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Gone are the days of suits and overhead projectors. Offsite events are going WILD. But, asks meetings guru David Pearl, are we still being creative enough

Step out of your physical ‘box’, the thinking once went, and you’d step out of your mental one. Business people have complained for years about the amount of time they waste in meetings.

Meetings. People boring each other around paper-strewn tables in badly lit offices while the precious hours tick by. No wonder they started thinking about taking meetings out of the workplace so they could bore each other somewhere else. Or even, you never know, have meetings where they felt productive and engaged. The ‘offsite’ was born. And for a while it worked well, breaking the daily routine, helping people to look at familiar issues from different angles, making teams feel more appreciated and have more fun.

Fast-forward a decade or so and the novelty has worn off. Off site has become a codeword for a bit of a jolly, where there’s a direct correlation between the number of PowerPoint slides during the day and the number of alcoholic drinks consumed in the evening. (And people do a lot of slides). Throw in some excruciating David Brent-style team-building and the offsite begins to look a bit off -colour.

Hotels have not really helped. Assured of a steady flow of revenue, many have become complacent and formulaic in their response to business clients.

Think how often business or conference facilities offer little more than a company’s own offices, so no surprise in these hard times that some are deciding to stay put and ditch the venue altogether.

Some fresh thinking is needed; the offsite is in need of an offsite. So here’s a five-step plan to put new energy into the whole business.

1.    Really use the venue

Look at the facilities. Dull rooms dominated by a projector screen are old hat. Put your people in a place where they can breathe some air and see some daylight. It makes no sense to hire a wonderful venue with fabulous grounds and then spend the whole time cooped up in a meeting room.

Here’s one example of really using the venue. We persuaded a hotel with superlative service to hold customer service master-classes for our client. The senior management spent a day as guests, enjoying the customer experience, and then a day as hotel trainees, learning how to make their own clients feel looked after.

Another time, we opened up the kitchens and the delegates created their own dinner. Many of them hadn’t wielded a spatula for years (if ever). When the standard corporate dinner is long forgotten in a haze of alcohol fumes, a self-made meal like that is still being talked about.

2.    Relax

Don’t cram in too much. The most common complaint I hear is, there wasn’t enough time to simply meet and talk.

3.    Take a break from the breaks

Why not rethink the refreshments? Replace the biscuits and fizzy drinks with water and fruit, oat bars and other foods that build energy rather than overloading people with nerve-frazzling, adrenaline-sapping, anxiety boosting sugars and E numbers. Dosing a business team with caffeine and glucose is a little like feeding sweets to a carful of toddlers: you get hyperactivity followed by a sugar crash. It may seem a small detail, but I reckon good snack management will make the day 20 per cent more effective.

And forget the tea-break – have food available throughout the day so that people can graze, rather than have to break a meeting just when it is getting interesting because – ta-daa! – the biscuits have arrived.

4.    Break the habit

Challenge the conventions – including ones that work well. The simplest changes can make a huge difference. One of my clients, Dell, was holding a conference, championing the idea that every customer is different and therefore needs a customised computer.

To make the point, we convinced the hotel to dispense with the rows of identical conference chairs and import 312 completely different seats for the delegates. They included a throne, an umpire’s chair, a milking stool, an inflatable sofa and swing seats… Not only did delegates get the point of the off site, but they hurried back from breaks so they could nab the comfiest chairs.

5.    Get fit without the sweat…

Many hotels offer health facilities. But why stop there? At a recent meeting, we gave everyone a pedometer that recorded every step they took. We added up the miles and plotted the groups’ progress as if they were on a sponsored walk around the country.

It’s amazing how far a group of 40 people walk during an offsite. The competitive spirit kicked in, with participants starting to take the stairs rather than lifts. One jogger was found with several of his colleagues’ pedometers strapped to him: forbidden but, you have to admit, ingenious. And a deserving charity finally benefited when the company donated real money for every virtual mile walked.

By David Pearl, Do Not Disturb (In-hotel Magazine)

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