Your Corporate Retreat Is On—But It’s Going To Be Weirder
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Your Corporate Retreat Is On—But It’s Going To Be Weirder

Employees bond over a virtual lunar disaster or ‘80s-themed murder mystery.

By KRITHIKA VARAGUR
Mon, Mar 15, 2021 1:00pmGrey Clock 3 min

At the last global sales meeting he attended before the pandemic, Jeff Chase went to Caesars Palace Las Vegas with about 60 colleagues, plus many of their spouses. In February, the biotech sales manager scouted a location for their next retreat, the Renaissance Aruba Resort & Casino, on Zoom. He never left his home in Indianapolis.

The woman organising the visit, travel entrepreneur Sarah Reuter, instructed him and 70 other attendees from the corporate world to locate sunglasses, a hairdryer and a refreshing drink in their homes. When the video panned to the Caribbean, they were asked to turn on their blow dryers to simulate a coastal breeze in their hair.

“Myself, no, I don’t have long hair, so I couldn’t do that part,” Mr Chase says. He still enjoyed the whirlwind tour enough that he’s planning to book one of Elevate Travel Co.’s virtual retreats for the company’s biannual sales meeting this fall.

Vaccines are now reaching many American workers, but some companies are in no rush to bring back the in-person off-site retreat. Instead, they’re turning to a host of increasingly elaborate virtual options, including murder mysteries staffed with actors, webcast trips to beach resorts and safaris, and purpose-built digital islands for multiday gatherings.

They’re not quite a substitute for the splashiest pre-pandemic corporate off-sites—where some participants might have slept in a castle or raced Fiat 500s around the Tuscan countryside—and usually require much less time and money. But they can still help employees bond and let off steam after months of working in unusual conditions, their participants say.

Sean Hoff, managing partner of Toronto-based corporate retreats company Moniker, says clients have started inquiring about in-person trips, but are holding off on deposits and flights until at least June. So he’s ploughing ahead creating a virtual island for an upcoming retreat of around 240 people for Webflow, a San Francisco website-design company.

Employees will participate in videogame-like team-building activities, including a boat-building race. They will inhabit customized avatars and gather in virtual locales like a “tiki hut” and a “treehouse” for small-group meetings.

“The HR team, for example, will be able to say, meet us over by the dock at 5 p.m.,” he says.

“I’m not going to lie, I was a little sceptical at first. But after a year of remote work I was so desperate to meet more of my colleagues that I just dived in,” says Allison Williams, an account manager based in St. Louis at Articulate, an e-learning software company. Articulate held a weeklong virtual retreat in early February with over 104 sessions, including virtual yoga and virtual escape rooms. Out of 291 employees across 10 time zones, 267 participated, according to a company spokesman.

Ms Williams taught a class to 45 colleagues on calligraphy and says she made a new friend, a “fellow pen nerd,” in the process. She also made new work friends through the happy hours at a virtual beach club staged on Remo, an online conferencing platform. There were various seating options, including a bar, fire pit, or surfboard-shaped table. Employees talked in small groups with whoever else gathered at each site.

Alejandra Sereleas, a vice president of accounting at the France-based videogame company Ubisoft, hired Moniker to stage a virtual, 1980s-themed murder mystery for her team of about 80 people last June.

The scenario is a wedding: The groom mysteriously drops dead after taking a sip of his drink. The participants meet eight suspects, all paid actors, and must interrogate them to solve the crime.

“We asked everyone to be in character and be creative, and sent them a wedding invitation before the event,” Ms Sereleas says. People embraced the theme, she says, donning side ponytails and chunky jewellery and setting ’80s-themed Zoom backgrounds like a Pac-Man maze.

After the murder mystery, which made its debut last May as Moniker’s first virtual offering, the company created a “lunar outpost disaster scenario” set in 2037. It was adapted from a NASA training exercise for aspiring astronauts. Participants act as mission control for a crew of colleagues whose exploratory trip to the moon’s surface has gone awry.

“We’ve kissed the Blarney stone in Ireland, had whiskey at the top of a mountain in Patagonia, rode on a dogsled in Finland, sailed a yacht off Cannes and hung out with a gorilla doctor in Rwanda,” says Liz Lathan, Austin, Texas-based CEO of Haute Dokimazo, an events company that pivoted to virtual experiences during the pandemic. Her corporate clients Zoomed with travel guides in 28 countries between last May and December.

