It was a drizzly June day when I went to the Essex Conference Center & Retreat, Essex, Mass., for aprogram. But the wisps of fog didn’t obscure the center’s beautiful natural setting; in fact, the Oriental gardens and koi pond by the facility’s main building looked almost magical with the mist rising slowly above the blooming rhododendrons. Though it’s just 45 minutes from Boston and right off Route 128, I felt like I was in a different world altogether as I wound up the dirt road and onto the center’s campus, set on 16 acres laced with walking paths and surrounded by 250 acres of conservation land.
But "campus" is the wrong word entirely for this place. The center looks and feels more like a good friend’s country summer home than a commercial enterprise. As I walked in the front doors, I could smell coffee and fresh-baked goodies in the dining area next to the entry hallway. The largest meeting room, which is where we had our program, is the Juniper Room, which can accommodate up to 45. The room, which opens out onto a deck with a view, includes an open staircase to the second floor, which holds many of the center’s 20 guest rooms. The bathrooms, which are in the hallways, are plentiful.
For smaller meetings or breakouts, the Ledge Room—so named because it’s built on an actual ledge and brings nature indoors by incorporating some of the surrounding rocks in its design, can hold up to 30. The Cedar Room, which is in a separate building and doubles as the bridal suite, offers quality private space for up to 20 people. The guest rooms in this second building are often used by attendees who bring their families and would prefer a more private, kid-friendly space (the guest room hallways in the main building are open to the Juniper Room below, with just a railing as a barrier). The center can sleep as many as 40 if your group doesn’t mind doubling up.
There’s a 20-element ropes course, a campfire area, a volleyball court, and other outdoor activities for teambuilding and for relaxation. The center partners with expert facilitation companies and individuals to provide strategic planning, organizational change, conflict management, and creativity activities and programs. The one I attended, Spy School, facilitated by Canton, Mass.–based TeamBonding, was a great example of the type of programs the facility hosts (click for more on Spy School). Day-meeting packages include meeting space, continental breakfast, lunch, continuous break service, and audiovisual. The complete meeting package includes the above, plus overnight accommodations, use of the hot tub and sauna, and dinners.
Besides the food, which was wonderful and wonderfully presented buffet-style, one of the things I like best about this facility is that it donates a percentage of its gross income to social and environmental organizations. Well, that and the koi pond.