Picking the Perfect Location for an Off-site Retreat or Meeting
Leaders oftentimes delegate the role of handling logistics for an off-site meeting. However, selecting the right location and ambiance can directly impact the success of the event. Those in charge of logistics can select an optimal space and room setup to increase the likelihood of the event’s success.
I recently co-facilitated a strategic planning session at a beautiful location in the Sonoma Region of California. When I arrived, the venue appeared to be perfect: serene grounds and attractive well-maintained facilities. However, the venue had never been used for a business retreat or meeting. It normally serves as a wedding venue. When I walked into the large room for the meeting, I thought “this is perfect.” The room had expansive windows with lots of natural light, high vaulted ceilings, and hardwood floors. It looked like an ideal location for a retreat.
About 15 minutes into the retreat, my co-facilitator and I split the group of 35 in two so we could work separately with the two breakout groups on organizational strategy activities. I immediately knew we had a problem. The room had bad acoustics, actually really awful acoustics. Even after everyone came together from those breakout groups, we struggled with folks not hearing each other, not hearing us, and not being able to focus due to the acoustics. We made the best of it and had a good outcome, but I have no doubt that the experience would have been more productive in a different type of room.
Another time, I organized a retreat using innovation tools for program redesign and we ended up in a drab, dated basement conference room. The furniture looked incredibly institutional and uninspiring. Again, we made the best of it, but the environment didn’t do us any favors.
Great meetings can happen in suboptimal locations, but I always advocate for clients to find the best spaces for important off-site meetings. And I’ve found that really nice locations don’t always cost a fortune.
A few considerations for selecting a location:
- Ask the facilitator about their technical requirements. Do they need a certain number of empty walls, a projector, or a particular table/chair setup for the interactions they plan?
- Find a room with natural light. Natural light and scenic views are a strong preference of mine, especially when I’m working with groups that need to engage in new thinking. After all, what’s the point of going to an off-site location if you’re locked up in a windowless room all day?
- Colors should match the intent of the meeting. Color impacts mood, so you need to find spaces that match the intent of the group. You can also add specifically-colored items in a room. For a group needing to rethink their strategy or consider new ways of doing business, a lighthearted environment will be important. For example, a room with a yellow wall, toys, or objects will invoke creativity and happiness. In a group coming together to resolve conflict, orange provides a sense of warmth and support. For teams wanting excitement, for example, coming together to celebrate a new project launch, red creates an appropriate environment. If a group needs focused attention and problem solving, blue provides the right kind of serious ambiance. When the primary purpose of the event is recharging and regrouping, green calms folks and represents harmony and restoration. Color really does matter.
- Select a room whose “look” matches the purpose of the meeting. Regardless of the meeting type, you’ll want an attractive, pleasant environment, but meeting purposes differ. A serious decision-making retreat for a board could work well in a wood-paneled conference room, but a session designed to elicit creativity would ideally be held in a room with fun fixtures.
- Ensure that the climate will be controllable. This goes without saying but has been a recurring problem in my facilitation experiences. Optimal room temperature varies and may need adjusting based on the amount of sunlight, humidity, and time of year.
- Secure a site with a variety of seating and places to stand. Folks are no longer willing to sit in uncomfortable chairs for hours at a time. Ensure that you have informal space for folks to congregate during breaks and room to move around. I like providing stand-up tables (or cocktail tables) on the sides of the room, for folks who want to stand or for break-out groups.
- Provide appropriate table items. For example, I find that “fidget items” help some folks stay engaged and focused. Some researchers and practitioners suggest the most effective fidget toys can be manipulated with minimal hand-eye coordination, in order to not be visually distracting. For example, putty and stress balls don’t require the hand-eye coordination that “spinners” require.
Although you might not have the flexibility or option to meet each of these suggestions, the more you can consider them, you’ll increase your chances of creating the ideal conditions for a facilitator to bring a group together to meet its goals.
Rod specializes in innovation, design, and strategy through his consulting work and as a professor at University of the Pacific. He helps leaders get results through using innovation and creativity processes, strategy development and strategic planning, group facilitation and action planning, and program and initiative development. More…