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
’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
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
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.
BOOZE, CONFESSIONS AND SILLY HATS: PITFALLS OF THE RETREAT
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
’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
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
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