This post is part of an ongoing series: Events in EA: Learnings and Critiques.
This year I attended a few retreats with different goals and audiences (mostly for people already fairly involved in EA). This post lists some observations and lessons I took away from them about how I would want to run a retreat.
I’ve probably written some suggestions with more confidence than is warranted - I have strong opinions that are weakly held. For brevity, I've not always delved into my reasoning for every specific point, but I'm happy to expand in the comments! I’ve shared early versions of this advice with a couple of people running retreats, and it seemed to be helpful.
Not all of this advice will apply to any one retreat, I think the best way to read this is to take what makes sense given your goals and use those. I think most of these suggestions are useful for community retreats; and maybe ~30-60% are useful for professional retreats. I'd be really excited for more people to share their reflections on what's worked and what hasn't.
Nail the 'vibes'
Your goal is (probably) to help people make friends. For this reason, the vibes matter. Take time to observe how the attendees are interacting, and regularly ask the most perceptive or senior attendees how it’s going. It’s important to preserve participants’ intention, energy, and eagerness to participate proactively.
Go light with the schedule & be flexible with content
Creating a schedule is always difficult, but when in doubt I advocate for cutting things (ruthlessly). I think that attendees will ultimately care more about the overall flow and atmosphere than that extra session.
- Have a shorter ‘work’ day of (high quality) scheduled events to leave enough time for chilling and socializing (e.g., 10am-5pm). This will give participants time to make friends and prevent them getting too tired. That being said - make sure the content you do have is excellent.
- Be willing and able to pivot - don’t be scared to throw out the schedule and do something else if you feel participants aren't resonating with the content you have, or someone makes a suggestion that seems good.
- Factor in downtime for attendees to recover from travel.
Make people feel comfortable and relaxed
- Try to avoid people coming late: It can feel bad to miss the first day. If people must come late, batch latecomers and have someone give them an orientation and introduce them to other participants. Consider introducing latecomers to someone beforehand, so they know at least one non-organizer when they arrive.
- Check in with folks: Organizers can identify and periodically check on (e.g.) the 30% of participants who are most likely to feel out of place: for example, newer EAs or people who are less well-connected.
- Look out for each other: The German funconference had ‘awareness facilitators’ who would support you in case of physical & mental health problems or if you felt like someone crossed your boundaries, and who would keep information confidential. I thought this was a really good thing to have.
- Help people get to know each other before the retreat: You can share a ‘names and faces’ deck of all the attendees for people to read, and also print them and put them out in the common areas.
- Consider activities which allow people to seek help and be vulnerable, if it makes sense: I have found Hamming Circles during retreats to be quite helpful and a positive experience (and others who've participated say the same). However, they can be very intense and it's likely that I had a positive experience because I only opted into them when I already trusted the people around me, felt open to the experience, and when the activity was being run by someone who was experienced in running these kinds of activities.
Think about ways to facilitate group bonding
Big group bonding activities can be really magical and powerful, but it’s hard to create them successfully.
The first and last events are good opportunities for group bonding, because people are most likely to attend them. In the final activity at the India community retreat, everyone had paper taped to their back and wrote notes on each others’ paper. Almost every participant wrote something for each other, and it was a really fun, physical activity - at one point half the people in the room were in a long chain writing on each others' backs. You didn't have to write something for everyone, but everyone wanted to share the positive energy with each other.
Physical sports & games are great. They’re fun, shake up the routine and can push people a little outside their comfort zone. Ideally, book a venue with a big outdoors area and bring basic sporting equipment like table tennis rackets, balls, frisbees etc. You could also play some more unusual games like Jugger, Quidditch or capture the flag.
Encourage ownership through participation: Consider having "unconference" elements to your retreat, where participants can propose their own events. I think it's a great way to help the retreat feel more meaningful and encourage different kinds of connections between participants. You can have a big chart in a common area where people can propose events and (before the event) an editable / commentable schedule page.
Have one event that everyone participates in. For example, the EA funconference had an open mic night around a campfire which included an epic beatboxing/rapping duo performing ‘500 million, but not a single one more’. At the community builders in Asia retreat, we had a really fun karaoke night featuring songs from over 10 countries. These kinds of events felt really important for bonding. The atmosphere felt very wholesome - they weren’t “parties”, and there wasn’t much alcohol consumption.
- If you're a main organiser, be present: Find someone to handle as much of the operations work for you, so you can be present with the participants and help make their experience great. You will have a big impact on setting the tone of the event and making connections with participants.
- Communicate your goals: Communicate with participants a lot beforehand about the retreat’s goals. Older community members can and should shape the experience of newbies. They should talk to newer people and figure out what makes them excited to attend. Share the agenda in advance and get people to do pre-event reflections or give suggestions on goals.
- Morning huddles: Huddles are pre-assigned groups of participants. I’m confused by them - they seem like a really good idea, but in practice, I’ve seen them have mixed success. They are probably most feasible on Day 1 (and maybe 2). It's easier to get huddles to meet at a fixed start time - e.g. the first activity at the beginning of the retreat. Morning huddles can be tough if folks wake up at different times or are scheduling 1-1s, and as the day progresses people get more scattered.
- It seems generally good for huddle leaders to be more experienced, friendly and welcoming folks, who are willing to go out of their way to foster a good environment, but otherwise I like randomizing huddles to help people meet new folks.
- It could be cool to experiment with creating huddle group chats a few days in advance of the conference and having huddles meet virtually before the retreat starts to reflect on their goals.
- For community retreats, participants could share personal goals rather than impact-related goals (people will likely share those goals with each other anyway). At the fUnconference, people shared goals like ‘I want to get out of my comfort zone’ or ‘I want to make friends’. Their huddle participants then tried to help them achieve those goals, which was really nice.
Get the venue right, but don't worry about being fancy
The venue is one of the most important practical aspects that influences the vibe - by influencing participants' initial impressions and shapes what kind of interactions participants can easily have. Some thoughts:
- Prioritize accessibility and logistics support in a venue. The ideal venue for most retreats is <1 hour drive from a big city, accessible by public transport and one where venue staff can handle a lot of the basic logistics set-up.
- Consider a venue that can accomodate 1-1s and different kinds of social spaces: It's nice to have a central common area for coordination, but also enough (indoor & outdoor) nooks for 1-1s. If you want to have a party night, I'd try to find a venue where you could also have a separated quieter area for those who prefer it.
- Try to have a space available 24/7: Have a (ideally large, comfy & relaxed) room available 24/7 - it's a shame to have to cut a night short because there's no where to go, and it's also sad to be in your hotel room early in the morning if the venue hasn't opened yet.
- It's okay for participants to have some communal chores or share rooms: the funconference had communal chores, and I think this added to the overall atmosphere - it was really nice to see everyone chipping in and helping out. It's also fine to share rooms or bathrooms (unless someone has accessibility-related needs) - but for more professional retreats, I'd ensure roommates have similar sleeping schedules.
- Some small things that can make a big difference: Basic toiletries, charging wires for all phones, lots of blankets, spicy condiments (e.g. hot sauce and chili powder), fruits and other healthy snacks at your snack table like protein bars, nuts, veggie sticks & dips, and some unhealthy snacks.
- Communications: Keep daily announcements <5 mins, make a schedule on Notion, a Slack channel in your local workspace and two group chats - one for announcements and one for informal chatting. Schedule message announcements for all events, because people sometimes forget.
Thanks to all the lovely organisers who ran some fantastic retreats this year!
I think we should call them something other than retreats if they are more professional / work-related