Can a work meeting amid goose flesh and bikinis really help unleash creative ideas or boost your company's, er, bottom line?
It would be difficult to quantify the exact effect of a poolside retreat to a company's profits, but Alina Villasante, a designer at fashion company Peace Love World, swears by it. "You tend not to work as much," she admits, "but the quality of work is better." Associations are made that wouldn't be made elsewhere—ideas connected, working relationships solidified.
The main risk, she says, is that you might get too close to your colleagues on such a retreat. At a recent poolside meeting, one of Villasante's employees confessed that she was having trouble choosing between two romantic partners, one a man, the other a woman. Soon, after a few sangrias, Villasante may have spilled a bit too much about her family dynamics (her ex-husband, with whom she remains friends, and who is the father of her children, and who is Peace Love World's president, now dates another employee at the company . . . it's complicated). "They probably learn too much about me," Villasante admits. "Or we see too much skin." Still, she convenes such retreats regularly—including one this week.
Typically, a visit to an opulent pool in Miami’s South Beach is something you do to get away from work. But increasingly, says Cynthia Boyett, a marketing director at Morgans Hotel Group, businesses are deciding that poolside is the best place to get work done. "People are searching for a more unique setting to promote creativity and build team rapport," she says. Though such meetings have long occurred at the group’s hotels (Delano South Beach, Mondrian South Beach, and Shore Club), Boyett says that she and her staff have noticed an uptick in these watery retreats, particularly in the last three years. "It’s a poolside meeting space trend," she says. "We’re hearing it from meeting planners in L.A. and south Florida both."
A typical retreat might last two and a half days, Boyett says. Whoever’s leading the retreat might rent a poolside bungalow to hold meetings in (starting price: around $1,500 a night), while other members of the team might stay in other rooms throughout the hotel. The hotel’s catering and conference services team will take care of the food (around $175 per person per day, with care taken to accommodate your group’s dietary needs, be they vegetarian, gluten-free, or "paleo"). Sometimes, if money’s no object, a third-party meeting planner may work together with the hotel. Other perks might include hand and foot massages, yoga, or tai chi on the beach, says Boyett. "It really creates an experience not anticipated or expected for a meeting."
At the Delano or a sister hotel, depending on a group’s budget, event planners might even weave a theme throughout an entire retreat, Bar Mitzvah-like. Boyett of Morgans Hotel Group recalls a recent group that had "Lights, Camera, Action!" as its theme. "They basically wove a movie theme throughout the entire program." There was chocolate in the shape of a film reel. There were bags of popcorn for snacks. After dinner, there was movie night in a media room. Was this an entertainment company? "No, this was a management company," says Boyett. The phrase "Lights, Camera, Action!" was just about "getting the sales team excited."
Excitement’s well and good. But can any work of substance get done with an endless supply of piña coladas at hand? Boyett agrees with Villasante that relaxing promotes creativity. But more to the point, in an era where companies like Google and Facebook are becoming famous for their relaxed work environments—Boyett cites reports of "bean bags and putting greens" in various tech offices—more traditional companies at least need to find temporary venues to let their hair down. Shipping the sales team down to South Beach can be a way of showing your employees that deep down, when you want to be, you’re as cool as Sergey Brin.
"One CEO decided he wanted to finish a session in the pool. He jumped in, then they all jumped in, and they finished the meeting brainstorming in the water," says Boyett.
She says that "a nice mix" of companies have already availed themselves of the services, from Fortune 500 companies to various associations, everything from financial to tech to entertainment. "We do have a couple groups that come back year after year, which I think speaks volumes," she adds.
Umberto Cipolla, founder of watch company Orefici, says he chose Miami as the center for his U.S. operations precisely because of the availability of idyllic watery retreats to close deals, free-associate, and get creative. But even if a visit to a fancy Miami hotel with a rented cabana doesn't fit your startup's budget, it's more the spirit of the thing that counts. Cipolla nearly chose to relocate to New York, he says. If he were there, "I'd go to a rooftop pool and sit for two, three, or four hours," he says. "You get ideas in a different way."
[Image: Flickr user Lady May Pamintuan]