The Rebirth of Corporate Retreats
Why Alaska is the ideal location to energize, motivate, and inspire
By Kathryn Mackenzie
Corporate retreats took a backseat to more pressing financial matters as the economy dipped and companies began cutting costs wherever they could during the past decade. As the national economy has slowly eked its way out of recession, more businesses are considering investing in offsite trips to get employees away from their workstations to gain new perspectives and forge new bonds.
Work-related trips mean different things to different people. For business leaders they can be a great way to bring together workers from different departments and remote offices to meet face-to-face, create cohesiveness, instill company ideals and culture, and form new bonds and friendships. For employees, the concept of a “work vacation” often creates a sense of dread, conjuring images of embarrassing workshops learning trite trust exercises; long, dry, day-long meetings and brainstorming sessions; and precious time away from family members.
Alaska’s corporate retreat offerings turn those perceptions upside-down by offering adventure, luxury, and one-of-a-kind experiences for businesses of all sizes. Its many resorts, inns, and lodges feature activities designed to inspire productivity, spark the imagination, and soothe even the most harried soul.
Stillpoint Lodge is a second-generation, family-owned and -operated lodge. Originally designed to host retreats for artists and interfaith spiritual groups, the facility expanded its services in 2007 to offer more events such as board retreats, weddings, and continuing education credit workshops. JT Thurston, son of the original lodge’s founders, Jim and Jan Thurston, operates Stillpoint Lodge with the help of Beka and Lucas Thoning, managers of Stillpoint Lodge for nearly a decade.
“Stillpoint was built as a retreat center and workshop space that the original owners ran for ten years. Their son wanted to bring more adventure to the place, and one pivotal thing he did that has attracted more groups and business clientele is to add private showers and bathrooms. You don’t want to be showering in the main lodge with your CEO right there,” Beka Thoning, general manager and executive chef of Stillpoint Lodge, laughs. “Previously the lodge operated with compost bathroom facilities; now we have really nice bathrooms, a hot tub, and a bar and liquor license. The renovations have revolutionized the way we operate.” As an adventure lodge, Stillpoint offers a “unique combination of eco-adventure, leisure, and culture.”
Stillpoint Lodge is located in Kachemak Bay and Wilderness Park and surrounded by Kachemak Bay State Park, just twelve miles from the Homer airport, according to the company website. The lodge can be directly accessed via boat, float plane, and helicopter. The idea behind Stillpoint Lodge is to provide a comfortable, upscale, and remote place for groups of twelve to twenty-five people to hold meetings to enrich individuals and also foster team building through common interests. Executive groups, including physicians and lawyers, can earn continuing education credits in between whale watching, wildlife spotting, helicopter and plane rides, kayaking, fishing, hiking, and biking. With stunning views and luxurious amenities, a business trip to Stillpoint Lodge will likely leave visitors wanting more.
“One thing we experience over and over again is that once they get here, our visitors always regret not booking another night or two. They think they want to go somewhere else, but once they’re here they realize they can access anything there is to do in Alaska right here,” says Thoning. “There’s something for everybody. We have captains and pilots right on staff, so not everybody has to do the same thing and we help tailor activities to keep everyone happy.”
Since the lodge is open only in the summer, Thoning recommends booking an executive getaway one to two years in advance, if specific dates are needed. “I do get requests for corporate groups year-round, but we’re really only able to accommodate groups Memorial Day through September. So for us, trying to schedule that and make sure we have chunks of time for a whole-lodge buyout… gets a little tricky if people wait too long. I really do like it if people call me and give me a year’s notice. Then we can really dial-in the dates that they prefer and tailor their activities to fit their unique needs,” she says.
Stillpoint Lodge features round-the-clock access to meals, a hot tub, sauna, Wi-Fi, a wellness library, yoga space, lounge, and beverages. After a day of learning, bonding, and sightseeing, visitors can rest easy with all the creature comforts of home in their cabins, each with its own private bathroom, handmade quilts, and flannel sheets. When the day is done, it’s time to disconnect and enjoy the surroundings—no televisions here. “People are blown away by how a place can exist like this away from a city. It has a Scandinavian feel and is very classy, everything is being renovated to be classy, clean, and modern,” says Thoning.
The Cannery Lodge
Located on the Kenai Peninsula, The Cannery Lodge is ideal for businesses large and small seeking a remote location to pursue their corporate goals. The Cannery Lodge offers lodging, private events and corporate retreats, catering, concierge services, a private social and recreation club, and conference space. “Given our logistics infrastructure onsite [heliport, boat launch and floating dock, commercial dock, and overland capability] our facility has been utilized to support oil and gas projects in the area while housing key personnel for their respective projects in the Cook Inlet area,” says Ron Hyde, president and CEO of PRL Logistics and its Cannery Lodge.
