Employers cling to off-site retreats

Despite budget cuts, getaways still valued by these 3 companies

When it comes to company retreats, there are all kinds — from a chalet in the Canadian woods to a beach-side hotel in Florida. But even during hard times, organizations are convinced of the value of off-site events.

If there’s no budget to go out of town, there will still be some kind of retreat this year, says Allison Bain, vice-president of HR and planning at the Toronto International Film Festival Group (TIFFG).

“Once a year, I work very hard to throw people into the woods. What’s important is changing up the environment and the more you can do that, the better,” she says. “For a variety of reasons, I’m a huge advocate of off-site retreats. On the most basic level, you cannot replace spending personal time with your co-workers in terms of understanding where they’re coming from.”

Razor Suleman, founder and CEO of Toronto-based I Love Rewards, says he would never contemplate cancelling his company’s retreat.

“We get tremendous value, the return on investment is significant,” says Suleman. “For us, it is the only way to drive clarity and alignment for our company, hold employees accountable and, most importantly, reward and recognize those individuals who drove our company forward.”

TIFFG wines and dines

TIFFG started doing retreats three years ago. It holds a large one in October following the film festival — which runs in September and sees the 140-employee population swell to almost 2,500 — and two smaller retreats in December and June.

“The agendas are very fluid depending on our challenges that year but overall (the October retreat is) where we’re setting the strategic priorities for the organization,” says Bain.

The not-for-profit group is lucky to work with hotel partners that offer “generous deals,” she says, and the last few retreats have taken place at a countryside inn a one-hour drive from Toronto.

Usually the October retreat is three days and the number of people who attend depends on what’s going on with TIFFG. Originally there were team-building exercises but since everyone enjoys working with each other, these exercises are a little artificial, says Bain, and are no longer included.

“Our team-building is enjoying a glass of wine in the evening — that’s how people in the arts bond best,” she says. “The opportunity to sit and have a non-stressful conversation with a co-worker beats hands-down this, ‘Oh, we’re going to make you ski down a mountain together (idea).’”

The retreats are also not about “go, go, go speeches,” says Bain.

“None of us like climbing rope bridges, we’re not that kind of people. Though we work in a hierarchy, the reality is we try as much as possible to work in a peer environment so some of the agendas that more traditional organizations do wouldn’t work for an organization like ours,” she says.

Before the event, TIFFG seeks employee input and the priorities are compiled to build an agenda, “written very responsively to what people are asking for,” says Bain.

The December retreat involves a senior team deciding on the strategic priorities and the third session in the summer looks at how TIFFG is doing and what needs to be changed. These two “retreats” usually take place off-site but nearby, such as at a community centre or the Toronto Islands.

“The fact that people are crossing on a ferry, even though they’re not staying overnight, changes mindsets as well because all of a sudden you’re out in nature,” she says. “It’s very difficult to be strategic when you’re sitting in an internal meeting room and your Blackberry’s going and you know people are waiting for you to come out for break.”

Stikeman Elliott retreats every five years

Lawyers and partners from Stikeman Elliott’s five Canadian offices and three offices in the United States go for an off-site retreat every five years, at resorts in Orlando, Fla., or Whistler, B.C., for example.

“It’s really team-building more than anything, with the partners and associates, within practice areas and across offices,” says Jean McLeod, chief administrative officer and general manager at Stikeman Elliott in Toronto. “We tend to work on big files, with a lot of people, but they don’t always see each other, so it’s an opportunity. You just build stronger relationships and interactions if you can spend some concentrated time together in a team environment as well as in a social environment.”

The three-day event includes speakers, who are often recommended by members of the firm, and discussions around issues such as corporate social responsibility or professional services. With 300 to 400 people, long, drawn-out sessions don’t really work, says McLeod, so speakers have to make the subject relevant and deliver short, snappy sessions.

“You’ve also got a room full of skeptics, too, so you have to really make sure it adds value for them and they feel they’re getting something from it.”

Practice groups across the firm get together in smaller groups but these are not break-out sessions where people have to report back.

“We’ve found that not to be terribly useful in groups that large. What we may do, depending on who the session leader is, is have people do stuff at their tables, talk at their tables, and (take) one or two highlights from that,” says McLeod. “Our objective is more for people to get to know each other at the table and learn more from a team-building perspective as opposed to substantive strategy things coming back.”

For the 2011 event, planning by a committee will start towards the end of 2009.

“We plan this thing to the nth degree,” she says.

Orchestrating that many people is a lot of work, especially with the uncertainty of client demands.

“Clients always come first. We always, always have a plan for change,” she says.

And the value of each retreat is evidenced by online surveys that not only receive a tremendous response rate but provide “overwhelmingly positive” feedback, says McLeod.

“A lot of (the value) is around recruitment and retention and partners getting to know the associates better and being part of the firm and the culture and developing relationships.”

‘Amazing things’ come from retreats for I Love Rewards

I Love Rewards, a small company with 27 employees, has offered an annual retreat for the past eight years in October. The sojourn recently has been held at a large chalet in Collingwood, Ont., a two-hour drive north-west of Toronto.

The goal of the retreat is to reveal the strategic plan for what is to be accomplished in the next year, says Suleman. “We go through it, discuss it and really try to align all of our employees to the end goal of where we want to be one year from now. We then review how we did against last year’s plan.”

Everybody has “single-point accountability” and it’s important to get away from the demands and distractions of the office, he says.

“You’re there for the sole purpose of telling us how you did last year, learning next year’s strategic plan, bonding with your colleagues, coming up with new stories,” he says. “Amazing things have been created for the I Love Rewards culture while we’ve been at retreat.”

This year the master plan was done by September but, given the economic downturn, Suleman decided to ask each employee ahead of time to rate the items as low or high priority.

“We then revised the master plan, changed 11 of the 40 elements,” he says. “There’s no way I could have come up with that final version without getting the input of all 27 people and I think it’s our best ever.”

Planning for the retreat starts right after the end of the last one and a “critical part” is the feedback survey — on everything from food to accommodation to sessions.

“The reality is no matter how well you do this, 10 to 20 per cent are going to be disappointed about some element, and that’s OK,” says Suleman.

But it’s important to set expectations upfront and make the retreat reflective of the company culture, so it is “very meaningful and impactful,” he says.

“If you’re not clear about what your objectives are and what the purpose of doing this is, then it’s probably something you should eliminate because you’re probably not getting value from it.”

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