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Annual retreats have become an essential part of working together at Balsamiq. From our first gathering as an entire company in 2010, we realized seeing each other face to face is an essential part of building awesome relationships in our distributed team.
This year Joy and I had the absolute pleasure of planning the retreat in Sonoma County, California where I live. Judging by the smiles on our co-workers' faces, we're pretty sure it went well!
We'd love to share some of the things that went into planning it, some things we loved, and of course what we learned from the experience. We hope you find our ideas (or lessons learned) useful in planning your company retreat.
Location is by far the most critical part of the retreat. We've chosen the general location in different ways. This year was based on a contest we had in 2014 where we submitted proposals, like Olympic Games bids. France won for 2015, but second place was Sonoma County.
There is a lot of logistical information to consider when choosing the location:
We already had a retreat in California in San Francisco in 2013, but after visiting the beautiful countryside together in Le Marche, Italy in 2011 and 2014 I was enthusiastic to show off some beautiful landscapes here in California too.
I chose Guerneville, CA, which is nestled in the redwoods in the Russian River Valley. It's near the ocean, the oak woodlands, and the many vineyards of Sonoma County; it's a tiny town, with some great restaurants, and having been a vacation resort area for over a hundred years, still offers some quirky old California charm.
For housing, we've enjoyed staying away from more corporate style resorts or hotels. We like the family atmosphere, but at 21 people, we have pretty much outgrown large homes (and even the castle last year had some housing issues!)
Luckily after a lot of Googling, plus the benefit of doing a few site visits since I live nearby, we found Fern Grove Cottages, which worked fantastically. With 21 cabins built in the 1920's which have a total of 24 bedrooms, we had the entire little village to ourselves, and plenty of personal space too (most of the cabins have private decks, a separate living room, and fireplaces, and few have small kitchens.)
The owners Jenny and Sherman made the experience very personable, which is something we love. We know finding something like this is going to be a challenge as we grow. We may have to jump to a regular hotel next year, but we hope even then to maintain the cozy, family feeling we've grown to love. (If you know of a great place with a family-like spirit that has rooms for at least 25, please let us know!).
Another thing we've learned over the years is having a large number of people actively planning the details of the retreat can be difficult. Making decisions can take a long time in particular, so in the last few years, we've had a very small team doing the actual organization. However, we don't think that means the entire team can't be involved in the process.
Here are some ways we incorporated our team's ideas:
We provided a wiki page some weeks before the retreat so everyone could have time to pack (and purchase things if needed). This included:
We've learned over the years some common questions that come up with packing, so this list is pretty easy to organize. We know, for example, whether or not a hair dryer is present on site is critical information for some of us.
The other advice not to be left out each year, is a reminder about leaving space in your luggage for gifts. We always have a few retreat goodies (ok, more than a few), and figuring out how to bring them home has made for some creative packing.
After posting the packing list, some of our team members asked Joy or me some specific questions (like is there a place to do laundry nearby?). Instead of just answering the one colleague, we added details to the information page, just in case it could be useful for all.
We also created a page in our wiki for each day with very specific details for the day. Our hope was it broke the information up, so people had an easier time finding out what they needed to know or wear for a specific day.
Because the Internet wasn't always as fast as we'd like, and because we encouraged people to be less digital during the week (since we had the once-a-year chance to be non-virtual with one another!), we also posted a paper copy of some key schedule times in the main breakfast room.
This was a new element to our retreat this year, and by its popularity, I don't think it will be the last. Joy, Mike, and I met for lunch to do a site visit in Guerneville a few months before the retreat.
After seeing the town, and the great 1950's cowboy décor of the cottages at Fern Grove, we decided we needed a theme, and it was going to be summer camp. Ideas and images like those from the Moonrise Kingdom soon flew in a private HipChat room. It was a little creative burst that was very enjoyable for us to design together, made the entire week more fun to plan, and I think made the retreat even more memorable for all.
And so, after our site visit, Camp Paciugo, Guerneville, CA was born.
A little bit of back story: paciugo (“pah-choo-go”) is an Italian word for a nice mess; for example, when you eat an ice-cream in different flavors and mix them all up, you are creating a paciugo. Paciugo is also the name of the most used chat room in Hipchat, our remote office.
Our theme permeated our week:
There are often many great activities to choose from, so one of the biggest temptations in planning is to put too much on the schedule. This year it looks like we got it just about right. Here were some of the things we considered while planning:
And of course we also chose things that seemed to be suited for Camp Paciugo! Here they are:
During this retreat we tried to find ways to make our carbon footprint a little smaller by reducing waste. We didn't have a dishwasher available to us, so for the meals we ate at Fern Grove we found a few solutions:
Wine glass markers were expensive, and didn't come in packs large enough for 21 different glasses. But these vinyl children's stickers were very inexpensive and helped us keep track of our glasses!
Music played a big role this year. Thanks to a disco ball speaker my aunt gave me, our communal Honey Badger Lodge (cabin 7) was transformed into a place for a private Karaoke practice.
It ended up being a great ice breaker for the week, and we continued our singing at a Karaoke night in town per a workshop activity suggested by Francesca. The balsamici practiced for months for this night, and I hope the locals enjoyed our performances, though I'm pretty sure we should probably keep making software.
Val also led us in a Hootenanny by the campfire. Joy purchased various kazoos, triangles, and other musical instruments, and we sang acoustically before, of course, making s'mores.
Campfire time was simple and yet perfectly beautiful. It was nice to just be together with a glowing light, blankets, and some singing.
There is a lot of unexpected magic that can happen if you don't plan out every moment. Instead, create the space, and the amazing people you are with, just by being together, will make some very memorable moments.
We had two great unexpected ones this year.
We like to set some time aside each retreat for team reflection, and this year Luis led us all in a process called Case Clinics. One member of each group of 5 or 6 people was to give a "case" or an issue that they were struggling with at Balsamiq or just personally, and the other people in the group would "coach" them by listening deeply and asking questions. Many of us weren't sure what to expect out of the process. Would it work? Would it be awkward? Would it be beneficial to the coaches or just the case-giver?
After the 60-minute exercise we all gathered to hear how the experience went for people, without sharing anything in particular about the case itself. I think the most beautiful takeaway, was it seems the process of deeply sharing and deeply listening, brought each group together in a very special and intimate way that we hadn't anticipated.
And the second experience was at our final dinner together in the stunning Grange loft of SHED.
Towards the end of the meal, someone started teasing Stefano Brilli that it was a tradition for the newest employee to give a speech. (There, of course, is no such tradition). He, in good faith, got up and gave a touching speech about what it meant for him to join the company. And soon after, Brendan stood up and did the same, and then Virgin. And then one by one, in order of being hired at Balsamiq, we all spoke with much laughter, warmed hearts, and even some tears.
What started as a joke, ended in one of the most magical evenings we've had at any retreat.
We shared a million pictures with one another, which meant we could laugh and talk about the experiences all over again after we had packed our bags and taken our cars and flights back home.
If you'd like to see a few photos from our week, we've posted an album on our Facebook page.
It was a wonderful experience for Joy and me to plan the retreat and even more to watch our colleagues experience it. We collected feedback, good and bad from this year, so next year's team will be ready to go!
Our newest ideas are: have someone specifically in charge of the Internet connection, who can come prepared to MacGyver solutions onsite, and schedule non-support people in advance to help at meals to make it easy on the retreat organizers.
We hope one or two of our ideas have inspired you in your retreat planning. Our team is already looking forward to the 2017 Retreat. We're not sure where it will be, but I can't wait to hear the theme!
Natalie for the Balsamiq Team
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