By Vickie Mitchell
If you’ve never played road apple golf, you’ve never attended a meeting in December at the Ranch at Ucross in Clearmont, Wyo.
Road apple golf was spawned during a Wyoming winter a dozen years ago after a meeting planner realized she had booked a meeting at the ranch in snowy December for a Fortune 100 group that always played golf at its meetings.
The invention of road apple golf was “the craziest thing we have ever done for a client,” said Judie Blair, owner of Blair Hotels, which operates the four-star-quality ranch.
The game requires a snowy pasture; nine mounds of road apples (horse manure), each piled around a coffee can (the hole). Players hit orange golf balls and bicycle flags mark each “green.”
Instead of golf carts, players ride in beat-up pickup trucks. Hay bales serve as seats; a cooler is stocked with all kinds of beer. Clubs are supplied — the most mangled, rusty putters and drivers the ranch staff can find.
Off kilter and unexpected, road apple golf is fun, plain and simple, for groups with the right mindset.
“You are laughing so hard, there is no ego left, just true camaraderie,” said Blair.
Fun is far from frivolous
Such fun activities might sound frivolous, but they definitely are not, said Nat Measley of Newark, Del. Fun is serious business for Measley and peers at the Fun Department, a company dedicated to assisting corporate America in its quest for therapeutic levity.
The quest for fun is no trivial pursuit. In the workplace, a sense of fun can improve employees’ health and wellness, aid employee recruitment and retention ,and better working relationships, according to Measley.
Still, not every meeting that chooses the Ranch at Ucross in the wintertime chooses to hit orange balls into coffee cans buried in a heap of horse manure.
When Blair and her staff explain road apple golf, they start by saying “First, we pile up horse manure.” Meeting planners go one of two ways: They say, “Oh no, that’s not for us” or “That sounds like a blast.”
As Blair said, “If you have the right company, it is great fun.”
People like Measley, who plan fun and games for meetings, turn first to meeting planners to get a better understanding of the goal for having fun and the group’s corporate culture.
“We are about doing the right thing by identifying what the client needs and then setting them up for success,” said Measley.
“It is very, very important that we match groups with the right event,” said Luke Peters, recreation manager for Eagle Ridge Resort and Spa in Galena, Ill. “If we match a group with an event they are not going to enjoy, it could drag on.”
Delight in everyday activities
Games don’t have to be exotic to be effective. Everyday activities like cooking, for example, take on a different air when making dinner becomes a group project.
Several years ago, Fearrington House Country Inn and Restaurant in Pittsboro, N.C., near Raleigh, decided to spotlight its culinary reputation by making the kitchen the center of its team-building programs, according to Juan David Cure, a corporate sales team member.
The inn gathered up aprons, sharpened sets of knives, pulled out cutting boards and put groups to work in the kitchen, challenging them to determine how best to use the various “mystery” ingredients thrown their way and divide up tasks to get a meal done by the dinnertime deadline.
Culinary team building reminds Cure of his Latin American roots, but he realizes that kitchen-centered socializing is part of this country’s tradition as well.
“When you have people come into your place, everyone ends up meeting in the kitchen,” he said. “Anything that involves food and drink is associated with fun, and it creates bonding — we see it around here all the time.”
Inspired by reality shows
Inspiration for fun and games comes from many sources.
Popular culture has always served as a springboard, and planners and team-building firms model programs on everything from games shows like Jeopardy and Family Feud to the always-expanding array of reality television shows.
Some of those game shows have become classics in the event planners’ toolbox, and now “The Amazing Race” seems destined to follow.
“By far, it is the most popular activity here because people are familiar with the theme, and it is very modular,” said Peters of Eagle Ridge. “There are so many ways we can go with it.”
Peters might send teams through the streets of nearby Galena, where shopkeepers usher in teams in search of the clues that point them to the next stop in their “race” to the finish.
For groups with less time or with members who might not be as mobile, the race can stay in one place, like a local winery, and involve a series of cryptic puzzles or quizzes.
This winter, “The Amazing Race” concept is being combined with cross-country skiing, an event that will expose meeting attendees to the sport as they trek through the snow to find clues hidden in the woods.
Finding old-fashioned fun
Old-fashioned games and familiar sports never seem out of fashion. Musical chairs is a favorite of the Fun Department — 200 people broken into smaller groups, circling and vying for seats as lively music stops and starts.
