Sometimes, to break out of a rut and really rethink your strategic planning, you need more than just a few hour-long meetings at the office. Sometimes, you need to gather your troops and head offsite to engage in a full-blown work retreat.
Stepping outside the confines of the office allows you to slow down, reflect, detach from the mundane details of the job and really dive into brainstorming, creative thinking, problem solving, team building and planning.
Follow these eight steps to plan a business retreat that will leave your entire team feeling invigorated and enthusiastic to take on a new and exciting challenge:
1. Appoint someone to manage the process.
Perhaps that is you, an employee you trust to manage the details or an experienced business travel agent. Just make certain that one person will be in charge of managing all the details, including booking all flights or a bus, reserving a space to work as well as sleeping quarters, making restaurant reservations and so on. Don’t leave it up to individuals to book their own flights and accommodations; some will wait until the last minute, and that can drastically increase both travel and hotel fees. The person appointed to manage the retreat should also collect and approve any travel expenses and serve as the point of contact for attendees before and after the retreat.
Important: For overnight stays, be sure to plan your accommodations in a way that respects your employees’ privacy and comfort. If you cannot afford single rooms, make sure that rooms are gender-segregated (unless two employees are married). Be sure to give employees the ability to request private accommodations, in case an employee needs his or her own room for medical or personal reasons.
2. Define your purpose.
Plan a business retreat only if you are looking to change the game by coming up with new products, services, culture or processes. If you want to maintain the status quo, don’t waste your time and money on a retreat. Additionally, in very specific terms, define at least three goals for the retreat, and share those with everyone beforehand so they have time to think about them.
Tip: Be specific with your goals. Instead of stating a goal is “Product Development,” say “We will come up with and create a plan for launching one new product in 2014.”
3. Set your budget.
The value you receive from the retreat ultimately may not be able to make up for the cost of it, so if money is tight, don’t go overboard. Establish what you can afford per day, and stick to that amount no matter what. You will need to factor in hotel rooms, meals, snacks and beverages throughout the day, as well as travel expenses and entertainment for each employee. You are asking employees to leave their families and lives behind, so don’t force them to stay in a dumpy motel and eat bad food; they won’t buy into the purpose of the retreat if they are miserable. One overnight stay at an upscale resort with all the amenities will be better received than three nights at a dive.
4. Pick a time and location.
What time of year is best for you? You will most likely opt to go when business is at its slowest, but also keep in mind the seasons (for example, if you want to participate in outdoor activities, late spring and early summer typically are best). Also, decide on a location. Do you want to unwind at a laidback resort, go to a team-building facility with many activities, or experience the nightlife and excitement of a major city? Do you want relaxation and calm to help employees ruminate and plan, adventure to help them have fun together and bond, or a big city to spark excitement and creativity? Budget and time will play a huge role in your decision, but you should also pick a place that will allow you to maximize the benefits of the retreat.
Important: Ensure that your space and technical needs can be met. If you need a projector and a screen, can the hotel make one available, or do you need to bring your own? If you will break into teams, ensure that there is enough space to comfortably accommodate every team.
5. Create your guest list.
Next, draft a list of people who should attend, based on whose input and expertise is critical to the process. Perhaps your entire organization should attend so that you reap the benefits of everyone’s perspectives and feedback, or perhaps because of budgetary or confidentiality issues, you will need to limit the group to a select few. If you decide to invite a select group, this should be based on their position at the company (e.g. only managers and VPs), the department they work in (e.g. only the marketing team) or another clear-cut professional category. Avoid choosing favorites or basing your list on your own preferences; this will not only breed resentment, but in some cases, it can result in a discrimination lawsuit (if you happen to exclude all the women, for example). If you have the funds, consider inviting customers, vendors, partners or investors who can also offer insight.
6. Assign a facilitator.
You need someone who will create agendas for each session and then lead those sessions, ensuring that everyone stays on topic, covers action items and meets the goals of that session. Otherwise, discussions could veer off track, and you won’t make any progress.
You could be the facilitator; you could hire a professional trainer to lead the sessions, or you could assign different team members to facilitate smaller sessions. Hiring a professional could get expensive, and it might be impossible for you to lead every session, so that last option allows you to share the workload and could enliven the sessions since attendees won’t be listening to the same person for the entire retreat.
7. Prepare attendees.
Decide well before the retreat the guidelines, rules and processes you will use during sessions. Will you break up into small teams and then reconvene as one larger group? If so, who will be the team leader for those small teams? Do people need to bring ideas and research to the retreat, or will you unearth everything during your time there? Will you finalize decisions during the retreat or merely come up with ideas to bring back and further investigate? Let employees know exactly what to expect in order to ensure a smooth and productive trip.
8. Don’t overwork participants.
The purpose of a retreat is to give attendees a chance to break free from the realities of the job so that they can make room for creative thinking. If you schedule every minute of the retreat, they’ll simply feel overwhelmed and exhausted, and that will be counterproductive.
Plan sessions, but also give employees free time to relax. In addition, work into the budget and agenda meals and activities where everyone can have some downtime together. Breakthroughs happen all the time over a round of golf or a casual dinner, and such activities offer employees chances to connect and build relationships. Plus, knowing that a fun activity is planned or that they’ll have a chance to visit and tour a new place will make employees excited to attend your retreat—and that increases the chances that it will be a success.