How to Plan a Corporate Retreat

Management retreats | BCBusiness
A retreat can tap into group creativity, address conflict, but it can also be a waste of time, says Mary Abbajay, a Washington D.C.-based consultant at the Careerstone Group LLC.

Summer is the season for corporate retreats, and a bit of planning can prevent cubicle strife from turning into cabin fever

If you were asked to define quality time, you might not automatically think of an intimate weekend of cycling, wine tasting and yoga with your co-workers. However, an executive retreat, when well-planned, can offer the opportunity to hone in on strategy, review performance and even sort through dysfunctional relationships, says Charmaine Stack, director of UVic’s executive education program, which helps organize retreats.

Large companies, from Canfor Corp. to Coastal Contacts Inc., have taken a twist to the hotel-and-golf-routine, choosing destinations such as Galiano Island and Whistler, which allow executives to enmesh strategic planning with not-your-average boardroom activities like yoga, laughter classes and group rides. Nonetheless, the fundamentals of a retreat—sessions from daybreak through to the evening, assessing tactics, evaluating markets and reviewing the previous year or quarter—remain the same. 

Coastal Contacts makes prolific use of one-day “off-sites,” and less-frequent management planning sessions that dive deep into specific areas such as marketing twice a year. “We’ll bring in consultants when we really need to understand this market dynamic better and then we tap external resources and ask for a working section for one or two days,” says Braden Hoeppner, chief marketing officer at Coastal Contacts. His company’s retreats—often to Whistler—make ample use of resort amenities and include morning runs and bike rides.

UVic’s Gustavson School of Business offers an in-depth executive education component of retreats on Vancouver Island, instructed by business school faculty. “We’re there to help facilitate the discussion,” says Stack. “We help provide a new lens of looking at things.” For executives, that means pre-assigned readings from UVic business professors in advance of retreat planning and speaker sessions.

Pottery, painting and film school classes might seem even further afield for an executive retreat, but according to Conny Nordin, owner of Galiano Oceanfront Inn and Spa, they’ve proven popular with corporate clients. The Gulf Island hotel, while isolated from the mainland and relatively small, offers a portfolio of facilitators—including Royal Roads University instructors—and farmers market meals (Nordin brags that “we don’t serve convention chicken here”). The retreat has attracted the likes of Canfor, Singer Valve International and an association of chief executive officers, The Executive Committee (B.C. chapter).

Retreats Best Practices

“Retreats work best in off-site, flexible, casual environments,” says Merianne Liteman, a Virginia-based retreat planner who co-wrote a book on the topic. A retreat is both an opportunity to celebrate a company’s victories and a time to focus on what keeps the senior staff up at night, says Liteman.

“The most effective retreats last only two to two-and-a-half days; that’s enough time to create the climate of trust necessary to make genuine progress to explore issues thoroughly.”

A retreat can tap into group creativity, address conflict, but it can also be a waste of time, says Mary Abbajay, a Washington D.C.-based management consultant at the Careerstone Group LLC who focuses on retreats.

“Attending a pointless retreat will not foster a sense of gratitude; a retreat in and of itself is not going to improve morale,” says Abbajay. Diagnosing personnel problems doesn’t mean you can treat them. Individual problems can become group problems, she adds.