2015 Balsamiq Retreat in the Loire Valley
Since we are a remote, distributed team (9 from Italy, 5 from California, 1 from France, 1 from Germany, 1 from Netherlands, so far - and more are coming!), usually we see each other as two-dimensional people via webcam and, for many of us, just for a very short period during the day - what we call "Balsamiq Golden Hour" (8-9am PST / 5-6pm CET).
Our Annual Company Retreat is a great opportunity to spend a significant amount of time together in person, and it has a special meaning for the first-timers; I know that for sure, because this was my first Balsamiq retreat, and I loved it! 🙂
Our main goal for when we get together each year is to make shared memories. This means spending quality face time with each other, by cooking, eating, dancing, and doing different activities together. Basically the idea is to recharge our emotional batteries for the months ahead, when we each go back to our awesome but sometimes lonely home offices.
We also use the retreats to talk strategy as a team and have company-wide conversations if needed, but that's only a small part of the retreat, as it eats into the having fun time! 🙂
This was our sixth retreat together. Our previous retreat blog posts are here: 2010 (near Como, Italy), 2011 (near Recanati, Italy), 2012 (near New York, USA), 2013 (San Francisco, USA), 2014 (near Recanati, Italy).
This year we put every lesson learned from the previous retreats in a magic pot, et voilà, we had an incredibly amazing fairy tale week together!
Follow me, I'll show you everything.
2015 Company retreat
We always try to avoid hotel accommodations; nothing against them, but we prefer to spend our retreats in a more comfy and relaxed space where we feel at home, with no outsiders around.
After a friendly competition between two different locations, the Chateau de Detilly, in Loire Valley won the contest.
Can you imagine? A whole castle, all to ourselves. This was a big step forward, considering that during the previous retreats, we shared not only rooms, but also beds! We didn't mind, but we don't mind sleeping in fabulous rooms, as well!
We were split in two buildings, the Chateau and the Coach House. Most rooms were beautiful, but some of them were really amazing, with lots of luxurious extras. We randomly assigned rooms using random.org.
We loved the theme from 2014 "Learning From and About" where we had an overwhelming 25 workshops!
After that great success, we collected new ideas for this year's retreat. Everyone was invited to propose talks with the following characteristics:
- It's a group activity lead by one person.
- Participation is totally optional.
- Suggested duration: 1 hour.
Here are the workshops we had in the Chateau:
- French for Dummies (Luis)
- Foldables (Peldi)
- Art of Sudoku (Florian)
- Arepas con queso (Luis)
- Knitting (Joy)
- Origami (Fra)
- Raspberry Pi (Stefano)
- Model trains (Marco)
- Introduction to American Football (Leon)
- Donation Stories Show and Tell (Luis)
- Hackathon project (Leon)
- Introduction to FRP (Luis)
- Dance like no one's watching (Mike)
It's amazing to see our colleagues leading a course and teach us how to do something. The best part is that in many cases, the workshop went beyond its hour and we kept talking and doing things even the days after. One example out of many is the knitting night led by Joy: it went viral and from that moment, every place and time were good for knitting!
We also suspect that the Carlton dance that Mike taught us will come handy in many occasions. 😉
Other group activities
Doing things all together or in small teams is a real bonding experience. You can learn more about your workmates, both about their approach to challenges and goals, and how they cope with a project done as a real team. But more than that, it's great to have time to talk in person about this and that and deepen our relationships. For example, I will never forget the open conversations I had with a few Balsamici during our long Orienteering walk.
Here are a few of the group activities we did:
- 2CV Rally: in groups of three or four, we jumped in some classic Renault 2CVs and drove through the Loire Valley looking for places in a sort of treasure hunt.
- Breton dancing: led by a local enthusiasts of historic dance, we learned how to dance in perfect Breton style.
- Bike Tour: an afternoon biking on the Loire Valley's country roads.
- Orienteering: three teams of five with a compass and a map, locating some games and challenges along the way.
- Golf: a group lesson with a golf pro: putting, swinging, and playing a few holes!
- Last but not least, 80's dancing! Check out the slow motion goodness below:
Discovering the Loire Valley
All countries have a lot to show: places, monuments, people, food... The Loire Valley in France is no exception. Early risers discovered the beautiful countryside around the chateau, with long walks and bike rides.
We toured a pair of places of interest: Fontevraud Abbey, a complex of religious buildings founded in 1101...
...and the city of Amboise, former home of the French royal court.
In Amboise Leonardo da Vinci spent his last years in the Chateau du Clos Luce, now restored, within Parc Leonardo da Vinci.
We also visited the city of Chinon, with its market and a Troglodyte village, where the houses are caves, carved in the limestone mountains rising up from the river.
Food, food, food...! (and wine, wine, wine!)
Being 17 people means that it's not easy for us to deal with cooking, preparing, doing dishes everyday, so we decided to hire Monsieur Dupree, Chef of Le Pélican Restaurant and a member of his staff, Monsieur Alain, for almost every dinner during the retreat.
It was definitely worth it! Now we sampled a lot of French food, and are all pretty proud to be all about that bass now! 😉
Then on top of that, we were able to squeeze in two chocolate tastings, two wine tastings, and a large number of glasses on the dinner table every night.
Monsieur Dupree had chosen four different types of wine for every meal, from the cocktail to the dessert wine. Good times indeed!
Dining together after a busy day, and having someone else taking care of us was definitely the right choice: we had the time to relax and talk each other, and a lot of fun. I clearly remember three times where my ears and cheeks were hurting because of too much laughing! We also played Thumper during some dinners, and it was hilarious.
What has worked well
- It was critical to have a small designated planning team; and BTW, Anna and Luis did a great job!
- We hired a local, Janet, our eyes on the ground who helped us plan outings, organize local transportation, and spoke English :).
- One month before the retreat, Anna and Luis traveled to the Chateau for an on-the-spot investigation with Janet. Having an advance team do a walk-through helped us know what to expect on site, check wifi strength, etc.
- Start with a "Day Zero" before the retreat so travelers from afar have a soft landing. For the same reason, don't plan anything for the first day of the retreat.
- The good balance between activities and free time allowed us to work in small groups, keep an eye on everything (sales, support, bugs...), nap, play tennis and enjoy the pool.
- As mentioned before, hiring a personal chef was great for us.
What needs to be improved and what's next
While this retreat was fabulous, we always practice Kaizen, continuous improvement.
Here are a few things we're considering for the future:
- Accommodations: try to find a place that fit all of us in the same building, and possibly with less "inequality" between the rooms.
- Balsamiq retreats usually last about a week. Are they too long?
- Currently we meet annually. Given than soon it will be too hard to find a week that works for everyone (we're just too many now), would twice a year be better?
- Do we need a better process for date picking? Last year, we used a data picker in Google docs, color-coding our availability (Green="ok with me"; Yellow="not my favorite week but I could make it"; Red="I would skip the retreat it happened during this week") and numbers (from 0="won't come" to 10="love it")
- Do we need a better process for location picking?
- Do we want adjustments to the schedule (more or fewer outings, more or fewer workshops)?
I hope you liked this little journey to our 2015 company retreat.
Do you have some ideas to help us in the organizational process? Do you have any good experience of Company retreats? Let us know in the comments below!
Bye for now,