It’s not often that Aristotle is quoted in a meetings industry publication, but here he is:
“For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.”
Aristotle wrote that around 350 BC in a series of books devoted to the weighty topic of ethics and how human beings should live. That single thought — that we learn by doing — is considered by many to be the origins of the concept of experiential learning.
Today, experiential learning has become an important component of many meetings and incentives, especially incentive programs for which the elusive wow factor and reach for something entirely new each year is critical.
Often, it’s not the actual skills acquired in a program that matter; it’s the tangential results of an activity that make the difference. Goals, values, insight, reflection, understanding people and problems from a new perspective, self-assurance, a feeling of being valued, new ways of facing challenges — all of these can be part of learning something new, and all can ultimately help make a participant a better employee and, if we extrapolate from Aristotle, maybe even a better person.
Experiential learning is an idea with many outlets, many possibilities. Learning from experience or by doing can cover just about everything, from face-to-face cultural programs to physically challenging adventures.
In Scottsdale, Arizona, it covers goat farming.
Melissa Thornton, a business-systems analyst with an Arizona-based insurance group, helped arrange an October 2014 meeting for 11 participants at a local suburban goat farm. The theme of the Udder to Table Retreat was “back to basics,” which meshed perfectly with the company’s desire to focus on the basics in its work. The retreat turned insurance workers into farmers for a day, with some surprising results.
The Simple Farm is owned by Lylah and Michael Ledner, who invite participants to learn about organic and sustainable farming, goats and, in the end, themselves. Over the course of five hours, Thornton and her colleagues tried a variety of farm duties, including gardening, milking goats, and making and sampling goat cheese. How do these seriously non-office tasks translate into positives in the office?
“This kind of hands-on learning got us out of the comfort zone that we tend to settle into in the office environment,” Thornton says. “I think that putting us into a new situation that is out of our comfort zone helps us to be able to do the same thing in the office: to trust coworkers and be able to step out and try new things that are different or that we might be afraid of.”
Among the highlights of the day for many of the participants was creating the salad they ate for lunch. “We picked everything from the garden — carrots, spinach, kale, radishes, pomegranates, tangelos and even flowers — then rinsed everything right outside and cut it all up into a beautiful salad,” Thornton says. “Then we ate our lunch together.”
Thornton believes that one result of that part of the experience was that it fostered deeper connections, and the company has benefited from that. “We feel more connected and know each other better after an experience like this,” she says. “Once you work together on something outside of the office, it really helps the working relationships within the office. Since our time at the farm, we seem to be closer as a team, and communication has improved within the group that participated.”
Additionally, The Simple Farm also aligned with the insurance company’s core values, which include supporting community volunteerism, a component of the farm’s own program.
When it came time for participants to reflect on their challenges and achievements, the words were all positive. “The group had only good things to say,” Thornton notes. “During our lunch at the farm, we all discussed our favorite part of the day and what we learned and would take away from the experience. Everyone thought it brought us closer. Some participants flew in from other locations, which also gave us the opportunity to spend time with coworkers we normally only talk to over the phone. Working and learning together made it a great team experience.”
Months later, reflections continue to produce benefits because the group still thinks back on the memories and the fun of that day, which continues to reinforce the connections.
Of course, the primary goal of company outings like this is to improve a workplace by increasing productivity, building leadership, ramping up skills and/or bonding employees, and ultimately to positively affect the bottom line. But exactly how that happens is not necessarily straightforward. For Thornton, as well as some of her colleagues, reflections centered not just on business goals but on personal goals and values as well.
“Many of us stated that we would love to start gardening at our homes, and we didn’t realize how simple it could actually be. Many also learned the benefits of eating organic and helping to support local farms and farmers in our area, putting money back into our community through buying locally instead of buying commercially.”
Thornton took the lessons directly into her home. “As we were learning about gardening and Lylah was sharing her passion for cooking and family, it really made me think about trying to cook more for my family and designating a time for us to all eat together. I actually visited the farm a week later and took my 8-year-old daughter with me to see the farm and meet the goats. I also plan on joining the farm’s CSA (community-supported agriculture) program in the future.”
At first glance these more personal results don’t seem related to bottom-line improvements, nor do they seem quantifiable in terms of meeting ROI or justifying use of resources for the experience. But that’s linear thinking. Thornton offers a different analysis.
“I think that when we make the time to spend quality time with our family, whether it be a visit to somewhere like this farm or sitting down more often for a family dinner, it helps the work-life balance and that can only improve how we are as employees at work.”
Another program perfect for smaller groups is offered by IDNZ, one of New Zealand’s top DMCs. It puts attendees into the homes of Auckland residents for an evening of face-to-face cultural exchange and a traditional New Zealand dinner.
