Island Getaways —East Coast Style

When thinking of traveling to an island for business or pleasure, one tends to imagine the Caribbean, Hawaii, the South Pacific, or even islands in a far-flung destination like Thailand. Images of lush, tropical rain forests and exotic native peoples are inextricably linked to what most would define as the "island experience." Sojourning to an American island is probably not even on the radar of some meeting attendees. But the truth is, the United States has islands that offer meeting groups experiences that also qualify as exotic and unique—especially on the East Coast.

The vast heterogeneous nature and beauty that our homeland encompasses features mountains, beaches, and low-country landscapes. The north contrasts with the south, and the east stands out from the west, in not just landscape, but also in accent, food, culture, way of life, and types of recreation. And because of that, our coastal islands can offer a feeling and experience that is similar to a distant, unfamiliar land.

Says Joe Dimaria, sales manager in the Hilton Head office for Daufuskie Island Resort and Breathe Spa in South Carolina, "Groups don't have to go to the Caribbean to get the feel, relaxation, and enjoyment of beach life, because they can get that at an American island like ours." Sam Zabawsky, director of resort marketing at The Sea Pines Resort on Hilton Head, SC, concurs: "Guests can get the Caribbean feel at a resort like ours in Hilton Head as well as have the luxury of being able to drive on and off the island at one's own leisure."

High-end, corporate executive retreats are in the market to reward employees by providing a tranquil, luxurious setting that compliments a destination's beatific environment, in order to motivate employees, plan and review future goals, and brainstorm. Here is a sampling of some of the best island destinations right here in North America. From low-country boils to lobster bakes to golf to horseback riding on beaches, these various and exclusive East Coast islands have plenty to offer executive retreats.

Classic New England

Block Island, a destination some might say is rather difficult to get to, is located 12 miles off Rhode Island's coast, and is accessible by ferry from New London, CT; Port Judith and Newport, RI; and Montauk, Long Island, NY, and by puddle jumper flights from Westerly, RI. However, anyone who has visited knows that the end result is well worth the travel time. It's a lush, green, natural area surrounded by spectacular bluffs and 17 miles of beach.

Anna Mason, meeting and special events planner for Business Solutions Specialist in Bradenton, FL, recognizes the truth in the saying: "The places hardest to get to are the most beautiful to visit," when recalling her August meeting for a consumer packaged goods company on the island. "Block Island is not an easy place to get to," admits Mason, "but it really makes you realize how special it is when your clients rave about how much they love it and look forward to coming back again." She has planned this firm's executive retreat for 30 executives for the past three years. Mason's group stayed at the Spring House Hotel (which has accommodated groups like Pfizer, Wired Magazine, and the Young Presidents Organization), and Mason found it very flexible in arranging meeting space and being willing to work out of the box to accommodate her needs. Says Mason, "You get the best cross between modern and Old World in Block Island; it inspires camaraderie and fosters interaction."

Mason's group held its breakout meetings on the hotel's porches and patio, which overlook the Atlantic Ocean, and brainstormed on rocking chairs. Teambuilding activities ranged from deep-sea fishing to biking the island's nature trails to visiting and kayaking through many of the 350 freshwater ponds. Says Mason, "The teambuilding activities offered on Block Island are a lot different from what a huge resort would offer. There is no golf on the island but a lot of biking and boating, which my attendees enjoyed." One night for dinner, the Spring House cooked the fish that the attendees caught on their afternoon fishing excursion, and for another night, the hotel planned a cocktail reception on a sunset cruise followed by a backyard barbecue. David Houseman, managing director of the Spring House Hotel, reports that for other groups he has also planned lobster and clambakes, and bonfires and fireworks on the beach.

According to Mason, one of the most valuable qualities of Block Island is the amenities groups won't find there. "Block Island takes you out of your comfort zone. It doesn't offer the typical things you are used to getting, like modern meeting space and high-speed Internet access, but that allows you to really focus on the meeting and what the island has to offer."

