Last month we looked at the uplifting team building events at the Bertinet Kitchen in Bath, where chefs were enthused by learning to make bread. In our second look at alternative training methods, we turn to the hotelsector, which has team building activities of its own - some quite unusual. Emily Manson reports.
With a cold steel rod pressed hard against the skin of my neck, I listen to the master begin his countdown.
Five, four, three, two, one Taking a deep breath, I lean in determinedly towards my "buddy", who has the other end of the rod held firmly against her neck. Hey presto! We, two ordinary girls, bend a steel rod in half as easily as a hair pin, using only our necks and positive mental attitude. I still don't know how we did it.
Although it did build a team, not all team building events need to be as potentially hair-raising as this, and several hotel operators have come up with some cracking ideas.
At budget hotel chain Travelodge, they've adopted the format of hit TV show The Apprentice to bond regional managers and enthuse them about their areas.
Hotel managers from a region are brought together and then split into two teams. Two of the delegates also fill the "Nick" and "Margaret" roles, monitoring the process and feeding back information to the "Sir Alan" figure in the boardroom.
Tasks during the day-long event include visiting tourist attractions in the town, checking out the competition to note "wow" factors and money-saving ideas, identifying areas of the town with the highest penetration of tourists, making contact with businesses in the area that don't currently use Travelodge, researching local history and discovering facts about regional architecture and landmarks.
Guy Parsons, managing director ofTravelodge UK, says: "As these managers are spread out across three counties in their own hotels, it is very revealing to see how they operate together as peers.
"It is an opportunity to identify the leaders in the group - who enjoys contributing, leading and who may lack confidence in a wider group.
The events also help to foster a good team spirit across the group and breed confidence in the team as they get to know each other better."
On top of these practical management skills, the set-up also encourages the managers to increase their local knowledge and reinvigorate their passion for tourism.
Parsons adds: "The managers get to know a key town in their area, they analyse tourism destinations, which areas of the town have the highest tourism penetration and even how the transport network aids the town."
Of course no replica of The Apprentice would be complete without the infamous boardroom scene where someone gets fired. Although Travelodge may be known for its cut-throat approach to prices, a more light-hearted attitude is taken towards this part of the day.
"We like to include an element of fun during the day, and the firing in the boardroom is very light and actually the most entertaining part of the process," Parsonsexplains.
"Along the way there is often some friendly sabotage of the other team's performance or a touch of "creativity" - cheating - in delivering some of the results. It is often one of these culprits that gets fired and not, for example, a manager that is quiet or lacking confidence.
"The person that gets fired will be chosen to highlight a group trait or some Machiavellian behaviour rather than an individual's weaknesses and the penalty is generally to buy the first round of drinks in the evening."
Chris Wingrove, Travelodge district manager for Surrey, Sussex and Berkshire, who recently ran the day in Windsor, admits he was surprised by the levels of competitiveness that suddenly developed.
"Just putting the managers into two teams really sparked their enthusiasm and got the competitive juices flowing. They didn't want to lose," he says.
But the process had other benefits, Wingroveadds: "We have monthly meetings but they can be quite a sterile environment and this allowed less-experienced managers to come to the fore and even senior managers had to lead in a different way to normal. It was really good to mix everyone without the formality of work."
The day allowed one of the less-experienced managers of a small property, who normally has a low profile in the group, to shine unexpectedly. While he wasn't the team leader, explains Wingrove, by the end of day his methodical manner and leadership skills really made him stand out.
He says: "We've now capitalised on that and given him a special project that spans the district, enabling him to display his leadership qualities on a bigger stage, and this is rapidly developing him."
The day is also a chance for the managers to have a day away from their hotel and use skills that they may not get to use in their daily work life.
"It drives enthusiasm for tourism and gives them time to get to know more about the area that they operate in," Wingroveexplains.
In true Travelodge style, the final plus is that the set-up is very cheap to implement. "The prizes at the end of the day were some boxes of chocolates, but other than that it really didn't cost us anything," Wingrovesays.
