Meeting planners have always dealt with challenges — it’s their job — but sometimes it’s time to mix it up and operate beyond the boundaries. Translation: It’s time to substitute destinations known for mega-hotels, oversized arenas and high-density living for those smaller and slower in pace, but complemented by luxury enhancements and back-to-nature lures.
With a population of less than 1,000 residents, McCloud, CA, isn’t on the radar of many corporate planners. However, its authenticity and natural amenities captured the attention of one of the world’s perfectionists, newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. As the setting of the family’s private estate — not the famous Hearst Castle — but rather Wyntoon, the town’s anonymity remains an attraction for celebrities. These have included Clint Eastwood, as well as earlier stars such as Davy Crockett and Fess Parker.
Located at the base of Mount Shasta — the state’s noted 14,180-foot landmark in the Cascade Range of northern California — McCloud has a rich history in the mill industry. There are many outdoor activities, including skiing the legendary peak, world-class fly fishing, spelunking and rafting.
Few in the corporate world know of McCloud, but San Francisco-based Pattern Energy Group is an exception. The renewable energy company has a wind farm in the town of Burney, 50 miles southeast of McCloud. A few years ago, the former executive assistant for the company, recalled her trip to the town. She mentioned that it seemed natural to have the team of 23 meet in San Francisco and board a bus for McCloud to spend time at the wind farm and have a one-night, get-to-know-each-other-better getaway. She mentioned how nice it was to get away from the hustle bustle and enjoy a pure, natural setting in an off-grid locale.
When it came to where to stay the night, the company chose The McCloud Hotel (self-described as “an upscale, clapboard inn paying homage to bygone times” but with modern conveniences). “I don’t want my (attendees) to lose any of the amenities,” McCloud innkeeper Cindy Rosmann says. “That’s the surprise we have here.”
Hoping to showcase the best of the town, the hotel gives attendees the following options: golfing at the McCloud Golf Course, kayaking on the McCloud Reservoir or hiking the McCloud River Falls Trail. At first glance, McCloud’s downtown seems simple, consisting primarily of its three-block Main Street. However, the town offers three historic-boutique-luxury properties, including their restaurants and meeting spaces, a collection of fine dining eateries, as well as the potential of seeing bears at night.
After the Pattern Group danced the night away at the hotel’s next door hangout, the Axe & Rose Public House — the lumber town’s former workforce cafeteria and dance hall preserved in its original 1930s condition — the executive assistant says her morning highlight included this memory: Walking along the railroad tracks for fresh air and fresh views of Mount Shasta. “For me, that morning walk was really the highlight of our stay,” she says. “It pained me to return to the congested Bay Area. … I think there was something about being away from any sort of urban-suburban sprawl that was especially conducive to everyone being able to relax, catch up and get to know one another.”
Located one hour south of the Canadian border, The Lodge at Whitefish Lake (Montana’s only AAA Four Diamond-rated resort) is perfectly positioned within the Rocky Mountains on the edge of Glacier National Park. The Whitefish Lake location attracted VetVacationCE, which specializes in continuing education for veterinarians in a vacation setting, and its group of 150 attendees, in the past few years.
Having visited such past destinations as Austin, Texas, Charleston, South Carolina, and Utah’s Zion National Park, Dr. Joel Beth Navratik, veterinarian and the organization’s co-owner, says of the Montana selection: “The national park is amazing with its distinctive landscape and glacier lakes. Plus, we have a goal of visiting all the national parks.” The destination has stand-up paddle boarding, whitewater rafting, mountain biking, float-plane tours, horseback riding and tours of Glacier National Park in vintage red buses styled from the 1930s.
Navratik’s group activities included boating on the resort’s 31-foot custom cruiser (The Lady of the Lake) and hiking around Lake McDonald, the national park’s biggest lake. One highlight mentioned by the planner, which enhanced the seminars’ educational sessions, was an open-air location beneath a permanent, oversized tent situated lakeside. “Looking out over the water during the lectures was magical,” Navratik says.
Though remote, Four Seasons Resort Rancho Encantado is not without indulgence. When Jayson Teagle, founder and CEO of Collideoscope, a boutique creative agency, discovered the resort just outside Santa Fe, he says he knew he’d found the perfect setting for his client. As founder of Unstoppable Cultures, Ginger Hardage, the former senior vice president of culture and communications for Southwest Airlines, has retooled a successful formula she helped create for the airline company. Today, as a speaker, she shares this philosophy with attendees of the organization’s four-day, interactive, in-person master-class experiences — attracting executive attendees from such companies as Amazon, Cisco and NorthFace.
According to Teagle, the selection of this Four Seasons resort for Unstoppable Cultures’ events was a no-brainer. While the resort is small with 65 private, stand-alone casitas, it has a large property with 57 acres, providing plenty of fresh air, signature sunsets and relaxation in a safe, comfortable environment. With the resort’s Adventure Center and its Adventure by Design program, customization is vast. They include early-morning guided-hikes along the Camino Encantado Trail, hot air ballooning, jeep tours and horseback riding. Among its cultural excursions are a Santa Fe city tour, a Georgia O’Keeffe-Abiquiu expedition — famous for the noted artist and longtime Santa Fe resident, along with guided outings to nearby pueblos timed for seasonal, ceremonial dances and feasts.
Teagle says: “We’re gonna make this home. There’s a lot to learn about our country’s culture and much of it is here in Santa Fe and New Mexico.”
