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Educational travel: Some companies retreat to settings closer to home

Just last year, corporate retreats were in the news when it came out that executives of insurance giant AIG had taken part in a weeklong retreat shortly after the company received government bailout funds. Lawmakers and pundits had harsh words for the outing, which was viewed as a lavish and undeserved perk.

That incident, combined with general belt-tightening among companies during a sour economic time, would seem to bode poorly for organizations offering retreats here in Maryland.

Yet several say business has actually improved over the past year, despite public bashing of the concept. More companies are opting for retreats closer to home, they say, and officers are recognizing that retreats can improve employee morale and help staff adjust to changes caused by the economy.

“We had a good year, said Liz Felgate, who with her husband, Clive, runs Upward Enterprises in Buckeystown. “We were a bit worried, because we were thinking team-building might be the type of thing that might be cut from a budget.”

But, she added, “We’ve actually had more teams coming in.” She believes companies going through downsizing and other changes derive particular benefit from the brief getaway.

Corporate retreats can be inexpensive and valuable business tools that take employees away from the same old settings and routines, advocates say, often inspiring renewed enthusiasm for the job, better relations among workers and fresh approaches to business challenges.

Maryland is home to several properties that host corporate retreats offering team-building exercises such as navigating rope courses and participating in elaborate scavenger hunts.

Upward Enterprises, which has been in business seven years, draws clients from the Mid-Atlantic area, but also from as far away as California. The retreat leases 22 acres from the nonprofit Bishop Claggett Center, a conference facility and retreat that provides lodging and food service for as many as 100 visitors at a time. The two organizations work together, Felgate said, with Upward Enterprises offering activities including a ropes challenge course and a portable climbing wall.

Groups typically stay one to three days, and might punctuate the team-building activities with brainstorming sessions, lectures, presentations and other business conducive to the relatively unstructured and relaxed setting.

Another Maryland retreat is NorthBay Adventure Camp, located on the Chesapeake Bay in North East. This nonprofit organization mainly provides environmental education for school groups and outings for churches, ministries and other nonprofits, but also hosts corporate team-building retreats with trained staff.

For corporate groups, adventure activities include zip lines, rope courses, a scavenger hunt and a build-a-boat challenge. The activities, said sales manager Sabrina Barnhart, are “so abnormal they stretch the everyday mentality.” People aren’t used to relying on other people for help with zip lines and rope courses, she said, but these activities build trust and teamwork.

The retreat can house as many as 550 at a time, she said, and most groups come for one or two overnights. The cost is $150 per person for a weekend, meals and activities included.

Jackie Leach is manager and director of the Mountainside Challenge and Retreat Center launched in 2006 in Urbana. The center has 10 instructors certified to lead team-building activities.

Business the past year or so has been “better than we thought” it would be, Leach said, in part because the center offers a local and inexpensive alternative to more lavish corporate retreats. “We had one company that used to go to Arizona,” she said. Her center attracts clients mostly from the Mid-Atlantic states and can host as many as 350 people for a day activity and 110 overnight. The cost is about $75 per person for an eight-hour day of activities.

A typical day might start with breaking into small groups for team-building and trust activities on the low ropes course. The group might take time for its own program around lunchtime, and then it’s time for the high ropes and other programs. The day ends with a debriefing on how the day went and any lessons learned.

“There’s so much stress in corporations right now,” Leach said. “We provide a time for them to come together as an organization.”

And, she said, “It’s fun.”