Short breaks have become big business in the past few years: most airlines and tour operators worth their salt offer tempting two-nighters to a vast number of destinations in Britain, Europe and beyond. You choose, you pay and you enjoy – it’s as simple as that. But is it as tempting when someone else is doing the organising for you? After all, weekends are precious and you don’t want to waste days stuck somewhere that might suit others but leaves you yearning for home.
Identifying the right combination of ingredients which will satisfy organisers, delegates and partners is the number one priority when planning a weekend of corporate hospitality or incentive travel. The Belfry, for example, draws on much more than its reputation as home of the Ryder Cup, according to sales controller Amanda Macchi. “It is important to offer delegates something they are familiar with or have heard about as well as some of the wacky pursuits. After all, not everyone wants to play Crystal Maze type games all day,” she says.
This attitude is mirrored by Michael Bray, deputy general manager at Tylney Hall in Hampshire. “Everyone likes the opportunity just to enjoy the facilities around them on a weekend conference. These sort of events can usually be more relaxed than a 24- hour midweek get-together, so some measure of laissez-faire is vital. That way delegates and their partners genuinely feel that they have had worthwhile time away, with opportunities to enjoy whatever facilities are on offer.”
Macchi says unusual or alternative events are fine in their place, but they do not have to be bizarre: “Incentive and corporate hospitality weekends at the Belfry have included skiing at the Tamworth Snowdome, trips to Christie’s private home to view the antiques, and mornings of sweet indulgence at Cadbury World.”
But if something out of the ordinary is an essential ingredient in a corporate weekend, then the Old Course Hotel St Andrews Golf Resort and Spa is hard to beat. “Just 35 minutes from the hotel you can take part in haggis hurling, sheep dog trials, tractor and trailer manoeuvring and quad bikes,” says managing director Jonathan Thornton.
So how does a company go about finding a good theme which will not only encourage delegates but also their partners to attend? And how should organisers plan to look after a group once they have arrived?
Christine Chapman is director of the motivation division at Spectrum Communications, and says her experience has led her to formulate two golden rules.
Firstly, position events to target both the individuals who are expected to attend as well as their partners. Secondly, pay close attention to the actual needs of those partners and put a programme together that is guaranteed to inspire.
“Mailing partners separately with their own itinerary some time before the event is an excellent starting point as it makes them feel part of the whole experience rather than simply coming along for the ride.”
Many incentive and motivation weekends include “business relationship bonding” exercises, which include partners and this calls for an imaginative itinerary.
“In this situation it is important to offer a number of options that cater for different personalities and ages,” says Chapman.
There is also a lot to be said for keeping options open and avoiding too much of a specific theme to a weekend conference, at least when there’s free time away from the classroom, according to Armathwaite Hall’s sales manager Joan Tomkinson. “Being at a luxury, picturesque country house hotel location is itself a great perk, and when there are activities to cater for so many different tastes, it’s often a good idea not to be too specific about what’s going to happen during free time.
“Having said that, delegates need to be made aware of what they can do so there’s no risk of having missed out on an early evening balloon flight, or a high-speed sight-seeing tour of the area on horseback,” says Tomkinson.
As far as partners are concerned it’s once again imagination that matters, as it is simply not acceptable to cobble together something along the lines of a shopping excursion for the wives. Any hint that this might be the sum total of a weekend partner programme is unlikely to go down well, with both delegates and partners alike.
Paul Easty, production director of Clearwater Communications, believes that the fundamental approach to weekend events should be the same as that of weekday conferences. “The message to the audience is paramount, and on each occasion it has to be tailored to both audience and circumstance. Therefore, there is little difference in the approach to organising the events, although the execution may vary.”
These days it is not uncommon for companies like Clearwater to produce weekend events that include spouses or partners in presentations rather than arrange a special leisure-oriented programme. “There is an increasing acknowledgement among management that partners play an important part in helping employees reach corporate goals. It is therefore an advantage to have them fully briefed and make them feel part of company strategy,” adds Easty.
Another important rule is to confirm, double-confirm and triple-confirm with delegates and their partners what they should be doing, and where, according to Josie Porter, marketing manager at rail caterers OBS Services. “If your initial attitude is that you’d rather be doing your own thing at home, the organisers need to work extremely hard to make you feel involved, to get you and your partner into the spirit of the event and to help you get as much as you can out of it.
“This calls for an exact programme, a clear indication of what activities you can take part in, and a tightly-controlled timetable. After all, if I’m organising a busy event I need to know that everything will fit into the programme, while most delegates like to be told to be in this or that room at 18.45 for drinks before boarding a bus that departs at 19.00 for a mystery dinner trip. In my opinion you can never give delegates too much information,” she says.
A “getting-to-know-partners” pursuit is often used as an early ice-breaker and helps build bridges at the outset. “If the partner feels confident, relaxed and has made some friends, then it takes the pressure off the other, and generally lends itself to a more relaxed, open and successful event,” says Chapman.
One way of forcing couples together is by putting them on board a ship or train, and with the right choice, the availability and quality of activities can be as good as anything found in more conventional destinations.
“A mini-cruise on a 37,000-ton ferry ship to Bilbao can include gourmet dining, a casino, swimming pool and big name entertainers which would not disgrace the West End,” suggests travel writer David Stokes.
Opting for smaller venues adds the all-important exclusivity, which you won’t find in a large hotel and certainly not on a super-ferry. The Bedfordshire Hotel Flitwick Manor caters for corporate weekend groups of ten or 12 couples and closes its doors to everyone else for the duration.
“A Friday night treasure hunt, a Saturday gourmet dinner and even an expedition to find our famous ghost are all essential elements of a successful weekend,” says general manager Sonia Banks, who points out that on the back of exclusive occupancy comes the benefit of flexibility.
“At one extreme, the hotel can become a casino for the evening, while at the other it can be turned into a quiet, get-away-from-it-all atmosphere where no-one minds shoes off and feet on chairs,” she says.
But Chapman adds that couples like their own space and time to relax, which is why in the middle of all the activities, there should be free time so that couples can do what they want.
This philosophy is echoed by Tomkinson at Armathwaite Hall. “Whether you decide to separate delegates from their partners, keep everyone together, or come up with a mixture of the two, it’s important to bring everyone together each day for some sort of event. It’s likely to be a wonderful dining experience followed by entertainment of some sort,” she says.
“Whatever is decided, though,” says Tylney Hall’s Michael Bray, “the important thing is to make everyone feel great about being where they are. That’s achieved by a careful blend of a memorable location, a worthwhile agenda, and the skills of the organisers to ensure that everyone is getting the most out of their weekend away.”