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Break the Ice by Moving Beyond Traditional Group Activities

By Roger Gordon

Looking to spice up your next group activity? Creative planners are shaking it up lately with entertaining things to enjoy before, during or after their meetings and events. Group activities – from bubble soccer to Family Feud to a Skiable Feast – are now earning great reviews from participants. On the other end of the spectrum, many groups are focusing activitiess on networking and socializing while communal dining becoming the norm for group fun. 

Here’s a look at some of our favorite things. 

West Michigan Whitecaps / Fifth Third Ballpark, Comstock Park

Not good enough to play baseball for the West Michigan Whitecaps? You can still play ball on the field in Fifth Third Ballpark near Grand Rapids.

“We have groups come in, have their meetings in our meeting space, and then have softball games, kickball, yard games, batting practice and bubble soccer,” says Corporate Event Sales Manager Alanna Klomp, CMP.

“In the latter, guests climb in these big, inflatable balls that are open on the top and bottom. It’s kind of like a backpack they put on with handles that they can hold, and they’re bouncing off of one another and off the ground while playing soccer!”

For guests who are not athletically inclined, groups have enjoyed activities such as Pictionary, board games, euchre tournaments, bingo and photo booths either in the Pepsi Stadium Club or on one of the open-air decks.

“Tours of the stadium can also be incorporated into a group’s events,” Klomp says. “Some groups have even done a dinner with a murder mystery group that comes in. Really, the opportunities are endless on what we can do.”

The Graduate Ann Arbor Hotel

Escape rooms, trivia competitions and fairy doors are three favorite activities of groups that have their events at the Graduate Ann Arbor Hotel.

What in heaven’s name is a fairy door? Well, they are a series of small doors that are a type of installation art found in Ann Arbor. “They’re similar to a Tinker Bell kind of thing,” says former Regional Director of Sales and Marketing Kelly Card-Schulte. “They’re strategically located in permanent locations around shops and restaurants. Groups incorporate them into scavenger hunts in that they have clues.

“Groups also love doing the escape rooms where they have to work together and utilize clues to come to some sort of resolution. Sometimes, they’ll do a very watered down version of an escape room at the hotel. The trivia, which is played at the hotel and at local restaurants, has also become a really big thing for groups and has become a very popular way to incorporate the purpose or mission of a group’s meeting as well as a great activity.”

TwoFoot Creative, Dexter

Family Feud was one of the most popular television game shows in the 1970s and 1980s. It came to life at an event planned by TwoFoot Creative. “We did a Family Feudstyle game show in which guests were randomly selected from the crowd,” says owner Ana Skidmore. “A local DJ who specializes in doing game shows at events came up with the questions and did a family-geared, and very interactive, game show. It was a big hit, even for guests who weren’t on the stage.” 

Another event planned by TwoFoot Creative was a “summer camp.” “We actually hired counselors from Tamarack Camps and did summer-camp games, none of which required any high level of athleticism,” Skidmore says.

“There were swimming challenges in the lake and three-legged relay races. Another game had guests make floatation devices out of cardboard, plastic bags and other random supplies, and whichever team floated the longest before sinking won.”

Grand Traverse Resort, Acme

Social media has taken corporate events by storm, at least at the Grand Traverse Resort. “We’re seeing a lot more interaction throughout meetings via live polls, live tweeting and Facebook Live events,” says Director of Sales Ryan Buck.

Golf is still huge among groups at the resort for team-building. “We have three courses all anchored by one clubhouse—The Bear designed by Jack Nicklaus, The Wolverine designed by Gary Player and Spruce Run,” says Buck.

“The staff there can set up shotgun tournaments, scrambles, big-hole events, a longest-drive competition and even night golfing in which we illuminate one of the courses with special lighting. We have a golf simulator that at times we set up in the pre-function areas of our larger space. We also have three heated bays operational year-round in which guests can hit shots into a driving range,” he adds.

According to Buck, many groups are resorting to team-building events or even break events that focus around philanthropy. “We had one group that built bicycles to our needs. They built almost 300 bicycles for children in need in Michigan,” he says. “Another group put together food packages for veterans throughout the state who were in need. One group put together school backpacks for students throughout the state who didn’t have enough money for proper school supplies.”

During the winter, activities include cross country skiing, snowshoeing, horse-drawn carriage tours and snowman-building competitions for children.

Event Garde, Kalamazoo

This event-planning firm is renowned for its networking and social activities. “For our conventions, people come from all over,” says Conventions and Exhibitions Manager Kate Pojeta. “We provide the space, and once guests are there it becomes an opportunity for informal networking, an environment for socializing, finding people and learning about them, kind of breaking the ice. This usually occurs early on because it sets a good tone for the rest of the conference.” 

One event that Pojeta and her staff provide is a local social, something outside of the convention space. “We use a local facility like an art museum and include either a local up-and-coming band or a local theater group,” she says.

At the end of the conference, Pojeta usually schedules breakout session topics that have not been addressed but that are still a point of discussion. “We kind of turn the floor back to the guests,” she says. 

Radisson Plaza Hotel at Kalamazoo Center

Having fun with fitness at the Kalamazoo Athletic Club in the Radisson Plaza Hotel at Kalamazoo Center is how many groups start their day.

“One of our trainers comes down and does a morning session or a 5K run,” says Director of Group Sales Katie Newsome. “It’s something to bring people together first thing in the morning and get them started early with a good fitness routine.”

