Producing a successful offsite part 3/6: It's called an OFF site for a reason

In the previous two posts of this series, I reviewed the importance of clearly defining your offsite's ROI and of having a defining Theme.  Now it's time to use that theme in order to fully squeeze the value out of your offsite's venue.

Let's talk about Total Immersion.

Contrary to the uncontrollable distractions we deal with everyday, offsites offer us the rare opportunity to almost completely control the environment in which our teams are placed – that environment can exponentially increase our ability to impact them.

This component is all about squeezing as much “juice” out of the offsite as humanly possible.  This is especially important given the high costs involved in its production (i.e. – airfare and lodging for the participants, renting the venue(s), food and treats, extra-curricular activities, designing and producing marketing materials, buying “props” and of course, the cumulative operational “down time” of all of the participants).  At to the cost factor, the frequency factor: offsites are not a frequent event and are usually held once a year, maybe twice – so if they are not effective, it’s not just money lost, its opportunity lost.  

The bottom line is that we want to make sure we really get as much out of our offsite as we can.  One of the best ways I have found for ensuring that we do is leveraging the venue itself in a way that exponentially increases our desired impact on the participants in service of the pre-defined KPIs (ROI).

When I say “leveraging the venue itself”, I mean every possible aspect of that venue.  I do this by asking questions such as:

  • How can I design the reception area for greater impact?
  • What can I leave in their rooms for greater impact?
  • What is the best dining room layout and what kind of activity can I run that enhances the impact, without disturbing their lunch break (see example later in this article)?
  • How can I design the smoking area?  What posters can I hang up for them to see?
  • How can I leverage the lounge(s); the bar(s); the conference rooms where most of the agenda will take place; even the rest rooms when possible?  
  • If participants are being bussed in – what can I have waiting for them on the bus?

As you can see, the idea in Total Immersion is to take advantage of every single component of the venue the participants will have some kind of interaction with.

Given that we are investing so many resources in this offsite and that they basically only buys us a limited 24-72 hours “window of opportunity” to impact our participants, we must think about efficiency in an almost compulsive manner.  No opportunity to impact the participants should be missed.

The key to effectively using the Total Immersion component begins with understanding the unique opportunities available exclusively thanks to the unique offsite format:

  • Face to face (interpersonal) interaction.  These types of interactions are becoming very rare in today’s world, thanks to advanced communication tools as well as due to the basic predisposition to kick off budgets cuts by eliminating non “mission critical” expenses (and sadly, offsites are still not acknowledged by many senior decision makers as being “mission critical”).
  • Duration. Most people, especially senior executives, interact with people around them at 30-90 minute increments.  Even if they interact with each other on a high frequency, the interactions are brief and very operational by nature, not only leaving little time for “non-functional”, human interaction but also never really “going deep” on the issues at hand.  This is not the case during offsites.  Offsites by, their very nature, allow for prolonged interactions, that include non-functional interactions (dinner, a night out, sometime in the hotel lounge, going out to a bar, etc.) – provided of course that the way their agenda is structured does not eliminate these opportunities (see the 6th component below).   A less stressful environment, with proper “time off” built in and rich with opportunities for non-functional interaction can have a dramatically positive and powerful impact on the relationship between participants as well as on their overall attitude and willingness to engage.
  • Critical mass.  There’s a reason I love the names “Offsite” and “Retreat”.  Both relate so perfectly to the nature of these events and the opportunities they introduce for meaningful impact.  As I mentioned in the previous point, our daily routines rarely offer us the “luxury” of reaching meaningful depths of analysis along with our team members and key stakeholders.  Weekly or monthly management meeting are meant for exactly that, but are rare managed properly becoming recurring missed opportunity (see my article titles “Management Meetings – From Status Updates to Strategic Discussions”).  The idea behind the opportunity for critical mass, via the Total Immersion approach, is to allow our participants ample time away from their daily, operational and frequently tactical/scattered agendas – in order to accumulate a critical mass of time, resources, attention and energy, towards reaching a required tipping point for real problem solving.

Sadly, what I have found in so many cases is that those producing the offsite are focused almost exclusively on the professional agenda that their focus on the above mentioned remains limited to items like “ice breakers”, bringing in an interesting guest speaker and scheduling a nice outing for one of the evenings.

This very limited and linear approach to offsite planning pays little attention to the countless “in-between” opportunities that exist throughout the Offsite:

  • If we are going to have breaks, how can we leverage those breaks in the service of the offsite KPIs?
  • Participants are going to spend a total of 14 hours in the main conference room?  How can we leverage the wall space, the room layout, even the chairs they sit on, in the service of the Offsite KPIs?

As I mentioned earlier, Total Immersion is about making use of every moment and every venue in the service of the offsite KPIs.  If we are going to have a break, I know that some of my participants are going to be spending 10-15 minutes in the smoking area, so I must design that smoking area in a way that properly impacts those participants.

We're have way through the six components of a winning company offsite.  Three to go!  in my next post, I'll discuss how to build the most effective agenda - looking not at how much we can cram into a 8-10 hour day, but rather how much we can effectively "cram" into the conciousness of the participants by building those 8-10 hours wisely.