There are many reasons why executive retreats are necessary, but executives tend to come together for three reasons.

“The first one is they want to work on their strategic vision and plan for their future as an organization, and do that without being distracted by phones ringing at the office and e-mails,” says Mike Whitehead, owner of Whitehead Associates Inc., a North Carolina-based management consulting firm that specializes in planning leadership retreats. “Second, they want to work better as a group and learn about each other’s personalities, motives and communication styles. Thirdly, they come because they want to celebrate … and acknowledge the high achievers in the organization.”

Although the reasons to meet haven’t changed, the way planners are expected to plan retreats is changing. Whitehead, who also manages a conference center near Charlotte, says groups that used to go out of town now are looking more for local facilities, speakers and entertainment. “There is clearly not as much money spent on outlandish or more expensive-type activities,” Whitehead adds. “Retreats are more scaled back; some of the food is not as extravagant.”

Cindy Y. Lo, the president/owner of Texas-based Red Velvet Events Inc., says instead of getting six months to a year’s notice, she’s now being asked to plan retreats six weeks out. “[Clients] don’t even know themselves if they’re going to get approval or have the funds to pay for it. …The other thing I’ve noticed is that, if they’re really on a budget, [the organization] won’t allow spouses to come, or they’ll say, ‘If you want your spouse to come, you have to pay for it.’” Individuals often are asked to pick up their own golf or spa tabs. Another trend, Lo says, is that groups don’t want the same old-same old. They may be meeting locally, but they want to experience what’s authentic and unique to that destination.

Mary Boone, president of Boone Associates, has been arranging leadership and executive retreats for nearly two decades.  Over the years, she’s seen retreats become more business focused with more collaborative strategic planning sessions. She suggests planners tie the meaning and purpose of the retreat to what’s available nearby to make them more meaningful. “For example, if [attendees] were talking about experiential marketing, they may want to be in a city where they can go and look at some examples, like Niketown, the Mac and American Girl stores, where the locale, context and even the facility itself could be integrated into the focus and purpose of the meeting.”

With the recession causing many companies to rethink projections and enact layoffs, executive retreats are crucial to maintaining a positive workforce and turning things around. “There’s a sense of worry and concern about the economy, and the people who are still remaining in organizations are integral in building the future of the companies,” Whitehead says. “If we don’t capitalize on their commitment, if we don’t build loyalty with the people who are left over, they are going to be unproductive because they’re going to be worried about their own jobs. You need to bring people together as a team, reformulate a vision for your company and get people excited about what’s possible. Now’s a really good time to be retreating, so to speak.”

Here are seven essential steps to planning effective executive retreats:

  1. Know the purpose of the meeting. “If it’s team-building, ask yourself what type of environment is conducive to team-building; if the objective is planning, if it’s a reception, what’s the best environment for that?” Whitehead says. “One of the biggest mistakes people make is they say, ‘We want to have a retreat where people get to know each other.’ Then they set it up in an auditorium where people can’t move the chairs, instead of a room where there are 10 tables where people can sit and talk.”
  2. Ask how often they meet. “Are they meeting once a year, twice a year or once a quarter,” Lo asks. A group that’s trying to fit a 12-month review and a 12-month planning session into one retreat will have different needs than a group that meets more frequently.
  3. Know how many people are expected. “If it’s 12 [attendees] or under, it’s going to be a very different meeting than if it starts to get over that size,” Boone says. “When you get over eight to 12 people, it stops being a conversational group and … may require that the group be able to break into smaller groups. You’ll need other spaces where those people can meet.”
  4. Ask about the make-up of the group. “Is it all C-level, or is it a mix of C-level and some directors,” Lo asks. “That makes a difference, too.” Whitehead suggests planners create a situation where senior people have to mix with junior people, whether it’s through assigned seating or an ice-breaking activity. “Have some kind of activity that gets people engaged soon because the whole point is to build more relationships and connection,” Whitehead says. Don’t forget to ask about special needs and diets. “It’s a very bad experience for someone to show up and they can’t use the facility because you didn’t plan for that,” he adds. “Know the requirements and restrictions.”
  5. Understand the technology needed. “More than ever people are doing hybrid meetings,” Boone says. “You may want to get them something as high bandwidth as telepresence or as simple as a conference call.” Whitehead stresses the importance of being clear with technical needs. “And test that ahead of time,” he cautions. 
“That’s the cause of a lot of breakdowns for people: the PowerPoint doesn’t work, the machine is not compatible with your laptop, [etc.]”
  6. Understand the group’s culture. “Some like to only [meet] for about two hours and do the rest as roundtables,” Lo says. “Some of them like [retreats] to be more structured. They like to have a guest speaker [or] a boardroom table. Ask a lot of questions so you are an extension of their team. You should not be imposing your culture on them. You should be blending their culture with your logistical mindset in order to produce a very well-run executive retreat.” For example, if a planner knows how the group wants to meet, it will be easier to know how to squeeze in things they love (like a four and a half-hour round of golf) into the agenda. Knowing whether the spousal group is all female, male or mixed gender can help planners select activities for them, as well.
  7. Leave some breathing room. “Allow ample time for people to mingle in between sessions — that’s where all the good stuff happens,” Whitehead says. “If you structure the retreat so tightly, then you don’t get that kind of free-form communication going. Relationships can be built, and it doesn’t have to be over a drink, it can be a card game at night.” And, Lo points out, there needs to be “a little relaxation. That’s why they’re getting away from the office.”