There's nothing particularly Native American about the Phelps Group's corporate retreat at a ranch in Malibu, except six billowing white teepees in the ranch's meadow. Some of the firm's employees are gathered around these teepees, having cocktails and wondering how 55 of them will sleep there, when someone yells, "Look, it's Joe!" The Native American theme becomes clearer when everyone sees CEO Joe Phelps sitting on a red all-terrain vehicle: He is wearing a large Native American headdress and war paint and making a "how" sign.
He begins to drive the ATV down a hill toward his employees, but his back tire hits a rock, sending him flying and the ATV airborne. The employees watch in horror as the ATV nearly crushes Phelps. It just misses him and lands upside down. Phelps stands up, unscathed, and picks up his headdress, which now resembles a dead parrot. "I just got back on and started driving," says Phelps. "But when I got down to the teepees, no one wanted to go for a ride with me."
With the corporate retreat and outing season upon us, CEOs and events coordinators across the country are making big plans for events that will keep corporate spirit frothy -- and many are no longer content with a simple picnic. But that doesn't guarantee things won't go wrong. Coles Public Relations in Indianapolis held its retreat on a lake and an employee on a Jet Ski almost drowned. Coles employees, who still joke about his brush with Poseidon's trident, are among a select few whose outings have been so disastrous that they instantly enter the annals of corporate legend.
"People were accusing me of trying to kill my staff. They got totally annihilated."
Cynthia McKay, CEO of Le Gourmet Gift Baskets Inc., decided to take her 13 employees to Lion's Head, a ski resort in Vail, Colo., a few winters ago. The only problem: Just one person knew how to ski. McKay planned ahead, and along with the chalet and limousine she rented, bought lessons for the staff. But after two lessons, some employees decided to hit the Black Diamond slopes. One fell and broke her leg. Another ran into a tree and broke her leg. Someone else fractured her arm, and a few others pulled tendons. "They got totally annihilated," McKay says. "People were accusing me of trying to kill my staff."
She wasn't, of course, but had come too late to the realization that her employees were mostly "indoor people" who, it turned out, had wanted to go play the slots in Vegas. "Now we just go to malls. Or dinner. As long as it's inside," McKay says. Though none of the injured employees now works for her (and none sued), they still send Christmas cards to the office's "Orthopedic Ward."
At one of his retreats, Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, CEO of hip-hop powerhouse Bad Boy Entertainment, dressed up as a drill sergeant and exulted his staff of 200 to "be the best. To be the hottest part of the flame." Their hotness did not prevent injuries, though. There were still a "bunch of sprained ankles" following a heated three-on-three basketball game and a tricky obstacle course, says Jameel Spencer, Bad Boy's CMO.
So what's a CEO to do? Remember that any retreat comes with risks and be aware -- as Cynthia McKay wasn't -- that your ideal outing may not be your employees'. But bad experiences can turn good. "When I started falling through the air, everyone thought I was a dead man," Phelps says. "But it got people laughing and brought them together. At the end of the day, the company was better for it."
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