Planning high-level executive meetings can be some of the most challenging and stressful events you are asked to produce. While board meetings or executive retreats aren’t necessarily the largest or most complex meetings, they are loaded with opportunities and challenges you have to anticipate and accommodate. Follow these guidelines to ensure a successful event for all in attendance.
Step One: Define the who and what
First, evaluate who your attendees are and make sure you have a thorough understanding of their needs and desires. You’ll want a clear understanding not only of who is attending, but what is important to those in attendance.
Know what the demographics of your group are: age, gender, origin, special health or dietary needs, backgrounds, hobbies, interests, etc. The more you know about who is in attendance, the better you can tailor the meeting to fit them.
For instance, I planned a board retreat at a resort where we integrated the environment into the meeting to break up multi-day sessions and allow attendees, who are the sort who love being outside, to experience the resort’s amenities. I purposely placed every meal or break event in an unusual venue. The opening night dinner was at the golf clubhouse overlooking the 18th hole at sunset; after-dinner drinks were served around a fire pit complete with rocking chairs, blankets and s’mores; continental breakfast one day was in the butterfly and herb garden where an instructor led gentle stretches and yoga poses; and breaks happened on decks overlooking gardens, etc.
It doesn’t make much sense to take a group of active people to a resort to then keep them inside meeting rooms all day long. Using these change of venues required no extra expense, only a little extra time to allow for group movement. And it required me to be a little more creative during my site visit, so I could identify unusual and unexpected gathering spaces.
For a medical association board meeting where the incoming chair was an avid fly fisherman, I surprised the group with some private fly fishing lessons. We scheduled a 45-minute afternoon break, told everyone to dress casually that day (it was a full eight-hour day of meetings) and then escorted everyone out of the hotel, along the banks of the river to a grove where we had instructors with rods and lines waiting. (We also had refreshments and hammocks for those who just wanted to stretch out and relax.) The doctors loved it, especially the incoming chairman who was able to share something he loved with his counterparts.
Step Two: Know the goals and how to measure success
Know what the purpose of the meeting is, what the desired outcomes are and how the purpose of the meeting will influence the format of the meeting. For instance, is this a regularly scheduled meeting of the board or a meeting scheduled to address an urgent issue that is affecting their industry? Will the group convene together the whole time, or will there be a need for breakouts and group meetings?
Knowing these things can help you select the best facility for conducting your meeting and ensure you are providing enough space and the right type of space for your group’s needs.
For one full-day brainstorming meeting I organized, I selected an off-site conference center that specialized in brainstorming meetings. In addition to the general session rooms, there were creative breakout rooms like the “rocking chair room,” where a circle of rocking chairs and whiteboards lined the walls; a deck with patio and picnic-style seating; a library complete with living room-style seating, books, games, toys, etc.; and even a room with large bean bag seating clusters. The creative spaces reinforced the business objective of my group. And because the task they were addressing was huge — how to restructure their annual 5,000-person gathering — the casual nature of the spaces helped them relax, focus and be more productive than a more formal meeting venue.
Step Three: Get creative
How you set up the room can inspire creativity, promote productivity and create a feeling of warmth and openness. If you are seating everyone around a conference table, consider using blotters with colored placemat inserts to create a theme. If you are trying to spark creativity or alleviate stress, consider placing individual toys such as small Etch-a-Sketches, doodle art pads, Play-Doh, slinkies, candies and specialty waters at each place setting. If you are going for a more formal, executive look, you can still introduce color in the form of colored linens, blotters, pads, etc., to create a themed look. Many hotels have now added these items into their standard meeting packages, allowing you to upgrade the look of your meeting for free or at a relatively low cost.
Work closely with your caterer to present food that is attractive, distinctive, energizing and delicious. Make sure you allow plenty of options in your food selections and accommodate special menu needs. If your group is health conscious, you’ll want to make this matter known to your caterer so they can prepare and label food accordingly. Get creative with your selections and surprise your guests with a different way of presenting the standard coffee break. Perhaps a barista creating coffee drinks to order or a smoothie bar in the morning and dessert shots for an afternoon break might be something your attendees will appreciate. Make sure you know what your attendees want and challenge your caterer or chef to find the most interesting and creative way to present it.
Step Four: Provide excellent customer service
If your attendees are from out of town, make sure you VIP their reservations with the hotel and personally check to make sure they are taken care of by the property. Prior to the meeting, if the hotel doesn’t have a VIP manager, ask to speak with the concierge or guest services manager and discuss the importance of your group and any special needs they might have.
I always make a point to handwrite welcome notes to my VIPs and include my business card in case they have any issues or concerns on-site. There is nothing worse than finding out after the fact that one of your VIPs has been haggling with the hotel over some issue throughout their entire stay, especially if it is something that you could have resolved quickly and easily. In addition, should they have a special need that arises, they can notify you immediately so that you can resolve the situation. I once had a chair elect who traveled with his wife and special needs child who required access to the outdoors, in the form of a balcony or patio. The conference headquarters hotel where I placed all my VIPs didn’t have balconies, and I received a call on my cell phone from him on the first night explaining the situation. I was able to move them immediately to one of the secondary hotels that had balconies overlooking the river, and he was delighted.
Follow these four steps and you’ll find the process of organizing these high-level events far less stressful. What other tips/ideas do you have for planning exquisite executive retreats?