Going the Course, Building the Team

Conference centers are putting a new twist on team-building, with inspiration from reality TV and know-how from the pros.

The scene last May in Palisades, New York could easily have been a rousing, search-and-deliver segment straight out of CBS' Amazing Race: teams of senior managers with Booz Allen Hamilton armed with maps, cameras, and G.P.S. devices, dashing around from Dolce's IBM Palisades Conference Center and Executive Business Institute on a hi-tech scavenger hunt.


"I call it Geo-Teaming, and it's an important part of our Senior Associate Challenge," says Alsheila Verene-Jones, a program coordinator for the strategic management and technology consulting firm. The group worked with Dolce's staff and Seattle-based PlayTime, Inc., a corporate team-building company, for the project. "We gathered at the park across from the IBM center, and at a miniature golf course, and used handheld G.P.S. devices to find little boxes filled with play money, and used cameras to document the 'treasure finds' with all the team members."


Unlike the Amazing Race, however, the Booz Allen executives’ ultimate goal was not a million dollars but the educational and emotional reward of building relationships. "We just started the program at the center last December as a means to help our existing senior associates get to know those who were newly promoted," says Verene-Jones. "We bring them in from all over the states and our international offices, and they end up getting to share their ideas, experiences, and different viewpoints."


Afterward, the participants gather together over dinner, where teams get prizes for the most points and the most creative pictures, shown during a playful, post-event slide show. "Then we discuss the entire process, and what it meant to be working as a team," she says. "What's great about this program is you have both existing and newly promoted associates, so there's plenty of interaction and friendships that develop, especially with the team-building event."


Ties that Bind
No doubt, most business people have tasted some morsel of team-building in their careers-negotiating a four-foot rope wall has almost become a rite of passage for many junior executives. But team-building these days has evolved well beyond the simple feel good, field-trip aspects of a one-hour diversion. Where to go and, once there, what to do, can make a world of difference to a company’s pride, productivity, and camaraderie.


"Typically groups are looking for a higher level of engagement with team- building, a means to get people together, outside a classroom or the standard work environment, and to test their personal and social skills," says Pat Costello, president of the Center for Strategic Team Development at Dolce's Oak Ridge Conference Center in Chaska, MN, and a member of the Minneapolis-based Prouty Project, which specializes in helping clients enhance their work environments via creative team development. "Most groups look for anti-drudgery in a meeting," says Costello. "We try to do things where people are not simply sitting in a chair for longer than 20 minutes at a time. We always have people moving. We mix it up a lot and try to inject energy into a situation, whether it's an activity or discussion, and try to involve music, movement, and humor whenever possible."


The idea is to create innovative, collaborative ways for a client to boost its business performance. And often that means giving everyone, from the sales staff to the CEO, the chance to match wits with one another. Along the way they learn new things about themselves and each other, which in turn can help lead to a better understanding of clients.


"At Booz Allen Hamilton, it's the senior associates who run the company's projects with different clients and do much of the strategic planning," says Verene- Jones. "It's a critical position because you really are the ultimate go-between. You have to understand both the client and your team members, keeping them focused and giving them a lot of direction in the process."


At Oak Ridge, as with IBM Palisades, the big team-building winner is an orienteering simulation, using everything from maps and compasses to G.P.S. and two-way radios. "On the one hand, we'll have participants who will use mountain bikes, canoes, and maybe include some climbing," says Costello. But the programs also emphasize brain power along with the brawn. "We'll include important roles for people who might never leave the conference room, activities for those who are not particularly athletic, such as researching things on the Internet and making decisions at a command center," he says. "It's a complete exercise, one that will work for six or 300, where they are all engaged in the big-picture objective."


Built for Bonding
For sure, corporate giants often have both the time and money to arrange an afternoon of team-building exercises without ever leaving the office. But that can often prove a mistake, as phones, fax machines, computers, and other inherent office distractions can negate any potential bonding and benefits.


"At Booz Allen, the powers that be believe that if you remove employees from the office environment they'll be more focused," says Verene-Jones. "The nice thing about Dolce properties is that there aren't a whole lot of distractions."


Indeed, while any meeting venue with guest rooms can figure out a way to work in some group events, conference centers offer dedicated space designed specifically for entire meeting packages, including team-building. Oak Ridge proves the ideal example, where groups can find the variety of activities they seek without ever leaving their facility. "Everyone supports us totally at Oak Ridge, from the grounds crew, who let us use their golf carts, to the conference staff and the director of sales and marketing, who encourage us to talk with planners about the team-building experience beforehand so that they can add it to their meetings," says the Prouty Projects Costello." We're really part of Oak Ridge in that sense, with an office right on site, and it's always a total team effort with them."


That means Dolce's own staffers have likely undergone the team-building events themselves and can directly relate to their client's experience. To wit, Carl Blanz, Oak Ridge's director of sales and marketing, is a veteran of the facility's ropes course (see the "High Expectations" sidebar). And at Dolce's Hayes Mansion in San Jose, CA, groups can imagine themselves as Food Channel chefs and whip up their own meals as a team-building adventure.


"They get chef hats, and aprons, and get to cook for fellow attendees, creating everything from hors d'oeuvres and salads to the entrees and dessert," says Tracy Kopshy, a Hayes Mansion conference manager. “Everybody gets to do something, and the Dolce staff serves the food." And forget about the "too many chefs in the kitchen" theory. "If you're trying to make one of these meals it takes team work." "It's an environment where the participants can be creative and open things up, which help people socialize, but they also need to follow directions, understand orders, and pay attention to measurements and amounts. It takes a lot of focus."


The entire sales staff recently test drove the center's new "Synergy through Samba" challenge, a musical team-building program where everyone grabs an instrument and learns how to make beautiful music together. The program, designed by One World Music in California, uses music as a basis to build team work and challenge the standard ways of thinking. "People are assigned musical instruments, hand instruments, and no one knows just what they're doing," says Kopshy, citing herself as a prime example. "I have to admit, it sounds just horrible initially. But the idea is that they work with you as teams. So what happens is you bring everyone together and at the end, it really sounds beautiful."


Good Memories
If nothing else, team-building proves a wise, enjoyable, and hands-on complement to the classroom aspects of any group getaway. There's a physical and emotional aspect to those challenging events that, when handled creatively, leaves attendees with renewed enthusiasm for both their work and their co-workers.


"The real value of a retreat is when you can go away and create a contained environment for the team and they really connect together," says Prouty's Pat Costello. "There's more interaction-they have different conversations, they get to know each other, and they spend a lot of quality time together."


Costello's best feedback comes from clients after the team-building exercises are over. "The best time is in the evening, sitting around the bonfire at the lake and talking," he says. After a day focused on key strategic priorities, whether in a meeting room or on a ropes course, the bonfire waterfront acts as the final connection for groups. "They bond and talk, and relationships are formed," he says. "You don't necessarily get that in the office. Think of it: How often does a mid-level manager get to go on a scavenger hunt with the CEO or CFO, then sit around the bonfire and have a conversation about it afterward?"