Your Corporate Retreat Is On—But It’s Going To Be Weirder
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Your Corporate Retreat Is On—But It’s Going To Be Weirder

Employees bond over a virtual lunar disaster or ‘80s-themed murder mystery.

By KRITHIKA VARAGUR
Mon, Mar 15, 2021 1:00pmGrey Clock 3 min

At the last global sales meeting he attended before the pandemic, Jeff Chase went to Caesars Palace Las Vegas with about 60 colleagues, plus many of their spouses. In February, the biotech sales manager scouted a location for their next retreat, the Renaissance Aruba Resort & Casino, on Zoom. He never left his home in Indianapolis.

The woman organising the visit, travel entrepreneur Sarah Reuter, instructed him and 70 other attendees from the corporate world to locate sunglasses, a hairdryer and a refreshing drink in their homes. When the video panned to the Caribbean, they were asked to turn on their blow dryers to simulate a coastal breeze in their hair.

“Myself, no, I don’t have long hair, so I couldn’t do that part,” Mr Chase says. He still enjoyed the whirlwind tour enough that he’s planning to book one of Elevate Travel Co.’s virtual retreats for the company’s biannual sales meeting this fall.

Vaccines are now reaching many American workers, but some companies are in no rush to bring back the in-person off-site retreat. Instead, they’re turning to a host of increasingly elaborate virtual options, including murder mysteries staffed with actors, webcast trips to beach resorts and safaris, and purpose-built digital islands for multiday gatherings.

They’re not quite a substitute for the splashiest pre-pandemic corporate off-sites—where some participants might have slept in a castle or raced Fiat 500s around the Tuscan countryside—and usually require much less time and money. But they can still help employees bond and let off steam after months of working in unusual conditions, their participants say.

Sean Hoff, managing partner of Toronto-based corporate retreats company Moniker, says clients have started inquiring about in-person trips, but are holding off on deposits and flights until at least June. So he’s ploughing ahead creating a virtual island for an upcoming retreat of around 240 people for Webflow, a San Francisco website-design company.

Employees will participate in videogame-like team-building activities, including a boat-building race. They will inhabit customized avatars and gather in virtual locales like a “tiki hut” and a “treehouse” for small-group meetings.

“The HR team, for example, will be able to say, meet us over by the dock at 5 p.m.,” he says.

“I’m not going to lie, I was a little sceptical at first. But after a year of remote work I was so desperate to meet more of my colleagues that I just dived in,” says Allison Williams, an account manager based in St. Louis at Articulate, an e-learning software company. Articulate held a weeklong virtual retreat in early February with over 104 sessions, including virtual yoga and virtual escape rooms. Out of 291 employees across 10 time zones, 267 participated, according to a company spokesman.

Ms Williams taught a class to 45 colleagues on calligraphy and says she made a new friend, a “fellow pen nerd,” in the process. She also made new work friends through the happy hours at a virtual beach club staged on Remo, an online conferencing platform. There were various seating options, including a bar, fire pit, or surfboard-shaped table. Employees talked in small groups with whoever else gathered at each site.

Alejandra Sereleas, a vice president of accounting at the France-based videogame company Ubisoft, hired Moniker to stage a virtual, 1980s-themed murder mystery for her team of about 80 people last June.

The scenario is a wedding: The groom mysteriously drops dead after taking a sip of his drink. The participants meet eight suspects, all paid actors, and must interrogate them to solve the crime.

“We asked everyone to be in character and be creative, and sent them a wedding invitation before the event,” Ms Sereleas says. People embraced the theme, she says, donning side ponytails and chunky jewellery and setting ’80s-themed Zoom backgrounds like a Pac-Man maze.

After the murder mystery, which made its debut last May as Moniker’s first virtual offering, the company created a “lunar outpost disaster scenario” set in 2037. It was adapted from a NASA training exercise for aspiring astronauts. Participants act as mission control for a crew of colleagues whose exploratory trip to the moon’s surface has gone awry.

“We’ve kissed the Blarney stone in Ireland, had whiskey at the top of a mountain in Patagonia, rode on a dogsled in Finland, sailed a yacht off Cannes and hung out with a gorilla doctor in Rwanda,” says Liz Lathan, Austin, Texas-based CEO of Haute Dokimazo, an events company that pivoted to virtual experiences during the pandemic. Her corporate clients Zoomed with travel guides in 28 countries between last May and December.

Vanessa Blackburn, Cleveland-based enterprise retail strategist at Retail Zipline, a communications startup for retail stores, has already done two virtual retreats with her team. Their last off-site, planned before the pandemic, was to take place in Lake Tahoe, and Ms Blackburn hoped to tack on a few extra days to ski. Her company’s two-day virtual retreat in March struck a different tone.

Instead of lavish catered meals, employees got to spend $25 on their corporate card to order coffee and lunch delivery. And the goody bags sent to their homes included a tub of slime, a plastic Slinky toy and a colouring book—not for the workers themselves, but to occupy the young children that many still had at home. “My daughter loved that,” Ms Blackburn says.



