To an outsider, corporate teambuilding activities may simply look like fun and games, but in reality, they can play a significant role in helping an organization reach important goals such as improving communications, fostering a better sense of cooperation or learning to overcome challenges. And the choice of teambuilding activities now available is as diverse as the organizations that engage in them.
When Antoine Alston, owner of Berkshire Functional Fitness in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, was getting ready to launch an innovative new fitness concept, he wanted to find a teambuilding activity that would take his employees out of their comfort zone. Alston chose Berkshire HorseWorks, a nonprofit organization located in Richmond, Massachusetts, to guide his group of 14. Berkshire HorseWorks specializes in equine-assisted personal development programs designed to help employees learn how to work together toward a common goal and/or to adapt to a new management style.
Contrary to what some people may assume, the Berkshire HorseWorks program does not involve horseback riding. The goal of the program is to have participants learn about themselves and others by connecting with the horses and then observing and discussing the experience. All sessions are led by professionals trained and certified by the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA).
Berkshire HorseWorks “gave me a really good assessment of who was willing to get out of their own comfort zones, take charge and be comfortable being uncomfortable.”
— Antoine Alston
“Horses are innately intuitive,” explains Hayley Sumner, founder and executive director of the program. “They give feedback in the moment. Because they are fight or flight prey animals, they’ll make a decision in a split second as to what they’re going to do in reaction to those around them.” She says that horses can sense whether someone is being true to themselves. “If there is an incongruity between what you’re saying and how you’re acting, they will call you out in a moment. You have to adjust your thinking and think out of the box. When the horse feels that there is a connection, and that the person has come to a place of acceptance and openness, the horse is more apt to work with them.”
One exercise that the facilitators at Berkshire HorseWorks conducted was to have each participant choose the horse that is most like them. “The alphas of the group picked what they thought the alpha horse was, which was completely incorrect,” Sumner explains. She says that the lesson taught here is that people should not make assumptions about others on their team, because those assumptions may turn out to be false.
In another exercise, the participants were asked to self-identify themselves as to whether they’re natural leaders or less inclined to speak up. Next, an obstacle course was created to represent the challenges the participants typically had to navigate during the course of a work day. Then the tables were turned. The self-described leaders were blindfolded and had to follow the verbal directions of a non-leader in order to lead their horse through the obstacle course successfully. This exercise helped the non-leaders step up and feel what it was like to be a leader, and taught the leaders what it felt like to be vulnerable and have to rely on their teammates.
After each exercise, the group discusses what they learned from the experience. Sumner said that the leaders talked about how uncomfortable it was to feel vulnerable and that they had to be able to trust that they were safe with this person leading them. This led to a discussion about what the options are when a person feels vulnerable and whether there’s a way for them to spread out responsibility.
“It was a very unique approach to many things, from communications to teambuilding to cooperation to problem solving,” Alston explains. “It was something different, and it still spoke to the things that I need in my company and the interpersonal relationships that we had to work on. I basically wanted people to forget some of the old-school thought processes and get them out of their (regular) environment.
“(The Berkshire HorseWorks program) was a nice way to do some icebreakers and work together on a situation that none of us really was familiar with, which is kind of what I’ve been asking them (to do in my business) anyway. Second, you have these big, beautiful horses, and these obstacles,” he adds, explaining that the members of his group did not have previous experience with horses. “I thought, OK we’re going to be uncomfortable together and walk this through together. What a great environment to do it in and to have it be facilitated by professionals, at that.”
Since Alston was looking to his team to take his company into uncharted territory, the Berkshire HorseWorks program gave him a unique opportunity. “It gave me a really good assessment of who was willing to get out of their own comfort zones, take charge and be comfortable being uncomfortable. When you’re doing something that kind of goes against many other standards in the industry, you’ve got to be ready for it and be strong in what you’re doing.”
Alston said that the full-day program definitely helped him achieve his goals. “I learned a lot about my team, and my team learned a lot about me. We also had fun, which was actually very important because no one was in their comfortable place. It definitely disclosed some things I wasn’t prepared for, but it also disclosed many things I was extremely happy for.”
When Sandra Ramirez, administrative assistant for the global trade compliance division of the electronic technology distributor Avnet in Phoenix, Arizona, needed to find a location for a teambuilding event for an international group of 10, she chose Fort McDowell Adventures. This unique venue located east of the Phoenix metro area offers multiple settings for private events and allows groups to enjoy a variety of Wild West experiences while taking in stunning mountain and desert views.
In addition to offering guided outdoor adventures such as kayaking, mountain biking, hiking and horseback riding, Fort McDowell Adventures offers a number of options for teambuilding programs, including the Whip Crackin’ Chili Cook-Off and the Salsa-Margarita Challenge. It also offers the Moooving Along Cattle Drive, where the group receives expert instruction on how to move a herd of cattle across the Sonoran Desert while learning the language of the open range. It lets city slickers become cowboys for a day, while they also likely round up plenty of stories to take back home.
Pink Adventure Tours, a company well known for its tours of Sedona, the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas, recently established its Scottsdale base at Fort McDowell Adventures. Up to 20 of the bright pink vehicles will be available at all times to handle groups and special events.
“The objective of the meeting was to host the event in a relaxed location where executives would be able to brainstorm and collaborate on strategy for their respective business units.”