One of Eagle Ridge’s wintertime activities is sled-building competitions. Teams build sleds from cardboard and then ride them in and out of obstacles along a course.
Corporate and meeting groups have always been a part of the business mix at Bowlerama, the largest bowling center in Greater Wilmington, Del., but they have become even more so after a $3 million renovation that turned the 1959 facility into a destination.
It now has two new bars, a restaurant, Dunkin’ Donuts and Hershey’s ice cream outlets, a kids zone and a meeting room.
It’s only natural that the nation’s No. 1 participation sport work its way into meeting agendas, said Steve Gross, marketing director.
“Unlike most participation sports, with bowling there’s that break between turns where you can socialize and talk without getting in trouble for talking,” he said.
The game’s format, the fact that athletic prowess is not required and the players’ often comedic bowling styles and strategies make the sport an easygoing good time.
“The one thing is that you don’t have to be good to come in and have fun,” said Gross.
Bowlerama has always been popular for special office outings like holiday parties, but after turning what Gross calls a ratty room into a polished meeting room with a sound system, a big-screen television and other accoutrements, Bowlerama has become a meeting venue, too.
A local bank and Dunkin Donuts owners in the region are among the groups that have used the meeting room so far. The bankers met all day but took breaks to bowl. The Dunkin Donuts owners bowled after their daylong meeting and then headed to the bowling alley’s bar for its businessperson’s happy hour.
The competitive edge
Competition is inherent to games, and it is the fuel for much of the fun. Prizes awarded during most corporate outings aren’t usually particularly valuable, yet there is something thrilling, for example, about leaving Bowlerama with one of the old bowling pins that Steve Gross has painted trophy gold.
Sales teams seem to be extra inspired by competitions.
Penny Jackson, director of sales for the Sandestin Resort in Destin, Fla., experienced that when she and other members of the resort’s sales staff tested the resort’s new activity for meetings, the Baytowne Adventure Zone Triathlon for meetings.
The group of 15 was divided into teams. They earned points during competitions on Baytowne’s (the resort’s dining and shopping district) three-story ropes course, floating green, golf-chip challenge, zipline and Yolo Board competition. Afterward, the group had drinks and told war stories in the marina bar.
The competition had multiple benefits, Jackson said. Employees tried things they’d never done, like Yolo boarding, which is standup paddleboarding, or ziplining across the village. “Everybody shared a little nervousness,” she said.
But as teams successfully completed activities, gave them confidence and built enthusiasm, Jackson said.
“This felt like an adventure rather than work,” she said. “If it is not fun, you are not going to get much out of it. It was a great way to get to know someone better through the shared excitement.”
The rules of the (fun) game
The folks at the Fun Department in Newark, Del., probably don’t completely disagree with the late, great Katharine Hepburn and her take on fun, and yet, when it comes to employing fun in the workplace, they go by the book.
“There is a science behind it all,” said Nat Measley, the company’s master of fun (his self-imposed title). “Our laws of fun govern everything we do.”
We asked Measley to share those rules.
• The leaders must be in on the fun. “There’s nothing worse than a corporate event where the manager says, ‘This is a great event,’ and then fails to get involved in the activity,” said Measley. However, he said, “there are companies whose leadership teams really get it, and by that we mean they are playing along.”
• The fun should be consistent. “Every single meeting should start with something fun — every day, every month, every year,” said Measley. “Companies need to put together programming that happens throughout the year.” A company picnic in the summer and Christmas party in the winter doesn’t cut it. “When we hear that, we’ll say, ‘Well, you are almost there,’” said Measley. “Now take the budget for those two big events and break it up across the whole year.”
• The fun should fit the company culture. Activities that feel forced and go against company’s boundaries also go against the grain and prove ineffective.
• The fun should be enjoyed on company time if possible. Employees value their personal time plus weekend parties are more expensive and a bigger headache.
• The fun should be simple. The Fun Department steers clients toward activities that let everyone be involved but not necessarily in the same way. A game show, for example, allows those who like the spotlight to be a competitor and those who prefer a supporting role to be the audience. “They get to participate as much as they want. That always leads to better outcomes,” said Measley.
• The fun should be multisensory. Pop some popcorn, make some posters, play some music. Activities that all the senses are the most memorable.