As businesses in Northern California navigate the changing restrictions ordered by the state due to the coronavirus pandemic, reconnecting with our colleagues could be more crucial than ever. According to a 2018 survey by Robert Half Management Resources, 22 percent of professionals reported that “more frequent social outings with their team members would increase their engagement at work.” Safe company outings may play a role in reigniting workplace interactions as we enter into the new economy.
Corporate retreats have long been a business mainstay when it comes to getting employees out of their office habitat and into a new environment to brainstorm, acquire new skills, learn more about each other and generate out-of-the-cubicle ideas. And if that new environment is spacious and easily accessible, all the better — which makes the Sierra foothills a promising retreat location for businesses based in Sacramento and the Bay Area.
“Getting here is pretty easy, and being here is incredibly beautiful,” says National Real Estate Market Advisors CEO John Krueger, who counts the county of El Dorado as one of his clients. “Gold Country is the perfect environment for a corporate retreat — you can drive to the gorgeous American River, dozens of vineyards, South Lake Tahoe, even Nevada for gambling. There’s something for everyone.”
The diversity of options in the Sierra foothills include physical activities like hiking and mine tours and more relaxing ventures like wine tasting and strolling the picturesque streets of downtown Placerville. Jody Franklin, executive director of tourism for the El Dorado County Visitors Authority, likes to think of her community’s offerings in “three buckets: outdoor adventure, gold rush history (at gold discovery site Sutter’s Mill in Coloma) and agricultural-culinary experiences.” And because everything is relatively close together, “you can do one thing in the morning and another thing at night,” which ensures every team member will have something to look forward to, no matter their personal preferences.
Off-site retreats also offer diverse intangible benefits — chiefly, says human resources technology company Justworks, the ability to give employees a chance for face-to-face connection (from a safe distance) in an environment outside their daily norm, which can open the door for social bonding and better teamwork. Many venues in the Sierra foothills offer team-building exercises within that new environment to get the most out of the hours or days of a retreat.
“Getting people out of the office and into nature allows for an aspect of team building that can’t be found anywhere else,” says Daniella Faieta, director of Coloma Resort, which offers facilitated team-building ropes-course programs, indoor and outdoor meeting spaces, and a variety of accommodations (including RV, glamping and tent camping sites) along the South Fork American River. “Activities like the ropes course and whitewater rafting push people out of their comfort zones — that element of adventure and excitement makes them work as a team and trust each other, which helps them build new relationships they’ll be able to take back to the office,” says Faieta.
Building trust is a key component of corporate retreats. Establishing trust, communication and teamwork are the most common goals for businesses who use team-building exercises as part of their retreats, according to Stephanie Sibille, managing partner of Creative Horizons Training, a team-building firm that plans events, workshops and simulations for companies throughout the state.
“There’s a big lack of human connection right now,” says Sibille, who has organized recent events for military and health care organizations at Rancho Murieta’s The Murieta Inn & Spa. “We’re seeing virtual corporate retreats (on platforms like) Zoom, but you really can’t beat in-person, face-to-face connection (when public health protocols allow it). The need for human connection hasn’t gone away just because we’re meeting through computer screens. Once you put a face to a name, it helps the communication piece — it’s easier to have an interaction once you’ve had face time. We can’t wave a magic wand (and make people trust each other), but we can talk about consensus-building tools and do activities that help teams learn how to work together better.”
A Harvard Business Review study found that consensus building — in which “everyone on the team talks and listens in roughly equal measure” — is one of five important factors of a successful team. Others include interacting directly with other team members (not just the team leader) and taking occasional breaks to “go exploring outside the team.” That’s where activities like rafting, ropes courses, Olympic-style competitions, scavenger hunts and even giant Jenga games (like those offered by Sibille) can open the door to better communication in a low-stress environment where interpersonal connection feels more organic.
At a location like The Murieta Inn & Spa, about 25 minutes along Jackson Road from Sacramento, a diversity of activities means retreat attendees have a variety of ways in which to connect. Indoors, the venue offers traditional meeting spaces like state-of-the-art boardrooms and breakout rooms, as well as The Cupola Spa & Salon, farm-to-fork restaurant The Gate, and accommodations that feel more like a boutique private residence than a hotel.
The Murieta Inn & Spa features plenty of open-air space to accommodate team-building exercises and views of the surrounding foothills. Thanks to a relationship with Rancho Murieta Country Club, guests have priority access to two golf courses as well as equestrian events. Myriad wineries in El Dorado and Amador counties are quick jaunts away to wind down after a day of meetings to learn about winemaking with coworkers-cum-friends or even incorporate into retreat programming — wineries Via Romano Vineyards in Placerville and Mediterranean Vineyards in Somerset both cater to corporate clientele. There are also activities nearby — including hot-air balloon rides and flight lessons, boating, fishing, and skiing — that can add to any retreat.
“Managers are always looking to blow their team away,” says London Hine Kristovich, The Murieta Inn & Spa’s director of sales and marketing. “They want something unique where they can accomplish their business goals but also something to show their appreciation for their employees and create memories. … We’re only a hop, skip and a jump away from Sacramento and yet we feel like a world away.”
Which is what retreat should feel like, after all.