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This year was a unique and special year for us. We were turning 10 years old! Instead of our usual more structured annual retreat with just employees, Peldi wanted us all to have a relaxing fun vacation together with our families (and/or friends) in order to celebrate this special marker in a big way. He also wanted to pay for all our guests to come! Triple yay!
The idea was to find an all-inclusive resort, so that nobody had to carry money anywhere with them, that had enough to do for adults and children of all ages (there were going to be kids as young as 1 all the way up to 17 years old), in a location that was somewhere different than where we all might normally go, and wasn't too long of a flight for anyone. Phew! So Peldi decided it would be the Caribbean. Beaches, relaxation, drinks, great food with friends and family. What better place to celebrate our 10 year company birthday!
The first step this year was finding a travel agent that could help us find a resort. In the past we have mostly found the accommodation ourselves. We were 79 people this time, so it made sense to get some help for this part of our process. Once we found a travel agent she gave us some options and we then narrowed it down based on flight times and resorts that had enough to keep everyone happy.
We were hoping to find a small resort where we could take the whole thing over, but places like that seemed to be geared to adults only. Our finalist was Dreams in Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic as it was family friendly and had plenty going on to keep everyone busy, AND the flight times to Punta Cana from Europe were more reasonable than other Caribbean locations!
We started in the fall by asking everyone and their guests to fill out a Google spreadsheet with info we would need for booking flights and rooms. It included people's emergency contacts and dietary restrictions. Once we had all this info we were able to book flights and figure out how many rooms were needed, making sure to reserve a few extras rooms for possible new hires.
After the winter holidays we moved forward on purchasing travel insurance, arranging transport between the airport and resort, deciding on and ordering gifts, and planning the few events scheduled which included making sure everyone's dietary restrictions were met. Peldi really wanted the time to feel relaxed and unstructured, so there were less activities to plan: a welcome reception on the first night and then one day, our actual 10th year birthday June 19, a brunch for just employees, and most importantly our big 10th Birthday Bash in the evening. We also planned company and profile pictures in the afternoon right before the big party.
One thing we didn't think of with the Google spreadsheet was other travel plans people might have. We'd left a spot for notes, but it would have been helpful to have a few extra columns for travel dates and locations before and after the dates of the company trip for anyone who was planning on extra travel, so it was clearer how to book flights. Also because we hadn't decided on gifts yet, we didn't think of adding information we would need for that. As we normally give an item of clothing (T-shirt), it would have been a good idea to put a shirt size column on the spreadsheet, so we had that information collected just in case.
We really wanted to have some areas where people could find each other and hang out, so we reserved a few spots for this. We had a room reserved for everyone to eat breakfast each morning, and some cabanas on the beach that were ours for the entire time.
Because we didn't want to risk the Internet not being great everywhere at the resort, we reserved a conference room with snacks and drinks, so that people could work on covering sales and support emails with guaranteed solid Internet. We wanted to make sure our customers were still well taken care of during our company vacation. The room ended up being used by a few of our guests (non employees) who had other work to do, and was a nice escape from the heat of the day for some.
For those who didn't want to relax at the resort the whole time, I put up some wiki pages with some tours I'd found with a column for signing up, so that people could self organize going on excursions outside the resort themselves.
As the time for departure got closer we switched communication to the Slack channel Peldi had created for employees and guests. We also got information up in a Google doc about packing, transport times, resort activities, etc., so it was accessible to everyone.
We had people fill out liability wavers for the first time, which felt a little strange, but we figured it was important this year as we didn't personally know everyone's guests and we were such a huge group. The odds of something happening had increased. Luckily nothing happened more serious than someone stepping on an urchin spine! We purposefully made the liability waivers as non legal-y as possible. The main goal for them was to set expectations for the trip. We had collected emergency contacts for everyone in the initial planning phase, but closer to departure we made sure they were all still correct and strongly encouraged people to have medical information with them during the trip.
The Slack channel ended up being a really fun and helpful tool that we would definitely recommend and use again. Aside from allowing for spontaneous organization for meals or activities, it was used for sharing pictures, etc. during and even after the trip.
