Business Travel Show Europe Kick Off, 23 February,
Global Travel Risk Summit Europe, April 2023,
3rd Annual Sustainable Business Travel Summit
From go-karting to rock climbing and ice walking to... rabbit-skinning? Tom Hall investigates team-building in extremis
Whitewater rapids, cliff-top ascents and eating live worms may seem a world away from the boardroom’s Nespresso shots and lacquered tables, but a spate of intense team-building initiatives are billing themselves as the ultimate motivational tools for corporates.
“The best teams are those forged in battle, so to speak, or at least those forged in the face of extreme challenge,” says Absolute Corporate Events managing director Chris Parnham, who finds that extremely effective teams are those that have tackled extremely challenging tasks.
With experience helping top corporates ascend mountainous terrain, Mountain Leap Events’ managing director Adam Honey agrees massive team-building dividends can be reaped from pushing the limits. “When individuals work collectively to meet objectives, or even just to get from A to B outdoors, they simply cannot fail to get to know each other better, increase awareness, trust and relationships,” he says.
For Parnham, the likes of go-karting and treasure hunts are good fun, but their ability to create or unite a team is questionable. “Do you get the chance to learn whether you can truly depend on a colleague based on how amusing their photo of you in a poncho by the Eiffel Tower is? No. But see them holding the other end of your rope, as you abseil down a cliff-face – that’s how you build a bond that you can count on,” he says.
Honey adds: “Any member of the group whose buttons are pushed, or meets internal resistance, creates opportunities for learning and awareness.
In this environment, natural leaders and team players emerge, with skills and communications experience that are often re-used in the office environment.”
EXERCISING CAUTIONThe events industry, however, is polarised on tackling the extreme. Ben Parkinson, commercial director at team-building firm Bluehat UK, says although these challenges might appeal to a few, a company has to consider the diverse nature of any group of people.
“Even with group sizes as small as eight, there will be many different preference types and what works for one, won’t work for another,” he says. “In order to engage with the widest possible audience, we design team-building events that are multi-dimensional. This means there’s lots of different experiences within an overriding event concept or theme.”
Others like the idea in principal, but with certain caveats. “Team-building activities should be closely aligned to business objectives and help the organisation generate specific and measurable results,” says CWT Meetings & Events director Jane Baker. “Experiential team-building, where delegates are asked to take a step out of their comfort zone in ‘extreme’ activities can be a really valuable learning experience. But we would always approach from the viewpoint of the larger message and process to link in with performance metrics.”
Meanwhile, some agencies and destination management companies (DMCs) report a lack of demand for such activities.“The truth is that we have not operated any extreme team-building programmes – most of our clients are on the ‘classical’ side, thus they are looking more towards impressive activities than extreme team-building,” says Kristin Sif Sigurdardottir, managing director of Icelandic DMC, Atlantik.Event agency Line Up’s managing director, Rob Leach, adds that driving car dealers very fast around a circuit is about as close as he gets to extreme team-building, but this is usually to experience a car’s driving credentials rather than for the purposes of team-building.
DIVERSE MARKETSHowever, the options are out there, according to Nikki Mitchell, managing partner of Destinations Unlimited. She points to Malta’s new rock-climbing experiences, offered by MC Adventures, and Iceland’s whitewater rafting, caving, snowmobiling and blue-ice walking, offered by companies including Arctic Adventures.
Meanwhile, adventurer Bear Grylls recently launched the Bear Grylls Survival Academy (see p89), which is designed to convey core business messages via daunting activities such as forward-facing abseiling, eating worms and skinning rabbits to make a stew. Scott Heffield, lead instructor at the Academy, says interest is more diverse than many expected.
“We’ve had enquiries from top management at mobile phone companies, medical research, car manufacturers, television channels... we’ve even had a sailing team express interest,” says Heffield. “It’s been very diverse, probably because the Ultimate Team-building course is new. It’s out of the ordinary – I guess this is appealing to many companies that have ‘been there, done that’. We’re also anticipating getting interest from the finance sector and brands like Facebook and Red Bull, with whom we’re already in touch with.”
Mountain Leap’s Honey adds that fast-growing and profitable firms tend to be attracted to extreme challenges, such as Mountain Leap’s events. “There’s not been so much from the financial sector since the credit crunch, but often groups come from IT, insurance and other professions. Frankly though, the joy and effectiveness of the extreme outdoors, or simple adventuring, can be a benefit to all,” he says.
RISK FACTORDespite the professionalism apparent in this niche sector, ‘extreme’ still remains one of those words that can strike fear into the heart of even the most intrepid event planner – or at least their lawyers, according to BCD M&I vice-president Matthew Wall, who says despite the perceived risks, there’s no shortage of delegates who think nothing of throwing themselves out of aircraft or over whitewater rapids in the name of team-building.“It’s important for planners to use trusted and verified partners, review health and safety documentation, and conduct a thorough risk assessment – particularly outside of western Europe and the US. The agency and the client should both check with their insurers and their internal travel and meetings policies to ensure that extreme activities are permitted.”
Honey concurs, urging corporates to use professionals with certification and professional indemnity. “Any organiser must have professional indemnity, too. Participants sign waivers and must have travel and health insurance. Mountains are risky places with objective dangers present from start to finish. It’s as important to warn a participant that a car park is icy as it is to be in control at all times, whether ice climbing, trekking or just hitting the great outdoors far from the sofa.”
Baker adds that, before embarking on any project, delegates with medical conditions should be assessed along with a full risk analysis. “Collating disclaimers is, of course, a given, as well as ensuring that the relevant travel insurance liability is in place.”
THE BEAR GRYLLS SURVIVAL ACADEMYBear Grylls launched his academy as a way for businesses, as well as the public, to learn survival skills and participate in extreme team-building tasks with professionals who have experience in organisations such as the SAS.
Example courses include Survival in the Highlands, an intensive five-day survival skills course which culminates in a challenging 36-hour expedition to put delegates’ new-found skills to the test. The course, delivered by a range of instructors from the crew involved in Grylls’ Born Survivor TV show, is limited to ten participants and costs £1,899 per person, excluding flights and transfers. However, the Academy is keen to create bespoke itineraries to suit corporate groups.
Q&A: Scott HeffieldLead instructor at the Bear Grylls Survival Academy
Are companies interested in pushing for the more challenging/daring options?Absolutely – particularly when the chips are down and every employee needs to muck in, in order to pull themselves out of these difficult times. It’s been all about survival in the City and now’s the time for everyone to really knuckle down, roll up their sleeves and get stuck in – this is just what the Ultimate Course is about. It’s designed to build a team that can take your business to another level.
Is pushing people to the limit and challenging their fears the most effective form of team-building? Yes, we all tend to get set in our ways. Our programmes are designed to get you completely out of this zone. We recreate real do-or-die survival situations and we see the very best come out of all the applicants.
Has the popularity of survivalists on TV and shows like I’m a Celebrity... boosted the curiosity of corporates? Definitely. We’re seeing major trends happening around the world and, with TV programmes like Bear Grylls: Escape from Hell and Get Out Alive airing at present, their popularity continues to grow. People are definitely becoming more daring as a result of these shows – they really encourage the public to step out of their comfort zones. We offer the right vehicle to fulfil this desire and curiosity.