Let’s get away from it all: Agency retreats can be a great way to build morale, encourage teamwork and reward employees. Sherri Deatherage Green reports

Three press release drafts, a new client proposal and the wrapper from today’s half-eaten lunch clutter your desk. You patiently wind down a phone call with a high-maintenance client worried about a potential media relations crisis. In the 10 seconds before the phone rings again, your mind drifts to a white-sand beach or a cozy mountain cottage far, far away from the daily grind of the PR world.

Three press release drafts, a new client proposal and the wrapper from today’s half-eaten lunch clutter your desk. You patiently wind down a phone call with a high-maintenance client worried about a potential media relations crisis. In the 10 seconds before the phone rings again, your mind drifts to a white-sand beach or a cozy mountain cottage far, far away from the daily grind of the PR world.

Three press release drafts, a new client proposal and the wrapper

from today’s half-eaten lunch clutter your desk. You patiently wind down

a phone call with a high-maintenance client worried about a potential

media relations crisis. In the 10 seconds before the phone rings again,

your mind drifts to a white-sand beach or a cozy mountain cottage far,

far away from the daily grind of the PR world.

Your boss can’t make the phone stop ringing, and it wouldn’t be good for

business if he or she could. But many CEOs recognize the value of

feeding escapist fantasies. Getting PR types to put down the phone long

enough to focus on setting goals, learning new skills or just having fun

can sometimes require forced transplantation to different


Staff retreats have become budgeting priorities for many PR firms.

Setting aside dollars 2,000 or more per employee for a two-day getaway

is not uncommon.

Ruder Finn even bought an old barn in the Catskills and remodeled it

into a relaxed meeting center where small groups escape the bustle of

New York nearly every week.

The goals fueling road trips are as varied as the agencies that set out

on them, but training, team building, rewarding employees and just plain

doing business are among the most commonly cited excuses for getting


As personnel become more widely dispersed across the globe in new or

acquired offices, retreats provide a venue for introducing coworkers who

might never see each other face to face. ’We’re not based geographically

any longer,’ explains Peter Himler of Burson-Marsteller in New York.

’One of the important results or by-products (of retreats) is that you

get to see a face behind the voice or e-mail.’

Publicis Dialog called together staff from its branch offices and four

recently acquired firms for a little quality face time at a Chicago

management retreat this spring. ’We needed to get close and build

trust,’ says EVP and chief creative officer Steve Bryant. Publicis

dispensed with warm fuzzies but devoted an entire day to businesslike

self introductions.

’We didn’t hold hands and sing ’Kum ba Ya,’’ Bryant says.

Other agencies strive to build bonds through community activity,


Exercises intended to teach the value of teamwork range from cooking

meals or decorating cardboard cars to stomping grapes in California’s

wine country or shooting the rapids down a Colorado river. PR execs

surveyed were all sane enough to stay away from truly grueling

activities, like wilderness survival expeditions.

Wilson McHenry, located in the San Francisco Bay area, seeks altruistic

outlets for its group energies. In addition to hosting costume parties

and scavenger hunts, the agency devotes the last afternoon of its

retreat to community service, says CEO Julie McHenry. Past projects

include working on a Habitat for Humanity home and cleaning up a public


Cross-pollinating employees

Ketchum, widely regarded as a pioneer in agency retreats through its

Camp Ketchum program, keeps its team building focused on the tasks PR

pros face at work. Every other year, Ketchum invites a select group of

middle managers to Camp Ketchum, explains EVP and chief creative officer

Judith Rich. About 55 ’campers’ from offices all over the world and 15

top executives converge at a resort in Long Boat Key, FL for a week of

training and networking. Employees are divided into several teams

identified by color-coded T-shirts. To foster cross-pollination of

culture and ideas, organizers make sure team members don’t work in the

same offices. The first couple of days are devoted to training courses

taught by company leaders, then an existing or potential client poses a

real-life PR problem.

