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BRAIN: Staff Retreats Pump Up Morale and Productivity

From the March 1, 2007 issue of Bicycle Retailer and Industry News:

Staff Retreats Pump Up Morale and Productivity


PORTLAND, OR - If you've noticed bike shops with "closed" signs up lately, you can rest easy. Most retailers aren't shutting down--at least not for good.

They are, however, using the slow winter season to reward or train employees. In January, like it has done for the past 12 years, River City Bicycles in Portland, Oregon, closed for a day to take staff on its annual ski trip to Mount Hood Meadows.

"Everybody looks forward to it," said Mark Ontiveros, co-owner of River City Bicycles. "It's really good for bonding. We go skiing or snowboarding or snowshoeing. We set everybody up with what they need, rent a bus to take us up. It's really just a party, essentially our Christmas party."

The store covers the costs for the day, which can include ski or snowboard lessons, an open bar, catered lunch and lift tickets. Employees can bring their friends or spouses.

"It's not about business," Ontiveros said. "You go to all the Christmas parties and everyone sits around and is bored. We wanted to do something really fun and it has worked out great."

But it's not always just fun and games. Some retailers incorporate product and employee training into their winter staff retreats.

"We bring in reps and give each guy an hour to go over products and what their companies are all about," said Scott Cowan, owner of Century Cycles, with three stores in Ohio.

Cowan has been hosting an annual staff retreat for more than a decade.

"After we grew so fast, we thought we have to get our act together," Cowan said. "And how best to do that than get everyone together at one time and close the stores.

"I would highly recommend doing this if you have more than two employees," Cowan added. "The guys talk about it afterwards for weeks on the show floor."

Wesley Best, co-owner of East Coasters, with two stores in Virginia, agreed.

"Last year's retreat, my business partner would agree, was the best thing we've ever done as a business," Best said. "It pays better dividends on the bottom line profits than any margins on any part we would sell."

Last year, East Coasters took staff on its first retreat to nearby Mountain Lake Resort for two days. Since longtime employees Best and Chris Betz had just taken over as new owners, the retreat presented an opportunity to go over their outlook and any changes.

"We want to make sure any new employees are fully ingrained in the vision of the busines," Best said. "As a group we talk about it and make sure everyone understands where the business is going, review the past year and specific goals for this year."

Best said it also allows employees to share information they have gathered from attending Trek University and Serotta's Cycling Institute Symposium.

"A huge part of business is bike fitting and training employees to fit bikes," Best said. "We focus on that. This year, that's about all we have on the agenda."

Cowan of Century Cycles said he tried to keep it fresh for new as well as longtime employees.

"We go over topics that are internal, why we're doing what we're doing, trends locally and nationally, and just getting everyone on the same page," he said. "We go over a lot of nuts and bolts like insurance, computer systems, all the day-in and day-out things you don't have the time to talk about when you're in season."

Held in February or March, the retreat motivates staff before the season. "It's a great brainstorming session--doing our own homebrews, that idea came from this event." Cowan said.

Perhaps as important as communicating and training is mixing in some fun and teambuilding activities.

East Coasters rented a cabin owned by Mike and Claudia Nix of Liberty Bikes in Asheville, North Carolina, for its retreat this year, Feb. 11-12. Although it's a four-hour drive away, the locatino offered great riding nearby.

"We went on some rides and took them out to dinner," said Best, adding that due to its success, he will add a full third day next year. "It balances out. They're more prepared to listen."

Century Cycles' Scott Cowan said that instead of renting a hot tub this year, which has been a hit in the past, he hired a masseuse to give every employee a one-hour massage.

"The cooking is alway a big hit," he added. "Some of the guys used to work in restaurants so we've had some phenomenal meals."

Costs, however, can quickly escalate once you figure in the days the businesses are closed and potential sales are lost, as well as costs of lodging, transportation, food and recreation.

"It is costly," Best said. "This time in particular, we're closing two hours early on Saturday. We're sacrificing business on Saturday and potentially having to deal with customers who aren't happy.

"But many customers think it's neat that we go through staff training. That's not what they consider a normal concept for bike shops," he added.

Cowan has scaled back his retreat to a two-day event to make it more manageable, and brought it to his house to reduce travel and cost.

"We pay our guys to be there and close for two solid days," he said. "With three stores, that's something. But the reality is, we think the benefits far outweigh the cost." BRAIN