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Retreat Redux

Published: 01/05/2015 - Filed under: Home » Archive » 2015 » May 2015 » Destinations » Home » Features »

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They’re Baaaccckkk! And they can be anything from behemoth bacchanal bashes set against the pool-filled backdrop of Caesars Palace to a simple wild-caught dinner on a secluded waterfront estate in the Alaska wilderness.

What they are, are corporate retreats. Those were words not to be uttered in America’s C-suites beginning circa 2008. That was the year when, after receiving $82.9 billion in bailout funds from the US government, too-big-to-fail insurance giant AIG set about spending nearly $500,000 celebrating its good fortune at a Southern California resort. 

The concept of lavish corporate retreats became a flashpoint for angry taxpayers and then verboten words for companies. The perception of prodigality, combined with an economy skidding deep into recession, ruled out anything but the most bare bones of company events. 

American companies are still feeling the ache from the “AIG Effect” seven years later, but with an improving economy and a proven need for businesses to keep a face-to-face format in place, that effect is morphing into phantom pain.

Once the 2014 figures are finalized, the Global Business Travel Association predicts group spend-per-trip is on pace to increase to $715, up from the previous year’s $660. Both volume and spending are expected to tick upward in 2015 by 1.5 percent and 6.7 percent, respectively. However, estimated group volume declined 2.2 percent in 2014, possibly a stabilizing outcome after extraordinary growth in 2013.

What this means is bonus meetings are back, incentive trips are in vogue and corporate retreats are returning in force, as businesses are ready to spend again.  

Las Vegas Bets 

The city of Las Vegas, which saw 5.1 million of 2014’s 41 million visitors coming in for meetings and conventions alone, took a beating after the AIG blow up. Companies canceled. Rooms in the mega-hotels along the Las Vegas Strip went vacant. But the city did what it always does in a crisis: It pushed in all the chips and just kept playing. 

“We took the bull by the horn,” says Chris Meyer, vice president of global business sales for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority and also chairman of the board for the Corporate Event Marketing Association. “Where others stopped, we doubled down with all our sales programs. We went knocking on doors to maintain relationships and reassure customers. We go by the three Rs in this business – relationship, relationship, relationship. You can’t do relationships from a computer screen.”

The city is popular for business events because it can accommodate all comers, large and small, Meyer says. Properties range from boutique to immense; rooms range from plain to posh; and as for activities, sky is the limit – especially if a company wants to rent out the roof rides on the Stratosphere. But small retreats usually opt for the racecar driving options at the NASCAR track for adrenaline thrills and competition. 

For other resorts steeped in wooing group business travel interest, the bounce backs have taken some unexpected turns but have managed climb back to pre-recession or near pre-recession numbers. 

On the Beach at Mayakoba

Mayakoba Resort near Playa del Carmen in the Riviera Maya endured what James Batt, vice president of operations and marketing at the resort, calls “the perfect storm.” During those months, the swine flu hit Mexico and slowed the tourism flow from the US just as the economic downturn went into full swing. 

The resort spreads over 600 acres of mangrove forest edging a mile-long beach that fronts three resorts: The Fairmont Mayakoba, Rosewood Mayakoba and Banyan Tree Mayakoba. An 18-hole Greg Norman golf course popular with meetings and retreats connects all three properties. 

“This impacted all the properties, as US companies avoided meetings in high-end resorts,” says Batt. “Fairmont, for example, relies on groups for 50 percent of its business. We still see groups of well known US brands avoiding their name being posted when holding meetings here. I notice ‘Presidents’ Club’ is a favorite pseudonym for many different companies! But now all of this is behind us, and we are enjoying a very robust period of good business.”

 

A fourth hotel, an Andaz, will be opening at the resort this year. And while golf is the key attraction for meetings and retreats, the resort’s drawing power comes from its exotic location with easy access out of Miami, the richness of Mayan ruins to explore, its beach and spa for trailing spouses and its variety of venues, activities and choices all rolled into one inside a single, primary resort location.

Pipes and Fittings

Another widely popular corporate retreat with plenty of activities has an unexpected theme running through it – plumbing.Kohler Resort is near Sheboygan, WI, and Lake Michigan, about an hour’s drive north of Milwaukee. They took a family business in designing plumbing systems and made it sexy.

The 97-year-old stead now has a 241-room hotel called the American Club, a 31-room members-only private estate called Riverbend, a clubhouse for outdoors activities and fine dining, plus a smattering of meetings and conference venues. Then there is the Kohler Design Center where the tales of fancy pipe works intrigue corporate retreat guests and gourmet chef demos in state of the art kitchen settings mix with all-in cooking competitions and motivational cheers. 

“Corporate groups are about a third of our business so it is a big piece of the pie,” says Justin Gephart, associate director of sales. “We have seen steady growth in the past few years. But where a shift seems to have taken place is that we are not seeing the big blow-out events any more. I think that is pretty consistent throughout the industry, though. The small, say 12-person retreats, those have stayed fairly steady. But the big meetings back in the day – auto companies and big pharma – those are really no longer there.”

The average size of a corporate retreat at Kohler hovers around 38 guests. However, small is beautiful here in the rolling hills along the Sheboygan River near Lake Michigan. The resort expands out into 500 acres of wildlife preserve. Within them golfers find the Whistling Straits course as well as the Blackwolf Run links – each offering two 18-hole championship courses and a rich history of PGA legends who played on them. 

For those who would rather fish than putt, the area offers lakes, rivers and streams full of trout and salmon. Then there is the 23,595-square-foot Kohler Waters Spa where unusual hydrotherapies meet creative Kohler fixtures for some delightful healing treatments.

