MOVING FORWARD WITH A RETREAT.
TO MANY, THE WORD RETREAT IMPLIES SURRENDER. BUT TO ASSOCIATIONS and other organizations, the term refers to an opportunity to grapple directly with important issues.
"Retreats are more important than other meetings," says Bob Strade, president and chief executive officer of the World Presidents Organization in Alexandria, Virginia. "By its very nature, a retreat elevates a topic. The focus can be anything from a longstanding problem to improving the functioning of the whole organization.
"We use retreats solely for strategic planning," says Robert C. Rock, executive vice president of the Chicago-based American Society of Clinical Pathologists. "We purposely exclude routine board governance activities as much as possible at these retreats to emphasize their special nature."
Retreats differ from standard business gatherings--even ones as important as board meetings--in other ways as well. The atmosphere is looser, the talk livelier, the interactions more intense.
"Retreats are free flowing, with lots of discussion," Strade says. "At a board meeting, things are so formal. With a retreat, we decide we're going to go someplace special to hash everything out and get a good outcome. We're going to dismiss ourselves from the day-to-day norm because this [issue] is important."
Retreats take place away from headquarters--another key difference from other gatherings. The very act of leaving behind daily business helps shape the mind-set of the participants.
"Most of us are in offices or meeting rooms all day," notes Bill Pattison, director of convention services for the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau. "To really do some brainstorming, you need to get away. A relaxed atmosphere releases creativity. We do team-building exercises and set priorities for the next year."
Pattison goes on to say that the San Diego CVB has incorporated Stephen Covey training strategies into its organizational structure. "One of these practices," Pattison says, "is to 'sharpen the saw'--take time to step back, evaluate, reflect, learn, and grow to keep fresh for the future. The retreat experience helps to provide an atmosphere in which to do just that."
When choosing a retreat location, knowing your audience is essential. Some organizations take a highly focused, "let's get this done" attitude, making an urban hotel or conference center--with their fly-in, fly-out convenience--the right location.
If your goal is to free members or staff from the daily hustle of the office, however, then a full-service resort--typically defined as a self-contained property with all lodging, meeting facilities, restaurants, and activities on site--may be just the right location. (See side-bar, "Putting the 'Treat' in Retreat.") Picking a resort instead of a city hotel doesn't mean staff and members attend purely for fun in the sun, however.
"Our people tend to be very down to business, so they don't want too much play time," says Susan Lovelace, executive director of the San Diego County Dental Society (SDCDS), whose 1,450-member group holds a yearly 30-person leadership retreat. "To our members time out of the office is not just money not made, it's money lost, what with overhead. To reach a balance, we schedule a golf tournament the day before the retreat's start." Lovelace has booked her group into La Casa del Zorro Desert Resort, about 80 miles northeast of San Diego, for the past three years.
While associations typically organize retreats to achieve long-range--and often lofty--goals (see sidebar, "Blueprint for Effective Retreats"), one of the biggest hurdles is downright prosaic: finding a time that's convenient for the majority of the attendees. Other challenges include fairly obvious ones, such as making sure the location has adequate business amenities.
A big challenge affecting nearly every aspect of the retreat: choosing the right facilitator. Whether an experienced professional consultant or a staff member, the facilitator must keep discussions under control and on topic, watch the time, make sure that every participant's voice is heard and opinion is respected, and quell any personal conflicts that may arise.
"One of the key things for the facilitator is to make sure everyone gets involved," says Strade. "Don't let people check out mentally." He also cautions associations that because of the need for objectivity, the decision to enlist a staff member instead of hiring an outside facilitator shouldn't be taken lightly.
How to handle the content challenge? Retreats have the strongest chance of yielding results if the association leadership consults with attendees beforehand about the issues to be discussed, states Rock. "Put together a draft of the issues to be considered, and get participants to think about these issues--and respond to an advance survey--prior to the retreat," he suggests.
Just because retreats have a freer format than other types of meetings, don't be fooled into thinking that structure isn't important. Because of the vital issues under discussion, structure may be more crucial.
Rock points out that once the association has chosen a good facilitator and gained consensus on the agenda, the framework of the meeting looms equally important. "Mix general sessions with all participants with smaller breakout groups, and allow enough time to get feedback from each group at the end of the day," he says. "Don't structure the time for more than six hours each day. Build in breaks and meals to give people downtime. Use the group breakfasts and dinners for socializing."
Despite the importance of structure, be sure to build some flexibility into your program. An agenda "should not [be] so rigid that you can't bend as exciting ideas or directions arise at the retreat," says Pattison.
Intended and actual outcomes vary. Sometimes an organization aims for a general spirit of renewal, particularly at a staff retreat. Other times specific objectives are set--a standard goal of leadership gatherings. Whatever the intended goals, however, all executives interviewed for this article agree that writing up the retreat results and disseminating them to the participants (as well as other staff and association leaders) is vital. "Get the results of the meeting down in draft form for discussion at the end," Rock suggests, "so participants can see what they accomplished during the retreat." Most important of all: acting on the outcome.
