Thinking Outside the Box

Photo: Izzet Ugutmen/

Meeting out of the workplace offers a return on investment for both the employer and the employee.

By Allison Emery

Inside the Summit Room at The Cloister are stately chairs placed around a large, handcrafted heart pine table. Etched on placards fastened to the backs of each chair are names of the world leaders who once previously graced those exact seats. Flags that represent their countries also decorate the space.

The global statesmen—George W. Bush, former president of the U.S.; Jacques Chirac, former president of France; Tony Blair, former prime minister of the U.K.; Vladimir Putin, current president of Russia; among others—stepped onto Sea Island in 2004 for the G8 Summit, an annual meeting among dignitaries from eight of the most powerful countries in the world. After the conference, at the press briefing, former President Bush said, “This was a successful summit because the people here made it successful by being so warm and gracious. The Southern hospitality was strong.”

Research has long shown that taking people out of the office helps to foster better engagement, overall job happiness and productiveness. A highly touted 2012 Gallup poll reported that even when workplaces offered material benefits such as flextime, engagement had more effect on employee well-being.

In today’s highly digitized work environments, where employees and their managers sometimes rarely get face-to-face time, an escape to a serene destination may just be what the doctor ordered.

Experience is King

Rainbow Island features a relaxed atmosphere for gatherings. | Photo: top: Kelli Boyd Photography

“The most important thing in the hospitality industry, no matter what resort or hotel you’re visiting, is taking care of the guest first,” says David Furnish, vice president of sales and marketing at Sea Island. “It’s no different in a meeting setting.”

At Sea Island, the proverbial red carpet is rolled out not only for members and guests who are staying at the resort for leisure, but also for business guests. From transportation to and from local airports and around the Island to full-service catering and agenda planning, each step is carefully curated.

“We want to provide the meeting planners the opportunity to deliver the message that they are trying to, but in an atmosphere that’s creative, relaxing and conducive to learning,” Furnish adds.

According to Annette Gregg, certified meeting manager and senior vice president at PRA, a national business events agency, the meetings industry is heading toward putting the experience of the attendee front and center.

“Gone are the days where you can put everybody in a room and talk at them for five hours and they walk away feeling like, ‘OK, that was worth my investment,’ ” says Gregg, who is also senior vice president at Meeting Professionals International, the world’s largest professional association for meeting and event professionals.

“The trends you’re seeing really are … an emphasis on experience design,” she continues. “So instead of just the content of the meeting itself, it’s about the experience of the participants, from the very first touchpoint [such as] their very first notice that the events or the meetings are going to take place.”

Furnish recalls one particular Fortune 100 company that came to Sea Island for an annual incentive trip and wanted to create a memorable experience for its staff. During the planning phase, it was uncovered that, on these reward trips, the corporation had a tradition of serving a signature cocktail. Going above and beyond, Sea Island asked their food and beverage staff to develop custom drink options and then the team created a fun, interactive contest during which the clients got to taste and score the beverages. Once the meeting planners scored the individual drinks and ranked them, a winner was selected and the signature cocktail was named. It was a major hit, and further evidence that the destination was the perfect choice. “One of the most special things is every group is completely different. … They all want a unique experience that fits their needs,” Furnish says.

Tim Barrett is a certified meeting professional and director of meeting and program operations for Destination South Meetings + Events, an event planning company with offices in Georgia and South Carolina. Over his career, he has supported events from small, private VIP experiences to large-scale festival-sized ones with thousands of attendees. “Our lives have become so automated with drop-down responses and yes or no answers,” Barrett says. “To successfully deliver results, however, you’ve got to ask open-ended questions.”

With so many options to think about, from seating arrangements and room design to the lighting and the food, successful coordination with the venue’s team is essential. Even the smallest details must be considered to ensure the meeting is executed the way the company envisions it.

“Planning is an inverted pyramid with research being the widest part at the bottom and the logistics teetering near the top,” Barrett says. “With good research, the overall planning is a breeze and a short investment of time. You just have to follow your road map.”

For instance, Barrett says it’s best “to think outside the doughnut” when it comes to refreshments. “Add hard-boiled eggs to your morning break and hummus to your afternoon, for example,” he says. “Or try a signature cocktail or nonalcoholic beverage.”

