Stacy Lambatos is the founder of CAYA Studios, an organization that has successfully connected people with their own self-discovery journeys through hundreds of curated events and experiences. Before founding CAYA, an acronym for “Come as You Are,” Stacy was vice president of brand experiences for Verizon Media, where she held leadership positions in events, B2B marketing, creative and corporate branding. She grew up in Denver, studied entrepreneurship and business in Los Angeles, and has additionally called Chicago and New York home.
These days, planning a team-building offsite might seem a little complex, with tons of variables to consider. After two plus years of isolation, uncertainty, and immense change, gathering in person feels like precious time now, not to be wasted or taken for granted. Evaluating business and personal needs has taken on a whole new significance.
It’s easy to talk about the importance of meeting in person and being intentional about how we spend that time, but it’s way harder to put it all into practice. I’ve been planning events for over 20 years for companies like AOL, Verizon, Boeing, and Google with budgets totaling tens of millions of dollars. Reflecting on my experience and considering the times we’re living in, I’ve broken down some important steps to consider when getting your team together.
Step 1: Get Your Team Involved
Are you a leader trying to plan an offsite on your own? It’s not uncommon. But one of the most brilliant steps a leader can take is to assemble a planning team to organize the retreat. This team can include people from a mix of positions and levels who all share in the excitement and enthusiasm of gathering in person. With this delegation, it’s important the leader ensures that whoever they empower has authority, vision, and execution skills. Failing to appoint the appropriate “chief” can sink the whole project.
The team not only takes some of the burden off you as the leader, it gives ownership and advocacy to the team members.
Step 2: Ask Questions and Listen (Like, Really Listen) to the Answers
While listening to your employees may seem like obvious leadership, it’s a critical step that many leaders miss. Once the planning team is assembled, send a survey to the entire team inquiring about the team’s well-being, availability, needs, and wishes for the offsite.
Taking this simple yet crucial step of asking what your employees want to do/see/experience when together not only helps in the planning, but also lets your team know you genuinely care about what is important to them.
Now, the second part of this step is to actively listen. Implementing many of the ideas that come from the survey is a great way to let the team know they have been heard. Another way to do this is to ask everyone a personalized question—such as, What’s your favorite snack? Song? Quote?—then find ways to incorporate these personal touches during your time together.
It’s impossible to make everyone happy. Offering choices in activities helps alleviate dissatisfaction. Another important element here is bravery. Sometimes teams know what they want to experience, but more often than not, they are uncertain and likely afraid to explore new things in a professional setting. For example, if you’ve never tried a sound bath, how will you know if you like it? Being courageous in your initiative is key. Even if someone doesn’t love something about the off-site experience, they will still be more open to it when they understand why it’s happening or have a deeper context for it. Communication is key!
Step 3: Design the Content
Much of the content inspiration will come from your team’s survey responses and the leader’s priorities. I recently worked with Marta Martinez, managing director of agency platforms at Google, and her team to plan their first offsite since the beginning of the pandemic. Marta’s goal was to make sure the three days with her team were structured, with around 75 percent of the time dedicated to connection and personal growth and 25 percent to business.
"Normally, it is the other way around. If we have two days of an offsite, a morning/afternoon is dedicated to team connection—we flipped it!" she explained. “Connected teams drive collaboration, nurture healthy working relationships, promote knowledge-sharing and a sense of belonging. As leaders, we have the responsibility to design experiences that intentionally foster all of the above—this often requires creativity and bravery, truly thinking out of the box!”
When leaders invest in their employees’ personal growth, development, and joy, the business results quickly follow. Deeply connected, grounded, and emotionally intelligent teams are more equipped to deal with conflict and change, access creative ideas, and solve problems. Gallup found that teams that score in the top 20 percent in engagement realize a 41 percent reduction in absenteeism and 59 percent less turnover.
For me, time spent in personal reflection is nonnegotiable for any off-site retreat. This is where the magic happens—the moments and experiences you can’t plan for but can create opportunity and space for unanticipated discoveries to arise.
Intentionally offering this space to your employees away from the office, without a specific goal in mind, can be one of the most powerful pieces of programming.
There are several ways to put this into practice. Here are some ideas:
- Take advantage of nature and scenery: Being in nature has a way of shifting perspectives and allowing us all to come back to pieces of ourselves we’ve been ignoring.
