Move over corporate retreats of yesterday. Gone are the days of being stuck with awkward icebreakers and brain-numbing flip charts, during which the only escape from the four walls of the boardroom was a steakhouse dinner. Today, it’s all about intimate, unique experiences that emphasize team building with the ultimate goal of long-term company success. It’s time for spa treatments to melt away employee stress; farm-to-table cooking classes for team building; and a bocce game, complete with vineyard views and winetasting, to perfect strategizing skills.
Wine Country has become the go-to Bay Area destination for companies—large and small—seeking unique, tailored corporate retreats. From day-long corporate escapes from San Francisco to Sonoma, where team-building means mixology classes at a local distillery; an overnight “glamping” stay at an African wildlife sanctuary in Santa Rosa; to post-workshop relaxation at hot springs at a historic resort in Calistoga. These aren’t the corporate retreats of 20 years ago.
“Our corporate clients want new experiences and they want to learn while they do it,” says Marisa Manna Ferrell, owner of Healdsburg-based So Eventful Productions. With thousands of events under her company’s belt, with clients including Google, General Electric and Redwood Credit Union, Ferrell provides project management, budget development and tracking, venue and vendor selection, logistics, event design, implementation, and team-building activities designed for corporate clients throughout the Bay Area seeking to retreat to Sonoma and Napa counties.
Ferrell sees corporate retreat trends leaning towards hands-on experiences that inspire creativity within each company’s individual corporate culture, including culinary and art classes, camping, rafting down the Russian River, and high energy activities such as zip lining and laser tag, the latter which serve as team-building exercises. So Eventful event planners work with corporate clients to understand their company culture, ensuring that activities are crafted around company interests and anticipated retreat outcomes.
For more than 20 years, Siobhan Coen-Ghormley, certified meeting profesional, has been planning and implementing corporate retreats and meetings in the Bay Area, specializing in Wine Country, as owner of Planner4Hire, which is currently based in Fairbanks, Alaska. The company will soon relocate to Amador County and aquire one satelite locations in Sonoma County. Planner4Hire has worked with a diverse array of corporate and association clients, including SFRe-Insurance, Society of Animal Welfare Administrators, Kaiser Permanente, and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Coen-Ghormley specializes in hotel and site selection, contract negotiations, program management, and most importantly, says Coen-Ghormley, works with clients to create the space for the successful outcome of their meetings and events. “[Our role is] to alleviate the stress of the program implementation so [clients] can focus on their bigger picture and bottom line.”
Coen-Ghormley identifies one major trend in current corporate retreat planning, especially when in Wine Country: budget. Clients are being “budget conscious,” which can be cost prohibition, depending on the client’s interests, especially in the luxury hospitality regions of Sonoma and Napa. She’s seen an increased interest in clients wanting to host off-site events at high-end wineries for internal company team meetings of all staff from across the company or a specific department, when it has traditionally been an activity for executive leadership teams. “Part of my job in the collaboration process is helping design alternatives based on what the needs are,” says Coen-Ghormley, which may include different winery options than those requested or hosting a smaller wine reception onsite at the property where the retreat is taking place. She’s also seen an increase in interest in competitive activities, such as scavenger hunts and bocce ball. (One new trend, for example, is bonding with colleagues over a scavenger hunt at Cornerstone Sonoma’s arts garden in which staff use clues, provided by event planners, to complete a list of tasks, which may include finding a specific artwork or completing an activity).
Another trend that has become a tradition for many corporate and association clients, however, is a day of service. Client’s spend a day giving back to communities in need, while connecting with one another through the process, and with those they help. Examples include an afternoon visit to Forget Me Not Farm and Garden in Santa Rosa to tend to their many rescue animals that help children heal from trauma, or spending an afternoon distributing food at Redwood Empire Food Bank. Says Coen-Ghormley, “What I truly love about this [corporate retreats], is my being able to collaborate with a client on their vision, help them bring it to life and leave a lasting impression.”
