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How to plan a great off-site meeting

Here’s a few planning tips that will ensure your upcoming offsite is a fun, productive and rewarding experience, and doesn’t turn into an all-day meeting from hell.

5 min read


Early in the year, many leaders will take their teams “off-site” for a day or more. An off-site meeting can be a great way to develop strategy, get creative, develop a team, learn and re-invigorate a team. Of course, they can also be like a sentence in purgatory if not planned and run well.

There is plenty of advice on how to run effective meetings, but not enough on planning. A well planned meeting can prevent a lot of the problems associated with bad meetings. Given that off-sites typically involve more time and people than regular team meetings, more thought needs to be put into preparation.

Here’s a few planning tips that will ensure your upcoming offsite is a fun, productive and rewarding experience, and doesn’t turn into an all-day meeting from hell.

1. Ask: “What is the overall purpose of the meeting?” Is it to develop a three-year strategy? Improve teamwork? Solve a big hairy problem? Sometimes it’s a combination of a few things, but try to keep it to just a few. A great off-site agenda should not look like an extended staff meeting. This is an opportunity to take the time needed to strategize, brainstorm, debate, reflect, and learn.

2. Ask: “What are the desired outcomes?” Desired outcomes are a tangible set of deliverables that describe what a successful meeting would look like at the conclusion. Examples: “A list of 3-5 three-year goals”; “a shared vision”; “a shared understanding of each other’s concerns.” Desired outcomes give you a target to shoot for and a way to evaluate the meeting. Such a list also helps drive the agenda — a way to screen out the clutter that everyone always seems to want to bolt on.

3. Do a “stakeholder assessment.” Who are all the key stakeholders for this meeting and what would a “win” look like for them? Not all stakeholders will necessarily attend the meeting. For example, the manager of the meeting’s leader is a key stakeholder. You won’t be able to please all stakeholders, but it helps to least be aware of their needs.

4. Consider the context. What’s going on in the environment that may influence the participant’s behavior, mindset or participation? For example, is there a pending downsizing? A new team member? A restructuring?

5. Establish the dates. In today’s busy, fast paced environment, the days of multi-day off-sites are over. One day is ideal, two is OK, and anything more than two can turn into a death march.

6. Select an overall theme for the meeting. The theme will emerge based on the purpose, desired outcomes, and context. Examples of themes are innovation, change, diversity, or playing to win. Having a central theme allows you to creatively tie all of the meeting elements together: agenda, venue, activities, gifts, etc.

7. Find the right venue. Work with your corporate meeting planners or do your own search. Most resorts and hotels cater to corporate meetings and can help you select the best room, meals and activities. You’ll probably work with a conference planner. Make sure you specify AV needs, room setup, meals and breaks, and any other details. It’s the details that make or break an off-site, but they’re often delegated or ignored.

8. Design the high-level agenda. This is a creative process, where you begin to come up with ways to accomplish the desired outcomes. There could be teambuilding activities, strategy or problem solving sessions, training, and/or presentations. The pieces should begin to fit together like a puzzle. I often write the key agenda pieces on post-its, and move them around until they begin to form a nice flow.

9. Develop the detailed agenda. For each major agenda segment, determine the what, who, how, when, and how long. Be realistic! Better to allow for a little slack versus trying to cram too much in.

10. Select “extracurricular” activities. Two-day off-sites often include a dinner and/or fun activity. This down time is a great way to informally build the team and keep the energy high. Pick activities that support your meeting purpose and theme.

11. Select a parting gift — some kind of special memento that supports the theme and creates a lasting anchor for the experience.

12. Fine-tune the agenda. Work with a partner to trouble-shoot potential snafus and make any inevitable last minute adjustments.

Once the meeting starts, be prepared to make more adjustments. Things never go as planned, but if you follow these steps, you’ll improve your chances of having a great leadership team off-site. Good luck!

Dan McCarthy is the director of Executive Development Programs at the University of New Hampshire and runs the Management & Leadership channel of He writes the award-winning leadership development blog Great Leadership and is consistently ranked as one of the top digital influencers in leadership and talent management. He’s a regular contributor to SmartBrief and a member of the SmartBrief on Workforce Advisory Board. E-mail McCarthy.

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