How to get away from it all

the current climate, running a course away from the office may seem difficult.
But if you’ve got the budget and willing delegates, it can pay off

Most off-site training venues will tell you business is still buoyant. But
the reality for many, particularly those relying on overseas trade, is that the
outlook for bookings is uncertain at best and gloomy at worst.

Fears of an economic downturn were already gaining ground in the summer, but
the attacks on the World Trade Center on 11 September have created an even more
volatile outlook for business in general.

This is expected to put more pressure on training budgets. In addition,
off-site venues have also had to cope with the reluctance of some delegates,
particularly those based in the US, to attend courses in the UK.

So how can trainers convince their companies of the undoubted benefits of
off-site training and how are venues responding to the challenges?

First, the extent to which off-site training business may have fallen off
is, so far, difficult to measure and, given the short-term uncertainty
following the terrorist attacks and retaliation in Afghanistan, the picture is
unlikely to become clear for a few months.

Nevertheless, anecdotal evidence suggests there are problems. Fay Sharpe,
sales and marketing director at IBR, a venues finding agency, says, "We
were seeing a softening before 11 September, with the downturn in the IT and
telecoms industries, but since the attacks prices have fallen further because
many venues aren’t getting the international occupancy they’re used to."

In London and the Home Counties, the most popular location for overseas
delegates, prices are down to the lowest levels since the recession of the
early 1990s, says Sharpe.


The positive side is that UK-based companies can now organise off-site
training at many venues for less than they would have paid earlier in the year.

The nervousness over travel, and not just for overseas delegates, is
confirmed by Mike West, a senior partner at training company BeStrategic.

"Shortly after the terrorist attack, I was at a training conference for
80 people, but only 25 turned up and that was for a UK company," he says.

He criticises business for over-reacting and, while nervousness among
travelling delegates could subside over the coming months, it does mean
training venues have had to respond to the challenge.

Gillian Holdom, director of the M¿ller Centre in Cambridge, which is
affiliated to Churchill College, says the problems can be overcome by both
venues and employers taking a more flexible approach. "We had one event,
not long after the attacks, in which eight US delegates cancelled, but they
were able to offer the places to colleagues in the UK," she says.

She argues that the fall in business affects venues in central London much
more than locations like Cambridge.

"Nevertheless, in the coming months we are expecting less international
business and that means we will be looking for more UK custom."

She declines to comment on whether prices will come down, but says the
centre is already taking a more flexible approach on any cancellations.

"We realise that companies may not be able to guarantee well in advance
how many people will attend an event and that numbers in groups that include
people coming from abroad may fluctuate."

Despite the problems, venue directors like Holdom say they have a good story
to tell when it comes to persuading companies of the benefits of off-site

One of the advantages, she says, is being able to offer training in
attractive surroundings, providing a contrast to the hurly-burly of the
workplace, particularly for delegates who work in large cities.

Delegates also respond well to short extra-curricular activities in the
programme, which can break up the day and allow participants to recharge their
batteries and to network.

"We have a big choice of activities that provide a break in training for
delegates, such as punting on the river Cam, a guided tour of Cambridge or a
special presentation at the Churchill archive, which is on our site."


These extra-curricular activities not only make the training event more
memorable, she says, but also provide opportunities for delegates from
different parts of the same company to get to know each other.

"They’re a great ice-breaker and so help achieve the objective of
better communication within companies," she says.

Mike West of BeStrategic agrees that interspersing training with other
activities can make people more receptive to the learning.

"I like to include an activity not related to the training for perhaps
an hour each day of the course," he says.

He adds, "The activity needs to be close by and have a specific theme
to keep people interested.

"For example, on a course in Cambridge I took delegates to a specially
organised talk on Darwin at the botanical gardens and that went down very

Peter Hall, director of the Wadenhoe Consultancy, a venue in
Northamptonshire, agrees that it is often equally important what happens away
from the training.

"We’re in the middle of the countryside, which means people tend to
congregate after the day’s training in the bar or in the village pub and talk
about what they’ve been doing."

Hall argues that this informal discussion of the training plays a key role
in how effective the programme turns out to be.

"When you examine how people learn, the actual training is only one
part. What’s also important is for people to discuss and reflect on what
they’ve been learning, otherwise it’s quickly forgotten."

Discussions with colleagues allow delegates to clarify issues and work
through in their own minds what the training is about and how it can be used in
practical terms.

Hall adds that another important benefit of off-site training is the esprit
de corps that can be developed when staff are away from their desks.


On a practical level, it is clear that one of the benefits of getting people
away from the workplace is the lack of distractions.

In workplace-based training, those distractions can range from phone calls
and e-mails to delegates believing they have to firefight a problem in their department.
Whether the distractions are small or large, they inevitably detract from the
effectiveness of a training course.

