Never before have companies been so scrutinized for their meetings. AIG's $23,000 spa bill is forever imprinted on the public's psyche.

This unusual attention has left meeting and incentive planners between a rock and a hard place. The fact is that every meeting has down time, and attendees — especially incentive qualifiers — expect some kind of fun. Eliminate these activities entirely, and you miss out on the chance to motivate employees and recharge the batteries of a staff that is, more than likely, facing increased workloads and high stress levels.

For meeting planners who want to more carefully package the fun, Sharon Fisher believes her company has one answer (and it couldn't have a better name). The president of Orlando, Fla.-based Play With a Purpose helps companies swap out golf outings for programs that meet corporate goals, activities that allow groups to network, give back — and sneak in a little fun in the process.

“Attendees still get to cut loose and do fun and exciting activities, and when you add in a charitable component, there is a beneficiary in the local community,” says Fisher. An added bonus: Your company can also get some positive PR attention for the effort.

How Did It Come to This?

The trend toward “purposeful” recreation started about five years ago and has picked up momentum in the past few months, says Michael Vennerstrom, president of Minneapolis-based event management company Equinox Creative. “Companies are more and more driven by outcomes, and every component of the meeting is being measured against these corporate objectives.”

And while tight budgets are part of it, perception is an even bigger factor. Golf, a mainstay of business networking, has been hit hard by the perception battle. (Think Northern Trust Corp.'s sponsorship of the PGA Tournament and related events at the Riviera Country Club after receiving $1.6 million in federal bailout funds.)

Everyone — especially publicly traded companies — is trying to keep their activities off the radar. “If you're out there with your whole company doing race-car driving or taking over a spa in Beverly Hills, and this gets photographed or ends up in the newspaper, the perception is that it is excessive or frivolous,” says Kathy Alexander, director of design and development for Design Concepts Inc., San Diego.

As a result, there's a shift toward activities that include a teambuilding or corporate social responsibility angle — or both. “We are seeing teambuilding in 90 percent of the RFPs we are doing now,” she notes. “Companies are focusing on this as a positive and cost-effective way to bring people together and get everyone on the same page.”

David Goldstein, director of business and concept development at TeamBonding, Canton, Mass., has also witnessed this shift. “Just the other day, a meeting planner [from a major financial institution] called us to create some teambuilding programs for her group in Florida. They decided to replace fishing and golf at the meeting with teambuilding this year.”

Play With a Purpose's Fisher has a client whose annual meeting objective is for attendees to understand the value the company brings to its various audiences: customers, shareholders, and employees. She designed an event in which attendees break into teams to write and videotape TV commercials geared toward one of these three audiences.

“The attendees will have to tell the story of why they exist as a company, the value they bring to their customers, and what their company culture is. The whole activity is designed to get them talking about how they bring value to their audiences,” Fisher says. And while the event creates a forum for sharing ideas and discussing business issues, “it's also about poking fun at yourself and looking at your industry from a different standpoint,” says Fisher. “Ultimately, it leads to answers on how to improve.”

Helping Others Helps

Another way companies are justifying recreation to shareholders — and boosting employee morale in the process — is through community service.

Take Nationwide Insurance. When the company brought a group of financial advisers from its Retirement Solutions division to Jacksonville, Fla., for a national business conference earlier this year, participants were invited to volunteer to help stock shelves at a local food bank before the conference began. Jacksonville-based Destination Concepts Planning worked with Nationwide to organize the activity in lieu of other recreation at the meeting. Not only did employees appreciate the opportunity to get involved and give back, the group was recognized in Jacksonville's local paper, the Daily Record, for its efforts.

Another reason the CSR trend is surging: the time factor. Most companies don't want employees spending too many days out of the office, which means many meetings just don't have a half day or more to dedicate to recreation. And for activities like golf, sailing, or deep-sea fishing, one or two hours just won't cut it.

Regardless of how much time you have, you can usually find a CSR activity to fit your schedule, says Fisher, and you don't even have to leave the meeting site. Events like a build-a-bike workshop, stuffing backpacks with food for needy families, and painting artwork for hospitals can all be done in a hotel ballroom and do not require a huge time commitment.

Fisher says she has also helped organize activities such as a “Bark-a-Tecture” build, where groups help build dog houses for animal-rescue organizations, and another where participants were asked to learn facts about one another, for which they were rewarded with calling-card minutes that were donated to soldiers overseas.

Even spouse programs — which used to be centered around sightseeing and shopping — are including CSR, says Jeff Tawney, senior event manager at Destination Planning Corp. He recently worked with Master Pools Guild, a Richmond, Va.-based network of swimming pool designers, to organize a give-back program for spouses in place of a traditional city tour during the company's sales conference.

Working with the Foundation for Hospital Art, a nonprofit organization based in Roswell, Ga., Tawney arranged for canvases to be brought in for the group to paint — no artistic talent necessary. Spouses got to paint the pre-drawn, color-coded artwork to create a unified painting, which then got touched up, signed by the group, and donated to hospitals in need.

You've Got to Eat, Right?

For companies that are really short on time, it makes sense to mix recreation and meals, says Fisher. Instead of hiring entertainment for a meal function, give groups a teambuilding activity during dinner and serve two purposes at once.

