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In tough times, the smart firms retreat
Corporate getaways the best way to 'motivate staff'
Deirdre McMurdy
Financial Post
Corrie Page, and her dog Jasper, are looking forward to taking clients on a new type of corporate retreat. Page works for The Great Canadian Adventure Company which offers such things as heli-golfing on a glacier-top driving range.
CREDIT: Ian Jackson, National Post

It's a term fraught with menace: corporate retreat.

It evokes the risk of group hugs with tear-stained colleagues who've just tapped into their inner manager. It frequently includes days of remote seclusion among people with whom you'd hesitate to share an elevator.

And chances are it may also entail such exercises as hurtling yourself from great heights into the open arms of those who usually spend their time looking for ways to stab you in the back.

Despite the fact that corporations are laying off thousands of people and implementing savage budget cuts, they are still spending a surprising amount on these programs.

For the fiscal year ended March 31, 2003, for example, the Leadership Development Program at the Banff Centre posted the highest profit in its 50-year history. It charges about $4,700 per person for week-long private and public sector retreats that typically include about 30 employees.

John Abele, the savvy U.S. multi-billionaire who co-founded Boston Scientific, acquired the Kingsbridge Centre -- previously the CIBC Leadership Centre -- in late 2001. His vision is to transform the former luxury spa into a leading edge, international corporate retreat in King City, just north of Toronto.

"In hard times, the initial response is to cut back on these discretionary activities," says Corrie Page, corporate account representative with the Great Canadian Adventure Company in Edmonton. "But it doesn't take them long to realize that in uncertain times or when there have been layoffs, it pays to motivate staff and boost morale."

It certainly pays Ms. Page and her organization, which plans and oversees hundreds of retreats at sites across Canada every year.

She's organized everything from three-day dog-sledding programs (where executives learn from their canine counterparts) to heli-golfing trips to glacier-top driving ranges to salmon fishing extravaganzas with a tab of $1,500 per person per day.

"It can be critical to get a group out of their rut and routine," she explains. "At these places you can't sneak off with your cell phone or use your BlackBerry during the sessions."

David Morrison, a motivational speaker who's spent 28 years training employees at such companies as Citibank and TD Bank, and now heads his own firm, says that while retreat spending continues, it has become more selective in the past couple of years.

"Those who rely heavily on revenues from a sales force understand it's very important to inform and motivate those front-line folks," he says.

"There are certain things you can't accomplish through e-mail or a phone message. Effective change often requires more -- especially when there's a new campaign or product that's being launched for sale."

Those events, furthermore, are often shorter and more narrowly focused than they were in the past, because of financial considerations.

"We're called upon more often now to find unusual locations that are cost-effective, to plan programs that are local or even in-house," says Anne Thornley-Brown, who heads the The Training Oasis, Inc. in Richmond Hill, Ont.

"There's less threshold for fluff and theory and far more attention on applications."

Currently, many of those applications relate to conducting business and bolstering productivity in the post-merger environment. Experts say that many management teams significantly under-estimated the costs of integrating companies after growing aggressively through acquisitions in recent years.

"The aftermath of mergers is often conflict, turf wars and insecurity," notes Ms. Thornley-Brown. "People aren't clear on their roles, they get defensive, and if it's not sorted out quickly, it's very stressful."

She adds that such stress not only diminishes productivity, it often causes companies to lose some of their most prized employees to competitors.

And the cost of recruiting and training a replacement can run as high as four times the salary of the departed manager.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Ms. Thornley-Brown says that her "survival" themed retreats are currently the most popular. She describes them as loosely modeled on the reality television series, "but you don't get to vote anyone off."

A related reason for retreats is geographic sprawl. Mergers and acquisitions frequently bring far-flung operations under one roof, and key managers may never have met others with whom they must suddenly deal on a regular basis.

Building unity and team spirit in such difficult economic and organizational conditions can be a challenge, however. And it can also be painfully personal.

"We say that we measure our success by the flow of tears at the closing banquet," says Chris Hughes, a personal learning advisor at the Banff Centre. "People have to challenge a lot of their assumptions and attitudes. They often have to modify their self-image. It can be an emotional and scary process."

Not as scary as some of the programs designed to break down the barriers and instill new trust in others, however.

At the Banff Centre, the "Leap of Faith" requires individuals to leap from a height of about 30 feet, into a group of co-workers below. There are also "rope courses" that work along the same lines.

"We do wait until mid-week for these activities to let the trust build in the group first," admits Mr. Hughes.

"But taking risks together and testing boundaries together really reinforces the classroom learning. It has much more impact than just hearing about it."

At Corporate Quest, a lodge facility located near South River on the edge of Algonquin Park, custom-designed programs include such options as creating a "community of tribal wisdom" through the use of drums, rattles and voice, group orienteering in a dark forest at night, building inukshuks or designing puppets that speak for the group. (The average cost of these electives is $55 per person for a two-hour session.)

For companies that prefer to stay closer to home, the retreat planner will organize outdoor activities at local parks or conservation areas.

"We believe that fresh air is important for new thinking," explains Kara Mitchel of Corporate Quest. "All our activities can be related back to the corporate experience."

Critical Pathfinders of Vancouver, which counts The Body Shop, Microsoft, Molson Breweries and Ciba Vision among its clients, offers scavenger hunts as well as kayaking and canoeing "adventures."

Andrew Long, chief pathfinder and a former marketing and sales consultant, says that scavenger hunts add an element of fun and competition to a basic team-building exercise. And, he adds, the more physically challenging activities are carefully calibrated to the group to avoid alienating -- or injuring -- any participants.

Similarly, Outward Bound also emphasizes physical activity. It offers corporate development programs across Canada that feature rock climbing and canoeing, as well as custom software to help analyze and assess the group dynamic.

Some of the other corporate retreat destinations across Canada include Trout Point Lodge near Kemptville, N.S., where isolation, security, anonymity -- and fishing -- are advertised along with accommodation in the 10-room lodge.

Working ranches in Western Canada are also capitalizing on the demand for retreats.

At Three Bars Cattle and Guest Ranch near Cranbrooke, B.C., owner April Beckley says that corporate events represent about 25% of the ranch's business. Among those who have visited Three Bars for a week of riding the range are a posse of senior executives from Dell Computer.

"There's not necessarily a planned agenda when companies bring retreats here," says Mrs. Beckley. "Often a lot can be accomplished when people hang out at the hot tub and the bar together and just relax."

The daily rate is $120 including three meals, with a flat rate of $200 a day for the use of the lodge and its five break-out rooms between October and May. Three Bars can accommodate 21 people, twice that many for groups willing to share rooms.

Just hope that if you're required to double up with the boss, neither of you snore.; Deirdre McMurdy is co-host of Global TV's MoneyWise.

 Copyright 2003 National Post