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How to Retreat Successfully
Published Friday, March 1, 2013

Think back to the last company retreat you attended. Did you leave feeling the group addressed the critical needs of your organization and came together as a team? Or, did you breathe a sigh of relief it was done and wonder what, if anything, was accomplished?

A well-planned, well-run retreat helps businesses and nonprofit organizations bond as a group, share ideas and plan for the future. The format, length and purpose of a retreat depends entirely on the organization and what it is setting out to accomplish.

Be Purposeful

When planning a retreat, have a clear purpose for bringing people together. Remember, the company is dedicating resources and employees are giving up their time—typically beyond their usual work hours. People are most comfortable and engaged when they are clear on the purpose and the desired outcomes of a retreat. The purpose of a retreat depends on the organization and its needs. A purpose can be as broad as “To work together to plan for the future of XYZ” or as specific as “To establish a strategy for raising $25,000.”

For example, a chamber of commerce strategic planning retreat might aim to construct a five-year vision for the chamber; identify a list of key issues that need addressing to fulfill this vision; establish clear leadership expectations for the board; and determine specific next steps for developing a plan. Asking the right questions at the beginning will help shape and organize who is invited, how the meeting is organized and where the meeting will be held.

Once the reason for a retreat is established, identify the desired outcomes. These outcomes should answer the important questions: If this session is as effective as it can be, what will we come away with? What will we have accomplished? The answers to these questions should be turned into a list of results that are given to all participants prior to the retreat to review and agree on. These results become the basis for evaluating the effectiveness of the retreat.

Prepping Participants

Determine what information people need prior to a retreat. One approach is to have participants review the purpose and goals of the retreat a few weeks before the meeting. In order to get them focused on the work ahead, ask them a few questions. Questions can be focused on the organization, such as:

• What do you see as the greatest opportunities we face in the next three to five years?

• What are the greatest threats?

Or, they may be more personal and focused on the individual’s role or responsibilities:

• What needs to change in the next year for you to be more effective in your job/role?

• What role do you play in ensuring the success of this business?

Most conflicts can be avoided by setting meeting rules or norms up front. If people agree to listen actively, respect the group, and discuss issues and not people, you have these agreements to refer back to.

Remember, the participants are the key to a successful retreat. It is important to bring together people who have the interest, experience, knowledge and responsibility that is needed to get the work done.

Effective Facilitation

Retreats are generally more effective when a professional facilitator is involved. One of the advantages of this method is that all stakeholders (including CEOs, board chairs, executive directors and other leaders) are able to work as part of the group.

A skilled impartial facilitator is able to keep the process moving, clarify communication, manage conflict and help the group analyze and summarize ideas. He or she can draw quiet group members into the conversation and make sure that everyone has a chance to participate.

People need to know their participation and input is not only valued, but essential. A good facilitator knows that participants have varying levels of comfort with this. By giving people the opportunity to work on their own—to think and to write—you allow the introverts time to operate in their comfort zone. Bringing people together in pairs, small groups and the larger group mixes it up and keeps it interesting and dynamic.

Follow up

So often a great retreat becomes a missed opportunity when there is no clear plan for follow up. It is important to assign next steps—with due dates and assignments by individual—to hold the group accountable.


Cotton Cleveland and Jamie Batson run Mather Associates, a New London-based consulting firm specializing in leadership, organizational development and constructive change for business, nonprofit and municipal organizations. Contact them at 603-526-2795 or www.matherassociates.com.


Extreme Retreat: Monkey Trunks Extreme Aerial Adventure

Monkey Trunks offers ziplines and high rope challenges up to 65 feet from the ground that are appropriate for all ages, experience levels and even those with some fear of heights. Owner Kris Gagnon says the staff puts safety first but designs a challenge that focuses on whatever the group’s goals are.

Gagnon says what starts as a group of excited and nervous attendees turns into employees cheering each other on, supporting or offering help and, by the end of the day, laughter and a sense of accomplishment that visibly bolsters the groups’ relationship dynamic.

“You can see it happening within each group. I have seen the rope course have a way of creating an atmosphere of amazing team bonding,” Gagnon says. “Some in the group will be afraid while others will not be and they begin to support each other. Someone will reach out to help and what that does for creating a feeling of trust and support can not be easily taught or created otherwise.”

Gagnon says his staff can handle groups from five to 100 people. They are also trained to build communication, confidence building, leadership, cooperation, respect, trust, unity, ethical conduct, tolerance and balance skills. – Barbara Leech


Extreme Retreat: SkyVenture NH

Offering the freedom of flight without a plane or parachute, SkyVenture in Nashua is an indoor vertical wind tunnel where people can experience the sensations of skydiving.

Owner Rob Greer says that like skydiving, there is no falling sensation, but rather a feeling of being aloft. The indoor vertical wind tunnel completely immerses visitors in the world of high adventure skydiving, without ever having to jump out of an airplane. You just float above the trampoline floor. “We regularly have several corporate groups each week that come to experience the thrill of body flight,” Greer says. “The most common group reaction is support and increasing trust and friendship. Everyone has an ear-to-ear grin whether they are flying or not.”

Certified instructors provide training, and participants receive two flights each in 100 to 200 mph wind conditions. The facility can fly up to 12 people per half hour. Catering and video or photo packages can be arranged and a conference room is equipped with an electronic projector and sound system to support computer-based presentations.

Greer says he is also building a multi-million-dollar addition, set to open in April, to offer an indoor surfing machine, a rock-climbing wall and a “Fishpipe water ride,” which is a double-walled, 7-foot inflatable ball that guests get inside. The ball has 10 gallons of water and rotates, creating a quarter-mile long water slide experience. —Barbara Leech


Extreme Retreat: Vertical Dreams

Your company may not be able to afford a guided climbing trip to the Grand Tetons, but Vertical Dreams is a short drive away and offers thousands of square feet of climbing, bouldering, inverts, overhangs, roofs, and climbing routes for all abilities.

With more than 5,000 square feet of climbing terrain, the Queen City facility boasts the highest climbing wall in NH. It is built in a converted elevator shaft that stretches four stories and is almost 70 feet in length. The Nashua location has more than 10,000 square feet of climbing terrain, textured walls, lead climbing area and a hangout spot overlooking the entire gym. 

“We customize each event to the group’s goals and experience level,” says Owner Corey Herbert. “Climbing and supporting each other inevitably builds team spirit. You got a person climbing 30-plus feet off the ground attached to a rope that their coworker is holding. Trust is
pretty important.”

The team-building program is $25 per person with a $250 minimum and includes instruction in the team-building program. All equipment is provided. The team building philosophy is supported by speed climbing competitions, blindfolded climbing, and organized competitions that span all ability levels. For those who do not want to climb, roles as coach or other support persons can be assigned.

Reservations are required for groups and typically take place before normal business hours, according to Herbert, so the group has the facility to themselves.—Barbara Leech


The 10 Retreat Commandments

1.Thou Shalt Arrive Early (or at least on time)

2.Thou Shalt Come Prepared (pens, paper, advance materials)

3.Thou Shalt Keep an Open Mind

4.Thou Shalt Let Others Get a Word in Edgewise

5.Thou Shalt Turn Off Electronic Devices and Actually Pay Attention

6.Thou Shalt Not take Calls During Sessions

7.Thou Shalt Not Have Side Conversations with Thy Neighbor

8.Thou Shalt Not Repeat Points Made by Others

9.Thou Shalt Not Shout Over Others

10. Thou Shalt Follow-Up on Action Items


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