Celeste Jones, director of incentives for IDNZ, notes that this is one of her organization’s most successful experiential offerings. She used it with incentive qualifiers from two insurance groups and found that both hosts and visitors benefited. The hosts came from varied backgrounds; they were doctors, teachers, self-employed, farmers, retirees, attorneys and salespeople, among others. The meal was set up as a three-course affair with traditional New Zealand lamb as the entrée.
Through spending time in a local home with local hosts, participants learned about New Zealand and New Zealanders in a very intimate and organic way. They were able to relax, converse, ask and answer questions and experience a traditional meal — in other words, to become immersed in local culture in a way rarely possible for a visitor on his or her own. As an added benefit, all of the proceeds of the event went to a local hospice, further bonding guests and hosts in the shared experience of giving to the community.
IDNZ has a range of experiential options for groups, including working as crew on former Americas Cup boats and cultural programs in which participants meet the local Maori, see traditional performances and learn about this important indigenous culture.
While some experiential learning programs are geared for small groups, others can accommodate thousands.
In Dubai, a program put together for an incentive group of more than 14,000 attendees won Dubai Business Events, the official convention bureau of Dubai, a 2014 Crystal Award from SITE. The Crystal Awards honor those top-tier organizations from across the globe that excel in designing memorable experiences that also deliver measurable results for clients. Dubai Business Events won for the Best Destination-based Experiential Incentive Travel Program. A major component of that program was giving attendees the opportunity to learn about conservation efforts underway in Dubai aimed at protecting and preserving the natural desert environment and its inhabitants in the face of extensive building and human impact.
Attendees learned about the problem of desertification, a significant ecological challenge caused by dry areas becoming increasingly less arid and losing their natural vegetation and wildlife. They met with stakeholders and learned how Dubai is using innovation to conserve resources while still building its architectural marvels, and they spent time at the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve where much of the region’s conservation work is being done. The program allowed these visitors to see beyond the soaring skyscrapers and glam hotels and deeper into the area’s fragile desert ecosystem.
Ireland, with its bucolic farms, castles, historic golf courses and mega-popular stouts and whiskeys, is a popular destination for incentive travel. Until recently, it had not made much of a name for itself in the culinary sector. That’s changing, which gave Kevin Shannon, managing director for Odyssey International Incentives & Meetings, an idea during dinner with a client. The client, a global events leader for a Virginia-based financial company, wanted a hands-on experience for her incentive qualifiers that highlighted Irish farms and food within the context of local and healthy. Shannon thought of 350-acre Ballyknocken House and Farm in County Wicklow, owned by well-known Irish chef Catherine Fulvio whose family has farmed there for more than 100 years.
That conversation evolved into three successful programs for the company at Ballyknocken, where attendees walked the farm to learn what is grown there and prepared lunch under Fulvio’s watchful eye. All ingredients for the meal came from the farm or local vendors. While waiting for lunch to cook, the group met with local artisan food producers who showcased their cheeses, jams, meats, smoked salmon, craft brews and chocolate, providing samples and lots of fascinating insights.
Shannon, like Thornton, believes that one value of this type of experience is that it takes attendees out of their comfort zone, builds better relationships and thus fosters better working relationships in the office. But it’s the hands-on part, the doing that really defines the experience. “Many times during incentive programs, guests are visiting somewhere, looking at something, admiring a landscape,” Shannon says. “Here they were asked to roll up their sleeves, actually learn and then create something; this was the surprise and the challenge. I don’t think they could have learned to make Irish scones and Irish stew in this kind of convivial atmosphere anywhere else.”
The way the day is set up also makes it easy for attendees to learn about Ireland and Irish culture in an engaging way. “There is a constant flow of conversation and comment as the day and the experiences progress,” Shannon says. “In addition to the Ballyknocken staff, the Odyssey staff and our guides are also in the kitchen. This allows people time to think about what is being said, and that prompts further questions and lively debate. Information is being shared in a more informal manner.”
These kinds of memorable programs also benefit the client company “because they make employees feel good and that the company has gone that extra mile for them, organizing something special rather than just the regular tourist attractions. I think this creates loyalty and greater production.”
And as Shannon notes, Ireland wins, too. “This is the essence of incentive programs and experiential learning — the connections and the memories — that make Ireland stand out as a destination. People may not remember what beach they were on during a resort-based program, but they’ll always remember where they were when the V.P. of marketing put sugar in the stew instead of salt!”
Experiential learning has become increasingly popular in the meetings industry of late. Of course, when an idea has been around for more than 2,300 years, chances are it’s a pretty good one. I&FMM