by Rachel Juarez-Carr | February 01, 2016

“Team building” is a phrase that many attendees—and even meeting planners—have come to dread. At its worst, the concept is embodied by forced fun, awkward exercises and trips that leave the team eager to escape each other’s company. Of course, not all turn out that way, and the goal is laudable, especially for board retreats exploring the intricacies of working as a cohesive group. The challenge for today’s meeting planners and the venues they book is to move beyond the ropes course and find fresh ways to get the gang working together and better than ever. “Team building” is a phrase that many attendees—and even meeting planners—have come to dread. At its worst, the concept is embodied by forced fun, awkward exercises and trips that leave the team eager to escape each other’s company. Of course, not all turn out that way, and the goal is laudable, especially for board retreats exploring the intricacies of working as a cohesive group. The challenge for today’s meeting planners and the venues they book is to move beyond the ropes course and find fresh ways to get the gang working together and better than ever.

 

Cynthia McNeil has spent more than two decades helping groups across the globe reach their full potential. Now specializing in “transformational and accelerated growth” at the California Health & Longevity Institute at the Four Seasons/Westlake Village, she helps re-energize and re-engage teams. “Team building, in the way many of us think of it from days past, is gone,” said McNeil. “These days, it costs so much in time, money and resources to get everyone in the same room, so it’s crucial that retreats create concrete value.”

According to McNeil, efforts that fail are experiences that feel “cheesy or condescending,” whereas successful group events are designed so that everyone walks away feeling enlightened, invested in and valued. “If the meeting is designed right, the benefits—both short-term and long-term—can be endless: people connecting, shifting engagement levels, team cohesion and what is possible for the team, developing a deeper understanding of each other and building trust, improving teaming and interpersonal skills, and exploring new territory as a group,” she said.

The idea of exploring new territory has many possibilities. It could mean traveling to a new destination or location together or having a shared experience. Doing something unexpected is an enticement for many, while getting a real sense of a place is another. In Miami Beach, Florida, the Marriott Stanton South Beach, one of the country’s new art hubs, combines both with its new “Murals & Meetings” program, during which visiting attendees are let loose on the walls under the direction of local graffiti artists.

Or how about heading to a novel attraction? For a surprising and high-octane outing, groups in Austin, Texas, can give surfing a go at the eco-friendly, 12-acre NLand Surf Park, scheduled to debut this spring as the first inland surf spot in North America. Plans include customized experiences that can be adapted to emphasize meeting objectives. And complete beginners are welcome.

Sometimes, though, a fresh take on an old favorite can be just as memorable as an entirely new experience. Anyone for shuffleboard? Some hotels are reintroducing this and other beloved classic lawn games, which are ideal for networking functions as they offer time for attendees to chat and relax. At the Hilton/West Palm Beach in Florida, planners can make the most of the mild weather with nighttime games of golf or bocce, complete with balls that glow in the dark, entertaining experiences sure to delight and decompress members after a day of meetings. The options are so popular that they merit their own hotel liaison.

“We brought on a dedicated director of lawn games, who works directly with groups,” explained general manager John Parkinson. Other meeting-hotel properties that incorporate timeless traditions into team-building activities include the Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach Resort in Honolulu, where attendees can enjoy the ancient pitching game of ʻulu maika.

Getting a gastronomic sense of a destination is also increasingly appealing to groups, and many venues are responding with enthusiasm. In California’s Napa Valley wine country, the Bardessono Hotel & Spa in Yountville makes the most of its edenic location with tasty ways for members to spend their time together, from interactive cooking demonstrations led by the executive chef to sommelier-led wine tastings. Better yet, its Garden-to-Glass experience merges food and drink: Attendees create original cocktails with locally sourced spirits and garnishes picked fresh from the on-site kitchen garden.

“With the incredible terroir here in Napa Valley, all our classes give deeper insights into the ingredients that come from the local area,” said Kini Sanborn, the hotel’s director of sales and marketing. “From our cheese-making classes that end with a cheese and wine-pairing reception to the creativity that flows from the Garden-to-Glass classes, attendees walk away feeling inspired by the lifestyles and stories of the valley and feel a deeper connection with one another.”

Alternately, active group pursuits are one of the most tried-and-tested methods of creating lasting memories and camaraderie one step at a time—or one story at a time, if you’re taking your group to the iconic Westin Peachtree Plaza in Atlanta. The 73-story hotel offers groups the chance (or challenge, as it will undoubtedly be viewed) to “Climb the Peach,” following in the footsteps of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, whose attendees were some of the first to trek to the top last August as part of the annual Fire-Rescue International conference. Once your attendees reach the top floor—home to a revolving restaurant—they’ll have a well-deserved, shared sense of achievement, and with its panoramic views, it’s also the perfect setting for some victorious team selfies.

Whether it’s a day at a surf park or an evening creating cocktails, there are all kinds of ways to bring members together for memorable team building, if that’s what you want to call it. Said the California Health & Longevity Institute’s McNeil, “Make your next gatherings so valuable and engaging for attendees that you can call it anything and they can’t wait to get there.”