Near Santa Fe, it is possible for a group to interview a Native American chieftess, indulge in a salsa-making contest and learn about equine therapy — and how dealing well with horses can translate into communicating well with colleagues. So, whether it’s bourbon and cigars while listening to a former Navy SEAL, who was an Unstoppable Cultures’ coach for the session, or roasting green chilis with one another, there were plenty of activities.
“I source meetings globally, but one of my favorite spots for a venue is Sarasota,” says Missy Erickson, event strategist at Maritz Global Events and resident of the city near the Gulf of Mexico. Erickson’s client, PGT Innovations, hosts its annual PGT Innovations Sales Meeting at the Art Ovation Hotel, Autograph Collection, in downtown Sarasota. It is held each fall for 60 to 80 attendees, who gather the national sales force and leadership to collaborate on business strategies.
The hotel is located near the theater district and displays more than $35 million in artwork from local artists. Each meeting room is filled with original paintings and artistic touches from Sarasota regional artisans. The artsy boutique hotel also offers a sunset team-building event called Picasso and Painting. Held on the hotel’s rooftop, attendees are divided into teams, given art supplies and receive guidance from a local artist. Prime team-building opportunities also include shark tooth hunting at Venice Jetty, kayaking or stand-up paddle boarding through the Lido Key mangrove tunnels and traversing the canopy walkway at Myakka River State Park, and more
The Sarasota-corporate experience is unlike those in Miami or Orlando. “I have used larger cities for venues, but the bigger cities do not offer the uniqueness and personality that smaller destinations serve up,” Erickson says. She adds smaller groups are more easily able to eat off-site at local restaurants, and transportation is never an issue, especially if situated in the downtown area. “Sarasota is a safe city,” Erickson says. “Our streets are quiet at night and peaceful during the day. We are very rich in culture but still have the small-town mentality, where everyone looks out for one another.”
In the end, Sarasota lends itself to a more intimate, boutique-like setting. “There is no hustle and bustle like you find in larger cities,” she says. “As an escape from fast-paced places, when in Sarasota, you want to slow down and enjoy the surroundings. And being surrounded by water creates a calm, relaxing atmosphere which, in turn, generates an optimum learning and collaborative environment.”
“There’s a certain comfort level with intimacy created by small venues,” says Elisabeth Gerkovich, global events manager at SeneGence, a marketing company that sells skincare and makeup products. “Our company is always on the cutting edge of what people are seeking at the time.” And now is the time for incentive groups to go small. At 3.6 square miles, Aspen, Colorado, is diminutive. However, the town, which exploded upon the discovery of one of the world’s richest silver lodes, has maintained its original prominence, and to this day is recognized for its high-country, high-style atmosphere. Attracted to this elegant energy is Joni Rogers-Kante, founder and CEO of the Oklahoma-based skincare/makeup company, who selected Aspen as the site of SeneGence’s Queen Retreat, a Thursday through Sunday leadership getaway of about 25 top qualifiers.
The Gant, the area’s premier condominium resort, was picked for its lodging facilities. Distinctive moments in and around the destination included daily-sunrise-rooftop yoga, a private off-site cooking class and a SeneGence-only function atop Aspen Mountain. The function was complemented by glasses of champagne upon arrival and, upon departure in the gondola, cake pops decorated in the company’s colors — royal blue dusted with an edible gold shimmer.
Meredith Maaske, Gant director of sales, helped find a private golf instructor for Rogers-Kante, who was fine tuning her golf game for an upcoming outing with a U.S. president. Gerkovich says the staff at The Gant remembered the little things, down to the locally-inspired menu, to make sure they were cared for, something she says she greatly appreciated.
There are four mountains surrounding Aspen, with miles of hiking and biking trails, a historic downtown, restaurants and boutiques, and such distinctive group venues as Holden/Marolt Mining & Ranch Museum, the Wheeler Opera House and the 48-acre Chaparral Ranch. Aspen has an average of 300 days of sunshine. Summer was not on Gerkovich’s radar. She had always thought of this elite enclave as a winter destination. However, once introduced to Aspen, she longs to return with her own family — the premier endorsement for a planner, “From the moment you land, there’s just something quaint about Aspen. You feel you’re in an intimate space with nature and are with those who appreciate nature. Everything feels special in Aspen,” she says.
The Adirondack region has been a vacation destination since early on, when it was the place to get away, especially life in New York City. It remains the place to go to unplug, regroup and commune with nature. “Once you cross the blue line of the Adirondack border, you feel like you’ve actually gotten away from the craziness of everyday life,” says Stephanie Lange of the Mirror Lake Inn. Located in Lake Placid, the hotel attracted the attention of Behavioral Health Services North. A representative of the company explained last year why it was chosen: its 40-mile proximity to the company’s headquarters in Plattsburgh, NY and its ease in developing an inspired meeting theme. It’s the setting of the 1980 Winter Olympics, when the U.S. Men’s Ice Hockey team (Miracle on Ice) won the gold medal.
The goal of the two-day retreat for a small employee group was to reflect on the past year and plan strategic business goals. It was titled The Competitive Edge, which perfectly reflected the goal of the retreat. The representative explains: “We thought this would be an ideal location to plot our future and cultivate a more competitive edge in the marketplace.”
As the state’s only AAA Four-Diamond hotel/restaurant combination outside New York City, the destination is popular for its tranquil-lakeside lifestyle, private beach and year-round experiences, such as skiing, boating, fishing, hiking and more. Its award-winning dining features such specialties as a breakfast with locally sourced products, the region’s pork pate served with house-made apple butter and Hudson Valley foie gras. It was the resort’s chocolate chip cookies that made an impression. The representative adds, “Reservations and timing go much more smoothly, and then there is the personal attention. It’s always there.” C&IT