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Savvy travellers who plan their trips around dining at their destination’s most in-demand restaurants know that securing a reservation at a top Paris eatery isn’t an easy proposition on any given day.

Come the Olympics in July, when the city is flooded with tourists, one would expect the jockey sport to snag a table to be that much more intense. But that’s not necessarily shaping up to be the case. As of mid-May, Parisian insiders such as hotel managers, restaurant owners, and local luxury concierges reported that inquiries at sought-after spots were no higher than usual, foretelling a potential opportunity for visitors looking for a fine-dining experience during the games.

The time to book falls over the next few weeks given that many top spots don’t take reservations until one month before the dining date.

The Michelin-starred Jean Imbert Au Plaza Athenee and Le Relais Plaza, both at Hotel Plaza Athenee and helmed by the renowned French chef Jean Imbert, are two examples.

Francois Delahaye, the COO of the Dorchester Collection, a hospitality company that includes the Plaza Athenee and a second Paris property, Le Meurice, says that his regular guests who are visiting for the games and Parisians who frequent the restaurants know not to call too far in advance of when they want to dine.

Further, he doesn’t foresee reservations being a challenge at either venue or at Le Meurice’s two-Michelin-starred Restaurant Le Meurice Alain Ducasse.

“Booking for the restaurants won’t be an issue because people are planning meals at the last minute,” Delahaye says. “Also, the people who are in Paris specifically for the Olympics are here for the games, not to eat at restaurants. They’re not the big-spending clientele that we usually get.”

Delahaye doesn’t expect the kinds of peak crowds that descend on fine dining during Fashion Week each spring and autumn, for example, when trying to land a seat at the three eateries is nearly impossible. “People are fighting to get in,” he says. “You need to book through your hotel’s concierge, have an inside source, or be a hotel or restaurant regular.”

Several Paris luxury concierge companies echoed Delahaye’s perspective

Manuel de Croutte, the founder of Exclusive & Private, says that Paris regulars probably aren’t planning a trip when the Olympics transpire—from July 26 to Aug. 11—because they want to avoid the tourist rush. “We’ve gotten some reservation requests from people who’ve heard about us but not nearly as many as we usually get when the very wealthy travellers are here,” he says.

During peak periods like the French Open or Fashion Week, de Croutte says that his job entails making bookings for travellers who don’t have any other way to get into buzzy or Michelin-starred establishments.

“You’re unlikely to get a table at a see-and-be-seen place without knowing someone,” de Croutte says. “No one picks up the phone or answers email.” He says his team has established relationships with managers and owners of many of the hot spots in Paris and often visits them in person to land tables.

Exclusive & Private’s Black Book of Paris restaurant recommendations for Olympic visitors span a broad range, from casual bistros to fine-dining.

Michelin eateries include the three-star Le Gabriel at La Reserve, the two-star Le Clarence near the Champs-Elysee, and the two-star Le Taillevent.

Spots without a Michelin star but equally notable are also on de Croutte’s list: L’ Ami Jean offers traditional and flavourful southwestern French cuisine, Allard is a brasserie from Alain Ducasse, and Laurent serves French food to a fashionable set.

“My favourite neighbourhood for restaurants is Saint Germain de Pres,” de Croutte says. “You’ll find unassuming but chic names with excellent food and a great vibe. You can book with these places directly if you’re here for the Olympics, but don’t wait until the last minute because they will get filled.”

He also cautions that some Paris eateries are asking for nonrefundable prepayments for reservations during the Olympics.

“Be sure you want to go before committing and ask about the refund policy if you are charged,” he says.

Stephanie Boutet-Fajol, the founder of Sacrebleu Paris, says her bespoke travel company charges a lump sum of about US$750 to make all the restaurant bookings for the Olympic period, though the price varies depending on the dates and the number of restaurants that a client requests. “Reservations around the closing ceremony are harder to come by because that’s when more elite travelers are coming to Paris and want the chic restaurants that are always difficult to get a table at,” she says.

Meanwhile, chefs at some Michelin-starred restaurants share that they have tables available during the Olympics and welcome travellers to their establishments.

Thibaut Spiwack, for one, behind the Michelin-starred Anona, serving modern French cuisine, and the culinary consultant for the popular Netflix series Emily in Paris , says that he is open for reservations.

“My team and I look forward to sharing a culinary experience with new clientele that I hope will remain in their memory,” he says.

Spiwack suggests that travellers check out other worthwhile restaurants where he himself dines. For terrific wine, there’s Lava, and for Italian, he likes Epoca where the pastas are “divine.” Janine is the best bistro in town, and Prima wins for a pizza fix, he says.

“You have a lot of restaurants in Paris to pick from,” Spiwack says. “You just need to determine where you want to go, and book as soon as you can.”