insight magazine

Are Business Retreats Worth It?

Six ways to make that team-building, solutions-driven field trip really, truly work. By Derrick Lilly | Fall 2015


It’s boring. It’s a waste of time. It costs too much. It’s Hell in paradise...It’s your firm’s annual retreat, and nothing ever changes after it anyway.

Often intended to be a serene getaway that builds bonds and turbocharges strategic thinking, retreats can quickly turn into something worse: Endless days of listening to high-priced motivational speakers flitting from one platitude to another.

It’s no wonder that retreats either have fallen by the wayside or are met with derision. But retreats don’t need to be driven into extinction—they just need to be reinvigorated.

“A retreat is a time for going boldly where the partners have never gone before,” says Marc Rosenberg, CPA, a “Top 10 Most Recommended Consultant” and one of Accounting Today’s “Top 100 People.”

So here’s how to make your retreat worth the journey—and the money.

1. Go With a Goal

Do you need a succession plan? Are you introducing a new practice area? Does your board need restructuring? Is a merger in your future? Has the organization lost sight of its culture?

These are issues unlikely to be settled in an afternoon meeting, but they just might be  retreat-worthy.

“A retreat is not just another partner meeting; it’s an opportunity to ‘freeze time,’ step away from the office, the staff, the telephone, the emails and text messages, and focus on the firm, communication and brainstorming. The whole point is to address highly critical and sensitive issues, and discover the feelings and opinions of the other partners,” says Rosenberg. “Partners should walk away from retreats as smarter people.”

Rita Keller, a nationally renowned CPA firm management consultant, speaker and author, also suggests heading into a retreat with a firm agenda. “Not every topic has to be heavy, but there needs to be a clear goal,” she says. “Provide an agenda to all participants a week before the retreat. I also like to send along some ‘recommended reading’ relating to the issues at hand to get the creative juices flowing.”

2. Open the Floor

Everyone in attendance—whether the re-treat is limited to partners or includes experienced staff—needs to have the opportunity to feed the discussion. “Every participant must feel free to be brutally candid,” says Rosenberg. “Everyone attending the retreat should enter the meeting with the mindset that it will be a game changer.”

“Everyone has to weigh-in on the discussion,” adds Keller. “There’s often hesitation to speak up because of possible confrontation, but I strongly stress that it’s your duty to say what is on your mind during the retreat—and not in the hallway afterwards, or in your office with a favorite peer.”

3. Champion Change

A major complaint about retreats is that a lot of time and money is spent coming up with these great ideas and solutions, and then nothing happens afterwards. “So why bother?” asks Keller. “One partner jokingly told me, ‘We are going to video our retreat this year and then distribute the video every year for the next five years. We’ll save a lot of money because we talk about the same issues every time.’ While this was a joke, it rang loud and true.”

“If nothing ever happens, it’s your own fault. It’s up to you to decide if you simply spend $80,000 on a retreat, or if you make a million because of the ideas that came out of it,” says Rosenberg. “There needs to be accountability—there needs to be consequences.

Every discussion needs to conclude with action steps: What are we going to do? When are we going to do it? Who is going to do it?

“Someone has to be willing to commit to championing a plan and monitoring its progress,” he continues. “A firm can have the best retreat in the world, but unless there’s a decent level of partner accountability, unless the retreat is facilitated by someone who can make it successful, implementation of retreat ideas is doomed before the meeting begins.”

4. Set the Stage

Poor use of time and place is another factor that can quickly doom a retreat. Many experts recommend making your business retreat an overnight event to get the most bang for your buck. After all, if everyone’s staring at their watches, counting down the hours until they can race home, how productive will they really be? Arguably, overnight retreats allow people to relax and “let their hair down,” as Keller puts it.

That doesn’t mean the retreat has to be an all-out-all-expenses-paid vacation for the group. “It’s a myth that your retreat has to be out of town,” says Rosenberg. “A local hotel and conference room away from the office can serve your needs just fine.”

The point really is to leave the office behind, eliminating daily work distractions and helping to set the stage for working towards important, common goals.

5. Come Together

All work and no play isn’t necessarily the answer either. If you can afford it, building an element of fun into the retreat can help to build enthusiasm among participants and encourage team members to get to know one another better and trust each other.

One suggestion is to share all of your meals together. “I have found that casual cocktail hours and dinners actually lead to discussions on many of the meeting topics in a more comfortable setting and often result in some really creative ideas,” says Keller.

Another suggestion is to undertake an activity or two. Team-building initiatives span the spectrum from bizarre to extreme, but whether it’s a scavenger hunt or golf or mountain climbing, choose an activity that suits your team. The point is to laugh, challenge each other and have an experience together that you’ll talk about later.

“Some firms choose to go to really nice resorts and build in plenty of free time, and they make it a leisurely weekend as well as a business meeting. Whatever you do, just be careful not to go overboard or schedule meetings too close to activities that will have participants distracted,” says Rosenberg.

6. Do it Again

“The best firms have retreats every year, and they come away with an action plan,” says Keller. Whether or not every retreat is a success, you should plan on doing them annually, taking note of what didn’t work, and gradually working out the kinks.

“Remember, success is not having a good time, it’s implementing retreat ideas. Conclude your retreat with a list of high-impact action items. Assign your to-do lists. Monitor progress and establish accountability,” Rosenberg advises. “But, most importantly, remember to make your retreat an impact event.”