’(The teams) become agencies seeking the business,’ Rich explains.

Overnight, each team prepares a pitch presentation that is judged by the

executive instructors, who have found gifts outside their hotel doors

and bottles of wine on their dinner tables courtesy of teams courting


In setting retreat agendas, balancing work and play can be a


CEOs recognize the abject cruelty of taking employees to beautiful

natural settings and then keeping them cooped up in meeting rooms all

day, so they schedule time for recreation. At Ketchum’s gatherings,

teams are pitted against each other in athletic competitions on the

beach. (’Whichever team ends up winning the business competition

ofttimes wins the beach games, too,’ Rich observes. ’They have built a

team and learned to work as one.’) Peter Webb PR even invites families

to join the fun after the final Friday work session and picks up the tab

for the whole weekend.

Others concentrate on getting down to business. Sheri Benjamin, CEO of

West Coast tech practice Benjamin Group/BSMG, says unstructured time

should be devoted to networking. ’If you really want free time, go take

a vacation,’ she advises.

When it comes to what goes on in the work meetings, generic

effectiveness courses and rah-rah sessions likely wouldn’t hold the

attention of skeptical PR pros for long. If employees are pulled away

from their offices while work piles up, they deserve substantive

programs, says Shandwick’s chief learning officer Bruce Benidt. Training

sessions should teach personnel things they can use immediately, adds

Nancy Eagen, Brodeur’s senior VP of human resources. ’It’s the

responsibility of the retreat’s leaders to draw correlations between

what’s being learned and how it may apply to a person’s job.’

Some organizations work career development into their ’offsites,’ even

when they offer training programs year round. ’We try to always look for

opportunities to better prepare ourselves either for other jobs within

the company or to better develop jobs skills,’ says Chris Chiames,

managing director of PR at American Airlines. Prestigious speakers are

brought in for corporate communication retreats, and employees sometimes

tour new airports or meet with out-of-town reporters.

Firms small enough to bring everyone together under one roof without

renting an auditorium often use their annual get-togethers to review the

past year and set goals. Leanna Clark, VP of Denver’s Schenkein, takes

her bunch to the small mountain town of Frisco, CO each January to rev

up for the coming year.

Nearby in Englewood, Peter Webb PR opts for fall retreats, when business

is usually slower. Marketing VP Jenny Williams organize internal and

external analysis as well as budget discussions. ’From that, we start

building our goals and objectives for the year,’ Williams says. She

stresses explaining the process to new employees so they will understand

how it affects their jobs all year long. ’Make sure you come out with

measurable objectives so they can feel like something concrete has been

accomplished,’ Williams advises.

Independent firms in Colorado, blessed with a smorgasbord of recreation

options, are most apt to use retreats as treats. ’We use this as a perk

in hiring and retaining staff,’ Williams says. John Metzger, president

of Boulder’s Metzger Associates, says his firm conducts separate

business retreats for senior managers but cuts loose on things like

skiing and rafting when the whole staff joins in. ’They are more

centered around just getting away and not necessarily getting a lot of

business done.’

Front line, meet the top brass

A few global firms also use special gatherings as tools to motivate and

recognize outstanding personnel. At Shandwick, employees nominate their

coworkers for the ’1 in 20’ program. Each year in January, 5% of

Shandwick’s 1,000 US employees below the officer level are whisked away

to Key West.

Those selected best exemplify Shandwick’s core values, says Benidt. The

agency’s executive committee meets in Key West concurrently, so

front-line workers rub elbows with the top brass and are recognized at

joint banquets. ’It’s more about the people than it is about the company

if it’s done well,’ Benidt says. Although a significant block of time is

devoted to brain picking and training, organizers make sure attendees

get a chance to howl in Key West’s night spots or catch the noon scuba


For agencies putting together their first company get-aways, a plethora

of meeting planners and consultants thrive on arranging business

conferences and retreats, but PR pros rely on them surprisingly little.

