The Agency Business: Corporate retreats allow staff to get closer while getting away

To counter the negative effects that the fast pace of the PR business can have on employee relations, many firms take staff on retreats to encourage bonding while also teaching new skills.

To counter the negative effects that the fast pace of the PR business can have on employee relations, many firms take staff on retreats to encourage bonding while also teaching new skills.

PR is a hectic business. Despite being an industry focused on communications, the fast pace of most agencies means employees often don't have the spare time to get to know one another or to work on building their skill sets. Enter the corporate retreat. From multinationals to single-location PR firms, corporate retreats have become a necessity rather than a perk as managers look for creative ways to improve their staffs, raise the level of their work, and promote corporate culture. "You really build camaraderie," says Barri Rafferty of Ketchum, who helps to plan the annual "Camp Ketchum" retreat. "You build relationships throughout the network. Ultimately that really gives us better client service. I also think it allows our staff to get to know the senior leadership and for the senior leadership to get to know the emerging talent." Creating a successful retreat is a time - and budget - consuming endeavor. For Camp Ketchum, planning begins three months in advance. Other agencies start a year before the big event. Of course, budget determines the perimeters of the rest of the decision-making process. A good rule of thumb is about $1,000 per employee, says Gene Grosby of Atlanta-based Jackson Spalding Public Relations. But Grace Leong of Hunter PR in New York warns that this is no place to be "stingy," so spend whatever it takes to do it right - or don't do it. Cutting corners not only sends the messages that the agency doesn't value employees and maybe doesn't have the funds for a good retreat, it also can take the fun out of the experience and make it more of a punishment than a reward. Leong says Hunter began its retreats a few years ago with a budget of $20,000 for 30 people, and now has grown to about $60,000. "Every year they get more and more expensive because we are trying to add more value," she says. But retreat planners also caution that value doesn't always translate to work. While many retreats focus on building new business skills, saving time to relax without a structured event can be a great team-building exercise. "Some of the most memorable moments come when people just have some downtime," notes Rafferty. Grosby adds that "if you try to get up and do some real business on a Sunday morning, it's not going to work. People's minds are somewhere else." That somewhere else might be home. Getting employees to focus on the retreat can be tough, especially when it takes them away from coveted weekend time with significant others and family. Some agencies, such as Jackson Spalding, sidestep that issue by inviting spouses along. "That's really been received well," says Grosby of the decision to invite husbands and wives. "They enjoy being included, and it also helps our spouses to know the people we are talking about day in and day out." Other companies try to grab employees' attention by picking exotic locales (Ketchum has been to Jamaica and California's Half Moon Bay) or finding clever ways to build excitement before the event. At Hunter, the key to anticipation is surprise. "We never tell the staff before we get up there what the agenda is going to be, so there are all these mini-surprises," says Leong. "If you tell them the agenda before you get up there, they're bored before they get there." At Spalding, planners pass out "retreat teasers," little gifts or clues to staffers that hint at things to come. But wherever the retreat might be, planners say the location has to work on several levels. In addition to being a place staffers can get excited about, it also has to be convenient. For Ketchum, which brings in staff from across the globe, the location has to be someplace that has direct flights from major cities like London and Rome. At Hunter PR, where staffers drive together in minivans to the location, it was important to find someplace that wouldn't keep them trapped in the car too long, but was far enough away that staff wouldn't be tempted to bolt home or come up late. "It's kind of like we're taking them prisoner," says Leong. "Unless you force them to do it, they are going to find reasons not to." Morgan McLintic of Lewis PR also points out that it's important to keep your employees' needs in mind, especially with a global staff that might not speak the destination's language. "Bringing people from different cultures, whose first language isn't English, into a foreign country - you have to make sure they are looked after," he says. "That's just a question of getting organized." Tips for a successful retreat
  • Keep employees' needs in mind, especially if you have staff from overseas
  • Don't skimp. The retreat needs to feel like a reward
  • Include downtime. Just relaxing with co-workers has team-building value

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