How you host the perfect virtual retreat

A few weeks back I was invited to Cocktails at the Castle, a virtual cocktail party hosted by Lord and Lady Carnarvon of Highclere Castle (the real Downton Abbey) and featuring cocktails made with their Highclere Castle Gin. Though I didn’t get to actually rub shoulders with Queen Elizabeth’s godson this time around, there was a decidedly fun air of excitement around the event. Bottles of gin were sent, cocktails recipes shared and enjoyed. And while it wasn’t a corporate retreat or incentive, it was a clever way of sharing new messaging and melding old-school ideals with popular technology.

In the age of pandemic socializing, we’ve all had to find ways to come together while still mostly apart. In the not so distant past, a corporate retreat was a way for employees and those on the C-Level to connect on a deeper level. Corporate retreats also often provided a reward after a particularly grueling quarter or year. “While nothing can truly replace the in-person experience of a corporate retreat, a virtual group experience is definitely a preferable alternative to none,” said  Erika Zauner CEO & Founder of corporate wellness program HealthKick

Zauner’s company has shifted much of their model to reflect current circumstances. “We launched HealthKick@Home in response to the crisis to provide an easy way for employers to offer resources to employees that support their physical and mental wellbeing while working remotely,” she said. To that end, they have “over 50 digital health and wellness brands like Calm, Aaptiv, HelloFresh and Thrive Market.”  

“Corporate retreats are typically meant for teams to come together in a setting other than work to do things other than normal work duties,” explained Karen Oakey, Director of Human Resources at Fracture. But times have changed “We now find ourselves in unique circumstances where engagement with our teammates and peers is completely virtual,” Oakey said, so we have to be a lot more creative in our approach.

With travel curtailed and most vacations canceled, it’s unlikely any business will be having any corporate retreats this year. Or will they? Just as weddings, baby showers and graduations have gone virtual, many companies are figuring out how to connect with their teammates on Zoom or teleconferencing.  

So, should you plan your own corporate retreat on Zoom? In a word, yes. “Now is a more important time than ever for you to come together as a team to reground yourselves of your enduring values and objectives, adjust your plans for the second half of the year, reconnect with each other, and renew your own energy as humans,” said Christine Andrukonis, founder and senior partner at Notion Consulting. “Do not abandon your 2020 corporate retreat plans, just pivot,” she added.

If you’re thinking of creating your own virtual getaway, here are some tips to pull it all together:

  1. Don’t skim on resources: “Staff the event with the same level of resources as you would a real in-person corporate retreat,” advised J. Kelly Hoey author of Build Your Dream Network.  Leveraging technology is not an excuse for putting less manpower on an event.
  2. Customize the experience: Since nothing is typical anymore, why offer your team the experience everyone else is having? Zauner said that in addition to more traditional offerings, “We have also been offering a virtual webinar series to help companies build community while addressing top-of-mind subjects, such as, emotional resilience, managing your finances in the current environment, and parenting in turbulent times, in addition to live fitness and mindfulness classes with our partners to bring much-needed social interaction and stress relief to employees.”  
  3. Experiment with the scheduling: Unlike traditional getaways, you can be more creative with time. Hoey said to ask yourself, “Does the information you want to share have to be packed into 1-2 days or could delivery be spread out over the course of a week?” It might be fun to provide a daily incentive instead of one concentrated day.
  4. Break out of your rut: Similar to traditional retreats, Hoey said to “Incorporate break-out, personal reflection and interactive small group sessions into the schedule to foster teamwork, creativity and provide some necessary relief from the tedium of staring at a speaker or PowerPoint on a 16 inch screen.” 
  5. Make it give and take: If you hope to have a lot of interaction and outcomes from your event, you should plan accordingly. “Weaving in tougher company discussions along with team building and ordering lunch to be delivered to everyone’s homes the day of the retreat can lead to productive conversations during a time when we are all forced to work remotely,” Oakey said. Want to be extra thoughtful? Consider sending everyone a follow-up gift certificate to their favorite restaurant for a well-deserved treat.
  6. Make time for fun. Andrukonis said to “Find the virtual version of a sip and paint, escape the room or scavenger hunt or other fun team-building type of activity.” 
  7. Offer meaningful experiences (not talking heads): “Get creative to ensure activities are interactive and participatory,” advised Andrukonis. In other words, “Do NOT have different people presenting slides to each other.”
  8. Bring in outside speakers” “People are tired of hearing from each other,” Andrukonis said. Besides, “Fresh ideas and perspective will shake things up, inspiring inspire creativity and energy.”
  9. Make it tangible: Andrukonis also saidIn addition to the virtual experiences, look for ways to give team members something they can feel, touch, or eat in-person (a picnic basket, flowers, gift, etc.)
  10. Perfection is overrated: Don’t panic if things don’t seem to be exactly as planned. “Don’t worry about providing the perfect experience or making everyone happy at once,” Zauner said. While you’re at it, “try to get committee and employee feedback upfront if you can see what would be most appealing and relevant to them.” And relax if it isn’t the most perfect experience ever. “Just the fact that you are offering resources and providing opportunities for them to connect, share and learn is a great start, Zaunder said.

Looking for inspiration before planning your own virtual corporate event? Zaunder said some of the most popular classes or seminars here company offers are: 

  • Virtual bootcamp class and group stretch sessions 
  • Emotional health & wellbeing: 
  • Mindful eating
  • Sleep health