On The Money: How company off-sites are changing business travel

Business travel used to mean sending employees from their home office to another location – to meet with clients or colleagues in other offices. But for many remote-first companies, it now means the opposite: bringing employees together to work from their faraway homes and meeting in person.

These so-called “offsites” – a holdover from when these companies still had physical locations – have the potential to change the face of business travel.

While consumer travel rose sharply in 2022, business travel recovered more slowly. Corporate offsites could make up a larger portion of that budget than in years past.

Doist, a software company with distributed employees around the world, wanted something different for its company-wide retreat in July.

“We rented a small village in the Austrian Alps,” says Chase Warrington, Head of Remote at Doist. “We threw a lederhosen party and went to traditional huts for dinner.”

According to Warrington, the purpose of these off-site meetings is very different from the goals of traditional business travel. Rather than hole up in meetings to get work done, these retreats aim for connection and fun. That means jettisoning the traditional business travel manual.

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Business or pleasure… or something else?

Rather than replacing traditional business trips, the off-site retreat is viewed by many as an emerging trend of its own.

“Business travel will continue, it will just look different,” says Bruno Muchada, expansion manager for real estate partners at Surf Office, a corporate retreat management company. “You travel just as often to see your business as you do to see customers.”

And as the line between business and pleasure blurs in so-called “bleisure” trips, off-site organizers are realizing the relative unimportance of traditional meetings and schedules. In this upside-down scenario, employees are now working at home and playing with their “office” colleagues, rather than the other way around.

“I have this theory about how the daily structure is broken up,” says Warrington, who also manages offsite events for Doist. “It should be 20% work, 30% activities and 50% free time.”

This free time allows for the kind of impromptu connections and conversations that return-to-the-office apologists have lauded. And it’s fundamentally changing how—and where—those offsites are organized.

“Don’t take us to some big hotel in the middle of the city and give us a long travel schedule,” says Warrington, channeling the mood of the staff.

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This could pose problems for traditional conference centers and hotels that depend on the steady drumbeat of business travel. Still, it has created a new small business ecosystem geared towards helping remote businesses manage employee morale through downtime.

Enter the offsite startups

Investment has flowed into the burgeoning offsite industry. The software company Salesforce has built a special wellness retreat in the redwoods of California where team building events can be held. And Workation Village, a bespoke corporate retreat site in Italy that opened in 2021.

However, remote companies are finding that while company-wide gatherings involving hundreds of employees can boost morale, they are tedious to organize.

“Many companies are introducing a position as a travel manager,” says Muchada. “But they realize that it’s a lot of work to organize everything, and that’s why a lot of companies are turning to us.”

Surf Office manages retreat locations around the world, from Santa Cruz, California to Tuscany, Italy, and aims to take the guesswork (and paperwork) away for travel managers and HR teams. Similar companies are popping up to meet this sudden surge in demand.

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“When the vaccines came in, I started to see that the world was changing,” says Hunter Block, founder of Offsiter, which offers an Airbnb-like marketplace for retreats. “People will never go back to the office.”

Block quickly realized that organizations needed more than just a location—they needed an organizer. As such, Offsiter now offers full service management for everything from catering to collecting t-shirt sizes for corporate swag.

“We can do all of that, right down to holding the clipboard and telling people where to go,” Block says. “Then the whole team can participate instead of getting distracted by the little things. We’re like a wedding planner.”

Despite its sudden rise, the off-site industry is still in its infancy and has many problems to solve.

“I’ve tested a few tools designed to cater to this market, but they’re very raw,” says Warrington. “They build the plane as they fly it.”

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This article was provided to The Associated Press by personal finance website NerdWallet.

RELATED LINK:

NerdWallet: How long before business travel returns to normal? https://bit.ly/nerdwallet-wie lange-bis-business-travel-returns-to-normal

Sam Kemmis is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: skemmisnerdwallet.com.

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