Many of us know that the idea of being holed up for days at a time with work colleagues in a stale, purpose built ‘conference centre’ for another staff development love in (also called a workshop) can elicit many a moan, groan and eye roll.
But supposing you did want to run a staff development get together. What are your choices? It can be tough to find a location that really suits and inspires, especially when you have to bring people in from far and wide. Certainly the great indoors can start to feel a little same-same after a while.
In March, about 40 staff from what we consider our ‘sister’ company arrived from all over Australia to attend a periodic face to face staff development program, but this time based in the Yuraygir National Park campground at Illaroo. This idea was the brainchild of staff member Darren, who’d camped at Illaroo before and has a role in organising these sorts of events, along with his CEO Tony, who happens to also be the founder and business owner of Yuraygir Walking Experiences. Indeed, Tony had been wanting to find a way to explain his ‘side project’ to his staff, which after all, has ultimately been seeded by the work his staff are doing. This seemed the perfect way to do so directly.
Their regular get togethers they call their ‘Christmas Dinners’, and this environment was clearly an exception to the usual locations and they couldn’t have been more pleased. Being outside in superbly mild Autumn weather, nestled in among the coastal forest with a background of birds and crashing ocean, worked a treat. And although tackling a relatively formal program of workshops and focus groups during the day, they also had time to relax in the evenings around a campfire and run, swim or surf in the mornings.
Tony wanted us to assist to make this event possible, and we accepted the challenge. This meant undertaking massive logistical planning compared with running a 4 day walk, but we had a lot of fun in doing so. Our driver Phil ran people around in our 14 seater in the mornings and evenings as needed, and our caterers Lauren and Karen, with help from Mel, managed to keep them happily fed throughout their stay.
There were certain necessities for the group to manage such as camp kitchen clean up rosters, ice collection and other organisational details given the choice of location, but this became part of the experience, with shared duties offering time for smaller teams to catch up and socialise.
About half the group camped at Illaroo, while the others were put up in holiday houses we use for our regular walkers. Some of the more urbane among them may have found roughing it taxing at times, and it was interesting to participate in their mandatory WHS briefing about the specific possible hazards they needed to direct attention to in order to have a safe time in this semi-wild environment. But they all survived (barring one casualty related to a nocturnal game and a twisted knee that was well beyond our purview).
Gina and I organised guest speakers to help them understand the Yuraygir region, including Uncle Ron Heron (Yaegl elder), Mark Flanders (Gumbayngirr knowledge holder and NPWS Discovery Ranger), and Mark Graham (Nature Conservation Council) who is assisting multiple landholders with conservation work on private properties in the region.
Uncle Ron Heron and Mark Flanders talk around the camp fire
We also took them in smaller groups on the Minnie Water to Wilson’s Headland leg, giving them an appreciation of the Yuraygir Coastal Walk, and a greater understanding of our little business.
At a social level, this visit was a great chance for all to mingle and to get to know each other better in a very relaxed context. As a final exercise, I had organised a drumming workshop with the charismatic Samba Blisstas’ band leader Paul Barrett, who over a couple of hours had them sweating, dancing and laughing their way into their last evening on the coast.
Some of the smiles (left) as Paul Barrett from Carnival Drumming (right) leads the group into rhythm and fun
They’d had fun and the weather had been kind despite predictions. There was a buzz at being able to run this kind of retreat in this kind of way. And although some of the staff who were responsible for the event management side of things were run ragged (particularly Michelle), there was talk of doing it all again.
Of course, we really enjoyed their feedback, both in relation to the walk itself, and to the running of their staff development program as a whole. Some of them left us personal comments and others left ‘reviews’ that we cherish:
You and your team were just fabulous. You catered for all our needs and last minute changes…. I felt like I was part of the Yuraygir family… The coastal views were spectacular and the bush tracks serene, I am so glad I had the opportunity to experience this.
Amazing walk with wonderful guides Adrian and Gina, great knowledge of the local environment and an experience that will not be forgotten – thank you!
Great Walk with absolutely beautiful scenery. Wonderful guides with exceptional knowledge of the area. Really great experience, would highly recommend.
I can strongly recommend that you take the time to walk in this largely undeveloped section of the NSW coastline, and if you don’t have the time or ability to do it yourself then why not save the hassle of logistics, carrying a pack and finding accommodation by organising a walking tour with Adrian at Yuraygir Walking Experiences.
Adrian talks about Green and Golden Bell Frogs and the importance of hollow bearing trees
We also learned a lot about working with bigger groups, and if it does happen again, we’ll be super prepared. But the experience has made us think more about how this coastal walk might offer so much value to other types of organisations keen to walk and talk formal group learning sessions.
In this spirit, I found it fascinating to read about a group of complementary medicine academics and practitioners from Southern Cross University and elsewhere that did the coastal walk over 4 days as an Eduventure. Their glowing video testimonial about the benefits of running their learning exchange by talking the walk, both from a cognitive-learning perspective and a networking perspective, was inspiring.
Our recent experience and feedback certainly encourages us to look into all this further.