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When Willie Reinders began his new job as global leader of project controls in the energy and chemical division of the Fluor Corporation, one of his main goals was to coalesce a far-flung group of managers into a cohesive team. The only question was how?

The first meeting would bring the managers to the engineering and construction company’s headquarters in Irving, Texas. But Reinders didn’t want to just set up in some hotel conference room. He wanted the meeting to have a leisurely feel, so team members could relax and begin to connect on a personal level.

As soon as he discovered The Crossings, an education and retreat center and spa located in the scenic hill and lake region surrounding Austin, he knew he’d found his spot. “The tranquility of the facility, the caliber of the staff — I decided that this was exactly the answer I was looking for,” he says.

Working with The Crossings’s staff and two outside facilitators, Reinders planned a two-and-a-half-day program of group activities, including a vigorous morning drumming session, a game of maze navigating, an evening trapeze event, two half-day work sessions, team meals, spa treatments and personal downtime.

“I brought them to a place that is secluded, that has no television, no one had cars — essentially, they were trapped there. They even had a hard time getting BlackBerry reception — how cool is that?” Reinders says with a laugh.

His plan worked. People loosened up. They joked around. They took leisurely walks in twos and threes along the center’s wooded trails. “I saw no one being a loner,” says Reinders. “People got acquainted on a much closer level. It was such a good chance to ‘re-juice’ as a team.”

Business experts maintain that hosting retreats outside the office and away from the daily grind is a powerful — and necessary — way to rejuvenate employees. “The resounding message is about stress: that people are burned out and that it’s important for employees to consciously manage their energy sources,” says Paula Zamarra, senior programs manager at The Crossings’s Leadership Retreat Center. “In the long run, people make better decisions, better judgments, and are more creative when they have the opportunity to get out of the stress cycle and recharge.”

Kick Back to Move Ahead

“Team-building” retreats often feature physical activities ranging from sailing races and ropes courses to make-a-commercial competitions and even zanier contests — all designed to teach colleagues new ways to communicate and work together. But as fun as these games can be, they’re hardly relaxing. And the pressure to participate, compete and perform can make a team getaway feel less like a break and more like, well, work. (For more on active team getaways, see “A Sense of Adventure”.)

“Relaxing” company retreats like the one Reinders planned may not yet be the norm, but corporate event facilitators say that some organizations are starting to add more leisurely elements to their off-site programming.

The benefits are hard to ignore: Not only do they help individuals unwind and rejuvenate, they also allow them to reflect on their goals and aspirations, bond with coworkers, and have some much-needed fun. For some, that may mean taking a nature walk or stargazing at night. Others may enjoy sightseeing or indulging in a spa treatment.

At Château Élan Winery & Resort in Braselton, Ga., which boasts four golf courses and a 33,000-square-foot spa, more groups are forgoing golf and instead opting for an hour — or more — of luxurious pampering, says Doug Rollins, vice president of sales and marketing.

Rollins says that the resort, which hosts up to 1,000 corporate events each year, also sees greater interest in its team culinary programs. Cooking classes are so popular, in fact, that in 2007, the resort installed a Viking demonstration kitchen in its winery. (For more on cooking getaways, see “A Trip in Good Taste”.)

For Graciela Corona, executive assistant to the chief business officer at Onyx Pharmaceuticals in Emeryville, Calif., it was an art class that allowed the company’s administrative professionals to come together as a team.

In June 2007, Corona organized a two-day off-site event at a hotel in nearby San Francisco. In addition to some meetings and team meals, the group of 12 spent three hours creating collages and painting. Facilitated by Absolute Adventures, a Bay Area team-building firm, the art activity was chosen specifically for its relaxing overtones. “I didn’t want it to be competitive, and people said they didn’t want to do the outdoor-adventure thing,” Corona recalls. “Our daily schedule entails us putting out a lot of fires. For our off-site, we wanted something a little more calm and relaxing that didn’t take a lot of thinking.”

