My company Skift just celebrated our two year anniversary. With our team 10 strong now, we went on a rather unusual company offsite earlier this summer, our first ever: Iceland. As startups go, that was probably among the coolest destinations any early stage startup has ever been to, and there were a few reasons why we did it, in addition to the obvious team-building part of it.

We wanted to live our brand by celebrating our business and our industry through a unique take on company culture and what it means for our success.

  • One, we're Skift, we're the ones who report on global travel trends (see here, here, here, for example), and for us, our first company offsite had to be a cool destination which few other companies as a group had been to.
  • Second, attracting talent as we grow is a hard and full-time task in a very competitive startup city like New York, and our Iceland trip is indicative of the intense-but-fun culture we're building into the company. We wanted the world to see it play out live, primarily in social media.
  • But the more interesting reason was to learn about the changing global business of travel. Iceland is the perfect crucible of a lot of global travel trends we cover on a daily basis on Skift, converging in the tiny country in so many ways over the last few years.

There are two ways to think about company culture. It's either a set of perks and platitudes designed to make employees feel good about themselves for working somewhere--or it's a strategic function that helps keep your employees aligned with your brand, and your brand aligned with your customers. You can already guess which I'm going to say is better. What's more important is to understand that your culture is only as deep as you make it. Unless you make a conscious strategic decision to live a brand-relevant culture, you'll inevitably default to the same generic millennial lip service as a hundred other companies--and you'll pay the price in everything from recruiting to retention to market leadership to customer service.

You find all kinds of features piled under the culture umbrella. We can skip the parts about valuing collaboration and outside-the-box thinkers and people who want to build a new kind of company--every leader wants that. For my second start up, I've been much more deliberately focused--from the very start--on building a company culture that not only makes me proud, but meaningfully impacts all facets of our business, and helps us to attract the very best employees.

We've talked in our business about the rise of the independent Chinese traveler, a departure from the packaged tours people usually see. That data point came to life in the two young, single Chinese women we discovered cooking in the communal kitchen of one of the Icelandic youth hostels we stayed in. We discovered firsthand how quickly, and at what scale, the tourism industry has blossomed only four years after the eruption of the Eyjafjallajkull volcano, including the impact of low-cost air carriers ferrying in low-cost Euro tourists by the thousands. We toured the Keflavik International Airport to learn how the deep incorporation of technology has made the passenger experience better, from a rebuilt arrivals baggage area from ground up, to better wayfinding and faster immigration lines. We saw the sadly shrinking Vatnajkull glacier in South Iceland and thought about the impact of global warming on tourism. We gained a new understanding of the blurring of business and leisure travel worldwide by seeing how easy it would be to add a few days of fun in Iceland to a transatlantic work trip--and also experienced the challenges in pushing tourists beyond the gateway hub in a highly centralized region.

The best employees--the ones who'll drive innovation, break barriers, and grow into a new generation of leaders--aren't motivated by workplace comforts or feel-good HR policies. They're motivated by the opportunity to do their best work, to understand their customers better, to discover new ways to think about markets and opportunities, to connect with their peers more effectively around their core work. A company trip to Iceland--staying in hostels no less--was the perfect way to live our brand. If you're not developing workplace policies, perks, and employee programs that are directly relevant to your brand, you're missing a crucial opportunity to weave your brand more deeply into your company DNA.