Companies Opt for Offbeat Retreats

Company retreats conjure up images of long, dull workshops in sterile conference rooms and days packed with awkward ice-breaking exercises.

But lately a new breed of corporate outing has been sidelining the old, ho-hum variety.

Today's retreats are all about being unconventional and exciting from a scavenger hunt, a go-kart race or a rock-climbing expedition to an improvisational theater or cooking class. Some companies even take excursions to locales such as Hawaii, Barcelona, Madagascar and even Africa's Mount Kilimanjaro.

"Nowadays, it's harder to get your employees to go to outside events," said Aaron August, a director at the French Culinary Institute in New York — which hosts teambuilding cooking classes. He said unusual retreats are "very intriguing, very unique. It's a different kind of (corporate) group situation."

On a recent summer afternoon employees of a major insurance company were scattered around New York City's Wall Street looking for clues in a two-hour scavenger hunt. The firm agreed to Fox News' presence provided names were not disclosed.

One team stood across from the New York Stock Exchange, squinting at the majestic building as members puzzled over a clue.

"Face the temple-like place where bulls and bears fight it out," the hint read. "Whose head can apparently be described as 'flighty' or 'feather-brained?' (The name begins with 'I.')"

The female statue at the crest of the structure had wings on her head, they reasoned. But who is she? They found the answer etched in the side of the NYSE: Integrity.

Orchestrated by Bret Watson of Watson Adventures in New York, the hunt led employees all over the neighborhood, requiring Polaroid-photo proof that they were at the right spots.

"It's not your typical, run-of-the-mill, bullshit office party," said one underwriter after the hunt. "It's offbeat. It forces you to interact. And it's fun."

The experience got staff to mix with new people and look at their surroundings through fresh eyes, said the firm's event coordinator.

"This forces you to look at the same things you always look at from a different point of view," he said. "Our group tomorrow will be more creative problem-solvers than they are today."

First-time corporate clients pay $20 a head for weekday hunts, plus any price of admission needed (some searches are at the Bronx Zoo and various museums).

Across the country in Denver, The Inside Lane uses a different vehicle to teach teambuilding: go-karts. CEO and Founder John Freudenberger said the concepts employees learn on the track teamwork, focus, planning, strategy, leadership and trust apply to office projects as well.

"It takes more than one person to get the job done," he said. "You rely on coworkers to help you through because you can't do everything yourself."

Freudenberger brings the portable track and karts to his clients, teaching them racing techniques and safety. Teams chart the fastest course, with members taking turns driving and being on the supporting crew. Racers do one lap blindfolded as teammates guide them with walkie-talkies.

"You have to have trust and good communication," Freudenberger said. At the end of the three-hour event which costs $2,795 for a group — he discusses the links between what they learned and what they do at work.

Denver-based Creativity Engineering also specializes in offbeat retreats, traveling around the U.S. teaching improv theater concepts to firms such as American Express. Day-long workshops range from $3,000 to $6,000, according to the company's president and founder Charlie Johnson.

"We use improv exercises to introduce creativity, flexibility and teamwork," Johnson said. "There are solid takeaways for an organization in terms of learning to cooperate and having fun at the same time."

In one exercise, called "A to Z," coworkers create a scene using consecutive letters of the alphabet to start each new line. ("Apples go well with peanut butter," one might say. "Better still with brie," the partner could reply.) The goal is to focus and pay attention instead of thinking ahead to your next move.

"If you don't listen, it marginalizes what the other person is saying," Johnson said. "These are the obstacles people have to overcome collaboratively."

In the Culinary Institute's $165 per person classes, said August, groups practice cooperation and communication by making a three-course meal together and eating it.

While these teambuilding experiences can be fun, not everyone is convinced they have value as a job-training tool.

Florence Stone, a spokeswoman at the American Management Association, is one of the skeptics. She said the event goals aren't comparable to serious, high-dollar objectives companies must achieve.

"I have to question whether or not playing games in teams is productive," she said. "It's a waste of money and time."