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Corporate retreats return to California Wine Country, but COVID concerns are changing their scope

10 reasons to organize an offsite meeting

1. Provide a morale boost: Most off-sites are not just about getting the work done. They often include some sort of fun and entertaining team building exercise.

2. Give a new perspective: A change in physical environment can make an enormous difference when brainstorming new ideas. Meeting in the same office space at the same times can starve the brain of stimulation.

3. Increase motivation: Offsite meetings can revitalize and re-energize employees. Due to the investment in their being invited, employees believe they are important and trust that their contribution matters. Because everyone has made a commitment to leave normal work behind for a day, they are more likely to fully engage with the topic of the meeting.

4. Avoid interruptions: How much time is wasted by meeting attendees arriving late, checking their email, answering ad hoc requests for help, or a dozen other routine office interruptions? Avoid it all by taking them offsite, where they can focus better.

5. Provide a challenge: Regardless of the activities planned or the problems to be brainstormed, just being in a new setting can be challenging. Working together on strategic initiatives contributes to a shared feeling of success and improves overall company culture.

6. Allow face-to-face networking: When it’s critical to understand each other, nothing works like meeting in person. When a group shares the same physical space, you can pick up on non-verbal cues that would be missed over the phone or via video chat.

7. Encourage camaraderie: Team members see each other in a different light and abilities emerge that may not be apparent in day-to-day office meetings.

8. Accomplish more on a time limit: Meeting in a different setting can emphasize the single-day timeframe, and this can encourage decision-making by imposing a deadline.

9. Team building: To build a team put them together and give them a task to do, or a problem to solve.

10. Use the best technology: Using an offsite venue will likely give you access to different or newer technology.

Source: Karstens.com

Almost nonexistent for more than two years because of COVID protocols, business travel in the North Bay is resuming.

“I think the combination of not being able to travel for two years and recognizing it is so special to do so that there is a focus and commitment to make these trips productive for them and profitable for everybody,” Honore Comfort, vice president of international marketing at Wine Institute, told the North Bay Business Journal.

In April, the statewide wine advocacy group hosted nine sommeliers from Mexico for two days each in Sonoma and Napa counties; the first promotional trip in more than two years.

In a normal year, Wine Institute brings as many as 25 groups from around the world to the various wine regions in California — not just Sonoma and Napa counties. This year the organization is taking it slow, with trips only booked through June.

Even so, Wine Institute in October plans to host a new event — a global buyers’ market that will bring 80 wine buyers from 26 markets to the Napa Valley Marriott for two days to meet with 200 vintners.

While the goals are the same as in the past — to build relationships and boost the international sales of California wines — it’s not completely back to business as usual.

“Our groups are smaller. We are also making sure we have activities planned out of doors,” Comfort said while traveling via bus to Paso Robles with a group in early May.

“We are building regular testing regimes into our visits. We’ve lined up COVID tests for visitors during their visits and at the end when they leave the U.S.”

Even the bus she was on was bigger than 2019 standards in order to offer more space for everyone.

Looking at the data

The U.S. Travel Association reports increased interest in business travel, with almost all companies surveyed anticipating getting some people back on the road in the next three months.

However, it still projects business travel revenue for this year to be 23% less than it was prior to the pandemic. This equates to $20 billion less in revenues compared to 2019.

While the economic impact of business travel on local communities is self-evident, this sector has a large role to play in the overall recovery of travel industry.

“A return to a thriving travel industry — and American economy — is dependent on the return of business travel, meetings, events and conventions,” the U.S. Travel Association said in a March report.

“Business travel has a disproportionate impact to our businesses. Despite making up 20% of prepandemic trip volume, business travelers account for 40-60% of lodging and air revenue in the U.S. Domestic leisure travel is now fully recovered to 2019 levels, but business travel remained at less than half of 2019 levels in 2021.”

The association predicts San Francisco, New York, Washington and San Jose business travel revenues for 2022 will be off by 50% compared to 2019.

“We really need San Francisco to recover. If the city is busy, business moves out. It helps everybody,” said Christine Bohlke, sales and marketing director with the Marin Convention & Visitors Bureau.

While the bureau doesn’t break down room nights based on leisure and business travelers, the hotel occupancy rate in Marin County is climbing. It was at 60.1% for the first quarter of 2022, while for that same time span in 2021 it was 45.4%.

“Anything under 70% is considered low occupancy. March was 67.2%, so we are getting close to hitting 70%,” Bohlke said.

Sonoma County Tourism, the agency responsible for promoting the county to all travelers, is considering this a rebound year after 2020 being incredibly slow for groups and 2021 seeing a slight increase.

“Request for proposals have significantly increased year-over-year for Sonoma County conference hotels,” said Jonny Westom, vice president of business development for the agency. “While the number of RFPs has increased, the overall size of the group has reduced 30-75 rooms vs. larger programs before the pandemic.”

“Conventions are the best for tourism overall because they tend to be extended stays, they tend to come with banquets, lots of dining, they are really what is the best for the California hospitality industry,” said Pete Hillan, spokesman for the state association.