Andy Dixon, business development manager at Impact Development Training
Group, which owns three hotels in the Lake District, says it is important for
staff to get out of the office for training.

"If training is on site, there are constant interruptions from phone
calls, e-mails and so on.

"At our courses we provide windows during the day for people to check
messages and return calls, but outside those times delegates are fully involved
in the programme."

Impact’s courses often include delegates giving feedback to each other, says
Dixon. "That can be very difficult if you’re in a workplace environment
where people are constantly interrupted."

People also behave differently when taken out of the workplace hierarchies
and office politics, which can enable employers to more accurately assess the
potential of staff, argues Maggie Samuel, account director at training company
Status Meetings.

"When there’s a training or teambuilding activity on site, staff tend
to stick to their roles, so a junior member of a team will behave in a junior
way. But, off site, things change and some individuals reveal talents or
aptitudes they may not have realised they had."

She adds that leaders in the office may find themselves eclipsed by
subordinates on an off-site event, such as a Survivor-type management training
course. "That allows the employer to tap into the hitherto unrecognised
talents of staff back in the workplace," she says.

In today’s uncertain economic climate it is paradoxically even more
important for employers to look at off-site training, says Samuel.

"A lot of people are worried about their jobs at the moment, which
means motivation and morale often suffer," she says.

"If an employer takes its staff off for on off-site event, it makes the
staff feel recognised and valued and that’s good for business in the long

Top tips for away days

1 Location: There is no point
choosing a fantastic venue – especially for a short course – if it’s so far
away people arrive tired and grumpy. For an event attracting delegates from all
over the UK, consider booking a venue that is central rather than in London.

2 Facilities: Make sure you ask about what facilities are
available, such as break-out rooms. How old is the venue? Has it been
refurbished recently?

3 Costs: In today’s climate, venues are more likely to offer
discounts, so don’t accept the first price quoted. Also, check if there are any
hidden costs, such as charges for the use of break-out rooms.

4 Cancellations: Nervousness about travel means it’s more
likely delegates from overseas will cancel or change their plans. Make sure
you’re aware of the venue’s policy on cancellation and no-shows.

5 Non-training activities: Interspersing training with other
activities can make the event more interesting. Ask the venue if they can
recommend bite-sized excursions or events. Some venues will organise themed
events in the locality.

6 Don’t overload: One of the advantages of getting people away
is allowing time for informal discussion and networking, so don’t pack the
agenda too tightly.

7 Leisure clubs: A growing number of venues boast leisure
clubs, with pool, gym and sauna. These can help delegates unwind during a
rigorous training programme.

8 Accommodation: Try to choose a single venue for both training
and accommodation as it can disrupt the programme if delegates have to travel
between their lodgings and the training venue.

9 Distractions: Make sure all distractions are kept to a
minimum by, for example, asking delegates to switch off mobile phones during
training. But allow "windows" during the day for staff to pick up
messages and return calls.

10 Top and tail: Consider whether the off-site training needs
to be reinforced by pre-course learning in the workplace and assessment after
delegates have returned to work.

Off-site training livens up learning

One of the obvious advantages of
taking staff away from the workplace is the opportunity to really liven up

For example, in September Impact Development Training Group
organised a carnival-themed event for 460 newly recruited graduate trainees
from Deutsche Bank, as part of a global teamworking programme.

Held at the London Arena in the capital’s Docklands, delegates
attended from all over the world to improve their teamworking, influencing and
networking skills.

Normally used for pop concerts or sports events, the arena was
taken over for two days to become the venue for a huge carnival procession.

"We had drum workshops, dancing classes and mask making,
which allowed the delegates to put on a fantastic carnival from scratch,"
says Andy Dixon of Impact.

Maggie Samuel, account director at Status Meetings, agrees that
training events in off-site venues can be spiced up to make them more fun and

"We’ve run ‘Wild West’ teambuilding events, where we split
delegates into groups representing rival families and then set them tasks like
building a railroad. We then get them to co-operate with other ‘families’, in a
similar way to how regional teams must work together," she says.

Using actors to make training fun, while getting across an
important message, is also a useful tool, says Samuel.

"We ran an event on supply chain management for the oil
and gas industry, but used actors to burst in several times during the day to
reinforce what was being taught in an entertaining way," she added.

What about not only getting staff away from the workplace, but
allowing them to record their very own souvenir CD?

That’s the brainchild of The Radio Business, which runs
teamworking and leadership events at a recording studio in the Yorkshire

Participants have access to state-of-the-art technology and a
record producer in coming up with their version of a song of their choice.

Trainer Clive Gott, who has facilitated recording-based events
at the studio, says the most valuable part of the exercise is the CD, which
delegates get to keep at the end. "It provides a permanent ‘anchor’ to
remind a group of people how they’ve worked as a productive and highly
motivated team."

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