With CSR, green meetings, local food and healthful group activities becoming more a must than a maybe in corporate meetings every year, the next logical step is to take meetings out into the countryside.
Scenic locations have always been a consideration for planners, but today more and more meetings are not just taking place with an inside-out window’s view of mountain peaks, sparkling blue lakes and grasslands that roll uninterrupted for dozens of miles. Planners are increasingly taking their meetings to the mountain peaks, lunching around a campfire and teambuilding on the trail.
Even as a leisure travel trend, glamping, as a semi-codified area, is relatively new on the global travel scene. It harkens back to African safaris in Victorian times, when enormous yurt-like tents would be set up with wooden furniture, stoves and wash basins for well-heeled clientele who wanted to hunt the “big five” game animals without roughing it.
While many people have nostalgic childhood memories of family or scout camping trips, pitching tents, finding firewood and cooking around a fire, it’s easy to forget all the things those bucolic memories don’t include: a lack of clean hot water, food that takes four hours to prepare and tents getting blown over when you try to put them up in a driving rainstorm.
Glamping is often called luxury camping, but another way to look at it is as grownup camping. You’ve paid your dues. You want to enjoy the perks of camping without the inevitable downsides of a rustic experience. You need a more comfortable place to sit than the ground. And, while you may be in the great outdoors, you have things you want to do besides attend to your campsite.
While glamping venues, particularly those available for meetings, vary widely in how rustic the setting is, don’t expect outhouses here. Hot water may come from solar-powered heaters, but your shower is more likely princely and decked out with hand-tiled mosaics compared to the rough-hewn wooden stall you may remember from childhood camping trips.
Among glamping locations available for corporate events, the basics can vary widely. Some locations, such as the Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe, offer glamping meetings and activities, but with traditional accommodations. In addition to daytime outdoor teambuilding activities, such as scavenger hunts on the lake shore and geocaching, Destination Services recently organized a glow-in-the-dark beach party for a group of young professionals from a major technology company. Festivities included a glow-in-the-dark kayak relay with each participant decked out in glow-in-the-dark face paint and a light-up kayak and glow-in-the-dark volleyball on the beach.
Many glamping locations go whole hog, with guest rooms, dining and meeting spaces all in tented or open sky outdoor spaces. An hour outside Orlando, Westgate River Ranch, the largest dude ranch east of the Mississippi, hosts guests in glamping tents that might be more appropriately called canvas cabins. Set on raised wooden platforms, the tents include air conditioning, mini fridges, private bathrooms, screened-in porches and a private picnic area with a personal table and gas propane grill.
Paws Up, a ranch resort in Greenough, Montana, that was one of the pioneers of glamping vacations, has expanded into corporate meetings, particularly incentives, at its river camp on the Blackfoot River. Calling their lodging “tents” doesn’t seem to do it justice, according to planners who have had the pleasure. When Rommel Momen, marketing talent development manager for Torrance, California-based Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc. was planning an incentive at Paws Up last September, he says “I told people that were going on the trip luxury tents, and they were thinking, ‘How am I going to sleep in a teepee?’ but the feedback was amazing. People were taken aback by the fact that the rooms are amazing.
“When you walk inside one of these tents, it’s almost surreal,” he explains. “You undo the zipper and you walk in, and you’ve got a huge bed, a solid heated floor, a luxury bathroom, art on the walls and a heated blanket and mattress. The bed at Paws up is the best I’ve ever slept in. Because the mattress and blankets are heated, it feels like a bear is giving you a big hug every night while you fall asleep. Then there is a pavilion at each campsite, and each campsite has its own butler. He gets up at six to get the fire going, and the chef makes breakfast.”
As glamping locations have evolved from places to get away from it all on a leisure trip to viable options for incentives, executive retreats or meetings, activities on offer have become a central draw.
Both Westgate River Ranch and Blue Sky Ranch near Park City, Utah, have developed cowboy-themed programs that allow visitors to get into a bit of role-playing to challenge what they know about themselves in a fun environment. For a recent corporate retreat, Westgate arranged an extended program in their glamping site for 40 people, revolving around campfire breakout sessions, ropes courses, cowboy-themed teambuilding exercises such as the corporate cityslicker cattle drive, in which groups of four or more saddle up and help drive cattle around the ranch, and an evening pig roast and moonshine bar.
“We are very strong proponents of training and continuous learning. We want people to push themselves and challenge themselves,” says Vicki Dalzelle, meeting planner for Cincinnati, Ohio-based Phillips Edison, a developer of Blue Sky Ranch. “We use the different activities there at the ranch to help with teambuilding and soft skills. When you can put people in settings like working with horses, it’s an environment that is a little foreign, and some people are a little uncomfortable with that, and they have to learn more about themselves. When you put someone outside their comfort zone, they have to really think about things differently.
“We divide people into teams and do events that allow them to compete,” she explains. “But some are naturally athletic and others struggle with it, either because their knees are bad or they aren’t used to the altitude. They feel like they are a handicap to the team, and they feel like they aren’t contributing, but others say, ‘No, we’re in this together. We’ll drag you along, and you’ll be fine.’ It creates a bond. They find that they learn something about themselves, like they never thought they could go for a hike and make it to the top, but the others encouraged them, or they thought they were afraid of horses, and they can’t believe they did the trail ride. We find it really helps with communication skills. You’re out of the office and usual roles, so it’s the perfect environment for it.”
Like many up-and-coming destinations, many planners are hearing about glamping destinations through simple word of mouth, but what brings them to book are the intangible benefits of a glamping experience. “Someone else at Lexus had done something similar in Montana for an incentive or something for their dealers, and someone floated the name my way,” says Momen. “In my role, I’m responsible for department sales for Toyota certified used cars. I’ve put together other incentive trips in the past, and I’m always looking to do things someone ordinarily wouldn’t do themselves.
