The cost of running a company retreat
July 11, 2022
We returned from our annual company retreat 2 weeks ago. Although we're remote-first, we're surely not remote-only, and having that yearly in-person meet is a pretty essential part of our company strategy. We organise this internally, which requires quite a bit of time, but it puts us in full control over the whole experience.
As we were wrapping up our retreat, Twitter and many other businesses were cancelling theirs, citing high costs and the global macroeconomic environment. Now, as I sit closing up all the financials around the retreat as I do every year, I can’t help but wonder, how much should you spend on a company retreat? How much is it worth to your company? What’s the ROI? Or should we even care about that?
Let's take a look at the financials first, and then try to outline the benefits.
To set the stage, here are some prerequisites that should help you compare our numbers to your company context.
- This year our retreat took place in Ardennes, Belgium
- We’re a team of 24, but only 21 people came to Belgium
- The retreat spans 5 days/4 nights (Monday–Friday)
- Cost: €9,893.34
- Cost / Person: €471.11
The cost of travel can vary greatly, depending on how far afield your team members are located. This time, only 3 of the 21 team members needed to travel to Belgium from outside of Europe. The cost shared above is inclusive of all return travel tickets (trains, cars, flights), as well as the 2 vans we rented to get around during the retreat. You can optimize the costs further, but you’ll start to lose out on travel time, transfer costs, etc.
Our guidelines around travel, that help keep costs low and keep everyone sane:
- We try to plan retreats close to clusters of team members, which limits travel time and travel cost
- We're always optimising towards travel time, so ideally you're 1h or less from a well-connected airport:
- More flights = more competition = cheaper prices
- We fly people in at the same time as much as we can, simplifying airport transfers and saving some costs there. This year, for example, we had one rental van picking up folks at Brussels airport and another one at Charleroi airport
- For team members coming in from outside of Europe, we try to fly them in a few days early to our HQ in Belgium and have them travel to the retreat from there. This gives them a bit more time to acclimatize and gives us more flexibility in long-haul flights
- Our team members always book their own travel by generating a virtual credit card using our Spendesk account. This makes them responsible for their own travel and travel documents, meaning they can optimize travel towards their preferences while keeping our overheads low
- Cost: €7762.07
- Cost / Person: €369.62 (4 nights)
This includes the rental price for a 15-room villa in the Ardennes, Belgium, as well as some hotel nights for those arriving a few days early.
Your accommodation matters a lot, so don't skimp on it. You really need to find a place where everyone will feel comfortable and safe. It’s better to save money on the location vs. the actual place you’re staying, since you’ll be spending most of your time here at the venue. If people are put off by the accommodation, they won’t start off with a good feeling.
Our guidelines around accommodation:
- This is the first thing you decide on and book, and you do it well in advance. This way you won’t need to compromise. Once this is set in stone, all the rest (flights, activities) can easily sort itself out
- We avoid hotels and prefer to book large houses/villas, although cost isn’t the real reason for this preference; we just find it much nicer and homier to be in a house with a lot of communal spaces and a well-equipped kitchen
- We’ve never had issues with asking people to share rooms, though we do try to have 1 or 2 individual rooms for light sleepers
- We avoid city centres and always lean towards quiet places close to nature. As a software company, our team sits inside most of the time, so we really want to use the retreat as an opportunity for them to get outside and have conversations in a different environment
- Amenities that get a bonus from us: pool, games (e.g. darts, foosball), fully equipped kitchen, big table, big living area, garden to sit and eat outside, easy to walk into nature, walking distance from sea, lake, river…
- Cost: €2539.85
- Cost / Person: €120.95
This year we organised a casino night, visited a brewery, did a night of orienteering, organised our own Prezlympics and busted out of an escape room. The above includes the cost of all these activities, inclusive of the prizes for our top 3 casino gamblers :-)
I’ve thought a lot about this, and I believe the thing that really bonds a team together is having shared memories. And those aren’t something you can force; either they happen, or they don’t. But one thing is certain – they will not happen if everyone just sits in their room or works silently around a table. Nor can you guarantee they’ll happen during one of your carefully planned activities. The best you can do is to schedule a range of different types of activities as well as give everyone the free time to have their own interactions, and try not to control things too much.
