Corporations are committed to environmental, social and governance (ESG) initiatives, and many have become vocal about the social stances they choose to take. The upshot is that corporate social responsibility (CSR), which has a much longer corporate history than ESG, is getting a bit of a boost as corporate employees and event attendees start to merge their concerns about sustainability and social justice with the “environmental” and “social” aspects of ESG.
“People don’t want senseless team building,“ says Joanna Berens, president & Zero Food Waste Chair, Sustainable Events Network, Florida & Caribbean, and president, Joanna Berens Hospitality, Inc., a site-selection and logistics company. Today, with so many team-building options that have a philanthropic component, it’s easier and more rewarding than ever for corporate planners to take advantage of these opportunities.
“I work with both the environment and tourism at a very high level,” says Valerie Peters, director of operations at the U.S. Virgin Islands-based destination management company VIP Destination Solutions, and also an active member of the nonprofit Virgin Islands Conservation Society (VICS). For her, matching corporate groups with a CSR activity is all part of the same commitment to sustain the USVI through thoughtful tourism. Coastal cleanups are a major CSR choice for corporate groups in the USVI — the region takes three to five years to recover from a hurricane, she notes, and over the past few years, it’s undergone two, along with the pandemic.
“Coastal cleanups — for us they actually mean something,” Peters says. “We do data collection, and thanks to our cleanups, we have a plastic bag and straw ban and a coral-safe sunscreen requirement. So they mean a lot more than cleaning up a beach; they change how we do business and how we live.”
And while some planners, particularly of incentives, may shy away from the idea of a beach cleanup, Peters finds that cruise ships and groups from the pharmaceutical and trucking industries are particularly keen to pitch in. “Groups are meeting on cruise ships with a stop in the island doing a corporate activity. It’s a different way to organize conferences.”
Cruise ships for meetings makes particular sense for the USVI, not only because it’s in the obvious path of many Caribbean routes, but also because, for the time being, The Ritz-Carlton, St. Thomas and the Frenchman’s Reef, when it reopens in the spring, are the only two USVI hotels set up to accommodate large corporate groups. Vessup Bay, not far from the Ritz-Carlton, is a favorite spot for such cleanups as it gets a lot of boat traffic. “We organize shuttles, provide gloves, bags, pickers, buckets, water, compostable plates/reusable utensils [and] biodegradable cups. For data collection, we have teams of four — one person collecting, one holding the bag and two picking up trash.”
The beach cleanups can also be turned into something fun, Peters says. A couple of hours of cleanup, a couple of hours of fun in the sun, all amid conversations with local conservation experts about the island and its culture. “It turns into so much more than picking up trash.”
Peters’ company is now in discussions with a cruise ship of about 150 attendees expected to arrive in mid-spring. Along with a cleanup, this group will be doing mangrove planting and glass crushing for hurricane sandbags.
Another available team-building activity is building picnic tables, benches and raised gardening beds along with an at-risk group of youths. The constructed items then go into schools, parks and public areas through the nonprofit My Brother’s Workshop, and the students get class credit and hands-on woodworking experience. “It’s an incredible life experience for kids, to interact with people who are successful and goal oriented, some of whom started in situations very similar to theirs,” Peters says.
Groups can also have learning experiences and support projects at Coral World; donate book bags filled with school supplies to VICS’ Eco-Schools program; donate hurricane supplies; or escort an animal that is flying to a no-kill shelter for adoption on the mainland. The animal travels in a carry-on bag with the attendee, who is met by a Humane Society representative from among the USVI’s East Coast network at the airport on the other end.
Lovango Resort & Beach Club, on a private island near St. John, which can host corporate groups for day or evening trips, does coral conservation-related work with the University of the Virgin Islands and the Trust for Virgin Islands Lands, “protecting endemic species, ensuring minimal footprint, relocating, planting in other areas.” Peters says of the resort, “They are really good partners, showing that development does not necessarily mean destruction.”
Like the Lovango Resort, Dream Yacht Worldwide approaches CSR from a conservationist and sustainability perspective, contributing as a company to the ongoing well-being of the areas it spends time in.
Corporate groups use Dream Yacht Worldwide for incentives, taking two to 20 boats of typically maximum six-guest cabins. Last summer, for example, a group in the gas industry cruised down the coast of Croatia as a fleet of 18 boats. “It’s a really unique experience with a wow factor, something people will remember,” says Dan Lockyer, vice president of tourism for Dream Yacht Worldwide. Groups can be as involved as they want in the sailing, and can engage in regattas where they race against each other. Boats all have a dinghy, stand-up paddle boards and kayaks, and attendees can stop at various beaches to play games and even get away from the group for a bit to explore on their own.
