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The rise of unconventional corporate team-building activities

From racing to wine lessons to building food trucks, team-building is now as unconventional as it gets.

, ET Bureau|
Updated: Jan 12, 2020, 07.23 PM IST
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BCCL
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Some companies arrange for external speakers at corporate offsites to motivate employees but here too, there are demands for something out of the box.
Sometime last May, a 35-seater chartered flight took off early morning from Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu. On board were top executives of a Mumbai-based company in the banking and finance sector, who were in the Nepal capital for an important meeting.

As the aircraft rose to nearly 25,000 feet, there were exclamations of delight from the executives, each of whom was seated next to a window and were also allowed to wander into the cockpit for a better view. Spread out below was the panorama of a line of snow-capped peaks, including Mount Everest.

To top it off, as the one-hour flight landed back in Kathmandu, the passengers were served flutes of champagne. “For many, the whole experience came as a surprise,” says Baljeet Gujral, founder of BucketList Experiences from Mumbai, who had organised the trip.

Whether it is board meetings, a huddle with vertical heads to discuss the next year’s strategy or an attempt to foster synergy among top executives otherwise spread across geographies, the corporate getaway for senior management has been changing over the last couple of years, according to travel industry executives.

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As more Indians travel abroad (one estimate suggests this number will be 50 million in 2020) and their appetite for unconventional destinations and experiences goes up, boutique travel firms say this trend has now spread to corporate offsites for the top deck.

BucketList, whose clients include Standard Chartered, Wipro and Emirates, organises two to three such board meetings every quarter at “unexplored” destinations, which offer interesting recreational activities.

“Companies no longer want to do these high-level meetings at beach resorts in the Maldives or Mauritius. After all, how much can you do at a beach resort? Instead, they are choosing well-connected cities such as Paris, Berlin and Barcelona that offer a range of unique experiences,” says Viswanathan G, CEO of Footprint Holidays, which specialises in bespoke trips.

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Footprint’s clients are primarily owners of companies with revenues upwards of Rs 500 crore. Group sizes for these trips are typically between 8 and 10 for three to four nights. “Time is a premium for these executives. We arrange the trips in a way that they land at the destination by noon and have half a day left,” says Viswanathan.

This means maximising opportunities for new experiences. For instance, at a board meeting held in Paris recently, the company arranged for a sommelier from the Champagne region of France to come to the hotel where the meeting was being held to take the executives through the nittygritties of wine appreciation without them having to step out. Vikram Ahuja, owner of Byond Travel, says that apart from France, offbeat destinations such as Kazakhstan, Georgia and Taiwan are some of the places his corporate clients have been choosing for their getaways of late. “These places are popular because of the novelty factor. Companies want to infuse a sense of adventure in these trips,” says Ahuja. A place like Georgia offers executives a chance to try out racing tracks. “You put in a bunch of corporates in a highadrenaline racing environment. It is something they would not be expecting on a trip.”

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Breaking moulds
The shift is partly driven by the desire of companies to break the cookie-cutter mould when it comes to organising offsites for the senior management, most of whom are themselves well-travelled. Ahuja also attributes the shift to a deliberate blurring of the lines between holidays and business trips, with the latter becoming more creative. “These trips are a combination of the destination, the food and other experiences. The customised activities give our clients a chance to swap interesting stories with friends and families once they return,” says Viswanathan. Some of the experiences his firm has organised for clients include a walking tour of Berlin led by a historian, themed around the Second World War and a carefully curated dinner at a Parisian local’s home. “A business trip to Paris is no more about dinner and a show at the Lido,” he says.

Viswanathan divides his corporate clients into two groups — companies organising meetings to discuss business strategy and industry associations, where proprietors of various member firms travel together. Gujral of BucketList says the bulk of his clients are from finance companies and banks, with a few from the SME and startup segments.