Our guidelines around activities:
- We only see the whole team once a year, so we want to make the absolute most of it. That means it’s fine to have a pretty intense schedule, so long as people are free to tap out if they need a little alone time :-)
- Keep it light on the sessions, but make the sessions you do count. That means taking the time to prepare the important, high-level discussions you want your team to focus on. We usually do one founder session in the morning of the first day, where we combine a state-of-the-union type presentation with an outline of our focus for the coming year. During the next days' sessions, we go deeper into that via group discussions on specific topics. But in total, we’re not spending more than 5 hours that week formally discussing the company
- Leave enough room for informal discussions, whether this is during walks, dinners or free time. We’ve learned that these are often more beneficial and more important than our formal talks, and give people who don’t normally work closely together a chance to relate
- Have a healthy mix of physical and non-physical activities
- Motivate people to organise their own activities during free time: bring a board game, go for a wander, play Nintendo Switch…
FOOD & DRINK
- Cost: €5236.42
- Cost / Person: €249.35
We have a bit of a running joke at the company, that each retreat-day people gain a kilo. And I admit, as a company, we do enjoy having a good meal together. Even on HQ visits, it’s become a tradition. This doesn’t mean we eat out every day, since a lot of team bonding can happen in the kitchen. This year we prepared a BBQ, made our own pizzas, went out for dinner once and had a caterer come over on the last day.
Our guidelines around food & drink:
- Keep breakfast and lunch simple and healthy. We make sure everything is available for simple meals (coffee, sandwiches, salad, eggs…)
- Everyone comes together to have dinner at a single big table, and we try to encourage people to sit next to someone else each day
- Your initial shopping list is what saves you time and money, so make it in advance and have it delivered or go and pick it up yourself. We ask people in advance if they have specific preferences depending on diets and allergies, so we're sure there is something for everyone
- We have a task list for each meal, where one duo must prepare or clean up after. Nobody seems to mind and it’s always worked out well
- Cost: €999.82
- Cost / Person: €47.61
A combination of misc costs: props, a photographer, insurance…
Cost / Person
Food & Drinks
- GRAND TOTAL = €26431.5
- TOTAL / PERSON = €1258.64
If there were only costs associated with it, no company would do it. So what are the benefits?
The main issue with retreats is that it’s often seen as something of a bonus – only worth the spend if things are going well. I believe the contrary. Retreats are most valuable when your company is stuck in a certain area, and you really want to rally the troops around fixing your most important challenge. They are less valuable, although still worth it, if things really are going well.
The main challenge is that the benefits are not tangible. Reasoning like “it feels right” and “we felt this was necessary” make it hard to convince a CFO to shell out $$$. (Which, now that I think about it, may be partly why we don’t have a CFO.)
So while the impact of a team retreat is hard to quantify in cold, hard cash, there are plenty of benefits that we’ve been able to identify:
- Milestone moments: Retreats give you the opportunity to solidify milestones for your company, where you as a company leader can look everyone in the eye, explain the directions you’re taking and why, and get feedback from the team. This is particularly invaluable to remote teams that rarely share a room. Even now we frequently find ourselves referring to the decisions we made in Lisbon back in 2018, or the implementations announced last year in Croatia
- Increased productivity: If you’re able to inspire the team through your milestone moment presentation, you’ll see increased productivity after. Since people were able to think about it, discuss things, give feedback and be part of the decision-making process, they come back to work inspired and eager to make those plans a reality
- Retention: We’ve clearly seen that people who’ve been consistently coming to retreats stay longer. The shared memories you make during those retreats create real bonds between people, your team and the company. It also gives you an added chance to find out if anyone is unhappy, and work with them to find a resolution, while those who have spent time with the team in person tend to be more likely to give you another chance. In fact, we’ve had people announce to leave before a retreat, and then tell us – having still attended the retreat, because why not – that they probably wouldn’t have left if they had waited with the announcement till after. (This is measurable – we in fact keep track of when we see team members IRL and make sure that the gaps between visits aren’t too long.)
- Communication: a closer bond between people allows for better and more open communication between them
You often hear of companies that will happily fork over €1000 for a 2-day conference, but refuse to schedule a team activity mid-week for fear of losing a day of productivity. To me, this makes absolutely zero sense. I have yet to attend a conference that has provided more value for our business than a day spent on team bonding.
The real question you need to ask yourself is, should you even see this as a cost? I don’t believe so. In fact, I believe a well-run retreat needs to be seen as an investment for a remote-first company to grow, because the joint memories created during a retreat are – excuse the cliche – priceless. It bonds your team together and makes them appreciate each other's contribution to the company. Better still, it helps people feel that they can rely on and support one another. And that’s not something you can cost.