Office politics vary from country to country. In China, the oil that keeps the wheels of inter-office relations greased is the company retreat.
A business retreat in China provides a variety of benefits, said former China business manager and current author Bill Dodson. In addition to allowing management greater access to staff sentiment, the investment in a retreat sends a message to Chinese staff that they are valued. In a country where sky-high turnover rates are the norm, retreats are a simple tactice to keep staff around. "We often found it also increased recruitment rates, through word-of-mouth recommendations," Dodson said.
Retreats are particularly valuable during or after restructurings. Chinese staff members feel loyalty to people, not organizations, and will often resign following a change in management, Dodson explained. They offer a particularly smooth way of ushering out old management and introducing the new. Staff members have an opportunity to bid farewell to the outgoing boss and get acquainted with the new hire, all in a relaxed, informal setting.
The current service boom in China means more choice in retreats. Previously, company retreats were largely urban affairs – Shanghai, Hangzhou and Suzhou have been popular destinations – with staff congregating around hotel pools or taking in local sights within stone’s throw of headquarters, said Gabor Holch of Campanile Business Consulting. "But now they go out in the middle of nowhere."
Impressive trips to the back of beyond include embarking on horseback through the grasslands of the north and shooting a round on a golf course in southern China, said Holch.
Though resorts in Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries are seeing increasing numbers of Chinese tour groups, staying in-country is usually the best call for business retreats, according to Dodson, both because of potential visa restrictions and an overwhelming preference staff will likely have for Chinese food.
But with full packages a rare find and generally only available at luxury resorts, taking the team on a spirit-building retreat is largely a do-it-yourself endeavor.
Though online travel companies like Elong, Ctrip and TravelZen are increasingly popular and at times offer group packages, they aren’t geared toward business retreats. Such firms will simply call travel agents, hotels and restaurants – everything a secretary or office staff member could easily do – and pass a (higher) bill on to the client.
These online companies are useful, however, for booking transportation to and from the destination, and can often arrange group discounts for ticket bookings. Once the destination is decided, most everything else, from hotel bookings and transportation to activities, can be found online and booked by phone.
For companies with a little money to spend, the boom in five-star and luxury hotels throughout the country means a plethora of options for booking business retreats. Kevin Murphy, director of Asiawide Hospitality Solutions, suggests booking through international hotel brands, which can be more reliable than local operations.
Either way, it’s a buyer’s market. Many hotels are offering promotional packages, as well as adding unique touches to add value. "If one hotel does it, you have to [do it] too," said Johnson Lei, MICE director at Beijing Grand Millenium Hotel, which distributes free ice cream cones to business conference participants during coffee breaks, and has installed a foosball table in the conference room foyer.
Companies will have to book their own transportation to and from the hotel, and though hotels can arrange for city tours, they will collaborate with travel agencies to do so, said Lei. To bring down the bill, she recommends booking a sightseeing trip beforehand, or setting a staff member to the task on arrival at the hotel.
But for executives looking to coddle difficult staff or impress upper-level management, a luxury resort retreat is the way to go. Like other parts of the luxury sector, luxury business retreats seem unaffected by the downturn.
For example, business is up at The Banyan Tree resort chain, which has locations in Sanya, Lijiang and Shangri-La, said Southern China Area General Manager Maximilian Lennkh. In addition to activity packages that include golfing trips, jaunts to Yunnan and a "mushroom-hunting" package, Banyan Tree also rents out conference facilities starting at roughly RMB410 (US$60) per head per day.
However, for those short on cash, doing it yourself has definite advantages. According to Dodson, most of his Chinese employees were quite excited to help plan retreats, and eager to bargain-hunt to save the company money.
But he warned that unlike in the West, Chinese employees are more likely to err on the side of thrift by booking discounted accommodations or activities that foreign employees won’t find relaxing, and as far as many foreigners are concerned, relaxation is the main point of such outings.
"If Westerners live in China, chances are they’ll want a vacation, business or otherwise," he said.