One Thursday later this month, the 17 staffers at Welz & Weisel will leave their clients and offices in Fairfax for a day of togetherness, team-building games and picnicking. Although the games are still being chosen, some workers may be asked to make their way, blind-folded, through a rope maze or collaborate to suspend a bucket of water on two pairs of ski-like poles.
Afterwards, the crew of the technology communications and public relations firm will go on a two- to three-hour white-water rafting trip in Harpers Ferry, W.Va.
Welcome to the new company picnic, where barbecued ribs and peach cobbler make room for veggie burgers, team-building exercises and inflatable jumping for the staff’s children. That’s for the companies and organizations that still have a summer gathering.
The economic downturn definitely curtailed picnics. “It’s either they’re doing it or they’re not doing it,” said Jim Sweet, whose Gaithersburg-based Smokey Glen Farm Barbequers calls itself “the company picnic place.” A few clients have trimmed budgets, he said, then quickly added: “The tradition of the company picnic has certainly not waned.”
Instead, it has morphed into a day of family fun and entertainment or else an array of team-building exercises. At Smokey Glen, clients are spending more on “the bells and whistles” such as inflatable obstacle courses, moon walk and bounces and smaller mechanical rides. Team-building techniques are growing, too.
Smokey Glen still offers a lot of traditional games, such as softball, volleyball and horseshoe. It serves up more barbecued chicken and ribs than anything else, though it has added more vegetarian options such as grilled portabella and veggie burgers.
Companies running a gamut of industries stage picnics and events at Smokey Glen, Sweet said, and increasingly they are choosing weekdays, when prices are a little lower. That means they shut down the business or division for a half or quarter day, he said. “We’re doing a lot of team-building events with employees during the week.” On the weekend, the picnics are larger and more focused on family, since companies usually allow staffers to invite their partners and children, he said.
At its own company picnic, held last week for 200 summer staffers, Smokey Glen senior managers worked as servers so the crew could enjoy themselves.
“We take the occasion to experiment with things, to try out some new things” and get feedback, he said.
Evoke Research and Consulting in Arlington has experimented with a variety of events for its 51 employees. Usually about half of them are philanthropic; then on alternating months “something that’s just plain fun,” said Greg W. Blaisdell, the co-founder. The idea is to bring together staff who work in a variety of locations, appreciate the team and help them feel “a sense of belonging to the organization.”
That may be a standout among government contracting companies, experts say. Many government contractors focus instead on training or happy hours after work, but relatively few put on a picnic, experts said.
During the heyday around 2005 and 2006, Smokey Glen might have as many as 7,000 people at various company picnics in one day. Though business is growing again, a heavy day now means more like 5,000 people, Sweet said. (June and September tend to be peak months, but more businesses are choosing to have their team-building picnics in May or early October, too, he said.)
Welz & Weisel’s white-water team-building event provides “an opportunity to see people on a different level,” Weisel said. He sees the event, and trips to the Capitals games, as important to creating a positive environment and retaining talented people. “Retaining clients is important, but retaking employees is probably more important. You take care of your employees, first and foremost,” he said. Plus, it creates good memories and brings people together, even though he noted the rafting really will be “more of a lazy river kind of ride.”
At Evoke, “over the past seven years or so, we’ve held a ton of events,” said Blaisdell, including five summer picnics. The last one, held a few weeks ago, was at a water park in Springfield. “It rained that day; we got a little soggy,” said Blaisdell, noting that rain seems to be one of the picnic’s traditions. Still, many people showed up in a swim suit and jumped in.
Staffers are encouraged to bring family or friends, he said, but the event also strives to be low-key, unscheduled and fun.
It’s a sense of belonging, it’s a sense of understanding that we care about you as an individual, not just as a billable-hour person, he said. “It’s a blast.”