Lighten Up!

This spring, a Fortune 500 company flew all of its sales reps, operations employees, and high-level executives to the Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spa in Phoenix for its first company-wide meeting in four years. After the final full day of educational seminars and breakout meetings, attendees were invited to a themed buffet-style dinner. After everyone had eaten, the group was ushered into the adjoining ballroom for the evening's entertainment. The previous two evenings, attendees were surprised and impressed by the entertainment their employer had lined up: The first night featured the famous illusionist duo Penn & Teller, and the second night was headlined by '80s pop rock icon Pat Benatar. But for the final night, even the most jaded of the company's employees had to admit that the company had engineered quite a coup: Legendary pop-rockers Bon Jovi performed exclusively for the 640 employees.

"The reaction was just outstanding," says Steve Sampson, director of sales and marketing at the Arizona Biltmore. And while he's quick to point out that household-name entertainers are hardly a staple of the meetings that come to his hotel, Sampson says this Fortune 500 event is a fair—albeit extravagant—example of a developing trend in meetings. "We're definitely seeing meetings becoming less and less dry."

This is not to say that companies everywhere are staging splashy events like this one. To the contrary; such lavish fetes are still largely frowned upon, a mindset that no doubt encouraged this particular Fortune 500 company to request its name be withheld. Nevertheless, planners are working more enjoyment into corporate and association gatherings. Whether they're scheduling an extra afternoon for free time or fun, returning to the tradition of teambuilding activities, or even just tweaking content delivery to boost the entertainment factor, planners are putting the fun back in meetings. And by many accounts, it's about time.

Give 'em a Break

"All we know about learning and retention says that you can't just keep pouring in information. People have to have a chance to relax and a chance to think," says Dr. Elizabeth Treher, president and CEO of Washington Crossing, PA-based training and consulting firm The Learning Key. And after 17 years in the business, Treher says that downtime has never been as important as it is today. "We're so pressured today, we have so much to do at such a frenetic pace. Generally speaking, people are less at ease and under growing pressure at work." Organizations are leaner, and employees are expected to work longer hours and produce more with fewer resources. "We need to lighten the load, if you will," says Treher. "We need to realize that it's about more than fun—it's about helping people be more productive, and it's about the bottom line."

In the interest of saving time and cutting costs, many meeting organizers have been cramming in cocktail receptions at the end of long days of meetings. "People think they'll get more done by using every single hour of the day," says Treher. But "people generally come to a meeting tired from already working very hard. And then after the meeting ends, they'll have to work extra hard because of the work that piled up while they were away. So, on the road, a fun evening after a full day is sometimes too much." The solution, she says, is to build in time for those activities by stopping the business early and allowing people time to rejuvenate.

Increasingly, planners are doing just that. At a recent national sales meeting in Jamaica, for the New York-based Conde Nast's Bridal Group, Associate Promotion Director Eric Krevat scheduled meetings each morning but left the afternoons open. "The four or five hours in the morning are the crunch time and are a lot more content-driven," he says. "The afternoons are just to digest." And, of course, there was the location, The Royal Plantation in Ocho Rios, another indication of the return of fun. "We don't ordinarily travel out of the country, but last year's meeting was held locally, and so this year we really just wanted to do something nice for the team." And it worked: "People had a terrific time and came back energized and refreshed."

The Medium is the Message

Some planners report that the smallest tweaks in presentation can make the biggest difference in reception and retention. At the Meeting Professionals International (MPI) International Relations Committee meeting at the United Nations in May, member Roberta Horton used puppets and humor to keep her audience's attention. "Everyone was so bored with trying to put this same information across in the same format, so I decided to use hand and rod puppets," says Horton. She delivered the educational content through a puppetry send-up of the David Letterman TV show with meeting planners as guests. "People are overloaded with panels and discussions and seminars, so we need to do things that are new and inventive." And, she says, the puppet show was a hit. "People were paying attention. I was running all over [answering questions] after the show."

In a recent orientation for new hires, Brian Kathenes, president of Hope, NJ-based organizational performance consultancy Progressive Business Concepts, created a game-show format to help employees identify and understand the culture of the organization. "Instead of just having a written final exam, we created a game around it. We formed small project teams that would send a representative on stage to answer questions that would have been on the final exam," Kathenes says. "Everyone in the organization got to hear the questions and the answers with a little explanation of each by senior executives. It tested the knowledge, learning, and understanding of the participants, but was a lot more fun than having them sit down for an hour and write answers on a piece of paper."

Planners who don't want to experiment with delivery of a meeting's content can change the context in which it's delivered. At the 320 Guest Ranch in Big Sky, MT, Pride Moline, director of sales and marketing, says groups repeatedly hold day-long meetings down at what she calls The Point, the southernmost end of the property. "It's secluded and scenic, and they'll hold their entire meeting down there," she says.

Organizations are realizing, increasingly, that structured "fun" afternoons do more than give attendees a break; the recreational activities serve a purpose central to the meeting itself. When Tom Eggleston, director of sales and marketing for Menlo, GA-based Best Manufacturing, recently planned the company's first global sales meeting after new leadership took over, the gathering's recreational time loomed large in his strategy.

"We were trying to introduce a new executive team and get everyone on the same page, but we also wanted to kick this thing off in an upbeat and positive manner," Eggleston says. So, in addition to the seminars that presented overviews of the organization, lectures on distribution and manufacturing, and presentations on new product developments, Eggleston scheduled ample free time, including golf and spa afternoons and a cocktail reception and dinner at a nearby aquarium. "You need to get away and have an environment where you can have the opportunity to talk about business outside of the structured meeting," says Eggleston. "That's what the four-person golf teams do. It gets people together to talk who never would have talked before."

