January 01, 2001
Meetings & Conventions: - January 2001 Current Issue
January 2001 That's the spirit

That's the Spirit

Forget competitive games and physical challenges; firms are pumping up the sales force by having some fun

By Lisa Grimaldi

David Shackley is stopped midsentence by a posse of 10 men in drag walking by the pool of the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress. “You know,” he says, “some of them really get into this, especially with the makeup and wigs.”

He’s not sure if the passersby are posing as characters from Gone With the Wind or an Austin Powers movie, but a second later he tells M&C via his cell phone, “Oh, it must be Austin Powers; a look-alike just went by.” If Shackley sounds relatively nonchalant about this wacky parade of movie characters, that’s because it’s by his design that the 300 sales reps from software firm Novell Inc. are romping around the Lake Buena Vista resort in costumes (or perhaps not one group is going as The Full Monty gang), hamming it up for videos that will serve both as a bonding experience and the final night’s entertainment.

Shackley is the self-described “head honcho” of Catalyst Events, an Alexandria, Va.-based firm that specializes in creating unique team-bolstering events for firms such as America Online, British Airways and Microsoft. Catalyst is among a new breed of companies that eschews the challenging ropes courses of the ’80s and ’90s in favor of more carefree themes and activities.

“Team building sounds stuffy,” says Shackley. “These events should be rewards, and if we can work better together and learn from each other by what we do here, that’s great.”

Todd Davis, president of TeamPlay USA, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based activities firm, agrees. “Salespeople traditionally were driven by the bottom line and what they could earn. People today want more than that from their work environment. They want to have fun.”

The activities TeamPlay plans for firms like AT&T, Intel and Motorola use sports and problem-solving games not cutthroat competitive tactics to promote bonding. “The main goal is getting people to break down walls, and to have participants walk away with six or seven new relationships,” Davis says.

Another benefit: The fun and games, integrated into day and evening activities, help take away the emphasis on alcohol, says Davis. “Traditionally, companies included cocktail receptions in programs as ice-breakers, but many people today don’t drink.”

All for one
“Companies really want to instill teamwork in their employees,” says Ann Ramirez, CMP, account manager for The Meeting Manager, a San Diego-based destination management firm that specializes in staging unusual team-building activities. “They realize it’s not a win-win situation if salesperson A is doing everything he can to beat salesperson B. That can hurt the firm’s business.” The new philosophy, she says, is to get sales reps to help each other out so everyone wins.

Ramirez and other experts prefer a holistic approach to team building, rather than isolating it as a one-off activity tacked onto an all-business meeting. “The opening and closing events should have a certain ring, reinforcing the theme and sense of team,” says Davis. In between, he adds, meetings should be peppered with a few “blood pumpers,” 15-minute activities between sessions or after lunch that reinforce the fun as well as the information presented in the sessions.

“It could be something simple, like having teams make creative patterns on the ground with tennis balls,” says Davis, “or it could be a game show where participants are quizzed about their company, their industry or a topic they learned about in a session.”

Getting employees engaged from the beginning can be as easy as giving out items such as shirts and bags with the theme, company name or, if the format calls for it, team names, says Michelle Novoa, vice president of Tempe, Ariz.-based ADI Meetings & Incentives.

There was no doubt about the theme at the Novell meeting. Attendees were assigned to one of 20 “movie studios” upon check-in. On the second day they were broken into their respective teams and given an hour to make their videos. (Other movies recreated included Raiders of the Lost Arc with a female Indiana Jones and Titanic, with a female Jack and male Rose. Catalyst provided costumes, makeup, video cameras and directors’ chairs.) On the final night, an Academy Awards-style ceremony was held, complete with gold-plated statuettes presented to winners in various categories.

What did reenacting a scene from The Full Monty have to do with Novell’s business? Not a whole lot, admits Shackley. But sales reps, who came from all over the world, got to know each other and develop relationships. “Plus, they got bonus points for every mention of the company in the video,” he says. The Full Monty group went for extra credit, affixing Ns (for Novell) to a prominent part of their physiques. (The stunt was G-rated, as the dancers kept street clothes under the velcro-fastened uniforms they pulled off during their act).

Action plans
The challenge for planners is to stage activities that are inspiring, enjoyable and new to the majority of attendees. Following are some creative options.

Beats work.
As the name of this exercise implies, attendees spend the session keeping the beat with drums. As staged by Catalyst Events, all participants are equipped with a drum or other percussion instrument and then broken into teams. Each team is assigned a different beat to perform. Then, conducted by the CEO or other top executive, the groups join together to play a percussion symphony of reggae and samba rhythms. Says Shackley, “We always tell hotel staff in advance what the activity entails; they don’t want to put us near another group’s meeting room.”

The big picture.
Another Catalyst specialty has participants divided into groups, with each given a small piece of canvas to paint and decorate (each piece has a preset design). The ultimate goal is for all the pieces to be connected to create a 10-by-24-foot banner, typically spelling out a company’s name, which is then unveiled during a session. Says Shackley, “The teams have to interact with each other to make sure their colors and designs coordinate.”