’We think of it as a huge press launch,’ says Natalie Wallace of San

Jose’s Hoffman Agency. Firms may turn to resort staff or professional

tour guides for help with specific activities but rarely hand the entire

job over to outsiders.

’It’s hard to entrust something this important to somebody outside who

doesn’t understand our culture,’ says Benjamin, describing her crew as

’unforgiving of nonsense.’

The Benjamin Group has organized Super Summer Summits for the past


The agency recently merged with BSMG, so this year’s retreat will host

BSMG’s entire technology practice.

The general consensus among PR firms is that the most successful

retreats result from in-house planning with staff input. At Hoffman, a

volunteer committee is appointed, given a budget and entrusted to make

all arrangements and keep them top-secret until the buses or limos

arrive, Wallace says.

The arrangement ensures that staff will be invested and interested in

the activities and raises the profile of those selected for the


This year, agency members spent the day taking acting and film classes,

producing short movies and basking in the limelight at a mock Oscars


Wilson McHenry relied on top-down planning and got lackluster marks from

staff, until it hired a management consultant a few years back who

suggested surveys. Now, employee teams plan retreats based on survey

responses, McHenry says.

Many agencies look for retreat sites far enough away to effectively

disconnect employees from the office, but not so distant that they

require all-day travel. Not all foreign escapes need break the bank,

however. Members of Burson’s widely dispersed technology practice

converged at Cabo San Lucas in June, in part because accommodations were

relatively inexpensive, says managing director Kay Hart. Conversely,

Porter Novelli chose to conduct a recent management retreat at a

Manhattan hotel so attendees could go home at night and remain somewhat

connected to their offices.

And turn off the cell phone!

Deciding what level of contact you want AEs to have with clients during

retreats is an important planning consideration. ’PR is not a field

where you can disappear on a weekday and still do well by clients,’

notes Patricia Thorp, president of Miami’s Thorp & Co. Many firms,

however, ask clients to contact them only in emergencies. Organizers

often encourage people to turn off their cell phones. ’I think that’s

insulting to your colleagues,’ Publicis’ Bryant says of taking phone

calls during meetings. ’Most cell phone calls in meetings are not


Many small to mid-size firms take the whole office on retreats, leaving

behind a sole temp or freelancer to answer phones. Such cozy gatherings

obviously aren’t practical for large global firms. The multinationals

tend to organize annual practice area retreats or bring together small

groups for serious work or recognition.

Fleishman-Hillard’s entire account staff congregates once a year,

however, for a megaconference. The event has outgrown St. Louis venues

and will move to Dallas in 2001, says chief talent officer Agnes

Gioconda. More than 2,000 PR pros will attend, while administrative

staffers stay behind to answer phones. CEO John Graham gives a

state-of-the-agency presentation and reviews corporate philosophy for

new employees. Attendees can choose from 44 breakout training sessions

on specialized topics, and practice groups usually get together for ad

hoc meetings, Gioconda says. Other retreat organizers agree that

breakout sessions allowing small-group interaction become vital during

large conferences like Fleishman’s.

Without proper planning and follow-through, an annual retreat can be

like a summertime tent revival - participants leave full of spirit but

quickly fall back into their sinful ways. Management must remind

personnel regularly of goals set during retreats, while heeding the

concerns staff may have voiced. After Shandwick’s 1 in 20 confabs,

suggestions from participants are funneled back to decision makers,

Benidt says. ’We have instituted several of the ideas.’

An annual retreat may be one of the biggest commitments of time and

money an agency undertakes all year. But when the road trips are done

right, employees return to their piled-high desks with something to show

for their time: new skills and valuable contacts - or at least a nice

tan and a sense of appreciation.


