and contributions are commensurate with the strategic objectives at hand. But rather than bringing an external facilitator in, what about taking the retreat team to an external facilitator?

Enjoying significant momentum, a driving trend in the global meetings industry today is critical rethinking and reimagining around how, where and when people meet, with experiential and out-of-the-box ideas at the forefront of change. While executive retreats necessarily have a more immutable place in the meetings ecosystem, the marketplace does offer exceptional—and appropriate—options for these most important summits.

Second City TV, the pioneering Chicago improv and comedy theater school founded in 1959 where Joan Rivers, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, Martin Short and other comic legends launched their careers, is a premier example.

With outposts in Toronto and Hollywood, Calif., the organization offers customizable improv-inspired training programs designed to help executives become better thinkers, communicators, collaborators, strategists and innovators in areas including leadership, sales, marketing, and even legal and compliance. Cisco, Clorox, Farmers Insurance and Nissan are among companies that have utilized Second City Works, a tailored program of “creative business solutions” which can travel to off-site locations around the world.

Another is Montreal-based entertainment giant Cirque du Soleil, founded in 1984 by two street performers and today the world’s leading producer of theatrical circus arts, with shows on five continents.

Inspired by the organization’s “knack for reinvention,” James “Jay” Guilford created and manages SPARK by Cirque du Soleil. Concentrated in Las Vegas, where Cirque presently stages seven resident shows, this three-level program of immersive training, team-building and professional development experiences integrates best practices from conventional corporate programming with Cirque du Soleil’s unique assets and approach.

“SPARK Sessions focus on team-building, scaleable from 20 to 40 people to more intimate groups, trying out the aerial equipment and other Cirque Arts inside our training and creative spaces,” explains Guilford. “This culminates with a group mini-performance on a Cirque du Soleil stage, such as The Beatles LOVE at the Mirage, or the aquatic “O” theater at the Bellagio, with its 1.5 million-gallon pool. Additionally, customized learning sessions help executives use Cirque du Soleil as a case study to explore topics such as human capital investment, customer experience, and operational excellence.”

SPARK Experiences immerse groups of 50 to 300 people in interactive displays of Cirque theater technology and production techniques. SPARK Notes, meanwhile, exports Cirque’s thought leadership and “wow factor” to conference spaces around Las Vegas and locations where Cirque has a touring tented show for one-hour engagements featuring multimedia presentations, a panel of Cirque experts, and closing acrobatic act.

These “bucket-list” engagements are made to measure for corporate leaders seeking alternatives to “bland, beige and boring” rooms and formats, as Guilford explains.

“We begin with outcomes in mind, developing an understanding of the client’s objectives and the takeaways, insights and results they seek.”

“Because Cirque du Soleil is both a corporate entity and contemporary circus, taking non-conventional approaches to business challenges is built into our DNA,” he says. “The mandate to be creative within a corporate structure is among the unique education and insight we offer to executive groups.”

When planning customized SPARK Sessions, Guilford and his team engage in “thought partnership” with the client. “Working backwards using a human-centered design, we gain a deep understanding of the group’s history, goals, and trajectory,” he says. “We also begin with outcomes in mind, developing an understanding of the client’s objectives and the take-aways, insights and results they seek.”

It’s an approach that resonates well with executives such as Randy Ransom, senior vice president of marketing & innovation for SABMiller Latin America. “SPARK Sessions are all about insight and understanding,” stated Ransom in a testimonial. “When participating in a SPARK Session, corporate groups will see how much teamwork, collaboration and innovation it takes to produce a Cirque du Soleil Show. The similarities between the ways corporate groups function and the way Cirque shows function are really beyond belief.”

Emblematic of the growing corporate demand for re-imagined training, team-building, and experiential activities tied to meetings, The Second City and SPARK programs are ready matches for Millennials and younger companies—but what about the more mature, traditionally minded CEO and his or her team?

“Senior-level executives and others who have been in corporate America for more than 10 years have already run through the various institutes and symposiums,” says Guilford. “They’ve been rewarded with global travel, dining, incentives and more. Out-of-the-box offerings such as SPARK are one way to keep mature team members engaged—and develop new creative approaches to business challenges.”


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