After events, some groups will separate into smaller teams and have culinary competitions in one of the hotel’s four restaurants or in one of its banquet spaces. “They’ll see who can make the best sundae or the best cheese board, things of that sort,” Newsome says.

Other activities include a casino night and a game night. Off-site options include an escape room and wall and rock climbing.

Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, Grand Rapids 

How about yoga in the dark? It’s been done at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel. “We see a lot of yoga—regular yoga and glow yoga—in which our spa is involved, and with an outside instructor,” says Director of Convention Services Kelly Van Dyke. “With the glow yoga, guests use glow-in-the-dark body paints, clothing and mats.”

Another favorite activity is the Wine & Canvas in which groups hire a local art studio that comes in, and plastic is laid down on the floor with 20-30 seats set up. “The artist leads the project,” Van Dyke says, “and guests get to enjoy a nice glass of wine while they’re painting.”

And, of course, with Grand Rapids being known as “Beer City USA,” many groups just take a shuttle and go on a number of brewery tours. It’s a tasty way to end the day. 

Suburban Collection Showplace, Novi

Groups meeting at the Suburban Collection Showplace, a convention center attached to the Hyatt Place Detroit/Novi, have enjoyed an array of activities. The most popular are scavenger hunts and road rallies. “Scavenger hunts are done within our building,” says Director of Sales Kate Barber. “Road rallies are basically scavenger hunts all over the city. They’re a great way for eventgoers to learn the area, especially on the first day of an event.”

According to Barber, groups have much to choose from off property. “We’ve had groups go to casinos, JD Racing Indoor Carting, and Tigers and Lions games,” she says. “Apple cider tours of a nearby cider mill are very popular. They get to see how cider is made and can pick their own apples. Many groups go on brewery tours. One group actually brought in several breweries for a tasting in our courtyard.” 

Treetops Resort, Gaylord

Treetops has five golf courses, a comedy night featuring a headliner comedian, and a spring running challenge. In the winter there is skiing, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, snowboarding and extreme tubing. For kids, there are crafts and scavenger hunts.

“Fifteen minutes away we have another property that’s called Project Nature in which there’s a wilderness cabin,” says Conference Coordinator Marissa Kraut. “It’s a great spot for us to do what we call Skiable Feast. It includes a five-course meal in which you have to cross country ski or snowshoe to each course. We also have a sleigh ride dinner that we do there in which guests go on a sleigh ride and then they have a nice dinner at the cabin.”

Crystal Mountain, Thompsonville

The trend for groups has been building camaraderie in more of a social setting rather than competitions or what many consider more traditional team-building activities, according to Brian Lawson, director of public relations for Crystal Mountain.

“Although we still see groups do mountain races and our paintball courses, social settings have become the norm,” says Lawson. “One group hosted a wine and chocolate event with a local chocolate vendor, the Grocer’s Daughter. A representative from the store came on-site and did a wine pairing and presentation highlighting their business, the chocolate making process and sourcing philosophy followed by a guided tasting of varying chocolate and local wines.”

Other social activities at Crystal Mountain have included a 1980s promthemed weekend with actual arcade games from back then, a family friendly event with lawn and table games, and a campfire with marshmallows and the use of the resort’s famed downhill Crystal Coaster Alpine Slide.

The Henry, Autograph Collection, Dearborn

The interests of corporate groups are changing, according to Brooke Peterson, CMP, event manager for The Henry.

“I see more of a trend,” she says, “of encouraging networking and putting more of a focus on networking breaks that can be offered by the hotel so that guests are really able to make those connections and not just feel like they’re sitting in a banquet chair from 9-5 listening to someone speak on a stage.”

Those same groups, though, do not completely ignore more amusing activities. “In fact,” Peterson says, “I see a lot of emphasis put on health and wellness activities whether it be yoga class, zumba … a lot of the events have a purpose as well about still being productive.

“One was a financial group in which sportsrelated elements were integrated into one of their sessions,” she says. “They set up a hospitality room at the end of one of their night sessions. There were basketball hoop shooters, a pool table, a golf simulator and they had lounge seating with a TV set up with ESPN on. And they integrated their food and beverage as far as chicken wings, hamburgers and those types of things you’d normally see at a sporting event.

“Another group had their entire conference music-themed. They had a band come in and they were split into different teams. With the help of the band, they actually had to compose a song about the conference and about what their future goals for the company were. And the band played the songs for everyone at the end of the activity.” 

Event Source, Ferndale

Communal dining is sweeping the globe. “It provides a twist on the traditional seating format and for its emphasis on togetherness,” says Heidi Baumgart, the marketing director for Event Source, a rental equipment business. “Whether outside the boardroom or along the dance floor, communal tables give guests an opportunity to come together to collaborate, communicate and enjoy one another’s company.” 

Not just for eating, communal tables are great options for seated presentations, registration and display tables. Continues Baumgart: “Bring your event up to eye level and commune with our modern take on elevated efficiency.” 

As for conference room tables, it’s goodbye wheeled chairs, hello styled bar stools. “We’ve brought in two bar-height communal tables in both rustic wood and contemporary white and silver,” Baumgart says. “These have been great for larger groups, meetings and presentations instead of high-top tables near bars.” 

According to Baumgart, more comfortable seating adds to the overall ease of meetings. “We’ve been working with our clients to design small furniture vignettes for breakout meetings or event lounges,” she says. “Instead of huddling eight people around a 60-inch round, basically linened, table, we’re putting together sofas, arm chairs, and coffee and sofa tables. These residentialstyle pieces add aesthetic and multiple purpose to events.”