Skift Take

Travel agencies and specialist platforms share the logistical and psychological challenges when planning these in-demand events for today's dispersed workforces.

Corporate retreats have long represented occasions for staff members to gather in relaxed settings to conduct work duties. But organizing such gatherings is posing a challenge for companies that switched to operating remotely during the pandemic, as they strive to find the right balance between staff bonding, work and time for staff who want to focus on wellness.

These gatherings are taking on a greater relevance when workers no longer have the daily, in-person interactions.

“Internal meetings and corporate retreats are becoming more important,” said Linda McNairy, vice president of the Americas for Meetings & Events at American Express Global Business Travel, which is an agency with a stake in the ground.

Indeed, new questions are arising about how retreats are technically organized, how employees benefit and who’s in charge of them in the first place. So to help answer these questions, travel agencies and specialist startups are stepping up, looking to play a role in this new type of post-Covid corporate travel.

Amex GBT’s McNairy argues making them a success is a collaborative effort, shared by the “head of remote” (currently a much sought-after job), and the department or team lead who has ownership of the meeting.

“The role of the ‘head of remote’ is to work cross-functionally within an organization to understand the environment and to help shape the organization’s ability to manage a distributed or remote workforce,” she said. “It is then critical for the retreat owner to consult with this individual to ensure that the needs of all attendees are acknowledged, and the desired impact is experienced by all attendees.”

Harnessing the Remote Factor

The technical aspects are getting easier, with corporate travel agencies including TripActions and AmTrav bolting on new platforms, or specialist startups like NextRetreat entering the market, but Ian Cummings, global head at CWT Meetings & Events, said another trend is ensuring a corporate retreat represents more than a week away in a hotel. He’s advocating for more activities and choices both before and after the main event.

“Companies are trying to extend the longevity of the event, and the spend, as it’s not just about those few days,” he said. “Covid taught us taking some downtime is something that’s totally acceptable, whereas before it was just work, work, work.”

His department looks for ways to create something pre-arrival, and programs afterwards, such as health and fitness, or individual time.

Meanwhile, Chase Warrington, head of remote at Doist, a collaboration app, suggests the emphasis should be on that individual time during retreats too, and has devised a “50/30/20” formula for his company, which helps businesses function remotely.

“Fifty percent is free time and relaxing, 30 percent coordinated fun activities, and 20 percent work,” he said during an online interview. “You get that professional aspect, but it’s not the other way round. It’s a nice balance and it works well for me.”

He’s also noticed companies looking at more distant locations — away from cities and particularly in Europe and Asia — with a focus on wellness and food, as well as team culture, to add to the complexity.

Aftercare Warranty

Going further than tagging on activities in the days before and after the retreat, one expert has warned that what happens on the retreat shouldn’t stay on the retreat.

“There are well established businesses around booking, and travel agencies, but for culture building for employees, the learning and development side of it is lacking,” said Sophie Bailey, who founded WorkTripp in April this year to address this side of the retreat.

“Booking.com is great, but it’s quite transactional. It doesn’t think about the coaching needs of a corporate offsite,” she added. WorkTripp offers a “community network” of coaches, educators and trainers that can aid employees with longer term development needs even after the retreat’s ended, and already counts the Ellen MacArthur Foundation as one of its customers.

“When remote work is scaled, there are aspects like employee loneliness and burnout. A lot of hotels and team building websites are largely consumer based,” she added.

Doist’s Warrington agrees: “The time you spend right then and there, it’s about how that plays out over the coming months … I see those touchpoints as the time to bring the team together and realign on our core values.”

TripActions, which recently launched Team Travel to better handle the logistics of large-scale group travel, also thinks a more personal touch is essential. “There is technology that has automated the logistics to drive efficiency, control and safety, but the experiential part of a retreat is delivered best when using a human who is experienced in running the program for the retreat,” said Simone Buckley, vice president of marketing for Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

TripActions proposes event specialists for its clients that plan company retreats, who will have connections with destination marketing organizations, to tap into experiences that are unusual and not publicly promoted. “These specialists would also recommend facilitators, speakers to moderators, as well as help run the production to make sure it hits the mark,” she added.

It’s also not just the responsibility of travel management companies, as luxury travel agency Avenue Two Travel has been getting involved in the market.

The agency works closely with clients to understand the vision and goals of the retreat, create lines of communication and streamline processes. That can include include destination selection, budget planning, marketing, communication, registration and on-site management.

“The goals are different between a retreat and incentive program,” said Kelly Felsing, Avenue Two’s director of the groups and meetings department. “A company retreat is bringing employees together for a mixture of meetings with objectives and goals and an employee recognition aspect. Balancing the business with the fun free time can be challenging.”

Companies that are able to successfully bring their remote and hybrid teams together can improve employee wellbeing, business innovation and productivity, and boost talent retention and recruitment.

“It’s our job to make clients look like rock stars,” added Felsing.

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Tags: american express global business travel, business travel, cwt, luxury, retreats, travel agencies, tripactions

Photo credit: Company retreats often factor in activities and experiences, as well as work. Guy Kawasaki / Unsplash