Teaming up offsite
While the dramatic change in destinations and experiences for corporate retreats are confined to the top echelons of companies, there is also a shift towards making corporate getaways for mid- and senior-level employees more engaging through a range of recreational activities that go beyond the conventional. They seek to bridge the gap between the objectives of a human resource personnel, who loves terms like “employee engagement,” and employees themselves, who are often less enthusiastic and more prone to rolling their eyes about having to participate in these games.

At her company’s retreat last year, Sushmita Shukla, director-technical applications at Philips, found herself as part of a team of leaders who had to cook three dishes using secret ingredients within a time limit. The dishes were to be judged by a professional chef – like in the popular TV show Masterchef.

While this was not much of a challenge for Shukla who enjoys cooking, it was a different story for the rest of the team members, who were all men and many of whom did not cook. “It was great fun! To me, it was a peek into how we would perform in unfamiliar territory, especially with team members I didn’t know well,” she says. “Ours is a big organisation and we, otherwise, do not get to work closely.”

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It was a similar situation at a “food truck challenge” organised for the directors of an e-commerce major. The teams were asked to plan, cook and decorate the food truck. “The rule was that all the men had to cook while the women had to work on the ‘truck’. And in between, they would be asked to do pushups!” says Swetha Vasudevaiah, who handles learning and development at the company. “It was great for collaboration and helped us get to know each other within a limited time.”

“Most people want mature and challenging activities. They solve complex issues in real life so conventional activities seem trivial by comparison. The idea is to take them outside their comfort zones while honing existing skills through these challenges,” says Vipul Kasera, founder of Team Activators, a company that specialises in such corporate engagements.

Kasera, an alumnus of the Indian School of Business, launched his firm after noticing that when corporate teams went out, the quality of team engagement activities often did not match up to the executives’ experience or maturity level.

“Companies don’t want to settle for run-of-the-mill activities anymore,” he says.

Recently, he organised an “Amazing Race” for teams from one of the Big Four consultancies who were at a retreat in Wayanad, Kerala. “Each team had to complete eight challenges along the way – including doing the Mannequin Challenge (imitating mannequins) on the ghats and reciting a tongue twister in Malayalam to a teashop owner. It helps them discover the place and interact with locals in a way they otherwise wouldn’t have had,” says Kasera, whose clients have included BMW, Flipkart and Amazon.

ByondTravel’s Ahuja says themed treasure hunts with clues shared via WhatsApp or tabs is another popular activity. Interactive activities also offer an opportunity to break hierarchies, he says. “It is great to see a CEO doing something alongside other employees.”

Some companies arrange for external speakers at corporate offsites to motivate employees but here too, there are demands for something out of the box. “We organised an interaction with Mumbai’s dabbawallahs for a client. But instead of getting them to the venue to speak, we arranged for teams to follow them through an entire day,” says Ahuja.

Tricky checklist
For travel companies organising these offsites and activities, catering to this clientele comes with its own set of challenges, particularly since they will be shelling out a premium and expectations will be commensurate. For starters, they emphasise that there be clear communication and understanding about what the client expects out of the experience and what the organisers can deliver. “Both sides need to be on the same page. You can’t offer generic takeaways for everyone,” says Kasera. “You have to truly know the client.”

Footprint Holidays’ Viswanathan says the hotels for top management need to be chosen with care. “The hotels have to have a character but should also be able to cater to everything the clients want. For instance, one of the companies holding an important meeting wanted a printer in each of the 14 rooms they had reserved. You need to know which hotels will be able to offer such services.” Since these trips combine both work and leisure, itineraries need to be flexible, says Ahuja. “There is a chance that meetings can get extended and eat into the time allotted for a leisure activity. At that point, you need to be able to offer the same activity later rather than cancelling it.”

Despite the bells and whistles, at the core of such trips and experiences is the need for certain business objectives to be met – this could be in alignment with goals across verticals or creating a greater sense of engagement among the executives.

“Ultimately, you are working towards specific corporate objectives but in a way that blends learning with fun,” says Kasera. And the offsite cannot lose sight of that.

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