Another New England favorite is Martha's Vineyard. An island located off Cape Cod, MA, the Vineyard (as it's called) encapsulates New England at its core. Offering pristine beaches, beautiful sunsets, and biking trails galore, the Vineyard is ideal for executives looking to relax and decompress. It attracts bikers, sailors, and nature enthusiasts, says Fred Hurley, owner of the Ashley Inn in Edgartown. He has hosted groups as large as 20 people. Executives from Banana Republic stayed at the inn a couple of years ago and had their daily meetings in the living room of the inn and breakout meetings in the library. Attendees lounged on the hammocks in the backyard during cocktail hour and enjoyed tennis, golf, fishing, and sailing excursions.

Southern Comfort

Mary Jarrett, partner at Coffman, Coleman, Andrews and Grogan law firm in Jacksonville, FL, prefers to go to Jekyll Island Club Hotel on Jekyll Island, GA, for her executive retreats which consist of 10 partners. "We have been going for the past 16 years," says Jarrett, "because it's charming and easy for us to get to." There, her fellow partners develop camaraderie and are able to socialize in an idyllic setting. "We stay for three days, and on the third day our families join us to enjoy the resort and beach. It's a tranquil setting for us to focus and unwind," says Jarrett. "People enjoy the food, relax on the wide porches on rocking chairs, enjoy the spa, exercise on the beach, go golfing and fishing, and rent bikes."

"Not only is it a beautiful, natural setting," says Jarrett, "but it has a tremendous amount of history." The Jekyll Island Club was founded in 1886 and served as a winter hunting retreat for some of America's industrialist millionaires like J.P. Morgan, John Jacob Astor, John D. Rockefeller, William Henry Vanderbilt, and Joseph Pulitzer. The hotel serves as the original clubhouse where the first transcontinental phone call was made in 1915 to Europe by Theodore Vail, president of the company that later became AT&T. Jarrett's group meets in the Pulitzer Room, a special room in which the plan for the Federal Reserve System and the Federal Reserve Bank was made. "All of this history makes our meetings all the more interesting and serves as a major attraction for our group," says Jarrett.

Now, imagine meeting on an island only accessible by boat that offers a distinctly isolated, faraway feeling, yet is surrounded by neighboring islands and the mainland of South Carolina. Such a place is Daufuskie Island Resort & Breathe Spa. According to Kathy Winings, sales manager for VCB Hilton Head, "The island is set back in time; it has no traffic lights, let alone any traffic, since only 20 vehicles are on the island and boat is the only means to get there, so it's retreat-like at its core." Situated on 800 of the island's 5,000 acres, the resort offers two golf courses, horse stables, four restaurants, a beach club and conference center, and over 200 guest accommodations ranging from oversized, oceanfront rooms at the inn, to two-bedroom cottages, three-bedroom condominiums, and five-bedroom homes on the beach.

"What makes our venue unique," says Jonna Orwig, senior sales manager for the resort based in Charlotte, NC, "is that we are a beach destination on the Atlantic but still have a hunting, country-type feel that attracts guests in the winter, who utilize our equestrian center and sportsman's lodge," which features a bar with a fireplace and pool and card tables.

Recently, one recent group of 30 executives from a manufacturing company in Atlanta, GA, held a brainstorming and relaxation session at Daufuskie Resort. They met daily in the conference center's smaller ballroom and participated in a golf tournament. At night, they savored the local food, enjoying a low-country boil (a favorite, indigenous dish in the south which consists of boiled crab, shrimp, potatoes, and sausage) and an oyster roast on the beach; the night ended with the resort's signature bonfire and roasting of s'mores. "Prior groups," says Orwig, "have utilized our two-bedroom cottages with porches for breakout meetings and have gone to Hilton Head's Harbortown, only a five-minute taxi ride from Daufuskie, for dinner and shopping." Fishing, biking, carriage rides along the avenue of oak trees, horseback riding on the beach, the spa, and history tours are all popular activities that the resort offers to guests and for teambuilding events.