31 March, 2023, 03:40

The Value of Experiential Group Activities, and How They’re Woven into the Fabric of Skamania Lodge

You have an annual meeting in which you aspire to connect team members working opposite ends of the country. Does that connection happen inside a hotel at the mandatory meeting portion of your program, or is it more likely off-site, where team members embark on adventures together, like hiking, ziplining, and even axe throwing? At Skamania Lodge, you don’t have to go anywhere – it all happens on-site.

The Stevenson, Washington-based lodge, set 45 miles east of Portland along the Columbia River and surrounded by the peaks of the Cascades, recently joined the Benchmark Resorts & Hotels portfolio and is firmly established as a preferred destination for transformational meeting experiences. While the industry has caught on to the benefits of experiential programming and other “extracurricular” activity that brings groups together in a way that traditional meetings can’t, Skamania is especially well-suited to accommodate experiential group activities.

We caught up with Nitzan Bluvstein, a strategist at SocialCode, about her group’s recent trek to Skamania Lodge, and what set it apart – to the degree that it scored better than any of the company’s previous annual outings in an employee feedback survey conducted after everyone returned to the office.

What kind of meeting was this?

We’re a digital advertising company, and we have offices in six cities around the world. Once a year, we get together and do a big summit. It’s a good time for our whole group to regroup on vision, recap the year, and see how we’re tracking through 2022. It’s also a great opportunity for our teams in New York and LA to get together. They don’t get the opportunity to see each other very often. So, we do a lot of group bonding, and really emphasize face-to-face time.

What’s the programming like? How do you organize the trip?

There are about 350 of us, and the content ranges from keynotes and presentations from people within the company to VIP guest speakers to smaller groups getting little breakouts, and doing things by themselves. The social elements are so important, though. The first night, we did a massive reception on one of the lawns at Skamania. The second night, we try to “take over” somewhere off-site. This year, we got shuttle buses to take us to downtown Portland and we went to a brewery – they shut down a street and we had a block party.

That’s a lot of event logistics. Who helps out?

We don’t have a big team to run events. It’s me and an assistant, who takes care of a lot of logistical details, and we employed another company who did a lot of the production. That said, our budget was fairly minimal, so even the outside company only did so much. Skamania [Lodge staff] acted like an extension of that team, which was so key. We can’t be micromanaging everything – our to-do list is just too long. I’ve done a lot of events with different venues and hotels, but when they feel like an extension and work toward the same goal, that’s an amazing feeling.

This was our first year with Skamania. We’ve done a lot of different venue styles before. Usually, we make our “HQ” somewhere off-site – we took over a sugar mill in New Orleans, a concert venue in Nashville, and an old factory in Austin. We’ve kind of done everything. We like to pick something that feels like the city. This year, we decided to stay on-site, and that was huge.

What were the benefits to staying on-site?

We always thought it was cooler to have a separate HQ, but considering Skamania’s unique benefits and all the activities, it was perfect to have everyone on-site, which reduced travel costs and time – but more than that, because Skamania was such a beautiful resort on its own, and the surroundings being what they were, it didn’t feel like we were sequestered like you usually do in a hotel. So, if you want the benefits of doing everything on-site, Skamania is just huge.

With your large group, what was your approach for using all the property had to offer?

Our group was so big that we split up so that we could really enjoy it. We looked at each individual team and worked with the leaders and decided what was best for them. One group of 20 or 30 people went for a hike together, for example. It’s a really rare opportunity to get everyone together for a two-hour block when they can pick whatever they want to do. Skamania was super instrumental in letting us be as flexible as humanly possible. We basically came up with the concept at the very last minute, and they made it happen. I’ve worked with venues, and even if we’ve bought out the whole place, there’s not much flexibility with last-minute changes. There were always staff members helping us, so everyone knew where they were supposed to go.

We told everyone, “You have two hours. We’re in the most beautiful place we’ll ever be for this type of event, so please explore. If you want to do an activity, go. If you want to explore the grounds, go.” I kept hearing stories about people waking up early, going for walks, and just enjoying the grounds. The views are just insanely beautiful. It feels like it’s in the middle of nowhere, but it’s so close to Portland. We were working with such time limitations, but when we did head out, we managed to shuttle everyone to Portland, and then did rolling shuttles from downtown Portland back to Skamania starting at 1 a.m. The hotel was wonderful helping with accommodations and recommending the best spots to go.

What made Skamania Lodge a good fit for your program’s objectives?

One of the missions of our event was to connect people – and you’re not going to connect people via lecture. There’s still value in lectures, of course, but in terms of connecting, nothing beats going outside and doing an activity. So many corporate planners tend to fall back on cheesy ice breakers or other team bonding ideas that don’t do much for anyone, or just drinking activities – and we still have those, for the social aspect, but you can and should have sober, outdoor fun too.

Ultimately, we’re all there to help push the company and vision forward, and you won’t do that any better than by working with your friends. Imagine bonding with someone through ziplining – one of you is scared, the other is egging the other on, and you end up doing a twirl in the air, so it becomes easier to email that person a couple weeks later when you need something for a project. You’re getting not only a face to the name, but a personality and a context, so you get things done faster. It all comes from that. Considering all the different people and tastes that we were working with, Skamania having such a wide breadth of options really worked in our favor.

After it was all said and done, how did attendees like it?

We run an annual feedback survey, and we achieved the highest satisfaction rating that we’ve ever had for one of these events, at least as long as I’ve been involved, and I’d absolutely credit it to the setting at Skamania. Pictures don’t do it justice. We had people who took their spouses back after the fact because they fell in love with the location.