But the boats have a second purpose: “After Hurricane Irma destroyed the [British Virgin Islands], as the islands were rebounding, a number of groups went to help locals rebuild, tear down derelict buildings and help rebuild houses — free labor for a week,” Lockyer says. “We have a number of companies that we supply boats to, with the agreement that if they book a certain number of trips, they can use our boats and crew to do beach clearing.”
“For 13 years in the industry selling team building, bike building is still the No. 1 program,” says Nanci Donahue, vice president of sales at Best Corporate Events & Team Building, which offers a portal where DMCs and planners can register to get early information about team-building programs, including pricing, to use in their own proposals. “Everyone identifies with the feeling of getting a new bike for the first time; it resonates with many people.”
One recent Bike Build Donation involved 1,850 attendees at the annual summit for employees of a cloud-based supply chain software company that met in Minnesota late last year. They were divided into 185 teams, each building two bikes.
For such a large group, stations were set up to make it easier for attendees to get preset materials. The teams decorated the bikes, and every bike was tested for roadworthiness before it was donated. “A lead facilitator is on stage, welcoming, setting energy and creating excitement,” Donahue says. “Teams answer as many challenges as they can to gain as many overall points as they can. The top scoring teams are awarded gold/silver/bronze. There are certain levels of points that the teams achieve in order to claim some of the supplies needed to build their donation.”
Roy Charette, managing partner at Best Corporate Events & Team Building, says the largest bike build in history took place in Las Vegas with 3,500 Lowe’s employees, who built and donated 1,058 bicycles. “For many children, it’s the first bike they’ve ever had,” Charette says. “It has a big impact on the Lowe’s people to be part of that, to realize the scope of what they were able to do.”
Best Corporate Events also offers Build-a-Guitar, particularly popular in Nashville, where as many as 3,000 attendees at once string, tune, decorate and donate a guitar along with an amp, pick and case to a local charity such as the Boys & Girls Club. Music trivia can be part of the iPad portion of the team building.
Grand Geneva Resort & Spa in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, also works with many corporate companies who want to incorporate a charitable aspect to their team-building activities. One such option is also a Build-a-Bike program, for which Heather Tate, vice president at real estate investment company Blue Vista Capital Management, opted for the company’s annual off-site retreat of about 65 primarily Chicago-based attendees. The company has a committee devoted to “team fun.” Tate was the chair and responsible for planning an event to do at the off-site. “We wanted to do something different,” she says, particularly given that they would be celebrating the company’s 20-year anniversary.
Typically, the firm’s two-day event features a golf or spa option and a company dinner on Sunday, then the conference room on Monday for goal setting, business updates, accomplishments and strategic initiatives. “Then everyone needs a mental break,” she says, which is a perfect time for the team fun component. In past years, activities included three-legged races, kickball tournaments, escape rooms and scavenger hunts. “Build-a-Bike sounded fun, and that it would be gifted just made it even better,” Tate says. “Not everyone wants to do a run/sprint/kickball thing. This caters to more personalities.”
This was the company’s first year centering the team fun activity around a CSR component, and Tate worked with the Grand Geneva event staff to organize the 65 participants into multiple groups to work through various team-building challenges, including one to build a standing structure out of spaghetti, duct tape, string and a marshmallow.
“At the end, we got to race the bikes, tested them to make sure they are roadworthy, and ended up with 13 or 14 bikes that we donated to Treehouse for Kids, a not-for-profit that helps protect children who experience child abuse and neglect.” A representative from the nonprofit also came by to chat with the group. “It was a fun, memorable event that opened some eyes,” Tate says. “Everyone was very excited. We are a very competitive group, and we were still able to flex our competitive muscles. Going forward, it can expand what we think of as fun — being competitive while making an impact.”
The company also embraces CSR back at home. “We have an internal ESG committee focused on implementing sustainability initiatives across our real estate investments,” she says. The company has also launched a social impact fund “dedicated to providing capital to women and minority-owned companies to grow their real estate businesses. Our knowledge of the market and resources allow us to provide capital and mentorship to these companies that are looking to grow.”
