How To Have An Effective Board Retreat

The thought of a board retreat can evoke a whirlwind of thoughts that without a doubt contain words such as: goal-setting, business plan reviewing, strategic planning and an abundance of other terms that Boards generally discuss at retreats, in what sometimes feels like exhaustive detail. Jam-packed agendas, that for some attendees can often be overwhelming, and perhaps in some cases underwhelming, if the true key ingredients for a retreat are not carefully planned.

Without argument, typical board retreat agendas are necessary and effective. Undoubtedly, they provide the framework for steering a board of directors in the right direction for strategic planning and decision- making, BUT they are not necessarily the ingredients required for a board to reach a new or higher level of satisfaction in the work they are doing, nor do they ensure positive retreat outcomes.

Board members, especially volunteer board members, often need to feel inspired, appreciated, and above all else motivated to continue the hard work they are doing to drive the vision of their organization forward. Often the work performed by Board Members, as well as the meetings and retreats they are required to attend, creep into personal time and may require time away from friends and family to complete.

When planning your next retreat here are some other critical elements that will help ensure a more than average outcome to your retreat.


Like any well designed and executed event the 3 L’s – LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION – are an absolute must. During a retreat, board members need to be focused and in today’s world achieving focus can be difficult. This be can especially challenging for a Board of Directors that is volunteer-run, as more often than not, they have many responsibilities from their paid jobs that are not easy to escape in order to focus on volunteer work. 

For this reason, a board retreat should be held, if at all possible, outside of an office environment and better yet, in a destination away from your town or city. Ensuring minimal outside distraction will give your board members the opportunity to really focus on the tasks at hand; strategy, goal-setting and all those glorious board responsibilities. But it will also provide some other intangible, invaluable opportunities. The right location provides your board members with the opportunity to get to know each other on a more personal (and by personal I do not mean unprofessional) level that allows them to gain a different understanding of their fellow board members.  The right setting gives them an opportunity to gel in a way that a strictly business environment cannot.

Sourcing a retreat location is also an excellent opportunity to engage sponsors that can host or contribute other contra towards your retreat requirements. For example, Predator Ridge Resort in BC’s sunny Okanagan Valley, recently partnered with the Board of Directors of Meeting Professionals International BC Chapter, to host their mid-year retreat. The venue provided a unique distraction-free environment that allowed the board to really focus on creating solid goals and action plans for the remainder of the fiscal year, while providing fantastic team building opportunities in a relaxed environment.

The MPI Board,  consisting  of  key  meetings  & events industry influencers, showed value to the Resort through positive social media exposure and sponsorship recognition on other platforms such  as  their  website, postcards to their membership and other agreed upon channels.

Use A Facilitator

The second key ingredient to achieving a higher level of collaboration and results is to engage a professional retreat facilitator. Eileen Bistrisky, President & CEO of Effective Leadership Consulting has made a career in helping boards achieve a higher level of focus and collaboration with her company’s expertise in assisting boards with vision & mission development, strategic planning, business diagnostics and virtual leadership.

The MPI BC Chapter recently engaged Eileen’s services to facilitate their board retreat. With an ambitious agenda that included: refocusing on mandate, developing strategic goals and tactics, as well as the development of a solid succession plan that will ensure the Chapter’s growth and financial stability, Eileen’s services were proven to be invaluable. With her skilled leadership and facilitation skills, the MPI Board was able to stick their very tight timeline and achieve their desired outcomes. In the absence of a professional facilitator, more often than not, extreme distractions cause the complete derailment of an agenda; theme and topic tangents as well as side conversations develop, and strategic visioning turns into squirrel chasing and the unnecessary discussion of minutia.

Over and above the aforementioned expertise, there are benefits to having a third party facilitate your retreat that are integral to a smooth meeting:

  • All board members are able to fully participate in the meeting without the distraction of agenda monitoring, flip-chart writing, audio-visual set up etc.  
  • An agenda timekeeper – someone who literally tells you when you have spent enough time or too much time drilling down too deep and losing focus on strategy 
  • Strong and unbiased support to help leave previous challenges in the past and hit the so-called “reset” button on the path forward

So the bottom line is: Location and facilitation are 2 ingredients you need to make a fundamental part of any Board Retreat you plan. Without them you might find yourself chasing squirrels… and did you know that squirrels fail to find almost 76% of the nuts they hide?  Can you afford to risk those stats when it comes to your organization?

Heidi Hughes

Director, Sales & Marketing, Anvil Centre | President Elect, MPI BC Chapter

A 20-year hospitality sales and marketing professional, Heidi honed her skills working for some of the best hotels chains in the world, including Hyatt Regency, Marriott and Hilton. After almost a decade in conference and convention hotels, she spent several years as Manager, Events and Conference at the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) before coming to Anvil Centre as Director, Sales and Marketing. Energetic and positive, her career has evolved from hospitality management, sales and marketing to include event management. Her devotion to being a contributing member of a growing and evolving industry that is continuously setting new and higher standards for best practices is echoed in her extra- curricular work and activities. Heidi is a former Instructor at both the British Columbia Institute of Technology and the Art Institute of Vancouver and is highly active with Meeting Professionals International on both a local chapter and International Level. 

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