The event was both fun and surprising — no one in the group believed they were artistic — but it was the after-effects that most impressed Corona. The class mixed people who hadn’t previously worked together into two teams, and they started to view their colleagues in new ways. “The admin group gets along 200 percent better,” she says. “We came back as friends.”

Into the Great Wide Open

Giving harried professionals even a little exposure to nature can go a long way toward helping them relax and refocus. Erin Amato, corporate concierge with San Francisco–based LesConcierges, which organizes business events and retreats, recently organized a program-review meeting that brought 40 managers from around the country to California. The executive overseeing the event asked only that it be held in a beautiful location. “He wanted the employees to feel happy about being there. It was also a ‘thank you,’ because they had been working really hard,” she says.

After scouting locations from Napa to Carmel, Amato settled on a beachfront hotel in Half Moon Bay, a small coastal community south of San Francisco. The company planned two days of meetings, but the retreat kicked off with a wine and cheese mixer on the beach, with Frisbee, football and bocce ball, setting a relaxing tone right from the start.

Alvin Kernan, founder and director of California Nature Treks & Team Adventures, a Bay Area company that leads natural history treks for corporate clients, says that his company’s “passive adventures” in the outdoors are popular for groups looking for a way to enjoy some downtime together.

“When we meet the groups, they are typically kind of tense and wound up,” he says. “When they get out and into nature, doing mild activity and breathing fresh air, and are away from computers and back-to-back meetings, you see the tension start to slough off.”

And that may just be the best return on investment for any company retreat.

A True Retreat

There’s A Lot to consider when planning a team retreat: desired outcomes, logistics, budget. With all these factors in play, it can be tough to carve out meaningful downtime.

Still, finding even small ways to help employees unwind can do a lot to ensure a successful event. It can also go a long way toward creating a happy workforce. Here are some ways to provide a relaxing experience:

Bodywork — A great way to encourage employees to take some “me time” during an off-site event is to arrange for gratis or discounted services at the center’s spa, says Erin Amato, corporate concierge for LesConcierges in San Francisco. No spa at your facility? Ask the manager to arrange for on-site chair massages or for a local yoga instructor to teach an early-morning class.

Outdoor Time — It’s physically and mentally punishing to sit in a windowless conference room for hours on end. By contrast, a work retreat held in a place of natural beauty — a lodge in the woods, a rental house on a lake, even a hotel on a beautifully
landscaped property — is energizing and inspiring, especially when there are opportunities for spending time in nature. Heading to the city for your annual meeting? You can still tap into nature in small ways. Plan a picnic in a nearby park or arrange for an outdoor walking tour of a historic area. Consider a sailing tour on a local body of water. The point is, giving your team some fresh air and sunshine is probably well worth the extra effort and expense.

Free time — Perhaps the most important thing a company can provide employees when on retreat is a break in the schedule. It’s amazing how restorative even just a few hours of downtime can be, whether you read a book, take a leisurely walk or simply hang out with colleagues “off the clock.”|

Resources

These retreat centers and team-building organizations can help you plan a fun and relaxing getaway for your team.

The Leadership Retreat Center at The Crossings — This Austin, Texas–based center offers organizational development services, including training, consulting, assessment, coaching and facilitation, as well as full use of resort facilities, wellness classes and spa. 877-944-3003; www.thecrossingsaustin.com

Château Élan Winery & Resort — This luxury resort and conference destination in Braselton, Ga., offers team-building experiences, plus resort activities, including tennis, golf, cooking and winemaking classes, and spa treatments. 800-233-9463; www.chateauelan.com

Absolute Adventures — This San Francisco–based organization offers a variety of on- and off-site activities for companies, including Absolute ART-venture, sailing and wine-country bike rides. 877-363-8326 or 415-793-4948; www.absolute-adventures.com

California Nature Treks & Team Adventures — Based in Oakland, Calif., this organization offers nature hikes, sea kayaking and orienteering, as well as other team-building adventures. 877-433-8735; www.naturetreks.com

Westglow Resort and Spa — Located in Blowing Rock, N.C., this resort not only offers customized corporate getaways, but also a three-day “Corporate Burnout Retreat.” 800-562-0807; www.westglow.com

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