Breaking Down Barriers

It's the encouragement of communication and team spirit that planners and experts alike consider a necessary function of meetings as companies recover from economically challenging times. And it's a function that is particularly well served by incorporating fun activities in the meeting schedule. In educational and corporate meetings alike, organizers are increasingly turning to both traditional and innovative teambuilding activities. "There's a big demand for something lighter than just sitting in a classroom," says Kathy Payne-Davis, a facilitator with Whittier, NC-based Moonshadow Learning Services, who leads teambuilding and training exercises. "What we've heard is that these activities are the focal point of their meetings."

Hoteliers agree. "Since the third quarter of 2003, we've seen a resurgence in the inclusion of components that allow companies to reach their program goals while having fun at the same time," says Dan Bolognani, director of sales and marketing for the Lakeville, CT-based Interlaken Inn, which offers an assortment of auto racing-based teambuilding and recreational activities, including Corporate Racing Challenge, Endurance Karting, and the Skip Barber Driving School, as well as outdoor adventure programs. "What we've seen is it's all about breaking down communication barriers and getting people to talk. Frequently, it's used as a tool to remove office politics and to allow different layers of management to unify on a single level," he says. "You see the teams form, the chatter start, people coming together in new ways, and then afterwards, over dinner or over drinks, they have time to sit down and rehash the day. That's where the communication really kicks into high gear."

At the Boulders Resort & Golden Door Spa in Carefree, AZ, Area Director of Sales and Marketing Ted Davis says the pace of his group business is up by 30 percent and that the demand for teambuilding activities has increased so much that in June, the resort introduced an "Adventure Concierge" whom planners can call in advance of the meeting to coordinate and execute all of the arrangements from one place. "A lot more groups want more dynamics added to their meetings, whether group-oriented or just individual recreation time," Davis says. In addition to spa treatments, activities such as night hikes with night-vision goggles, mountain biking, rock climbing, hot-air ballooning, and even guided meditation by a Native American shaman (see sidebar) are among the most popular with groups.

To be sure, this represents a significant reversal. "With the economy and the tragic events of 9/11, there was definitely a pause," says the Arizona Biltmore's Sampson of the pace of his group business. "But that incident and its aftermath did make everyone realize that they can't stop doing business as usual. When you work for an organization, you give it your all. You do all this hard work, and everyone's communicating on their computers and their cell phones, but getting everyone together is very beneficial." But even as the pace of meetings recovered over time, the enjoyment quotient remained perilously low. "I hadn't heard the word 'fun' in meetings in a couple of years," says Mike Fahner, vice president of sales and marketing for Philadelphia-based Aramark Harrison Lodging (AHL). "Meetings have been serious. They've been about education and learning." And for a while, that made sense. "From a perception standpoint, the idea of spending money on 'fun' is inappropriate when your colleagues are out of work," observes Kathenes. But that, it appears, is changing.

Davis has witnessed this shift in attitude: "One of the things I hear a lot from customers now is that they've gone through some downsizing, some organizational changes, and they are looking for more humanistic meeting events to help rebuild their company's culture." Eric Whitson, director of sales and marketing at The Chattanoogan Hotel in Chattanooga, TN, agrees. "There is still a lot of reorganization going on," says Whitson. "But when the dust settles, it's time to get these people together."

No matter how they do it, planners are making their meetings more dynamic and compelling for attendees who are simply worn out by month after month of serious, dry, bare-bones meetings. And going forward, bringing the fun back to meetings will only grow more important. "People consider it a luxury to sit back and think, to have these mental breaks," says The Learning Key's Treher. "But in fact, it should be a requirement."


"Outwit, Outplay, Outlast"

When Mary Arnold, human resources director for Atlanta-based engineering construction company AMEC, needed to get employees together after various organizational changes and acquisitions and the installation of a new leadership team, she chose the context of a "Survivor" challenge. Working with Moonshadow Learning Services, the group was divided into teams that were assigned various tasks modeled after the popular television show. Typical tasks include orienteering challenges, problem- and riddle-solving, and timed competitions. "I happen to be on the leadership team, and so my objective was to have the team work better together," Arnold says. "The 'Survivor' courses related our behavior patterns as a team to our individual personality profiles, and that helped in getting the individuals in the team to know each other better." A month after the program, Arnold says the teambuilding is still paying off. "I can definitely see a difference [in the team] since then. It has really opened the communication lines."

Spirits in the Material World

As planners bring the fun back to meetings, they're looking for innovative options. "We had done the massage thing and hung out by the pool, and so I wanted to do something new and different," says Judy Pape, who plans the social-event component for the eight annual meetings of the Alexandria, VA-based Health Management Academy, and who recently brought 43 of her members to The Boulders Resort & Golden Door Spa in Carefree, AZ. There, she discovered something she'd never before heard of. Guided by a high shaman from the local tribe, her attendees could participate in yoga, guided meditation, drum ceremonies, and the smoking of the peace pipe. "I thought about offering yoga in the teepee, but I didn't know how it would go over. I wasn't sure how people would feel about mediation." So Pape let her attendees sign up for the teepee if they were interested. "It ended up being such a popular event that we had twice as many people as we expected." For her group, the shaman focused on helping people to unwind, using visualization and relaxation techniques, and guided them through Native American rituals. According to Lorraine Parks, the director of the Golden Door Spa at The Boulders, the shaman asks group leaders ahead of time to "tell him their intention," whether it be improving communication, teambuilding, or anything else. He then tailors his ceremony and how he "channels the energy from the spirits." Pape says the teepee experience was a success. "It was definitely one of our better activities, and I look forward to doing it again."