Balsamiq Summer Camp: How We Planned Our 2016 Retreat

· Posted by Natalie in Company and tagged · Add a comment

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.

Balsamiq Team in costumes

Find the Right Location

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:

  • How much travel time is involved? (This includes getting the team there but also travel to get to activities. We learned in 2012, that we didn't want to spend too much of the retreat in the car).
  • What kind of housing is available? (The two most essential elements are decent Internet and comfortable sleeping arrangements, but after that, there are a whole variety of pros and cons to consider for each housing option).
  • What is there to do and eat in the area? (New experiences are of course important elements to any retreat, as well as good eating!)

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.
A view of Guerneville
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.)

Ferngrove Cottages

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!).

The actual location was just perfect for us: we had all the space, not disturbing anyone (except probably the owners), each of us had our privacy, but there was also space to spend time together.- Anna

Balsamiq-village

Listen to Everyone's Needs

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:

  • Old feedback: Joy and I looked at previous years' feedback. We collected it for a reason, so it's good not to forget to look at it!
  • Ask for new ideas: We asked team members to comment in our wiki at least six months before the retreat to give ideas of things they'd like to happen this year - housing, food, activities, pace, whatever! This was pretty close to feedback from the prior year but was kind of a chance to take a fresh look.
  • Workshops! We started teaching each other random skills in mini-workshops in 2014 and have continued this practice ever since. But this year, asking people to sign up to teach a workshop, actually gave us some group activities for the main schedule and even a meal. (Thanks, Brendan for the excellent instruction on how to make a Chicago Style Hot Dog!)
  • Meal Planning: This is a tricky one. Planning meals for 21 means we can't cater to everyone's specific preferences without making ourselves crazy, but I felt it was important to try to find some manageable way. I made a chart with rather ridiculously detailed categories for people to fill in their food requests.

Food request

Provide Information before and during the Retreat

We provided a wiki page some weeks before the retreat so everyone could have time to pack (and purchase things if needed). This included:

  • General advice on weather and clothes
  • Specific items to bring based on planned activities
  • And general advice on what to pack, and what not to pack.

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.

Advice to pack light really saved the day for me.- Luis

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.

Our schedule for Day 4

Get a Theme!

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.

Our "Camp Paciugo" swag for the retreat

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:

  • we designed a camp logo (thanks, Mike!)
  • our gifts were all summer camp supplies:
    • a forest green camp t-shirt
    • a metal water bottle
    • a canvas messenger bag
    • embroidered camp patches
    • a Pendleton trade blanket embroidered with the Balsamiq logo
    • a five-in-one utensil set
    • a flashlight
  • each cabin was given a name: Wild Turkey Lair (Sax), Baby Deer Hollow (Paolo & Marco), Sparrow Nest (Joy), Bobcat Den (Stefano), Peregrine Falcon Rookery (Brendan & Virgin), etc.
  • and the general theme helped as we decided on what activities to do during the week.
I loved the Camp Paciugo theme, it reminded me of my Boy Scout days. The blanket is best retreat gift ever, I use it all the time now.- Luis
I really liked the theme of the "camp" and it had a warm/cozy feeling.- Anna

Planning Activities and Free Time

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:

  • People have come a long way, so we do want to make sure they get out to see the area.
  • We've also come to see each other, so chose activities that provide time for interaction and talking (not too many tours).
  • Make sure there is some unscheduled time each day (we aimed for at least 50% planned and 50% unplanned).
  • Since we still have to answer customer emails, provide time each day where the support team can do that without having to stay up until 2 am.
  • Pay attention to how long it will take to get to the activity. Is it worth the trip?
  • Provide options for easy free time activities (we had five bikes from Fern Grove, pool, public tennis and basketball courts nearby, a couple of puzzles ready to be made, and a variety of board games)

Happy tennis players

And of course we also chose things that seemed to be suited for Camp Paciugo! Here they are:

Loved being able to walk to many things or take only short drives.- Michele
Well balanced in the time spent for activities and to hang out together. I really loved how I had the occasion to speak and to bond with everybody.- Paolo

Go Green

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:

  • Beverages:
    • Individuals used their refillable camp water bottle for tap water.
    • Wine and other glasses were provided in each cottages, and everyone was responsible for taking care of washing and keeping track of their own.
  • Flatware: was provided as a gift and like the glasses, we each washed our own.
  • Plates and napkins: washing is too much because of our facility limitations, so we bought a compostable kind. I made separate garbage for them and brought them back to my compost.

Personalized glassesWine 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!

We Got Our Groove On

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.
Hootenanny

Embrace the Unpredictable

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.

Last dinner at the 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.

Probably my favorite moment was the last dinner. You were all there, so I don't need to say much. But things like this just happen once, you know. I'm just glad I was there.- Stefano M.

And When It's All over, Enjoy the Memories!

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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