For a successful corporate retreats or small meetings, perhaps nothing beats the intimate atmosphere of a secluded hotel or resort surrounded by natural beauty.
Not only do groups often find a homier atmosphere and more personal attention than at large, urban hotels, secluded properties tend to encourage camaraderie and provide an atmosphere free of outside distractions. Here are some great examples.
The Ahwahnee Hotel
Providing the ultimate natural setting for small meetings is The Ahwahnee Hotel in California's Yosemite National Park. The hotel, considered the crown jewel of national park lodges, offers jaw-dropping views of Yosemite Falls and Half Dome.
The hotel is typically sold out with leisure travel in the busy summer months, but meetings "are important because they fit well into demand periods, which support business flow year-round," says spokeswoman Lisa Cesaro, adding that the average-size meeting is about 60 rooms, with a "significant" number falling in to the 10 to 30 range.
The hotel, operated by DNC Parks and Resorts through a contract with the National Park Service, recently completed a multimillion dollar renovation that included its meeting space. Also, DNC's Tenaya Lodge just outside the south entrance to Yosemite recently expanded with a new 15,000-square-foot space that includes a 10,000-square-foot grand ballroom and an outdoor pavilion for events, group dining and team building.
"We are seeing a trend in the smaller meetings as the larger regional meetings are breaking down into smaller, even more local meetings," Cesaro says. "Meeting planners are seeing value in holding three to four meetings of smaller groups in more local settings, rather than cancelling the meetings all together or incurring the expense of the entire group traveling to one location."
Inn at Furnace Creek
One of the most unusual of the secluded lodges for small meetings is the Inn at Furnace Creek in Death Valley, Calif., which offers several meeting rooms, the largest of which accommodates up to 50 people.
"We're not by any stretch of the imagination a conference center but we can handle a small group and retreats quite well," says Phil Dickinson, director of sales and marketing.
The inn, nestled within the 3.3 million-acre Death Valley National Monument, features the world's lowest golf course, at 214 feet below sea level. The meetings held at the inn are primarily regional, with attendees driving from Southern California and Nevada. Las Vegas' McCarran International Airport is a two-hour drive away.
"We're fortunate to get pre- and post-meetings from major conferences and conventions in Las Vegas, so we do pick up some business from our proximity to Vegas," Dickinson says, adding that meeting planners often choose the inn because they've stayed there on vacation.
"The scenery is breathtaking and quite unique, different from the deserts in Palm Springs or Tucson," he says. "It's a perfect environment to stimulate employee networking with no outside interferences. It's as quiet and tranquil as you can find."
Planners challenged with coming up with new and interesting venues are often complimented on their choice, once attendees reach Death Valley and are awed by the surroundings he says. And, he notes, there's even cell phone reception and Internet connections available, as of two years ago.
A Western ranch-type experience is found at Paws Up, a resort 35 miles northeast of Missoula, Mont. The prime season for small meetings and retreats are the months of April, May, September and October, according to John Romfo, director of sales and marketing.
"In general, Montana's peak season is June through August," he says. "That's tourist season so we don't do many groups during that time."
The 4-year-old resort is expanding its meeting space, transforming an original stud barn—from the ranch's time as a Black Angus stock operation—into a unique venue offering modern technology while preserving a rustic Old West atmosphere.
"What we've lacked is a dedicated facility for groups," Romfo says. "This is one facility that we're going to use for that. There will be a meeting room for up to 80 people, breakout rooms and a grand ballroom for dinners and dances."
According to Romfo, the new barn is designed to offer something attractive and different, while helping meeting planners who keep their attendees motivated and engaged in their programs. A beautiful, self-contained venue that is relatively remote helps meet this objective, he says.
"We're not about going to a completely secluded place because we're easy to get to, but we're on 37,000 acres of land and it's really something that's not available elsewhere," Romfo says. "We can arrange for a little rodeo, roping demonstration or barrel race while having cocktails and then have people mosey over to the tack room for dinner in the equestrian center. Groups love it."