Broadway revue.
Sam Trego, president of San Diego-based corporate events firm Dreamcast Entertainment, uses a theatrical theme to inspire sales reps. “From the opening session, we relate the corporate structure to producing a Broadway musical, telling participants how collaboration is necessary between the chorus, dancers, lyricists, etc.,” he says. Each team is given a popular show tune to perform, complete with costumes and props. The productions are videotaped and presented on the final night, along with a live finale Trego likes the “Honey Bun” number from South Pacific sung by a company’s vice president or director of sales.

Doing for others.
To break away from the “what’s in it for me?” mentality, The Meeting Manager has several activities designed to get participants to work together to help others. For a recent sales meeting, the group took over an FAO Schwarz toy store in San Diego for a morning. Teams were given a wish list from a needy family in the community, a dollar amount and 30 minutes to shop for gifts. The team that bought the most items on its list won. At other points during the meeting, teams were given materials to create greeting cards and competed in a gift-wrapping contest.

That’s cooking.
One of TeamPlay USA’s most popular events is a chili cook-off, where teams have to shop for and create their own signature recipes for the fiery dish. Participants get chefs’ hats and aprons upon check-in and are encouraged to begin concocting a plan at the onset of the program. A panel of judges typically the company’s CEO and top brass tastes and rates all creations and presents awards in different categories. Best of all, everyone samples the various dishes during the lunch or dinner that follows.

The hole gang.
TeamPlay USA stages a golf-themed event with a twist: Participants are divvied up into teams to create a miniature golf hole based on a theme, such as nautical, safari, desert, jungle, farm or military. The teams must decide on a common vision, analyze resources, then design, implement and build the hole. After the work is done, the teams compete in a tournament on the newly designed golf course.

Tepee storytelling.
In this exercise by TeamPlay USA, the entire group builds a tepee together and paints a picture story, typically reflecting the history of the company, on its exterior cover. Attendees then create and perform tribal chants.

Eggstreme challenge.
When problem solving is the focus of a sales meeting, TeamPlay USA offers this multitask activity that has teams working for a noble cause: to rescue a “stranded mountain climber,” represented by a raw egg. At different stations, teams must overcome obstacles including traditional challenge-style stunts such as crossing a 10-foot gorge, navigating through a giant spider’s web or crossing a stream to earn supplies that will help them build a contraption to rescue the egg. Teams have 15 minutes to design and 25 minutes to build their creation before they put it to the final test.

A growing number of planners are incorporating the world of computers and the Internet into their activities. Joe Bradley, a partner at the Pinnacle Group, a Toronto-based event and team-building firm, has updated the venerable scavenger hunt by giving participants electronic clues. For a recent meeting, he created a hunt that had teams logging onto laptops to get directions to a rustic pub and searching online for answers to trivia questions about clients. “The company really wanted its salespeople to get used to using computers,” says Bradley. “We designed the program to give them that experience, along with bonding and some fun.”

Teen PeopleBe careful what you plan in the name of fun. A sales meeting for Teen People magazine, held in October in Los Cabos, Mexico, included an activity that left some participants frightened and even offended, according to a report in the New York Post.

Two buses taking 50 sales reps to an off-site dinner stopped to offer two “old women” a ride, reported the Post. Once aboard, they pulled off their wigs and claimed to be banditos. Many of the reps thought it was a real robbery attempt; one woman was about to swallow her diamond ring before she caught on to the hoax.

The “banditos” then took the reps to a deserted field, where they were given shots of tequila and asked to participate in a game of “pass the balloon between their legs,” which some felt was highly inappropriate, the Post reported.

“It was unfortunate that the incident made some attendees uncomfortable,” a spokesperson for Teen People told M&C. The issue has been addressed internally, she said, adding, “It was a very small part of what was a very successful sales meeting.”

Before considering such a stunt, abear in mind where the meeting is being held, says John Bradley, a partner at the Pinnacle Group, a Toronto-based event planning firm. “We’ve done the bandito thing in Arizona. But outside the country or in a really remote area, people might get a bit apprehensive.”


Looking for someone who can help drum up the old team spirit? The following organizations specialize in creating fun and games for the corporate market.

Catalyst Events 210 Cameron St. Alexandria, Va. 22314 (703) 535-5440 Fax: (703) 535-5478

Dreamcast Entertainment 4687 33rd St. San Diego, Calif. 92116 (619) 640-6500 Fax: (619) 640-6565

The Pinnacle Group 2 Pardee Ave. Toronto, Ontario M6K 3H5 (416) 588-5051 Fax: (416) 588-5047

TeamPlay USA 7950 E. Acoma Dr. Scottsdale, Ariz. 85260 (480) 443-9600 Fax: (480) 948-4357

International Association of Facilitators(members include independent facilitators and team-building experts) 7630 W. 145th St. St. Paul, Minn. 55124 (612) 891-3541 Fax: (612) 891-1800


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