“Whether the destination or the type of trip, it’s important to me it’s something they wouldn’t do on their own,” he continues. “I’ve done the USVI, a race school at Laguna Seca, deep sea fishing in British Columbia. I look to create a bonding experience between the dealers through situations that allow you to realize there’s so much more than sitting on a beach. I’m not much of a beach person. I’d rather get in a car and go around and discover things. You get so much more out of those trips because you’re touching the ground, feeling it and really living it. It’s something people remember more.”
“You get so much more out of those trips because you’re touching the ground, feeling it and really living it. It’s something people remember more.”— Rommel Momen
Momen continues, “To me a trip is made by the people you’re with or that you’re interacting with, and the people at Paws Up did everything in their power to make life easy and make sure we had a great time. They’re the type of people who care about people more than catching a train, and I think that adds to the entire experience. From the moment you land, they take care of you. …You’re with great people in these exceptional tents roasting marshmallows, listening to the river, sitting with the butler and the great chefs, who have great attitudes and personalities. It’s the type of resort you want to be stuck at.”
For planners like Peter Smith, sales manager for Union City, California-based System Pavers, who tried glamping while looking for something different, it often turns out that the experience hit exactly the intangible needs of the event. “Every year we do a year-end planning meeting where we talk about the new year. We’ve done Reno and Tahoe, and this year we thought, ‘Let’s do something different,’ ” recalls Smith, so he took his team to Evergreen Lodge on the northern edge of Yosemite National Park with the help of group manager Tara Stetz.
“We had a three-day event with one structured day of meetings,” Smith explains. “For our structured day, we started with a hike in Yosemite, then we went back to the meeting room, which has a great view of the pool and a couple of trees, for six hours of meetings. On the other days, everyone could just sort of do as they liked — hike, play bocce ball. They had pretty much everything you would want to do. There’s so much to do up there, but not very many things are planned. We had some hikes, during the day and at night, because you work with these people all the time and it’s nice to get outside.”
Smith continues, “The loose structure allowed everyone to be super relaxed and excited, even though there was a lot of work activity to do, since it was the year-end meeting. Most people were there with their families. There were only eight people on our managerial team, and people would get up on their own and decide over breakfast what to do. In the main cabin, there’s a fireplace, and sometimes people would just sit around the fireplace, but they have these miniature cabins that allowed us to have a little community.
“It’s the kind of thing we thought we were missing,” he says. “Before it was just about getting everyone’s families together, and this was dead on. The secluded location made people’s heads clear. People relaxed, and we got a lot of work done. It’s way better than the usual corporate structure to a year-end meeting. The company gets more, and the employees are happier.”
“The secluded location made people’s heads clear…and we got a lot of work done. It’s way better than the usual corporate structure to a year-end meeting. The company gets more, and the employees are happier.” — Peter Smith
Dalzelle couldn’t agree more about the time her employees spent at Blue Sky. “Blue Sky is perfect because it gets everyone out of the office and puts us somewhere with great scenery. It’s so refreshing, you can really clear your head,” she says. “It’s just indescribable, this sensation you get when you’re standing on top of the mountain. You’re able to get caught up. It’s not next thing, next thing, next thing. You’re able to enjoy the moment, and that makes you much more receptive to the training going on, because there are no distractions. Even though you’re allowed time to check email, most of the time no one wants to.”
Blue Sky Ranch, which specializes in a wide variety of mountain adventures and teambuilding, has an 8,000-sf arena that can accommodate up to 500 banquet style. A mountaintop yurt also can be used for small gatherings or “luxury overnights” for six. Dalzelle has been going to Blue Sky for meetings and retreats for seven years. “When we found out that they were going to do it and the idea of what it was going to be, we had our annual meeting there in 2007, and there was nothing out there,” she says. “They dropped us off on the side of a dirt road, and we had to hike in by GPS to find 200 trees and plant them. Now, each year each department takes a few days to go offsite to do some training and teambuilding activities. They love it. That’s one of the things that never get old in this company.
“When I have new people coming in and we talk during new hire orientation about going for department retreats and the annual meeting, they’re like, ‘Wow! We get to go out there? For work?’ They find it really fascinating that the company would do this. I think it’s part of our culture. It’s just something that we do now. Employees know when retreats are coming up and they look forward to them.”
Dalzelle continues, “When I schedule a department retreat, there’s a structured part, and once teambuilding activities wrap up, we do the debriefing on that. Then we have lunch on the patio, and some people just want to sit and enjoy the view, the peace and quiet, the non-demand on time. Others will rally a group for a walk. People who have been there before say, ‘Oh, lets walk up to the yurt or to the tavern.’ You’ve got people who are new to the company and are overwhelmed because there’s just so much to do and to look at and others that are wanting to share their experiences they’ve had there before.”
While attendees have a chance to unwind and rejuvenate with both stunning scenery and luxurious treatment, whether from an onsite spa or butler, exposing them to something so out of the ordinary also creates a lasting positive impression of your company.
“I think the great thing is that you sometimes don’t know what you don’t know that you like,” explains Momen. “When you think about it, if you’ve lived only in urban, developed areas, going cattle-herding on horseback is something you can never envision on your own without having done it. Trying to explain it to someone else just doesn’t translate.”
From planners who have taken the plunge, the resounding response on glamping meetings is: just do it. The locations not only offer attendees something unique that they’re not likely to experience on their own, but the evolving settings and activities also make them ideal locations to return to year after year and create a unique corporate culture around.
Says Dalzelle, “You have to go there and experience it to understand — just the view and being able to stand there on a mountain top and take a deep breath. I’ve had a lot of events, and every time I just can’t wait to go back.” C&IT