Virtual Retreat Success: 100%, Daylong Engagement

A story about a retreat redesign that keeps 18 leaders from five continents engaged and emotionally connected for 8 hours straight at a virtual retreat. A global society with surgeon members has a one-day, in-person strategy retreat scheduled to take place in two weeks. Then, COVID-19 strikes. It’s a story about a retreat redesign that keeps 18 leaders from around the world highly engaged and emotionally connected for 8 hours straight at a virtual retreat.

The Challenge

Ten days before this professional society’s scheduled strategy retreat, the organization’s headquarters began getting word that a number of surgeons who were to participate at the retreat were faced with travel bans from their respective institutions. The organization was faced with either postponing the retreat or moving forward with an online, virtual retreat. Or, theoretically, they could have run a hybrid retreat with some in the room and some connected virtually.

The Society had already conducted a larger 1.5 day retreat to create its high-level strategic plan and now wanted to reaffirm the plans priority initiatives, strategic issue statements and goals, and supplement the strategic plan, which contained 4 priority strategic initiatives, with a strategic action plan based on critical success factors. The leaders didn’t want to indefinitely postpone the overall strategy development process, so they elected to conduct a one-day, virtual retreat.

The challenge the organization faced was hosting a daylong virtual retreat that kept the participants engaged and emotionally connected throughout an 8-hour day. They reached out to Nelson Strategic Consulting (NSC) to re-design and transform the original retreat into a virtual retreat.


The first decision that needed to be made was whether to host a hybrid retreat with some participants onsite and some connected online or to host a fully virtual retreat. The decision was quickly made to host a 100% virtual retreat. Even those in the same town and office building, staff for example, logged into the virtual meeting from their own private offices to ensure a feeling on inclusivity for all. This decision was also driven by the fact that successful online events are designed differently that virtual events.

After NSC and the society reaffirmed the retreat objectives / outcomes – re-affirm the elements in the draft strategic plan developed at a previous retreat and identify 3 to 4 critical success factors for each strategic initiative that, post retreat, could be converted to strategies, NSC redesigned the retreat for a virtual audience. In doing so, the methodology was varied with greater frequency, small group exercises were used more often (for a portion of every hour) and the groups were smaller (5 – 6 people) than typically used during in-person retreats, and we designed in short breaks every 90 minutes.

All participants were strongly encouraged to log into the retreat using computer video and audio. Telephone participation was discouraged but one person called in by phone. In hindsight, we lean toward not making a phone option available.

Two days before the event, all participants were sent detailed instructions, with photos / images, on how to install the online meeting software and set up a comfortable viewing workstation. In addition, participants were provided with tips that could use for creating an optimal virtual retreat experience. The communication also included handouts and worksheets that would have been ordinarily distributed at an in-person retreat.

We staffed the retreat with a facilitator, host / tech person and a scribe / assistant facilitator.

A dedicated iPad with a note pad app (Notes Plus) was logged into Zoom, giving the facilitator the ability to share his notepad screen with the participants as the facilitator captured brainstorming input and small group output real-time using an Apple Pencil. Although we elected to use a behind the scenes scribe to convert the handwriting to text, the note pad app could have been used to convert the handwriting into typed text.

We relied heavily on small break out groups to undertake initial prioritization of concepts and critical success factors. Small group priorities were reported out and collectively ranked using ranking formulas preprogrammed into an excel spreadsheet. The “behind the scenes” scribe entered the data at the same time the facilitator was capturing the group report outs on the virtual flip chart (iPad screen).


The virtual retreat opened online at 13:00 hours GMT / UTC with 18 participants – 14 surgeons from 4 continents and 4 association staff personnel. Eight hours and 15 minutes later, the retreat ended with the same 18 participants fully engaged and emotionally connected. All participants remained fully engaged throughout the day.

Collectively, the group accomplished the retreat’s objectives – 3 to 4 critical success factors were identified for each priority strategic initiative. Further, the member participants found the day to be productive and described the experience in positive terms.