Another Western-ranch experience can be found outside of Austin, Texas at the new Travaasa Austin, which opened in May with 9,000 square feet of meeting space. According to Sales Manager Jorah Anderson, the 70-room property was specifically designed for small meetings, which are expected to comprise about 65 percent of its market.
"That's our niche," she says. "With 55 rooms, a company can do a buyout of the entire property. It becomes your property so there's a forced cohesiveness and bonding. People are not going to be at a downtown location with restaurants all around and lots of choices."
Travaasa takes full advantage of its setting in the Texas Hill Country about 25 minutes from Austin, offering outdoor activities, including an Outward Bound challenge course, and lakeside and garden venues designed for events such as wine tasting and Texas barbecue dinners.
The atmosphere is "fun and funky," with harmonica lessons available and even a mechanical bull on property, Anderson says, adding that the resort's concept is drawing positive feedback from meeting planners.
"We definitely are getting companies interested in team building and having the entire resort to themselves," she says.
"I think that people are going back to authentic values," she adds. "They are interested in coming here and creating a unique experience with Texas-style hospitality. We remember people's names and you are addressed as 'yes, ma'am' and 'yes, sir'. People like that."
Inn at Palmetto Bluff
Another property where sense of place is a vital part of the intimate meeting experience is Inn at Palmetto Bluff, an Auberge Resorts hotel on the South Carolina coast, 20 minutes by boat from Hilton Head. About 45 percent of guests are meeting attendees during a typical year and the maximum group size is 100, according to Paulette Peek, director of sales and marketing.
"We get board meetings, executive retreats and high-end incentive trips for a small group of people," she says. "We really are catering for those looking for a small, intimate place. We're on 22,000 acres and, once you come through our security gates, it's a four-mile drive through a forest of trees to our little cobblestone village."
The sense of seclusion and the lovely setting works for meetings where companies are encouraging networking and bonding, Peek says.
"People come here to reconnect and enjoy Southern hospitality," she says. "You'll hear lots of stories and learn about local history. One of the key things that guests learn very quickly is that they are somewhere special."
Peek believes that type of authentic experience is attractive to today's meeting planners.
"Planners seem to be looking for venues and dining experiences that are indigenous to an area," she says. "And, they are looking for experiences where attendees are involved and can interact. We have an event that is very popular where we get people shucking oysters and then have what we call a 'Low Country boil' with a roasting pit for oysters and a shrimp boil in a beautiful space in the woods by a river.
"The environment today is different from a few years back when planners were looking for glitz and glamour," she continues. "Today it's all about interactivity, understated elegance, fun and education, with things that stretch people's minds a bit. People are getting back to simpler times."
Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort
At the Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort on Florida's northeastern coast, more than three miles of beachfront and 1,200 acres of live oaks, Spanish moss and tree canopies provide a retreat-like atmosphere that encourages relaxation, according to Dave Di Salvo, director of sales.
With 49,000 square feet of meeting space, the resort can handle meetings large and small. However, small meetings are a prime focus. The Omni's Racquet Park is a self-contained small conference center removed from the larger resort.
"You can have all your meetings there and stay in the villas and no one would know that you are here," Di Salvo says. "There's an opportunity to gather at night and do something informal and have self-contained meetings. You can slip in and out unnoticed."
Last fall, Omni purchased the resort from bankruptcy court with the aim of repositioning it toward meetings.
"One of the things we did when we took it over is to have two sales people focus specifically on small meetings of 40 rooms or less," Di Salvo says, adding that small meetings are especially desirable because they often lead to repeat business.
"Small meetings are such big business," he says. "A meeting of 10 CEOs is as important as that 500-room meeting that you may never see again because of that group's rotation. But the CEOs you may never see again. You're more likely to get repeat business from those kinds of small meetings."