Our travel agent Jeanine volunteered to go a day early with her husband to make sure everything was ok for our arrival and to assemble the gifts. We'd had the gifts sent using a carrier familiar with shipping to the Dominican Republic (there were tariffs and taxes involved), but we wanted them to be delivered to the rooms before everyone arrived.
The resort arranged a private checkin to make things easier and faster, which was really nice. There were drinks and appetizers ready which led into the relaxed evening reception located just outside the checkin room. Even though the last flight to arrive with almost all the Europeans was a bit late, we were still all able to meet each other and hangout with more food and drinks. Peldi did an opening toast to kick things off and we had name tags and lanyards for everyone to make it easier to keep track of who was who. There were lots of new faces with all the guests and a few new employees!
Those whose plane arrived late didn't have as smooth of a transition that night, but starting the reception later in the evening would have made it even more difficult for those who had small children to attend. In hindsight it might have been better to have the reception the day after everyone arrived, because of the later arrival times from Europe. We did want people to get a chance to meet as soon as possible, but delaying one day probably would have been ok.
It was easy to bump into other Balsamici and having some designated areas helped with this. People tended to be found in a few different spots, in either the cabanas, or by the huge meandering pool which was great for kids and adults. The kids were entertained for hours and made fast friends, but most importantly their parents could easily keep an eye on them and socialize, as it was standing level everywhere. Several pool volleyball games happened during the course of the 5 days as well. And of course there were drinks everywhere! In the pool, in the cabanas, at bars inside and outside.
There was also something for everyone at the restaurants and some people tried out the resort directed activities such as Spanish lessons and bottle painting.
People also had fun at the game area in the evening when it had cooled down a bit. It was technically an area reserved for just teens, but a Balsamico convinced the staff to allow "adults" to use part of it too. We were able to have a little area for ping pong, pool and a giant Jenga game. There was also a show in the theater or on the beach every night with very talented dancers in the vein of Cirque du Soleil, and a club for dancing. A few evenings a group self organized to go dancing in the club.
Many people went on excursions outside the resort and had a great time exploring more of the Dominican Republic. There was a boat trip to Saona Island to see a sea turtle sanctuary, kayaking in the Haitises National Park, a trip to a school, a cigar factory, a rum tasting and beautiful Macao beach, a snorkeling trip, horseback riding, and more. The Dominican Republic has much to offer besides its resorts. 😊
We had an employee only brunch to start the day off. We were all able to sit at one large table. Peldi asked us all an interesting question "What would you do if Balsamiq was no longer around?" (which we all didn't actually answer formally). It got us thinking and talking about what a great 10 years we've had and how grateful we'd all be even if 10 years was all we had as a company. We've all gained so much personally and professionally from our time with Balsamiq and it's been a real gift to still be around as a business.
Before the party that night we all met down on the beach. A few Balsamici brought their cameras and tripods and took pictures in the evening at the beach. Peldi even brought his drone for a group shot!
That evening we had our big 10th anniversary party, that felt a bit like the best wedding reception ever. There was food, an anniversary/birthday cake, a lit dance floor and DJ, karaoke, a fire show with very talented dancers, and the best fireworks show I've seen in my life just for us right on the beach. It was an amazing night!
We also presented a gift to Peldi which was a travel journal where all the guests wrote something to him about the week. Some of the kids drawings were especially cute!
All and all, things went more smoothly and better than I'd expected and it was way more fun. Not sure why I wasn't sure if going to the Caribbean and staying at a resort with 79 people wouldn't be a blast, but it was a first for many of us, and it ended up exceeding my expectations.
It really is the people that make an experience great. It didn't hurt that we were in a beautiful location and relaxing with drinks in our hand and not having to worry about preparing our next meal, but the big take away for me is that whenever we all get together and wherever we all get together, it's like being with family in a good way, and it is always so worth all the planning. It's what helps keep our company culture of being more than just coworkers and this year meeting each other's families and friends was an extra special bonus. We were all so grateful to Peldi for his generosity in bringing us all together in such a lovely spot.
I hope we will be around and able to do this again in another decade!
Joy for the Balsamiq Team
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