Another popular team-building option at Grand Geneva Resort & Spa, is Putt for Hunger. Last fall, the resort hosted a “Putt for Hunger” session for 75 attendees from industrial tools company, Enerpac. “Groups are divided into teams and are given a 3-by-7-foot area of putting green. Using the limited space, goods and materials, teams are then instructed to start building their own course,” says Allyson Carlson, experience activity facilitator at Grand Geneva. “The goal is to make it easy enough for their team to make a hole in one, but difficult enough that other teams cannot. Once building is complete, the teams go around and play each course, competing against each other for the best score.” She continues, “We had initially scheduled for the event to be hosted indoors, however, we switched to outdoors. The energy of Enerpac was contagious. The competition was strong, but easygoing. And in the end, everyone helped to load up the van with all the food.”
Ultimately, the resort’s nonprofit partner, Walworth County Food Pantry and Diaper Bank, got 500 pounds of nonperishable goods.
CSR team-building organization Impact 4 Good hosts some 24 to 36 programs a week, and offers a “cause wheel” that allows planners to choose the CSR activity that best aligns with their own corporate focus. Among the most popular is Go GREEN Racing, which supports STEM education. “It’s extremely competitive,” says Ira Almeas, CITE, president of Impact 4 Good. “There are three tasks the teams have to complete within a certain time, such as assembling solar car kits for children … and building two different cars made out of recyclable materials. Each team races both cars in a bracket-style tournament. We can do this for eight people or over 1,000 people.”
Ultimately, both the kit and the built cars are donated to local schools or after-school programs. “For us, the emotional connection is just as important as the tangible donation. When you find out that one of the attendees’ families have relied on their local food pantry to get them through the week, that hits home,” Almeas says. “When it impacts actual employees and they connect with what we’re doing, that to me is a success story. A youth that receives a bike, but the bike allows them to help their family with an after-school job, this donation became a tool for them to succeed.”
Beehive making is one of many other team-building options Impact 4 Good offers. Teams learn about colony collapse, create hives and help support bee farmers. “Vetting the community is equally important, as the team-building activity that they might also want. Make sure it’s meaningful,” Almeas says. “Don’t just stuff bags and find someone who wants what you want to give out — find out what the community needs and how the donation will make an immediate difference.”
In addition to her work with Hospitality Inc., Berens is entering her second year as president of the Sustainable Events Network, Florida & Caribbean. She had a wake-up call when, while handling the F&B budget for an opening reception for a group of international attendees, she realized they didn’t have an accurate head count for the $200-per-head event. “I said, this is killing me, watching so much food going to the back of the house. I cannot stand to see the waste. I was told it was against corporate policy to donate food, and I realized we’ve got a logistics problem: way too much food in this industry, meanwhile kids with not enough to eat.” This led her to the zero-food-waste movement, where the goal is ideally not to have leftovers, or at least to have a designated place for extra food other than the waste bin.
Some hotels have begun to embrace the move toward zero food waste. The Hyatt Regency Orlando, for example, piloted a brief program in which they analyzed attendees’ eating patterns at the first meal and adjusted their production based on this; instituted a “meal of the day;” served smaller plates and offered less preplaced food, like bread, that can’t be donated once it’s been set out. The hotel also regularly donates to the Second Harvest.
Of course, there is always an inherent tension at work with food rescue. Having to ask for iced tea because the table is not already set with it inevitably slows down service and increases the chances that attendees will be unhappy with both the speed and the perceived attentiveness of the experience. Still, Berens says, “our mission is to get chefs and sous-chefs to just have it endemic to the host hotel or catering operation” to be mindful of how much food there is and where it’s going.
“A number of hotels and catering operations participating in food rescue are starting to embrace the compost side of things with anaerobic digesters, for example,” Berens says, adding that some 100,000 pounds of food was rescued from the Super Bowl LIV halftime show in 2020 at the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida. “There’s a trend with operations trying to get on the stick,” she says, mentioning Florida convention centers in Broward County, Miami Beach and Greater Orlando as examples.
Berens offers these tips for planners moving toward less food waste:
“Any of these practices are not meant to take away from the revenue intentions of the venue you have chosen or detract from the integrity of the contract,” Berens says. “Some hotels do not consider outlet credit to be part of F&B minimum, for example. But you can strategically plan — upgrade the wine; switch the beverage to full open bar for two hours; serve beef instead of chicken; offer a champagne toast.” She continues: “The planner audience is the one moving the needle,” Berens says. “If you start demanding this, the venues will have to shift to meet your needs.” C&IT