Most recently, she helped organize a “Give-Back Theme Party” during a national sales meeting for a credit union, which served as both a teambuilding event as well as the company's opening night welcome reception. Mixed in with the food stations at the reception were “give-back stations,” where attendees could help build bikes and wagons for children, paint artwork for local hospitals, and stuff bags full of toys for needy kids. The credit union brought in a DJ and set up a bar and food stations, and the attendees spent the first couple of hours visiting the stations and participating in the activities. “There are an infinite number of organizations that need help with projects, and these activities can usually be structured to meet any group's goals, budget, and time frame,” says Fisher.

A bonus of adding teambuilding to a meal is that the cost goes toward the F&B minimum with the hotel, adds Nicole Marsh, DMCP, CMP, president of The Arrangers, a Denver-based DMC. “We did a salsa-making teambuilding activity, where attendees had to compete for the ingredients to make the salsa, and the recipes were judged by the senior execs at the meeting. Afterwards, we brought in a fajita buffet and served the different salsas to the group.”

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Fun — the Educational Kind

If infusing networking, teambuilding, and social responsibility into recreational activities still isn't enough to get them on the agenda, take a tip from Smith Medical, and sneak in a little education.

The St. Paul, Minn.-based medical device company used to allow each attendee to spend a certain amount on recreational activities at company meetings, but faced with smaller budgets and shorter meetings this year, it opted for a bike-build for underprivileged children — with a twist.

Not only did attendees break into groups to build the bikes, they competed with each other by answering questions on company products, company history, and general trivia during the build to earn accessories for their bikes, such as baskets and horns, which were then presented to local school children.

Game shows are another great option that combines teambuilding with learning, says Vennerstrom of Equinox Creative. “We have done Family Feud-type shows where we poll the audience ahead of time and then break into teams and give the group questions relating to product knowledge or to the training they have received.”

The activities are not only cost-effective and fun, they can really help attendees absorb the meeting content. “If you look at various adult-learning models, you see that people learn better when they receive information from different sources,” Vennerstrom notes. “Having someone stand up in front of the group with a PowerPoint is not a very functional model for learning.”

Sidebar #1: If You Build it…

Every two years, global energy giant Hess Corp. brings its information technology services division on a corporate retreat where the IT professionals get updated on corporate goals and objectives. In the past, the group has participated in recreational activities as part of that meeting — anything from golf outings to city tours.

But at the February 2008 meeting in New Orleans, Hess decided to do something different and give back to the local community. “It's a trend we're seeing more and more in light of the current economy,” says Jennifer Miller, general manager for Access Destination Services, San Diego. It's just so much easier to justify those dollars when you are organizing a program with meaning.” Working with the Just Willing Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides technology training to low-income families in New Orleans, Hess and Access Destination Services identified a local high school that had lost its computer lab as a result of Hurricane Katrina. “These kids lost their computers nearly two years ago and never had the funds to rebuild the lab,” says Miller, who helped organize the project.

Working side by side, Hess employees and students built 12 new computers using company-donated hardware, installed software onto the machines, and built desks and bookshelves. They even set up a mentorship program for the students before leaving the area, pairing students with a Hess employee with whom they could communicate for career advice and for help getting placed in the IT industry upon graduating from high school.

The project was an emotional one for the Hess team. “At the end of the day, there were 65 people with tears in their eyes. They knew they had really made an impact on these students.”

The funding for events like these doesn't always have to come out of the meeting budget, adds Chris Lee, DMCP, CEO at Access. “Many companies have a budget set aside that they have allocated for charitable giving. It doesn't hurt to ask them to support this element of your program.”

Sidebar #2: Rely on Your DMC

Destination and event management companies can be your best friend when the recreation budget is tight. All you need to do is ask.

For example, a group that wants to charter a boat for a sailing excursion will likely be quoted a price for a four-hour charter, says Chris Lee, DMCP, CEO of Access Destination Services, San Diego. “That is the standard time frame, but because of our connections with the charter company, we can get a three-hour charter for clients and save them some money.”

Lee says he will go line by line with clients through their budgets to determine where cuts can be made without sacrificing quality. “The right DMC is going to ask you the right questions to save you money.”

Tracey Brenneman, CMP, global sales manager for PRA Destination Management and Allied International, based in Toronto, is working with a large restaurant company that is bringing its annual meeting of franchise owners and managers to San Diego later this year. “Previously, when we have run the program for them, they had a much healthier budget,” she says. “But this year, their spend has been drastically reduced, and they need to deliver the same experience.”

Brenneman is helping the group gain access to high-end venues for its events but is not getting involved in coordinating the events. That means PRA won't get a coordination fee for its services.

“We worked with a charter company to upgrade the group to a much nicer yacht for their evening event at no additional charge,” says Brenneman. “Had they booked direct with the charter company, they wouldn't have gotten that upgrade.”

Although PRA is not getting paid for its services in this regard, Brenneman says the efforts show her client that PRA is “with them through thick and thin.

“It's about the long-term relationships we have with our supplier partners and with our clients. We're not just in it for today.”