Barrett also advises meeting planners to work with their venue to consider the five senses—touch, smell, taste, sight, hearing. “We tend to be overly visual and spend too much time on a PowerPoint,” he says. “For instance, there is power in music, and it is underutilized in the meetings industry. Play something upbeat and watch even the stiffest of shirts relax, doing a little shuffle as he walks in.”

Flexible Spaces

Sea Island features flexible outdoor spaces for meetings and events.

The sky is the limit for businesses to create a memorable event at Sea Island. The resort features 400 guest rooms, 140 cottages and numerous dynamic meeting facilities—from intimate boardrooms to sprawling ballrooms, as well as flexible outdoor spaces, including terraces, patios, gardens and courtyards.

“Our meeting space has to be as flexible as the different meetings we are accommodating,” Furnish says.

Gregg concurs, adding that rather than traditional meeting spaces (think the sterile, windowless room), meeting planners are valuing more open-concept options. “The industry is kind of moving away from theater or classroom style, moving toward more round-table settings or even just more casual, like sofas,” she says. “But, ideally, you would have furniture pieces that could be moved from a classroom setup to small group conversations in a split second.”

For instance, the Black Banks Parlor at The Cloister features an open-air balcony and conversational seating arrangements such as loveseats and sofa chairs; however, it can also be turned into more of a classic setting with a U-shape table, or theater-style for attendees.

“Encourage interaction with thoughtful seating arrangements,” Barrett says. “A room set up classroom style only allows you to talk to the person to your left or to your right, but a round table creates a community to share ideas and talk about what is being presented.”

Besides conventional rooms, Sea Island also offers exclusive access to nontraditional meeting locations, including Rainbow Island, a comfortable, rustic outdoor area on the Black Banks River; Sea Island Beach Club, which overlooks miles of private beach and boasts indoor and outdoor meeting spaces; and The Lodge, an English-style manor offering boutique accommodations right next to Sea Island’s championship golf courses. The Lodge is home to the 1,350-square-foot Trophy Room, a unique meeting space decorated with memorabilia from golf legends Bobby Jones, Davis Love III, Louise Suggs and other high marks in Sea Island’s rich golf history.  It also features a new pool and pool house for a more casual atmosphere.

At The Cloister, members and guests can find 20 more diverse meeting facilities. For example, there is The Mizner Ballroom, which incorporates an indoor-outdoor feel with impressive arched windows and a courtyard on one end, suitable for hosting up to 500 people. On the other end of the spectrum, the Hudson boardroom is an intimate, warm space with wood-paneled walls and a boardroom table that seats 15 guests. Or the Summit Room, where attendees can sit at the same table as world leaders.

Go for Downtime

Golf offers an opportunity to bond outside of the meeting.

The success of an out-of-office gathering is not only determined by the productivity of the meetings, however. A company retreat should also include some downtime for individuals to enjoy themselves and relax after a long day of presentations and discussions, as well as opportunities for the group to have unique experiences together.

In fact, research from Harvard Business School has shown that employers who say “thank you” to their employees find that those people feel motivated to work harder. Businesses can show gratitude and make their employees feel special by incorporating time for leisure or organizing unique activities while on a retreat or conference.

Gregg says exclusivity in meetings is a trend she’s seeing today, where events are very personalized and authentic to the local environment. “They want that experience in the property to remember the environment and event,” she says. “Once you get there, your people forget all about how long it took to get there because they’ll be so blown away.”

At Sea Island, there are myriad opportunities to ramp up the authenticity. “You can host an event here and you can be completely buttoned-up, corporate during the day, and in the evening go to Rainbow Island for a low-country boil, with a bluegrass or rock band playing,” Furnish says, adding that due to the Island’s extraordinary environmental setting, outdoor activities are always incorporated into group retreats. These range from fishing and river cruises to taking advantage of their newly opened Golf Performance Center, where groups can partake in professional lessons, chipping contests and nighttime putting tournaments (when holes are lit up by glow sticks and golfers play with glow-in-the-dark balls).

