We have been hosting 100’s of company offsites in dozens of properties all around the world over the last 4 years. By “we” I mean Surf Office.
These properties are owned and operated by our partners - hotels, apartment buildings, retreat centres, mansions, etc.
My job for a while was to qualify these partners and I’d like to share some insights from this process.
Surf Office has a dedicated page for property partners where we collect leads. After a potential partner applies, we research them and then decide if we want to continue the conversation and onboard them.
I believe that I have the skill to very quickly identify which property is a good fit for hosting company retreats.
Doesn't sound very modest, right?
Well, I've seen thousands of these properties and talked to hundreds of owners, landlords, operators, and managers. And as you can imagine, I also made many bad choices before gaining this skill.
The first lesson learned: Very few properties are a good fit for hosting company retreats.
Some have big potential after a few adjustments and most are simply not a good fit. Most landlords don't want to admit it and try to attack this market (not as a Surf Office partner obviously). They are just too emotional about it.
There are huge opportunity costs as they can choose different segments and be much more successful.
Before running the “retreats as a service”, we operated a coliving business where we hosted dozens of retreats. Coliving and retreats are in most cases not very compatible businesses. But thanks to this experience I know how to look at this problem from the perspective of an operator.
Let’s analyze different aspects that make the venues good spots for hosting a company offsite:
We had countless properties in the middle of nowhere reaching out to become a Surf Office partner and host international retreats. The properties expect that a group of people will fly somewhere and then continue by bus or car for 4 hours. This might work if you organize an adventurous surf camp or a meditation retreat.
When you have a group of 40 employees, this means 320 (40 people x 4 hours x 2) unproductive ‘working hours’. That's a lot!
The ideal distance from the international airport is less than 45 minutes. Everything over 1h and you lose potential customers. This applies to Europe. In the US it is more acceptable to drive longer distances to arrive at your final destination.
I could write a whole article about internet connection, but let’s keep it simple:
Good internet is on the bottom of the Maslow pyramid. Hire a professional, make it absolutely perfect and then you can focus on improving other aspects of your venue.
Hotels very often confuse an event space with a workspace.
Event spaces can be any room with some chairs and a projector. But if you want to host a productive offsite with people working on their laptops, your space should look more like a workspace.
Does it mean that you should build a WeWork-style office?
That would be an ideal setup for Surf Office but you don't have to go so far, especially if you can make sure that the space isn’t used regularly.
Ask yourself a question: How can we convert an existing event space into a proper workspace in 30 minutes?
I love multifunctional spaces. How to convert a yoga room into an event space? Or, how to convert a lobby into a workspace? And then, how do we convert them back in 30 minutes? It’s surprisingly much easier than you think.
Internet speed and capacity is a must, but we already discussed this above.
When we choose hotel partners for Surf Office, the absence of work/event spaces and internet connection/capacity are the main infrastructure blockers.
Where to start? When I'm trying to explain to someone that most hotels don't know how to work with corporate groups, I usually use catering as a key example.
Hospitality is an old-school industry. If something has been done a certain way for 30+ years, does it mean that this is the right way?
Most people interpret “excellent hospitality” as the hotels doing everything possible to please the customer. When a customer asks about catering options, the hotel is often answering with the question “What sort of catering would you prefer? Everything is possible.”
Everything is possible. I'm always annoyed by this answer...
Well, this happens usually with small independent properties. More experienced hotels or chain hotels will send you a pdf with 67 options to choose from. Looks more professional ("we had so much work with that pdf!") but the result is the same - the customer is confused.
At Surf Office, we ask the hotel to send us that crazy pdf and then we boil it down to a couple of options for the end customer.
We work with customers and hotel partners from all around the world and cultural differences can create a lot of friction.
When we hosted our first retreat in Valencia our accommodation partner served breakfast at the property. The customer, a Belgian company, contacted us after breakfast complaining about poor breakfast experience.
They got served a typical breakfast from that part of Spain: "pan con tomate” with coffee. Well, a piece of bread with tomato sauce was not enough for our group. It was fixed for the next morning.
Every hotel likes to offer local specialities but I'd be very careful when you host the offsite of an international company. The middle ground is to serve a simple and super tasty international food with a local twist or just a very few local options.
You also know what your most popular dishes are. Make them as a default menu and give customers some additional options to make adjustments if needed. By default, the customer can just say “yes” without making any decisions. Zero friction.