Parsons adds: "Travelodge is a fun place to work and likes to innovate with team building. The Apprentice is probably one of the UK's best-watched programmes and is always a topic of conversation among managers and staff alike.
"This format was an opportunity to get groups of managers working together in a fun way that offers insights into how their peers [work], and the wider tourism market. It engendered a team spirit that wouldn't have been achieved by a round of golf or a drinks evening."
FENCING: KEMPINSKI HOTELS
At Kempinski Hotels they favour a spot of fencing. Sebastian Herzog, director of sales and marketing at the Schloss Reinhartshausen Kempinski Eltville in Germany, holds the four-hour fencing session within the atmospheric wine cellars of the castle hotel and has engaged the help of a former Olympic fencing coach to run the courses.
Herzog explains the reasoning behind picking such a quirky activity as a team building exercise: "We wanted something special, and fencing is totally different. It's also something that hardly anyone has done before, so everyone starts from the same level.
"If you go golfing or climbing some people will already be more proficient than others, so it's nice for everyone to learn together. It's also good because it's not only fun but it also teaches you about watching your opponent. It's all about mirroring your sparring partner, and that translates well for how we communicate and work with each other."
At around €140 per person, which includes all the equipment and trainers, Herzog admits the fact that it is good value for money is also a draw.
"In terms of training budgets, it's a fantastic investment," he says.
The scheme has proved so successful that Ursula von Platen, Kempinski's UK PR director, has taken up the sport with another colleague in her spare time, after attending the course when the company held an international workshop for Kempinski PRs.
She says: "You have to watch your opponent very carefully, read their body language and facial expressions, and then respond to those quickly. It's very interactive and it's not necessary to be strong. In fact, it's all about being flexible and quick-witted. It was very unusual and took everyone by surprise.
"Although initially we didn't know each other well, because we were in two teams, we ended up helping each other and everyone got really involved and enjoyed it immensely."
WALKS AND TEA PARTIES: RED CARNATION HOTELS
Red Carnation Hotels has a range of team building events. For the commis chefs there are educational visits every six months to widen their food knowledge.
Destinations include Billingsgate, Smithfields and New Covent Garden markets in London and an overnight visit to Mrs Tee's mushroom farm in the New Forest, where chefs get to pick their own mushrooms and then eat their haul in a specially created dinner.
Front-of-house staff from the London hotels are encouraged to conduct guided walks. The group's managing director, Jonathan Raggett, explains the rationale behind this: "Not only does this provide them with a chance to get together outside the work environment, but it is also educational for staff, particularly for overseas team members. It enables them to talk with far greater confidence to guests about some of the less-familiar sightseeing activities."
On top of these activities, each hotel has a monthly tea party hosted by the general manager and attended by as many employees as possible. Raggett explains that as well as being a good chance for staff from different departments to mix, ideas on improving service and environmental practices are also shared and awards are given out.
"But to lighten proceedings there's usually also a competition," Raggett says.
"We have a version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, which has proved particularly popular."
All staff are also encouraged to take part in the company's Trading Places/In Your Shoes scheme, which involves spending one day working in another department.
Participants so far have included a general manager changing into chef's whites for Shrove Tuesday to cook pancakes for staff and guests, a vice-president of marketing working as a concierge, a vice-president of sales trying his hand at being a doorman and Raggett himself spending a morning as a breakfast chef.
Travelodge's Apprentice-style team building day ends with the traditional sacking… whoever gets fired has to buy the drinks
- Fencing (will travel internationally) Willem Monshouwer, Coupe International
00 31 62 506 8226
- Mrs Tee's Wild Mushrooms Gorsemeadow, Sway Road, Lymington, Hampshire, SO41 8LR
Tel: 01590 673354
- General team building events Nick Hilditch, Sales Executive
Team Spirit Event Management
16 Boarshurst Business Park, Greenfield, Oldham OL3 7ER|
0870 855 0606