PRWeek asked dozens of PR pros for retreat horror stories - drunken

brawls, 2 am hot tub shenanigans, embarrassing games of truth or


But as we all know, nothing bad ever happens in the world of PR (yeah,

right.) The most harrowing war story we heard was the sad tale of a

Colorado agency pushing the boss’ new car out of a snowbank. Worse

things can and do go wrong, whether PR types admit it or not. The

following are common pitfalls and how a few agencies avoid them.

’The beer is too cold, the daiquiris too fruitful’

Alcohol is the root of all stupidity, says Sheri Benjamin, CEO of the

Benjamin Group/BSMG. ’Every single dicey incident I’ve seen around a

retreat has to do with people drinking too much.’

PR agencies use a wide variety of precautions to prevent alcohol-induced

stupidity - from injuring people physically or harming their


Arranging for sober transportation is a top priority for many


Several CEOs report that personal cars are not allowed at retreats. Some

firms charter buses or vans, while others select hotels within walking

distance of all activities.

Others limit alcohol consumption by locking the liquor cabinet at a

certain hour or allocating only a few bottles of wine per table. When

Shandwick hosts a shindig, it gives each attendee three drink tickets

and doesn’t make a cash bar available, says senior VP Billee Howard.

Patricia Thorp of Thorp & Co. in Miami says her firm has a standing

policy limiting staffers to one alcoholic beverage every two hours when

meeting with clients. That policy might soften a little during

staff-only retreats, but employees still are expected to imbibe


Executives attending retreats can effectively lead by example. And

nobody wants to get sauced up and slobber all over the big guy. Putting

the booze in the boss’ room also can be effective.

During its biennial Camp Ketchum, the firm keeps a hospitality house

well stocked with the wares of its client, Miller Brewing, says

executive VP Judith Rich. Agency chairman David Drobis coincidentally

sleeps in the same cottage. ’So, if you want to drink, it’s in his

house,’ Rich notes.

Pass the Bengay

Team-building exercises often involve physical activities, and some

participants may feel pressured into pushing their limits. One tale of

true terror filters to us anonymously from Colorado, where unfortunate

employees signed up to climb a 14,000-foot mountain without fully

understanding the effects of altitude on the human body.

Planners should make sure physical activities are strictly optional and

provide a wide range of choices for participants at various fitness


Thorp says she acts as cheerleader while her younger and more athletic

employees water ski or kayak.

When participating in adventurous diversions - whitewater rafting, for

example - professional tour guides inform participants of hazards and

are responsible for safety measures. Excursion companies, and sometimes

employers, may require participants to sign waivers to avoid legal

liability, notes Jenny Williams, marketing VP at Peter Webb PR.

(Sniff) I love you, man!

Executives frequently say they want to hear what employees really think,

but too much truth can be dangerous. Especially alcohol-fueled


’You’ve just got to be prepared for honesty,’ says Williams. ’Not

everything is going to be positive. I mean, why should it be? Life’s not

that way.’ She strongly encourages open communication at Webb’s annual

staff retreats.

’Some years, there have been tears,’ she says. Although she’s had no

major problems, Williams admits that personality conflicts or other

workplace dysfunction could be amplified in the close quarters of a

retreat. ’If there are problems, they will come out, and you’ve got to

be ready.’

Brodeur’s HR SVP Nancy Eagan stresses that management should create a

safe, nonjudgmental environment in which employees can express


’People need to know that what they say and examples they use don’t

leave the virtual walls of the retreat,’ she says.

Put your left foot in ...

Do you really want to know what brand of toothpaste your coworker


Canned motivational games seem to be designed by people much less

cynical than most PR pros, especially those who came to the profession

via journalism.

Chris Chiames, American Airlines’ managing director of PR, calls these

borderline-juvenile activities ’forced frivolity.’

’We have huge critics and huge cynics in our group,’ Benjamin


’Our definition of success is when they come away from it saying, ’I

thought this was going to be a stupid session but it wasn’t. It was


A well-planned retreat, Chiames suggests, builds camaraderie naturally

without forcing people to wear silly hats or divulge too much personal


Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in