Sonoma Broadway Farms is a self-described “six-acre working farm, meeting space and picturesque retreat space built with the simple intention of bringing people together to reconnect with the land and one another over good food and the simple pleasures of Sonoma farm life.” Built in 1946, the property was acquired by investment broker Preston Raisin in 2012 to provide him and his family an escape from San Francisco and corporate life. Today, Sonoma Broadway Farms remains a living and working farm, and now a hot spot for farm-to-table focused small corporate retreats.
“We’re one of a kind,” says Raisin, who sought to create a space that helps companies with their employee retreats. “We execute their agendas, so they can enjoy a restorative escape together.” The solar-powered farm offers a 2,700-square-foot barn house that includes a multimedia nook with all the necessary technology for breakout and brainstorming sessions, an industrial kitchen, a communal dining area, and two bedrooms (one with four bunk beds) and an additional eight bunk beds in an adjacent building. Bathrooms with walk-in showers (including a dual-head outdoor shower) are offered for overnight guests. Current clients include San Francisco and Silicon Valley-based start-ups and larger corporations, including Google, StitchFix and Stripe.
The farm-to-table experience offers clients a chance to cook their own meals, using produce they pick from the on-site gardens, and participate in cooking classes with Sonoma Broadway Farms’ head chef, Brigitte Theiriot, who also caters breakfast, lunch and dinner. Theiriot sources produce, including microgreens and edible flowers, from the farm’s gardens. The Farm also partners with local baker, Cake Bloom, to create cakes and sweet treats made using farm eggs. Raisin also works closely with other vendors, including local restaurants, wineries, and yoga and pilates teachers to provide an all-encompassing experience. “The farm is an empty canvas that I hope guests will savor, explore and experience as their own,” says Raisin.
Often seen as a gateway into the Sonoma Valley, Cornerstone Sonoma is a multi-purpose space featuring shopping, boutique wineries and tasting rooms, a restaurant, a distillery, and an arts garden, all nestled amongst vineyards and farmland in south Sonoma. It also serves as the home of Sunset magazine’s test kitchen and gardens. Not only is Cornerstone Sonoma a popular stop on the “wine road” through Sonoma Valley, but it has also become a popular spot for companies seeking day retreats that offer a diverse mix of activities. It also serves as a one-stop shop for companies seeking an event planner and on-site activities mixed into one.
Their onsite event team works with clients, which include car manufacturers, biotech, finance, marketing and technology firms, to craft activities that range from morning or afternoon to all day experiences, according to Katie Kristensen, events director. “We bring employees together as a cohesive team through unique team building experiences,” she says. Clients can host activities and meetings by lily ponds, in a rustic brown barn surrounded by park-like green space, or in a large white barn, complete with vineyard views, that offers indoor and outdoor spaces for workshops and projects. “We offer a unique variety of spaces and architectural gardens that create beautiful and memorable events,” shares Kristensen.
Hands-on is the theme with team building and strategy developing activities at Cornerstone Sonoma. Clients can engage in private cooking classes with local chefs in the Sunset test kitchen, an outside industrial kitchen with plenty of room for large groups to get hands-on in all aspects of the cooking process. Kristensen has also worked with clients to offer plein air painting classes, also known as open air and outdoor painting, and scavenger hunts in the gardens and floral arranging classes at Tesoro Flowers, which has their floral studio on property. Additionally, wine tastings are offered at three on-site tasting rooms and curated mixology classes are available at Prohibition Spirits, a local distillery that serves craft gin, bourbon, and other spirits in their on-site tasting room.
“No hotel conference room could possibly delight your team the way our towering giraffes will,” says Corrine Bishop, manager of group sales at Safari West, a 400-acre private wildlife preserve in Sonoma County. “Safari West offers our corporate partners something no other facility can match: an intimate experience in nature and an adventure with African wildlife.” The property offers just that: a chance for staff to have breakout sessions on a sunny patio next to a flamingo pond followed by a gourmet catered lunch inside a communal dining area, complete with audio/visual equipment, decorated with original African art collected by Safari West’s Peter and Nancy Lang, founders and owners.
