Small Meetings Challenge

Finding a Great Fit Is No Small Task

By Mark Rowh

The size of a meeting is not necessarily directly proportional to the difficulties planners are likely to experience. Planning a small meeting or executive retreat for 50 to 200 attendees can be as challenging as a conference for thousands.

As with meetings of any size, choosing the right location for small meetings may be the most important consideration.

“When it comes to small meetings or executive retreats, I typically look for small-to-midsized hotels where the size of the group maximizes all the space that the hotel has,” says Jennifer Norsworthy Meyer, director of events for Louisiana Farm Bureau Insurance. “This way you ensure that your group has the undivided attention of the hotel staff.” She says she’s had some bad experiences with customer service in larger convention-sized hotels with smaller groups.

Luxury on a Budget

Meyer also looks for ways to do luxury locations on a budget.

“Typically, people in the insurance and financial management sectors are used to first-class accommodations and locations,” she says. “Being flexible with dates, room night patterns and building relationships within the industry by being easy to work with are all things that will garner you a lower rate at some top-notch locations.”

Her organization holds a summer-long promotion through which its insurance agents can qualify to win an incentive trip in late September each year. The recognition event, held Monday through Thursday, includes a welcome reception on Monday night and a Ryder Cup-format golf tournament on Tuesday.

At the 2016 meeting, held at Caribe Resort in Orange Beach, Alabama, activities for the 120 participants also included a progressive dinner to raise money for the family of a team member who was going through a difficult time.

“We got together about six different cooking teams, and they cooked all kinds of delicious Louisiana dishes for our group on Tuesday evening,” Meyer recalls. “Attendees walked from condo to condo sampling the fare, and we raised about $12,000 in a matter of hours.” Other popular activities included shopping and floating in the lazy river at the Caribe, and one group rented a party barge.

“This group typically loves water amenities, and easy access to bars and restaurants,” she says. The Caribe Orange Beach has all of that right at your fingertips.” Another selling point was the resort’s condo setup.

“This group has a lot of camaraderie, and so being able to host people in their condos for breakfast, lunch and dinner was a big hit,” Meyer says.

Meeting the expectations of attendees should take priority, according to Lisa Burton, CMP, senior vice president for Meeting Expectations, a meeting management company headquartered in Atlanta with offices in Washington DC, Chicago and Denver.

“Top executives have experienced a lot,” she says. “So small corporate meetings and executive retreats need to offer unique, high-end experiences, often personalized to the individual attendee, to be truly memorable.”

She says that when planning such a meeting or retreat, a common challenge is providing sufficient content while dealing with a short time frame.

“If it’s a corporate team and teambuilding is an objective, then that can be accomplished through an immersive hands-on experience — but without the ‘kitsch’ usually associated with teambuilding.” Examples include sailing, skeet shooting or deep-sea fishing. Or if philanthropy is in alignment with corporate objectives, then teambuilding may be accomplished through raising money or performing a hands-on community-building project.

“If it’s a customer event, it is important to have properly planned interactions between the executives and customers, also highly personalized, and ensure the executives have been thoroughly educated about the individuals in attendance,” Burton says.

Does the Site Fit the Objectives?

Planners in any industry first need to consider the goals and objectives of the meeting or retreat they are planning and look for a facility that meets those needs, says Bethany Burnett, CMP, director of sales and sparkle at Bavarian Inn Lodge & Conference Center in Frankenmuth, Michigan.

“Do they need a quiet, secluded location for intense strategizing or are they trying to facilitate teambuilding among the group? Are they going to have to collaborate remotely with individuals? If so, then they need to find a facility that has extensive audio-visual capabilities. The priority is a venue that supports their objectives,” she says.

Jim Adkins, founder and CEO of Strategic Financial Associates in Bethesda, Maryland, who includes planning meetings among his duties, says privacy is a primary consideration.

“We always try to look for a private, self-enclosed setting,” he says. “Hotels or resorts with meeting rooms work well. It may be nice to add something non-business related, such as a light outdoor activity.”

He notes that according to some recent surveys, up to 61 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs have no social presence.

“Keeping this in mind, it may be a good idea to allow people to relax and unwind during your meeting and to take a break from technology, while also getting important things done,” Adkins says. He prefers to hold breakfast or lunch meetings, but commences with the business at hand “only after people finish eating and the wait staff has stopped moving.” He adds that alcohol is never served until all the business and any outdoor activities are finished for the day.

Adkins says that his firm’s Maryland, northern Virginia and Washington, DC, locations enjoy access to a variety of wineries and microbreweries. “It’s nice to partner with local vendors to make it a memorable event,” he says.

According to Marcia Skillman, owner of Destination Services of Santa Fe, one advantage for planners of smaller meetings is that there may be more flexibility in dealing with the unexpected. She recalls arranging a dinner that included music from a guitar and drum duo specializing in Latin jazz, and they played throughout the night. But at some point the musicians played an acoustic version of a John Denver song and some of the listeners, who hailed from outside the U.S., asked if they knew any more American folk songs.

“The next thing I know, the guitar player has the ukulele out and they are singing folk tunes, along with about half of the group, all singing along and cheering,” she says. “It was not something I would ever have booked, and it happened so organically, it was a very special night.”

Kecia Brooks, education specialist for Vizo Financial Corporate Credit Union in Greensboro, North Carolina, says in planning smaller meetings she prefers locations where everything can be done at one property.

“Trying to organize transportation for an offsite event presents a whole different set of challenges,” she says. “I prefer to be able to use various areas of a resort so the attendees feel like they are going to different places.”