“Conventions for the most part we have been forecasting are not going to see a tremendous uptick until 2024.”

The lag time for conventions to recover, he said, is because annual gatherings rotate locations and California has had stringent COVID protocols so companies have gone elsewhere. Then there’s crime — real or perceived — about San Francisco. It hurts the North Bay because business travel often spills out. If people aren’t at Moscone Center, they aren’t spending money north of the Golden Gate Bridge.

The 1,200-member California Society of Association Executives was supposed to meet in Sonoma County in April 2020. That got scrapped, but is back on the books.

“We’ll be having our annual conference next year at the Hyatt Regency Sonoma Wine Country in Santa Rosa,” said Jim Anderson, president and CEO of CalSAE. “I’m confident we’ll have great attendance there. This will be our first conference in Wine Country, and we were on track in 2020 to set record attendance.”

While COVID protocols still exist at some locations or are mandated by individual entities, one group that is hyper-aware of what is going on with the potentially deadly virus is the Sonoma-Mendocino-Lake Medical Association, a trade group for physicians.

“It is so volatile still. I can’t rely on planning an in-person event yet,” Wendy Davies, executive director of the medical group, said of the pandemic in early May as cases were starting to surge again in the greater Bay Area.

An event scheduled in early June in Sonoma County has gone from in-person to being virtual. An appreciation dinner for doctors to recognize their efforts these last two years is set for June 9 in Healdsburg. It’s outside at a winery.

“I’m hopeful, but I feel the rug can be pulled out at any time,” Davies said. “I’m not sure the doctors will want to be outside and socialize.”

Venues staying busy

While in previous years weddings accounted for 80% of business at Triple S Ranch Napa in Calistoga, it’s possible this year it will be evenly split between nuptials and corporate retreats.

The property, able to host 250 people and sleep 60, started seeing corporate business pick up in late 2021, with the phone now ringing off the hook. Triple S recently hosted a startup with 30 people and a division of Google with 150 people, according to owner Derek Webb.

“We have had so many conversations where I’m talking to the CEO of the company and he has never met any of his employees except on Zoom, so gathering has become huge for them,” Webb said.

“It is not the way we think of corporate retreats in the past where it was a perk. It has become a necessity if everyone is at home. If they only meet one, two, three, four times a year, it is huge.”

Clients at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn and Spa in Sonoma are a mix of new companies and repeat groups. Gatherings are often smaller in size today than they were in 2019. And some groups are using a hybrid model where employees are onsite, while others participate virtually.

“Prepandemic our mix was 60% corporate, 40% leisure transient. During the pandemic it was almost 100% leisure transient. Now we are seeing that move back to prepandemic percentages,” said Michelle Heston, spokeswoman for the property.

She admits the return of these business travelers has been “exceptionally fast”; attributing it to pent up demand.

The privately-held 40-acre site with seven houses began hosting events in 2018.

“If we still had our building that could host indoor events, I would have hoped we would have been doing more groups,” Jennifer Maloney, director of events, said.

For now, companies are satisfied with outdoor events or using large tents. Hybrid events are also possible. Groups are ranging in size from 20 to 100 people. Clients are coming from the Bay Area, Sacramento and as far away as Asia.

“(In early May) we had 10 employees where they wanted their own offsite meeting. They grabbed their laptops and the Adirondack chairs and had a meeting by our lake,” Maloney said.

10 reasons to organize an offsite meeting

1. Provide a morale boost: Most off-sites are not just about getting the work done. They often include some sort of fun and entertaining team building exercise.

2. Give a new perspective: A change in physical environment can make an enormous difference when brainstorming new ideas. Meeting in the same office space at the same times can starve the brain of stimulation.

3. Increase motivation: Offsite meetings can revitalize and re-energize employees. Due to the investment in their being invited, employees believe they are important and trust that their contribution matters. Because everyone has made a commitment to leave normal work behind for a day, they are more likely to fully engage with the topic of the meeting.

4. Avoid interruptions: How much time is wasted by meeting attendees arriving late, checking their email, answering ad hoc requests for help, or a dozen other routine office interruptions? Avoid it all by taking them offsite, where they can focus better.

5. Provide a challenge: Regardless of the activities planned or the problems to be brainstormed, just being in a new setting can be challenging. Working together on strategic initiatives contributes to a shared feeling of success and improves overall company culture.

6. Allow face-to-face networking: When it’s critical to understand each other, nothing works like meeting in person. When a group shares the same physical space, you can pick up on non-verbal cues that would be missed over the phone or via video chat.

7. Encourage camaraderie: Team members see each other in a different light and abilities emerge that may not be apparent in day-to-day office meetings.

8. Accomplish more on a time limit: Meeting in a different setting can emphasize the single-day timeframe, and this can encourage decision-making by imposing a deadline.

9. Team building: To build a team put them together and give them a task to do, or a problem to solve.

10. Use the best technology: Using an offsite venue will likely give you access to different or newer technology.

Source: Karstens.com

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