Vanessa Blackburn, Cleveland-based enterprise retail strategist at Retail Zipline, a communications startup for retail stores, has already done two virtual retreats with her team. Their last off-site, planned before the pandemic, was to take place in Lake Tahoe, and Ms Blackburn hoped to tack on a few extra days to ski. Her company’s two-day virtual retreat in March struck a different tone.

Instead of lavish catered meals, employees got to spend $25 on their corporate card to order coffee and lunch delivery. And the goody bags sent to their homes included a tub of slime, a plastic Slinky toy and a colouring book—not for the workers themselves, but to occupy the young children that many still had at home. “My daughter loved that,” Ms Blackburn says.



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Why Prices of the World’s Most Expensive Handbags Keep Rising

Designers are charging more for their most recognisable bags to maintain the appearance of exclusivity as the industry balloons

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The price of a basic Hermès Birkin handbag has jumped $1,000. This first-world problem for fashionistas is a sign that luxury brands are playing harder to get with their most sought-after products.

Hermès recently raised the cost of a basic Birkin 25-centimeter handbag in its U.S. stores by 10% to $11,400 before sales tax, according to data from luxury handbag forum PurseBop. Rarer Birkins made with exotic skins such as crocodile have jumped more than 20%. The Paris brand says it only increases prices to offset higher manufacturing costs, but this year’s increase is its largest in at least a decade.

The brand may feel under pressure to defend its reputation as the maker of the world’s most expensive handbags. The “Birkin premium”—the price difference between the Hermès bag and its closest competitor , the Chanel Classic Flap in medium—shrank from 70% in 2019 to 2% last year, according to PurseBop founder Monika Arora. Privately owned Chanel has jacked up the price of its most popular handbag by 75% since before the pandemic.

Eye-watering price increases on luxury brands’ benchmark products are a wider trend. Prada ’s Galleria bag will set shoppers back a cool $4,600—85% more than in 2019, according to the Wayback Machine internet archive. Christian Dior ’s Lady Dior bag and the Louis Vuitton Neverfull are both 45% more expensive, PurseBop data show.

With the U.S. consumer-price index up a fifth since 2019, luxury brands do need to offset higher wage and materials costs. But the inflation-beating increases are also a way to manage the challenge presented by their own success: how to maintain an aura of exclusivity at the same time as strong sales.

Luxury brands have grown enormously in recent years, helped by the Covid-19 lockdowns, when consumers had fewer outlets for spending. LVMH ’s fashion and leather goods division alone has almost doubled in size since 2019, with €42.2 billion in sales last year, equivalent to $45.8 billion at current exchange rates. Gucci, Chanel and Hermès all make more than $10 billion in sales a year. One way to avoid overexposure is to sell fewer items at much higher prices.

Many aspirational shoppers can no longer afford the handbags, but luxury brands can’t risk alienating them altogether. This may explain why labels such as Hermès and Prada have launched makeup lines and Gucci’s owner Kering is pushing deeper into eyewear. These cheaper categories can be a kind of consolation prize. They can also be sold in the tens of millions without saturating the market.

“Cosmetics are invisible—unless you catch someone applying lipstick and see the logo, you can’t tell the brand,” says Luca Solca, luxury analyst at Bernstein.

Most of the luxury industry’s growth in 2024 will come from price increases. Sales are expected to rise by 7% this year, according to Bernstein estimates, even as brands only sell 1% to 2% more stuff.

Limiting volume growth this way only works if a brand is so popular that shoppers won’t balk at climbing prices and defect to another label. Some companies may have pushed prices beyond what consumers think they are worth. Sales of Prada’s handbags rose a meagre 1% in its last quarter and the group’s cheaper sister label Miu Miu is growing faster.

Ramping up prices can invite unflattering comparisons. At more than $2,000, Burberry ’s small Lola bag is around 40% more expensive today than it was a few years ago. Luxury shoppers may decide that tried and tested styles such as Louis Vuitton’s Neverfull bag, which is now a little cheaper than the Burberry bag, are a better buy—especially as Louis Vuitton bags hold their value better in the resale market.

Aggressive price increases can also drive shoppers to secondhand websites. If a barely used Prada Galleria bag in excellent condition can be picked up for $1,500 on luxury resale website The Real Real, it is less appealing to pay three times that amount for the bag brand new.

The strategy won’t help everyone, but for the best luxury brands, stretching the price spectrum can keep the risks of growth in check.

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