Peter Lang founded Safari West in the 1980’s when he established a breeding program for critically-endangered species, specifically those from Africa. Today, he and Nancy, curator and raptor specialist, continue their breeding program and offer conservation-focused educational programming and wildlife excursions to the “African safari” in Wine Country.
According to Caserta, companies visit Safari West for “rest, relaxation, and team building alongside the need to conduct some important business.” Safari West has 30 luxury safari tents, for overnight stays, which all have private indoor bathrooms and expansive patios overlooking the “Sonoma Serengeti.” The property’s onsite restaurant, the Savannah Cafe, caters meals, complete with gourmet safari grub and local wine and beer. After lunch, teams can participate in a private safari tour, which includes a behind-the-scenes tour of the property, as well as up close and personal with giraffes, warthogs, birds, antelopes, cheetahs, hyenas, lemurs, rhinoceros and zebras.
Safari West is truly off the grid, in the mountains bordering Sonoma and Napa County, with limited cell phone access. The property specializes in retreats for groups of 50 or less. “It’s for groups seeking to connect with nature and with one another,” says Bishop, versus staying connected to the outside world. Staff is able to focus on themselves, each other and the immediate environment surrounding them. “If your business needs include vast auditoriums and high-end connectivity, you may be better served at the convention center, but if you're looking for meaningful experiences and an increased sense of togetherness, look no further than Safari West.”
One of the oldest continuously operated resorts in California, Indian Springs was first founded as a spa, complete with Calistoga’s famous mud baths and mineral baths, in 1861. The 17-acre property, located just steps from historic downtown Calistoga, recently completed multi-million dollar renovations and offers not only a day spa retreat, but also 115 guest rooms, a 3,000-square-foot indoor meeting space, an on-site restaurant and bar, and a “summer camp” feel with the many on-site activities primed for breakout activities. “Indian Springs Calistoga is ideal for groups who want more than just a meeting,” says Andrea Lucia-Beatie, director of sales and marketing.
Retreats are offered for groups of 10 to 90, with guest rooms being a few steps, or a bicycle ride away from meeting facilities (Indian Springs loans guests bicycles to ride around the property). Their meeting spaces are indoor-outdoors, with natural light and airy spaces surrounded by fountains and gardens and large patio areas. All areas have audio/visual capabilities and high-speed Internet. The property is dotted with activity areas, popular for breakout sessions. “Breakouts over the bocce court, giant checkers, shuffleboard, ping pong competitions or soaking in the geyser-fed mineral pools until midnight are all great ways to wrap up a productive agenda,” says Lucia-Beatie.
The staff at Indian Springs works with corporate clients to provide employees post-meeting spa treatments and to work away stress. An afternoon can even involve working poolside at Indian Springs’ Olympic-sized mineral pool which is open until midnight. “Groups can boost creativity with outdoor experiences and activities both on and off-site,” she says, which may include a culinary experience at the Calistoga farmers market ending with the teams designing their own menus to be prepared by Sam’s Social Club chefs, or a walking tour of historic downtown Calistoga’s shops, museums and art galleries. In the evening, staff can settle into outdoor hammocks or alongside cozy fire pits.
According to Marisa Manna Ferrell, owner of So Eventful Productions in Healdsburg, there are two hot new trends in corporate retreats.
•Overnight stays at unique venues. One popular choice is an overnight stay at AutoCamp in Guerneville, a luxury resort where guests spend the night in vintage Airstreams.
•Visits to other businesses. An excursion to another business gives employees an opportunity to find inspiration, and perhaps break out of their comfort zone. Currently, a visit to McClelland’s Dairy in Petaluma includes a farm tour, which involves milking cows and tasting fresh butter. “Our corporate clients want new concepts and locations,” says Ferrell. “We live and work in such an amazing region and there is so much available to our clients.”
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