- Try sound meditation: This is likely something that will be new or not a regular practice among a large team; introducing spans of 30–45 minutes to the agenda to pause, relax, and meditate provides a neutral space in which each member can have their own experiences and bouts of inspiration.
- Provide a daily journal prompt or begin each day with morning pages, inspired by Julia Cameron from The Artist's Way.
- Book external speakers on topics of personal growth and discovery: Allow your team to see themselves in the lives of others willing to share their human experience with vulnerability and honesty.
- Have intentional conversations: Offer talking points during meals to encourage the team to connect on matters outside of business.
Step 4: Select the Venue
Be bold with this step! Be aware that the setting of your offsite can play a huge role in the team’s experience. Gathering around a conference table in the office feels very different than sitting on the beach, in a forest, in a home, on a boat, in a greenhouse, gym, theater, comedy club … you get the point.
It’s easy to settle on a standard venue versus one that will enhance the experience. This path doesn’t have to equate to spending more money either. Think creatively on what kind of venue supports your agenda and goals.
Once you decide on a venue, don’t stop there. Ask if anyone from the venue has innovative ideas to share with your team. Can you make the venue and its staff part of the agenda, maybe with an inspirational talk from the owner, a guided tour, or a site-based activity?
Step 5: Nail the Details and Get Personal
People notice how they are treated and recognize small, unexpected gestures. A big piece of getting your team together in person is connection. For this to happen, the leader has to go first in showing a part of themselves that the team hasn’t seen.
For example, if you as a leader love rock climbing, share a little piece of your passion with the team by giving them a carabiner and a message on why it’s important to you. Or if you’re passionate about coffee, take the team to your favorite coffee shop (maybe even meet there per step 4!).
If you ask about personal preferences in the survey, follow through on them for your team when you’re off-site. Maybe that looks like leaving your team’s favorite snacks in their hotel rooms or making a custom journal with the team’s favorite quotes.
At Marta’s off-site meeting for Google, we had a basket of greeting cards and prompted team members to write and mail cards to people they met while at the event including notes of gratitude or why they felt connected to them. This not only brought a moment of reflection to the gathering, but it extended the experience afterward when everyone received their cards in the mail.
Details matter, and the more personal you can get with the details you implement, the more impactful they will be. Don’t be afraid to share a little more of yourself; what you receive in return will pay dividends and foster a deeply connected team.
Step 6: Execute the Plan
Flawlessly executing your plans to bring the experience to life is a no-brainer. After putting so much time and attention into the planning, you’ll want the actual experience to go well. You don’t want to be worried about all the specifics when trying to be present for your team as both a leader and a participant.
If you don’t have an internal events team to collaborate with, my suggestion is to hire a planner that who both resonates with your vision and can handle all the details and logistics at the site, such as venue setup, transportation, catering, and A/V. Being creative, detail-oriented, emotionally intelligent, and comfortable with change are all qualities to look for in a planning partner.
Ideally, your hired planner can also elevate your offsite in ways you and the team haven’t thought of yet. Give them the opportunity to offer feedback on what you have planned and add their own inspiration and creativity. You never know where the big ideas will come from, so stay open!
Step 7: Conduct the Wrap-Up
It’s easy to forget this step at the end of hosting an offsite. Instead of saving the wrap-up until the end, build it into the planning phase.
While you do your initial survey, draft the post survey as well so you have before and after metrics.
On the last day of your offsite when everyone has departed, take 30 minutes, and draft the post offsite message to your team. You don’t have to send it right away, but capturing your feelings and reflections while they’re still fresh and in the moment can be powerful.
Finally, share the learning and inspiration. Chances are you spearheaded an incredible offsite for your team and peers in your network will want to do the same. Think about how you can extend the experience and the results that came from it with others.
Nadia Carta was Marta’s designated executive producer from her team. Nadia recommends doing this via a recap video. “You can throw together the most magical offsite but words cannot express the beauty of a lived experience. Budgeting for a video reel has the highest ROI as people can continue dreaming after the experience is over.”
As you consider these seven steps and begin building your next in-person experience, remember to be intentional with all that you do and to communicate, listen, and take some risks along the way.
After years of creating intentional and meaningful experiences that mix business results with personal growth, I have seen the impact a well-designed offsite can have. I love to connect with leaders and planning teams looking to strike this balance. Reach out if you have questions or ideas. The best plans start with a conversation.