Operators cut back spending on management retreats, but not at the expense of content.
As budgets are slashed and travel is frozen, management retreats often become a victim as the something that has to either go or be changed. Therefore, operators are working to make sure if they do hold a management retreat, they make it as valuable—and economical—as possible.
Stay or go?: At 13,900-student Turlock (Calif.) Public Schools, Scott Soiseth, director of child nutrition, holds one management retreat per school year, though the location has changed in the past few years.
“We have held the retreats at our facilities and also off campus,” Soiseth says. “In light of the economy, we used our facility this year. The benefits of are that we are close to home, it’s less expensive and we have access to any equipment or accommodations we need. The negative side is there is a greater potential for disruptions since we can be reached by phone or e-mail.”
Soiseth says in past years, his department had a budget of $15,000 for a two-day retreat, which usually was held at a retreat center. The center worked as a way to get the staff away from distractions and bond, which created higher expectations to complete the retreat’s agenda. However, the high cost and logistics didn’t make sense with the new budget.
“Now we budget only a couple of thousand dollars and limit it to one day,” Soiseth says. “[But these retreats are more about] the thought of working with co-workers that I do not usually get to interact with, and a chance to rejuvenate before school starts.”
Mary Gregoire, director of food and nutrition services at 671-bed Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, holds at least one retreat per year.
“It depends on the issues and what planning is needed,” Gregoire says. “We have used retreats to strategically plan for our operation, but we also have several building projects going on around campus so we have also used half- and whole-day retreats to do design and operational planning. With the economy the way it is, we are now more likely to hold them on-site. However, when we have gone off-site, we’ve done so in an economical way, such as using conference rooms at other hospitals, which often don’t require payment for the room. We have also gone to the home of one of the management team members in the past. Holding them on-site is typically cheaper and allows for team members to deal with an emergency issue if it arises. Holding them off-site gives a different atmosphere to the meeting —it helps us be more creative.”
For Jennifer Hesmondhalgh, executive chef at 633-bed WellStar Kennestone Hospital in Marietta, Ga., holding retreats off-site is still very important to her department.
“It really helps to keep everyone focused if the other staff cannot interrupt management,” Hesmondhalgh says. “Usually we will do a state of the company and talk about new things coming soon. We’ll also do brainstorming across disciplines to solve major or ongoing issues.”
Hesmondhalgh also admits that these off-site retreats can lend themselves to funny stories and memories.
“We were staying at a lodge resort where we had a fancy dinner, dancing and a bonfire,” Hesmondhalgh recalls. “It was really a quiet country retreat—until we realized several of the rooms were infested with bedbugs. It was not so quiet after that. Also, once we had a nametag error, where it was supposed to read ‘health system’ and it was printed ‘hell system’ instead.”
Topics and tactics: At 34,100-student University of Georgia in Athens, Jeanne Fry, director of foodservices, says her department is too large for one retreat. So they hold one retreat for senior management and divide the assistant managers into two retreats. The retreats are held on campus and Fry says the events are best when the department has developed a good agenda.
“I think it is critical to have an agenda and to stick to it,” Fry says. “Some subjects require a lecture-style approach, but we try to keep those to a minimum and choose activities that get the team involved. At our last retreat for senior management, they were divided into four groups and given an hour to come up with a new food concept for our food court. Then they had to sell their idea in a presentation. You have to make it useful, relevant and interesting so that even those team members who grumble about it being a waste of time will engage and leave with a sense of value.”
Jill Irvin, director of dining services for University Residences at 39,100-student Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., says she has had success basing her two management retreats around a book.
“We held one retreat with all dining management staff, which is about 50 people, and we held another with all of the dining court managers and administrative team, which is about 15 people. I’ve used Good to Great by Jim Collins. We went through the first four chapters and used discussion questions from his Web site. I was new in my role so it helped all of the managers and my admin team to get to know each other. It also helped them get to know who I was and the things I wanted to concentrate on.”
The larger retreat took place last January, when Irvin was taking over the department. It was the first one of its kind and she hopes to continue to have them annually. Irvin says she likes retreats because they are a way to get all levels of the staff together.
“During the school year, you’re busy and everyone is doing their own thing, so it’s easy to lose track of each other,” Irvin says. “Retreats help build that connection so in the middle of the school year when something goes wrong, it makes them feel more comfortable reaching out to other locations for help.”
Make it Work
Operators offer tips for a successful retreat.
Planning a management retreat can seem a daunting task. With so much to think about, it can be easy to overlook something important. FSD reached out to several directors for their best retreat planning tips.
Staying timely in what the retreat is addressing is important, according to David Annis, director of housing and food services at 27,000-student Uni-versity of Oklahoma in Norman.