“Resorts, by their nature, encourage guests to relax and provide casual environments and activities to strengthen relationships,” Barrett says. “Let’s face it, as much time as we devoted to selecting the perfect keynote speaker, drafting the best agenda and bringing in experts to share knowledge, a good deal of the success of a meeting is measured in what happens outside the meeting space.”

As a private island chock-full of rich history, Sea Island gives way to unforgettable experiences. Some of the unique group activities at the resort itself include crafting a gourmet dinner with the chef of the Forbes Five-Star Georgian Room or embarking on a Sea Island scavenger hunt. “You want to find a way to expose [the stories of Sea Island] to your attendees so they leave the resort with an appreciation for our storied past,” Furnish says.

Team-building activities generally play a part in a meeting’s overall objective; there is no better way to reinforce a concept than experiencing something new together. A few one-of-a-kind excursions include a quail hunt and lunch at Broadfield, A Sea Island Sporting Club and Lodge; clay target shooting lesson and tournament; tour of the marshland and historic resort grounds; horseback rides; Hobie Cat shelling tours; and private beach setups. Even for the less adventurous, the options are endless, from custom spa days and art classes to garden walks and cooking classes.

“In my opinion, the most successful team building activities are those that are built and conducted in such a way that you don’t realize you were ‘learning’ until it’s all over,” Barrett says. “… Resorts are amazing in making sure there is a positive return on experience. Not only do they recognize the need for great meeting space, but there tends to be so much to do, you wish for more time.”

Undoubtedly, once teams arrive and experience the magic of Sea Island, they won’t want to leave. In fact, Furnish says he’s seen numerous business guests come back for personal travel with their families and loved ones. “The reasons why people bring their groups here isn’t just because of what happens in the ballroom or the boardroom,” Furnish says. “It’s what happens outside in the environment that Sea Island creates.”

Mastering the Meeting

Tim Barrett, a certified meeting professional based in Atlanta, shares tips for working with your venue for a successful event.

1. “Collaborate with your service providers. Share with them what you’d like to accomplish but ask what they do best to avoid boxing them into a situation where they may not succeed. By nature, those of us in hospitality aren’t trained to say ‘no,’ so let’s give them the encouragement to say ‘yes.’ ”

2. “Build in time for team building. As planners, we must avoid the temptation to fill a full day with content—especially at a resort. Why select one if you aren’t willing to build in some downtime to take advantage of all that is being offered? That downtime will most surely lead to building up to a success.”

3. “One thing that is often missed is the opportunity to digest the information. Although the budget may say we need to squeeze in as much as possible into this window, our brains max out at a certain point. Are we giving ourselves time to think and apply what we’ve learned? Maybe the answer is that we need to add another full day to the conference—if the attendees are getting the message across in the end, it may be worth that investment.”

Spatial Inspiration

From galas and team-building events to VIP retreats, here are some of the spaces at Sea Island that are the blank canvases for your next event.

The Cloister Ballroom

The Cloister Ballroom: Adorned with a decorative wood ceiling and grand chandeliers, this is the largest interior space at 7,855 square feet and can host up to 600 guests.

The Mizner Ballroom: Adjacent to the private Mizner Courtyard, this ballroom boasts large arched windows, giving an indoor-outdoor feeling, as well as a trellis ceiling and chandeliers.

Sea Island Summit Room: The room that commemorates the dignitaries from the 30th G8 Summit, this space’s focal point is the pine table and chairs, which still have the name placards of the world leaders who sat in them.

Black Banks Parlor: An open-air balcony and comfortable seating arrangements such as sofas make this conversational space suitable for a variety of group sizes.

Trophy Room: A truly award-winning space located at The Lodge, this facility is decorated with memorabilia from Sea Island’s storied golf history.

Golf Performance Center Boardroom: Situated on the second floor of the newly opened Sea Island Golf Performance Center, the boardroom features views of the driving range and water beyond, and is perfect for intimate groups of 10 or fewer.

Ocean Room: The high ceilings and tall windows of this event space at the Beach Club offer an airy feel. The room also boasts views of the Atlantic Ocean, which makes for a remarkable meeting of the minds.


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