“Golf is hugely important and usually what companies are looking for, but spa is a growing lure and our water treatments really set us apart,” says Gephart. “There are a lot of activities vying for a guest’s few hours of free time: fly fishing, pheasant hunting, skeet shooting. A good 35 percent of this business is repeat business, perhaps because there is so much to do here.” 

What Kohler also offers is a turnkey solution to programming that many meetings need for getting guests to bond, interact and compete. Staff facilitators are on hand to help with ropes courses, cooking competitions, geo-caching, personality tests, trust exercises and whatever customized planning a group can use. 

Bonding Where the Buffalo Roam

The Ranch at Rock Creek also offers plenty of team building and adrenaline rushes amid 10,000 acres on the wide-open prairies of Montana. Owner Jim Manly, himself a boutique investment bank CEO, often brings out company performers for some get-to-know-you down time. 

The property offers 38 bedrooms in an assortment of luxury cabins, decked out tents and the lodge in what is tabbed from time to time as the most expensive resort in the US. (Rates come down considerably for groups, of course.) 

All is inclusive here, from horseback rides (all levels accommodated), fly fishing, rafting, guided (and solo) hikes along seemingly endless miles of scenic trails, the saltwater pool, the gourmet meals (meatloaf is a must-have here, as is the venison), the wine list and the bowling and movies afterwards. A working ranch, it’s not unusual to round up an errant steer or two while hitting the trail on horseback. 

Guests need only bring the right clothes and shoes. Everything else is provided – the gear, the tackle, the shooting equipment (Glocks included) and the mountain bikes. A small spa is at the ready with sage and lavender-laced treatments, although that amenity may be extra. 

The Ranch offers a ropes and obstacle course area where guests can climb heights, walk wires, balance on logs, shoot clay projectiles and challenge their preconceptions in myriad ways. Husky ranch hands do the demos and make sure no one gets hurt. 

The ranch is just under two-hours’ drive from Missoula Airport and for all its isolation, there is plenty to do alone or guided that will allow guests to decompress and get some solitary time between bonding, dining and sporty activities. 

Fishing Where the Fish Are  

For some retreats, the more remote the better. Such is the case for corporate retreats seeking adventure in Alaska. Waterfall Resorts, a short seaplane flight from Ketchikan on Prince of Wales Island in the Gulf of Alaska, sleeps 92 guests in not-so-fancy quarters that had been a major salmon cannery through many of the past 100 years. 

Salmon fishing is the lure and it does not get better than arriving in the morning by seaplane and setting out in comfortable, heated, four-person fishing craft in the afternoon to the Gulf where the king salmon are biting and giant catches are the norm for the day.

“Our job is to make sure guests get outside the box and there is nothing like bringing in an 80-pound king salmon to do just that,” says Geoff Stevens, director of marketing for The Waterfall Group. “It compares with landing a big client or making that big sale.”

The resort’s season is not about the weather. It is about the salmon, which swim through the waters around the resort between June and August on their way to spawning grounds. But the attraction for companies that want to have their meetings and retreats there is evident enough. The resort sees 50 percent of its revenues coming from these get-togethers, whether small groups or buyouts. 

Most of the time is spent fishing and bonding, the rest is spent enjoying the catch, although there are trails with serene waterfalls to explore and bears to spot and whales to watch in between. 

Retreats average three nights and four days. Meeting rooms accommodating around 40 people each are available or a big dining room works for buyouts, should larger scale workshops and talks be a part of the program. 

The draw, however, is the salmon. King salmon that can weigh up to 100 pounds in these parts teem in these waters June through mid July, followed by throngs of the smaller silver variety that practically jump into the boat. The resort packs catches for flight transport right at the dock – and checks passengers in as well through a special arrangement with Alaska Airlines.

For smaller groups, perhaps as gifts for top clients and C-suite associates, the company has Steamboat Bay Fishing Club, a secluded oceanfront estate on Noyes Island in Southeast Alaska that sleeps 24 and provides for their every need. The experience flows around gourmet meals, one-on-one or group fishing excursions, hiking, tracking and fine wines sipped in the Great Room overlooking Steamboat Bay as whales swim by just yards away. 

Steamboat Bay sees whales of another kind as well. 

“We get a lot of business from casino companies that want to thank some of their biggest clients,” says Stevens. “That’s the kind of place it is.”

“Alaska is really made for corporate retreats and team building,” Stevens adds. “The concept of the wild frontier is that it makes you feel like a pioneer. And if you can get that experience inside of a retreat, that translates to entrepreneurialism in business and growth. That is key to building corporate relationships.”   

Contact Information:

Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Bureau

(702) 892-0711

vegasmeansbusiness.com

 

Mayakoba Resort

mayakoba.com

Rosewood Mayakoba

(888) ROSEWOOD

 

Fairmont Mayakoba

(800) 540-6088

 

Banyan Tree Mayakoba

(800) 319-4834

 

Destination Kohler

419 Highland Dr, Kohler, WI 53044

(855) 444-2838

destinationkohler.com

 

The Ranch at Rock Creek

79 Carriage House Lane, 

Philipsburg, MT 59858

(406) 859-6027

theranchatrockcreek.com

 

Waterfall Resort

320 Dock St, Ketchikan, AK 99901

(800) 544-5125

waterfallresort.com

 

Steamboat Bay Fishing Club

320 Dock St, Ketchikan, AK 99901

(800) 350-3474

steamboatbay.com


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