— Lorena Cicciari
Ramirez describes her event at Fort McDowell Adventures. “We arrived at 4:00 p.m. to an open bar with refreshing beverages and light snacks before taking a jeep tour. We then loaded up into two jeeps for a beautiful tour of the desert, seeing wild horses, various birds and even an eagle. As we completed our tour and arrived back at the stables, there was a wonderful steak dinner cooking for us. We were able to enjoy our dinner while enjoying the beautiful sunset.
“Our team truly loved the event,” she continues. “Normally, when our international folks attend meetings here in Phoenix, they don’t get a chance to enjoy what Arizona has to offer in scenic beauty. This event allowed our team to network and bond on a different level. It really gave our team a chance to unwind and enjoy the true beauty of Arizona.”
Another Phoenix-area venue Sanctuary Camelback Mountain Resort & Spa in Paradise Valley was the site of a teambuilding activity planned by Lorena Cicciari, executive assistant for Ask.com. The event was part of an executive leadership and strategy session.
“The objective of the meeting was to host the event in a relaxed location where executives would be able to brainstorm and collaborate on strategy for their respective business units,” she notes. “I was also looking for a property that could accommodate fun and engaging teambuilding activities.”
Cicciari explained that they originally had planned to do an offsite teambuilding event, but that rainy weather required a change in plans at the last minute. “The staff (at the Sanctuary) quickly made arrangements for our activity to take place at the resort.” The teambuilding activity they organized was a salsa and margarita making competition. “Each team was given the ingredients and a certain amount of time to prepare their salsa and margarita. Halfway through the competition, each team had to move to another team’s station. They then had to pick up where the other team left off. The activity was lots of fun and really forced each team to work together to finish the project. My attendees were very engaged in the activity. …They all enjoyed the margarita and salsa making competition!”
Sometimes, a meeting agenda is simply too packed to work in a teambuilding activity during the day. Château Élan Winery & Resort, located 40 miles north of Atlanta, offers an after-dark golf group activity that attendees can participate in after the meetings are wrapped up for the day. Played on the first eight holes of the property’s executive par course, the event can begin with cocktails and evolve into a fun evening where glow-in-the-dark golf balls, flagsticks and tee markers light the way for avid golfers and non-golfers alike.
Château Élan also offers wine-inspired teambuilding activities such as the Grape Race where corporate groups stomp, strain and load grapes into barrels. Then they race off to a wine tasting, stack corks to a prescribed measurement, then participate in a traditional Italian barrel race where the first team to roll their barrel across the finish line wins.
Planners also can put an eco-friendly spin on their teambuilding event when they hold it at The Westin Peachtree Plaza in Atlanta. The hotel now offers Go Green Racing where groups are tasked with building one solar car and one car made only from recycled materials. Then the race is on to see which vehicle can outpace the other.
The Hilton Hawaiian Village in Honolulu offers a teambuilding activity that embraces an important part of the Hawaiian culture. “Groups are looking for more localized experiences,” explains Mike Murray, CMM, CMP, CASE, senior vice president and director of events at Waikiki Beach Activities, the exclusive pool and beach operator at the resort. “With canoeing being a big historic sport in Hawaii, Hilton Hawaiian Village offers canoe races for groups of up to 30 people. They are unique because they are led by licensed canoe captains (there are only eight licensed canoe captains on the island of Oahu) and it builds camaraderie and trust. The groups meet on Duke Kahanamoku Beach at Hilton Hawaiian Village where Hawaii’s legendary Ambassador of Aloha, Duke Kahanamoku, learned to surf and grew into the Olympic champion that he was. The races start with storytelling about Duke and his achievements. After going over basic techniques and a 10-minute lesson in the water, groups split into teams and race.”
Murray also described several other Hawaiian-themed teambuilding events that are available. “If groups want to be out of the water, there are Hawaiian games such as Hawaiian bowling and Hawaiian horseshoes. For the very competitive group, there is boat building consisting of the group’s using materials such as plastic and cardboard and building a boat. This is great for communication and creativity. The handmade boats will take off from the lagoon — some will immediately sink and others will make it to the center of the lagoon and back.”
Groups also can choose a teambuilding activity that not only helps them build a sense of community among their members, but also gives back to the local community. “Hilton Hawaiian Village will set groups up with local environmental organizations that take them to a place taken over by invasive species, such as algae, to help restructure,” Murray notes. “Beach cleanups are very popular, as well.”
Over on the Big Island, the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel is collaborating with the Mauna Kea Forest Restoration Project and the eco tour and adventure company Hawaii Forest & Trail to offer a program called My Mauna Kea. It’s a stewardship program designed to help restore the native habitat of the palila bird, which is only found on the southwestern slopes of Mauna Kea and is critically endangered due to centuries of land transformation.
As a teambuilding activity, groups can sign up for an “Adopt an Acre” volunteer work day where they’ll learn about the forest and its birds, plant trees, collect seeds and perform trail work to help restore the palila’s natural habitat.
Successful teambuilding involves establishing clear objectives, then finding an activity or program that can help the group meet them, like Alston did at Berkshire HorseWorks. “It was a really good bonding experience and it let people really get to know each other on different levels,” he sums up. “We were able to apply what we learned to what we were looking to accomplish (in the workplace).” C&IT