She also finds it helpful to find a “home” for events and says she always tries to use that hotel when in the area. A favorite venue is The Ballantyne Hotel in Charlotte, North Carolina.

“When planning an event at Ballantyne, we utilize the entire property and our attendees love it,” she says.

She adds that in this location, one factor to consider is the possibility of hurricanes

“You can’t plan for things like that but in a way, you can,” she says. “Call your contact, work with them in advance to plan options, and listen to them. They know their property better than you do and they will have great suggestions.”

Thomas Mitchell, CEO of Global Intermix, a translation and interpreting firm based in Los Angeles that serves the financial sector among others, sees value in the time he spends planning meetings for his organization.

“It may be strange that a CEO plans meetings and retreats, but I recognize the incredible value in effective gatherings of our team,” he says. “Structuring a successful retreat is something that I take great pride in.”

He says that business retreats are an especially effective way to strengthen teams, engage employees and acknowledge their hard work and dedication to the company.

The Best Fit for Attendees

“As such, selecting the best place for your business retreat should stem from the interests and personalities of your employees,” he says.

He notes that for his employees, that means getting out of the city, unplugging and enjoying the outdoors. A favorite spot for the firm’s twice yearly, three-day retreat is Enchantment Resort in Sedona, Arizona. Participants enjoy what Mitchell describes as the perfect balance of structure and freedom, including yoga and hiking activities, a jeep tour, spa vouchers and time simply to rest and read.

“We offer a variety of different activities, and based on everyone’s interests they can partake in whichever activities interest them most,” he says. “This breaks down our team into smaller groups and allows for more intimate conversation and opportunity to build stronger relationships.” He notes that it’s one thing to know someone well in the office, but to connect through a common interest and activity strengthens those relationships that then carry over to working on a team.

“We always end the retreat with a sunset dinner in the red rocks in which everyone shares something new they learned over the past three days,” Mitchell says. “Getting out of the office and into nature is refreshing and inspiring for our team.”

More Small Meeting Sites

A great example of an attractive location for retreats or smaller meetings is the Villas of Grand Cypress. The 1,500-acre Orlando resort offers both suites and villas with up to four bedrooms. For meetings of 240 or fewer, a recently renovated, Mediterranean-style executive meeting center offers four separate meeting rooms totaling 7,200 sf of event space. The facility can be divided into eight self-contained, soundproof meeting and banquet rooms. Surrounding an open atrium, the meeting rooms overlook a scenic garden terrace.

Meetings of 10 people or fewer can be held in villas with space up to 2,700 sf, where living rooms, dining rooms or patio decks offer alternative meeting spots. Recreational options include Jack Nicklaus Signature-designed golf courses.

The Resort at Pelican Hill in Newport Coast, California, frequently hosts smaller meetings. Settings at the 504-acre resort include oceanview boardrooms and private dining rooms as well as cabanas and villas. A ballroom that can be divided into three smaller sections offers a combined 4,560 sf of space and accommodates up to 520 for receptions or 600 in theater format. Four meeting rooms range in size from 880 to 1,326 sf. For outdoor events, several terraces and lawn areas can handle from 50 to 750 people. Attractions include a large circular pool and two highly rated golf courses. Along with activities ranging from pasta-making lessons to wellness classes, guests enjoy easy access to bike tours, harbor cruises and beach walks.

Located in Northeast Florida’s Atlantic Beach, One Ocean Resort & Spa offers more than 10,500 sf of meeting space that easily accommodates smaller meetings. Facilities include multiple indoor meeting rooms as well as 1,635 sf of outdoor meeting space.

A 1,696-sf ballroom is complemented by a 3,800-sf ballroom with a capacity of 294 to 550 depending on the function and setup. Eight breakout rooms also are available. Services of interest to meeting planners include teambuilding activities, professional photographers and VIP spa packages.

The Lodge at Sea Island is one of four attractive experiences available at the famous Georgia location. The Lodge features five meeting rooms, a wine cellar with permanent dining table and, for outdoor events, a screened-in veranda, covered veranda and lawn. Indoor meeting spaces, ranging from 416 sf to 1,440 sf, accommodate 12–30 people in conference mode or 30–150 for receptions. The outdoor venues, sized from 500 sf to 4,080 sf, handle groups from 30 to 200. The Lodge is complemented by the Cloister at Sea Island, the Inn at Sea Island, the Broadfield sporting club and lodge, Sea Island Cottages, and a wealth of activities and attractions including five miles of private beach, a dozen dining options, a spa, beach club, tennis and squash centers, yacht club, shooting school and three championship golf courses.

At Salamander Resort in Middleburg, Virginia, guests enjoy a historic setting in the state’s horse-and-wine country. The 340-acre resort features a 4,500-sf, three-section ballroom, foyer, terrace and meeting rooms accommodating 24 to 233 participants in classroom format and 30 to 450 for receptions. Outdoor choices include an equestrian center, stone barn and large lawn with room for 330 for banquets or 450 for receptions. For retreats and other business meetings, teambuilding functions include opportunities to connect and communicate with horses and experience the challenge of a zip-lining tour.

Small-to-midsized groups are the norm at the Lodge & Club at Ponte Vedra Beach, which occupies 10 acres on Florida’s northeast Atlantic coast. Emulating the surroundings of a seaside European village, the resort offers more than 13,000 sf of meeting and banquet space. Seven meeting rooms, most featuring ocean views, accommodate 10 to 150 people. Along with 66 guest rooms and suites, guests enjoy an oceanfront pool and a 4,000-sf fitness center. They also have access to the resort’s sister property, Ponte Vedra Inn & Club, which offers two 18-hole golf courses, 15 tennis courts and a 30,000-sf spa.

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