How to Create a Successful Corporate Retreat in 2019

by Erin Abrams

The year 2019 is expected to follow the big trend in 2018 for corporate retreats: Attendees want experiences versus events

For decades, corporate retreats have followed the same blueprint: Speakers deliver the similar motivational messages as employees watch from their seats. Though traditions have benefits, there are many new opportunities that can serve as catalysts to shift the internal company behavior to positively enhance the overall company’s personality, while supporting well-being for employees.

Making it memorable means that the attendees do not have to think about their experience. Instead, they take away an impression connected to the many emotions inspired by the content of the retreat. Attendees walk away with an unanticipated change in behavior or perspective that grew out of being active participants. 

Create a Retreat Team

Larger corporations tend to have a person or whole department whose main role is to plan retreats and events. For small to medium-sized businesses, form a team that includes a representative from each department, or select employees to serve as a focus group. If there’s just one organizer, that person can send out a survey to those who are invited to attend. Some team members may not be as vocal in person, so a written survey is an opportunity for them to speak up while remaining anonymous. Having department heads communicate potential retreat ideas to their staff or having a survey available to all gives each person a voice in the decision-making process, which can start conversations before the retreat begins and generate preliminary thoughts. 

Content Is Crucial

Start by choosing a theme that captures the meaning of the retreat and will create a positive impact after the retreat is complete.

Once the theme is established, it helps funnel the content of the retreat in one direction, and all the event decisions align to support that objective.

Change the Scenery

When choosing a corporate retreat, the first thing to eliminate from the checklist is a hotel with a boardroom. Heading from an office to a boardroom takes away from the excitement of being invited to participate. Changing the scenery allows for spontaneity in idea creation, re-energizes the team, and strengthens internal bonds, because the group is walking through a unique experience together.


Ask attendees to give some thought to the retreat theme, brainstorming around any issues, ideas on how to improve the culture, or things that need to change within the company. It can be as simple as providing “thinking points” or a list of topics to be addressed without the need to hand in a response. Let them feel assured that this will be a time when they don’t have to hold back about what is really happening. Soliciting pre-participation creates a safe space so employees can be prepared for what’s to come before they enter the experience. 

Also, share the agenda before departure so employees know what to pack and how much downtime they’ll have. Research the local area and offer plenty of options for each personality type. By sharing information early, the group organizer can play up the positive for those attending. In setting expectations, organizers can give attendees a sense of both the seriousness and the playfulness behind the retreat design.

Quality Content

Designing a retreat is part art and part science—working with solid information around the group’s attributes. The opening of the retreat sets the stage and tone, which should align with the group mission for the retreat. This opening gathering should invite attendees to let pre-expectations and judgments about this time together dissolve, and also touch upon some of the highlights brought up in the survey. This gives permission for employees to be more present, and also lets them know that they have been heard.

The opening gathering should offer an overall synopsis of the entire retreat, breaking down the theme from a broad perspective, including hopes for the result. It is also an opportunity to educate attendees about why the retreat is taking place, and show them the positive impact they can make. The hours or days following will focus more on breaking down the theme at a company level and looking at how it affects individuals or departments—ending with empowering employees to find the solutions together.

Outdoor Time Enhances Well-Being

Make time for outdoor activities. Employees are most likely sitting during the working day, so incorporating a healthy walk or guided hike can inspire new ideas and banter among co-workers. Forest bathing or a walking meditation can be a less physically taxing alternative to being outside.

Besides fresh air and exercise, there are evidence-based benefits of being outside, including positive versus negative ions. Rooms filled with technological devices, stagnant air, fluorescent lighting, and air conditioning give off what are called positive ions (don’t let the name fool you—they are actually unhealthy ions). Positive ions can cause headaches, exacerbate depression, and weaken the immune system. Being outdoors—especially in the woods and near moving water—exposes us to negative ions (the good ones), shown to relieve depression, increase mood-regulating serotonin levels in the brain, and alleviate illness and chronic pain.

Quality Time

You may see your co-workers day in and day out, but to gather around at meals, not have work as a conversational default, and see each other in a relaxed setting all stimulate core feelings similar to those inspired by gathering with friends and family. When an employee’s skills are attached to their job title, others may not get a chance to see their co-workers’ hidden interests or talents. Retreats provide a conduit to interact through shared experiences and get outside the comfort zone of job roles or cubicle walls. The more interactive they are, the more employees discover about each other—and this naturally creates a bond.

Room for Spontaneity

Sometimes, a memorable experience comes from breathing space and downtime. It is hard to trust that downtime will create memories, but if that time is bookended by thoughtful content and discussion, it will unfold through reflection, inquiry, and networking. Retreats become memorable through connections and engagement with others who are going through the same experience.


After the retreat is over and attendees have digested the information, encourage feedback, suggestions, and improvement from the group with a follow-up email or an anonymous online survey. This helps ensure that future retreats are time well spent and successful.

Retreats have evolved from extravagant events for elite executives into opportunities for employers to invest in the well-being of employees. Instead of using retreats as a reward for a prosperous year and hard work, companies have found that being proactive in celebrating the employee motivates everyone for a successful year to come. This new approach to company retreats creates value for the employee and generates enthusiasm to boost company morale. 

Erin Abrams helps corporations craft unique retreat experiences at Kripalu. 

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