The Cannery Lodge is the result of about one year of design, preservation, and restoration work to renovate an iconic 100-year-old cannery administration building and surrounding site into the current facility, a testament to old-meets-new with salvaged pieces of the old site used throughout the new design: dock planks became stairs and desktops, wood gutters are railings, metal roofing became wainscoting, and industrial cannery pulleys wired with 1920s fixtures serve as chandeliers, the company notes.
That attention to detail doesn’t stop at the design; executive groups at Cannery Lodge are treated to top-notch lodging, full-service meals, and project services.
“One of the keys to successful retreats is the logistics of their travel and complete onsite sustainment—having everything within their reach for lodging, dining, and entertainment in one campus. What makes our facility special is that our clients get that dose of real Alaska within an easy trip from the main city of Anchorage,” says Hyde.
Corporate visitors to The Cannery Lodge can make use of a sixty-acre private campus with lodging, custom dining, and multiple break-out and conference spaces, including an outdoor amphitheater for music performances and an intimate lounge and club environment for socializing, as well as access to fishing, sightseeing, wildlife viewing, and other recreation throughout the Kenai Peninsula. “Our clients have access to our onsite heated and lighted heliport, boat launch, and floating dock facilities. Not only is there river access at our lodge, but we also have beachfront property along the shores of Cook Inlet. Our property boasts beautiful landscaping and views of the city of Kenai, the mouth of the Kenai River, and Cook Inlet and is only minutes away from the airport. Not only will we provide the venue but our staff plan the entire retreat agenda and activities, including organizing all of the travel and onsite media projection and presentation equipment,” says Hyde.
Location, Location, Location
While the reasons for going on a corporate retreat are vital, the destination is arguably equally important. “One of the things we get the most feedback about is how being in such a beautiful, remote location gives people a sense of mindfulness and rest that they don’t find in other places. One of the goals we have here is to offer a transformational experience. When everyone is having that experience together, inevitably they are building stories that they’ll be able to tell when they get back to their office or their different branches,” says Thoning.
Doug Ramsay, marketing coordinator of Adventure Associates Inc., says companies typically come to Alaska for an enjoyable shared experience that builds trust, develops camaraderie, and improves communication. He says a group’s motivations can range from simply having fun and celebrating (such as during incentive trips) to working on bigger issues affecting group dynamics. Companies are also seeking a way to introduce newly-formed teams or groups that have recently gone through mergers to help them “get off on the right foot.”
“Corporate retreat goals are often higher level than shorter team building and training programs, with an emphasis on working through more specific issues affecting the company. Often they involve discussion forums, strategic planning, and consensus building. The impetus for taking a corporate retreat can vary widely, though, and can be anywhere on the spectrum of simply having a relaxing time together to working through serious crises or doing high-level planning for the organization,” says Ramsay. Adventure Associates designs and facilitates corporate retreats and meetings to help companies meet their corporate objectives. “Each is collaboratively designed to capture participant imagination, unleash their potential, and create a platform for sustainable development,” the company says.
Getting the Most Bang for Your Buck
Transporting teams of people to remote locations requires significant resources, planning, time, and money, so choosing the right location for a corporate retreat or incentive trip is key to making any work-related trip a success. No matter how interesting the speaker or classes, simply plunking employees down in the middle of a claustrophobic conference room for hours on end is not likely to inspire anyone to do much of anything. If invigoration, motivation, and excitement are on the agenda, Alaska’s corporate retreat offerings are sure to meet and exceed any corporation’s expectations. “Participants typically walk away with more insights about their own behavior as well as their group’s dynamics than they would have originally thought possible. And, most importantly, they are energized to work toward improved communication and common goals while gaining a better perspective on how their organization operates most effectively,” says Ramsay.
Hyde concurs saying, when guests arrive at The Cannery Lodge, he notices various levels of excitement and fatigue, but once they have a chance to unpack and settle in “we start to notice a lot of enthusiasm in their interactions with their peers and members of their group, whether it is sitting around one of the many fire pits or relaxing in the lounge or the breakout spaces.” And, by end of the trip, Hyde and Thoning agree, they see a marked change in their corporate visitors “once they are able to stop and really take in the Alaska elements, the wildlife, and the natural beauty surrounding them,” says Hyde.
Kathryn Mackenzie is the Managing Editor of Alaska Business.