"For years, [the leadership] set goals but wouldn't act on them," says Lovelace. "Now we discuss tangible topics--like community service projects, underfunded insurance plans, or ethics issues--and actually work on them during the year."
At Strade's organization, acting on the results of the 1999 retreat enabled the actual outcome to far exceed initial expectations. "Our leadership retreat produced a three-year strategic plan, [the culmination of] a year's pre-paration," Strade says. "It's only the second one in our 30-year history. We extracted one-year plans from it, and after only a year, we're already two-thirds through the whole thing." The strategic plan is a successful retreat outcome, Strade emphasizes, because "we planned first, we bought into it, and, above all, we executed it.
"Don't put the outcome on the shelf," Strade urges, "or else it's an exercise in futility. And that will be the first and last retreat you'll ever have."
Alison Stern-Dunyak is a freelance writer and editor based in Lubbock, Texas. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
PUTTING THE "TREAT" IN RETREAT
Olympic-sized swimming pools. Snorkeling. Golf. Ski slopes. It might be tough to focus on business in the inviting surroundings of a full-service resort. Compared to using a city hotel or conference center, planning a resort-based retreat becomes a balancing act.
"If you're not going to use the resort's facilities, you'd better plan a program that's so stellar that no one wants to leave the room," says Pam Troop, ASAE's director of meeting operations.
The San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau's director of convention services, Bill Pattison, agrees. "One of the most important things we've learned is that there has to be some 'treat' in the retreat," he says of the bureau's yearly staff gathering.
"At a resort, people expect a blend of business and activities," says World Presidents Organization President and Chief Executive Officer Bob Strade. For WPO, carefully mixing meetings with recreation resulted in a productive retreat at the Inn at Perry Cabin in St. Michaels, Maryland.
Bob Filipelli, director of sales at the Wyndham El Conquistador Resort & Country Club in Las Crobas, Puerto Rico, encourages retreat planners to use a resort's feature's to enhance the experience, rather than strictly segregating retreat business from leisure activities. His staff, for example, currently is organizing a "Survivor" -style team-building exercise on the facility's private island for an upcoming association retreat.
OUT OF THE BOX--AND INTO THE SNOW
Resorts often appeal to retreat planners because these facilities can be particularly creative in solving unexpected problems. Dennis Lesko, vice president of marketing at the Broadmoor, Colorado Springs, gives an example.
"At a retreat three years ago in April a group [from Associated Luxury Hotels] had planned a number of outdoor activities including golf and tennis tournaments," Lesko relays. "We had an unseasonably late snowstorm that lasted through their stay. Our staff reacted by setting up sleigh and horse rides through the snow; the chef created ice carvings for the meal functions; and we organized sing-alongs by our outdoor fireplace with warm cider and heated blankets, A snowman-building contest topped off the program. It truly turned out to be a memorable experience for all."
BUT CAN YOU HANDLE THE ADDED COST?
Aside from the greater challenges of planning the retreat's schedule, economics figures high on the list of considerations for deciding between a resort or city facility, Don't forget extras such as taxis or shuttles tips and potentially higher plane fares, advises meetings consultant Amy Ledoux.
The final bill's arrival certainly heightens the push-pull dynamic between "getting down to business" and enjoying enticing amenities. Ironically, some executives believe that very fact may improve the retreat's outcomes.
"These are very committed people who will come to work and participate," says Strade. "But it costs more, so expectations are higher.
"But if the decisions are better at the end of the day, if consensus has been reached, then it's worth the extra expense," says Strade. "If a resort helps you have a better meeting, then do it."
BLUEPRINT FOR EFFECTIVE RETREATS
* Identify clear objectives--determine specifically what you want to accomplish through the retreat.
* Plan the agenda by selecting activities to accomplish your objectives including opening comments and breaks and the time required to each.
* Establish ground rules such as timeliness participation respect for others, note taking and turning off of phones and pagers.
* Appoint or hire an effective facilitator. The facilitator must be objective dynamic results-oriented sensitive but firm, and knowledgeable about group dynamics.
* Brainstorm and develop a team name to establish a bond commonality and commitment.
* Use warm-up exercises to help the group focus on matters at hand work together more effectively think creatively, and have fun.
* Split retreats with more than five or six participants into groups of four to six to maximize involvement and ensure a variety of solutions.
* Manage the small groups. For each activity determine leaders, assign specific goals and parameters, and monitor the time.
* Schedule and assign next steps: Write up and distribute findings to the entire group and schedule regular follow-up meetings.
* End the retreat with a "warm and fuzzy" exercise to bond the group further reinforce findings and disband on a positive note.
Jane Sanders, founder and owner of Empowerment Enterprises, is a speaker, trainer, and facilitator based in Los Angeles. E-mail: email@example.com.
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|Date:||Dec 1, 2000|
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