The best way to stage a tactical retreat

Most company retreats waste time and money. How to plan something more than a boozy gabfest.


Photo: Frank Herholdt/Getty

Timing is key to hosting a successful corporate retreat. But if your company is currently planning its annual winter getaway—just because it’s that time of year—then it’s off to a bad start.

Seasons shouldn’t dictate when you hold an offsite event. The best (and perhaps only) time to have a corporate retreat is when it has a clear purpose. “I am amazed at how many retreats just waste people’s time,” says Rick Maurer, a Virginia-based management consultant. More than 75% of company retreats are absolute failures dominated by “circular conversations and way too much partying” because they “are arbitrary decisions based on a task and not a result,” says Alan Weiss, an organizational development consultant with a client list that ranges from JPMorgan Chase and the U.S. Federal Reserve to Hewlett-Packard and Mercedes-Benz. Without a clear business purpose, such as developing a product launch strategy or engaging in succession planning, Weiss says retreats tend to “descend into sitting around watching the boss play cards”—or worse.

This year, German insurance firm Hamburg Mannheimer International had its reputation shattered by revelations that it sent top sales staff to a 2007 offsite meeting at historic Hungarian baths stocked with canopy-covered beds and prepaid prostitutes.

Extreme events like this have never been the norm. Still, even with all the focus on improving corporate governance over the past decade, too many retreats are still designed to feel like a group vacation, with places like California spas and French hotels with Mediterranean views touted as potential destinations.

Posh locations and once-in-a-life experiences are great if you want to blow the budget, says Lewis Rusen, the Toronto-based president of Korn/Ferry’s leadership and talent development business. But they don’t help foster team- or consensus-building, which, he argues, is the real purpose of a corporate retreat.

Rusen thinks there is a lot to be said for getting “a group of people away from all the noise and distractions of their day job.” But he insists a “Kodak moment retreat” packed with unique activities will do nothing to improve the bottom line.

When it comes to getting a return on your retreat investment, Rusen says it all comes down to “a discipline that may not have been there in the past.”

To really get bang for your buck, he advises using a third-party facilitator so that opinions can flow freely. And unlike a paid vacation, workers need to be asked to do some homework before the retreat begins. Everything should build toward a predefined goal, according to Maurer. “People need to be motivated before they get to the meeting,” he says. “They need to be asked to think, to come with ideas, opinions and concerns. This pre-work sets the stage for a meeting that can get started with a lot of focus and energy.” As soon as the event is over, he adds, attendees need to get to work making the agreed-upon plan a reality.

That’s not to say the retreat must be joyless. Rusen reports the emerging trend is offsite gatherings with bring-the-spouse evening events. When someone’s family feels connected to their work world, a lot of goodwill is created that helps in times of stress or when there is an empty seat at the dinner table. And that “really can help the effectiveness of a team,” Rusen says.

Having employees’ spouses attend retreats, of course, also reduces suspicions on the home front. If your husband or wife is standing beside you, he or she will have no reason to think you’ve run away to a frat party on steroids.