It is quite standard for hotels to offer a menu with a meat option accompanied with a vegetarian option. This still creates a lot of friction:
This is a lot of communication! For you as a hotel, this is a daily job. But the customer wants to avoid this communication as much as possible.
A great hack is to make only a vegan menu. No meat option. This is not easy but it saves a lot of time. And believe me, that are 100 other things the organizer needs to solve besides figuring out the menu. Make it easy!
It wasn’t uncommon to have a call with a potential hotel partner for Surf Office have it start with a pitch about all the amazing activities you can do at the property: “Alberto can organize a special horse-riding course and only 65 miles away is a lavender field with…”
OK, I get it. This is how holidays are sold on the consumer market. You go to Santa Cruz and you want to try surfing. That's cool, we also pitch these activities on our website but they are absolutely not crucial.
You can find cool activities almost anywhere.
Our Surf Office team is distributed and we organize our own team retreats as well and test the activities ourselves. We try the experiences we can then offer to our customers.
By observing our customers and trying many activities ourselves, I can tell you that the most popular ones might sound absolutely boring and you can do them anywhere:
One of my best memories from our team offsites was learning how to cook paella together in Mallorca. So much fun!
It's hard to get pricing right. Hotels that contact us about the partnership usually think that we are an agency. We are not.
So after we qualify them (location, infrastructure, etc.) we ask them to send us their group pricing.
We tell them in advance how we work with partners:
Our best partners get about 10-20 group bookings a year. We prefer to work with partners with whom we can send a high volume of groups in order to master the processes and create a frictionless relationship.
Back to the onboarding of our partners: after a couple of days of silence, a “customized” pricelist for Surf Office is in making. We then receive a price list with rates higher than any comparable property in the area.
As hotels think that we are an agency, they expect us to negotiate (even we said in advance that this is not how we work). So we thank them and rarely send them any groups.
We built a system to match customer needs with the property for the best value for money. This doesn't need cheap properties. It's impossible to find cheap properties with the right infrastructure. But, it’s quite difficult to sell a high volume of groups to overpriced hotels.
What I recommend is that if you want to host corporate groups, set up reasonable rates. Don't try to get rich with the first group. With whichever partner you cooperate with, whether it’s an agency or Surf Office, play a long-term game. It pays off!
Don't forget about additional revenue you can make with catering.
Doing sales when you have an independent property is extremely hard. It’s more like hustling. You can close some corporate groups here and there. It’s an amazing feeling and stokes you out.
But honestly, you don't have many resources, processes, or software for selling to corporate groups. This is not scalable.
Outbound sales is a complete waste of time. Even when it comes to closing inbound leads, you need a lot of volume. But definitely focus on inbound.
I really believe that an independent hotel should focus on perfecting the experience onsite. You can't afford to have a dedicated sales rep. Also, a skilled sales rep is usually going rather to work for a sales company, not for your hotel.
Larger chains have fine-tuned processes. Sometimes they even have their own groups’ departments. This is not really selling but rather more like admin work. I spent a lot of time researching sales funnels of these chains. They have contracts with agencies that bring them corporate customers like or Coca-Cola, but clients who want to book directly struggle with the bureaucracy and contact us.
Main advice about sales: don't overcomplicate, don't create complex packages, listen customer's feedback and keep it simple.
That was a lot of information! Congrats if you have made it to this point in the article.
There is an endless # of improvements that can be made. It is important to pick your battles and make the most of your available resources. Your top priority should be providing a unique and seamless hospitality experience.
Outsourcing of select parts of your business is key in growing your business and becoming agile in our rapidly changing sector.
Surf Office has mastered the B2B sales process using the same techniques and tools as VC funded SaaS companies + has streamlined & integrated the retreat planning system for the customer.
Simply put, partnering with Surf Office = higher volume of corporate groups + hundreds of hours saved in event planning allowing you to focus on your expertise: providing an unforgettable experience for your customer in your unique venue.
I'm the founder of Surf Office, a one-stop shop for anyone organizing company retreats.
Little side projects I'm involved in: Epic Monday, Hoodpicker, Hotel Nuggets and Swagalogue.
Kickstart your hospitality business by reading one of my guides for: coliving, glamping and hosting offsites.
Feel free to reach out to me on Twitter or Linkedin.
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