Successful Retreat Secrets

By Mary Byers • November 5, 2015

What’s it take to run a successful retreat in today’s wired, overworked world? I recommend the following four tips:

  1. Mary Byers, CAE
    Mary Byers, CAE

    Consider the environment. If possible, schedule your retreats off-site. The change of venue (and pace) is a subtle signal to participants: We’re here to work. Getting participants away from the office helps staff focus and prevents them from stepping away to handle “just one thing.” If it’s not possible to meet off-site, create a comfortable environment with plenty of snacks, and consider a different room set-up than usual if you have the flexibility to do so.

  2. Use outside facilitation. It’s important for senior staff and everyone on your board to be able to participate fully in the retreat — something they couldn’t do if assigned to facilitate the retreat. If funds aren’t available for a professional facilitator, check with your local college or university to see if any professors facilitate for a reasonable fee. Or, consider asking an association colleague to handle the responsibility — and offer to the do same in return.




Sometimes, just getting your team out of the office and in a comfortable setting to talk is all that is needed to spark new ideas.RealLilTweetables

Use a trained outside facilitator — not your staff or board members — to lead off-site retreats.RealLilTweetables

Make your retreats interactive, small group events for maximum effect.RealLilTweetables

When I ask clients what didn’t work well at their last retreat, I often hear, “We made the mistake of having someone internally lead the retreat.” It’s very hard to lead — and even harder to do it well — when participants know you as a staff or board member.

  1. Keep it small. Though it’s possible to lead a retreat with dozens of participants, it’s difficult to do it right. The more people in the room, the less engaged each person will be and the longer it will take to complete the work. If you need input from a wide variety of representatives, consider surveying before the retreat and sharing the results prior to the event.
  2. Make it interactive. The best retreats feature high participation and engagement. Small group work is an easy way to achieve this, as is any activity that challenges thinking or asks attendees to do something (ie., drawing, list making, discussing, etc.).


Getting your team in the right environment for big-picture thinking is a start, but you need a plan for getting the most out of the gathering once you have assembled the right people. Follow these tips for maximizing the outcome of your off-site retreats, and you’ll be well on your way to bringing your team closer with new energy to address your organization’s key challenges and opportunities.

Mary Byers, CAE, is the co-author of Road to Relevance: 5 Strategies for Competitive Associations and the founder of Association Strategy Circles.