“[My best advice is to] keep it relevant,” Annis says. “Try and get input from the participants long before the actual day of the retreat. They need to buy in to the process, and talking about things that interest them certainly helps. There’s one [tool] that I always enjoy, where they have an electronic mat. It almost looks like a Twister mat. It’s got a lot of different circles on it. You can program it to have only one path to get across. It takes people working together to figure out how to make it across by stepping on certain circles in different directions. Each member goes across and builds on the other’s progress.”
At 20,000-student Ohio University, Rich Neumann, director of dining services, advises planning retreats at least three months in advance.
“I think it’s important to solicit input for the agenda,” Neumann adds. “Prepare your staff for the retreat by telling them what will be discussed and giving pre-retreat assignments so that the retreat will be productive. For example, if you are talking about a reorganization, have attendees submit ideas in advance.”
For Jennifer Hesmondhalgh, executive chef at 633-bed WellStar Kennestone Hospital in Marietta, Ga., topic choice is important.
“Cover a topic that needs attention,” Hesmondhalgh says. “It should be fun, informative and timely. You are taking staff away for a day—it is an investment and a reward.”
Jill Irvin, director of dining services for University Residences at 39,100-student Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., thinks it’s important to bring people from outside to speak.
“I would try to include someone from outside your department so staff can hear from a different voice, even if the message is one they have heard before,” Irvin says. “For example, our professional growth and development committee had decided there were things about safety and security that needed to be addressed, such as when do you call the police? So we had a police officer from Purdue Police come in and talk about how we should react in certain circumstances—what instances should we call the police or which ones were disciplinary issues within the rules of housing.”
A Token to Remember
Gifts and innovative activities make BYU’s management retreats a success.
At 33,000-student Brigham Young University, Dean Wright, director of dining services, has been holding management retreats for many years—although, he admits, they have had to change with the times. Here, he talks about the importance of developing a theme for his retreats and why he thinks they are important to keep around.
“We conduct management retreats twice per year—one for upper management and one for the entire management team. We have had many successful retreats, or as we call them, work groups.
Where we hold the retreats depends on the theme we are stressing. We always develop a theme, with the purpose to give a gift that helps the attendees remember the theme. For example, this past year for the large management retreat our theme was ‘Strength, Honor, Rejoice.’ The strength represented that we need to find strength in each other and strength in the fact that we have a strategic plan. The honor was to remind us to honor our profession. And rejoice was to remind us that even though there is a downturn in the economy, we have a lot to be happy for. We gave the employees small bronze coins called mites. The concept was based around the fact that out of small things comes that which is great. By focusing on small things we were able to keep our same financial return even with a downturn in sales. It would have sent out the wrong message if we had gone off campus [for the retreat].
I think there is a lot of sarcasm and a lot of ‘oh no, another retreat. Why don’t they let me be back in my operation, doing what I do?’ I feel that if you have a learning environment that has a focus, especially if you give the person a token that helps them remember that focus, they’re going to be much more successful. For example, we had a retreat where the whole focus was on communication, and we likened communication to bowling. Sometimes you hit a strike and all the pins go down so you know your message was received. Sometimes you get gutter balls and the message is missed, and then sometimes you knock down some of the pins, so part of the message was received. The morning session was all about listening and communicating. In the afternoon, we rented out a bowling alley on campus and I gave everyone a bowling shirt. They bowled in teams and afterwards they each met in their groups and asked each other what were some lessons they could learn about communication and teamwork from the bowling game. I think that by doing something different, it helps them remember and have takeaway value. If you just go to a retreat and sit for six hours, I promise you within 24 hours they’ll only remember half of it and within a week you’re going to be lucky if they remember anything. But I also promise you that if you went to any of my employees that were here 10 years ago and asked them about what they learned when bowling, they’d be able to tell you, ‘sometimes I get a gutter ball.’
I have found that if we hold it locally, rather than traveling a long distance, my people are more focused. We are fortunate to have beautiful mountains surrounding us so we have a variety of sites to choose from. Probably the greatest negative when we do not leave campus is that my team still wants to do work and not be really focused. Another thing we’re doing in response to the economy is just offering refreshments instead of entire meals for half-day retreats. We’ll do a much lighter, lower-cost meal but unconventional refreshments. For example, instead of doing fruit and bagels, we would do different types of soft pretzels. We want to put a twist on what we had been doing in the past. We’re still giving the gift, but it may not be as expensive of a gift.
We believe that together, everyone does achieve more. I think these retreats help us with innovation and accountability. Everything we do, we try to focus on our mission and values. For us to be successful, we need to stay close to our core and that is to nourish the campus and the spirit of hospitality in support of learning and building community and building character. I think.”