Next month, Catherine can look forward to sinking her toes in the sand, with a piña colada in hand, at a five-star, all-inclusive resort in Cancun.
The trip is also all-expenses-paid, as her company will be footing the bill. The only problem is: The product manager — who, like most of her colleagues at the marketing firm, works remotely — is dreading it.
“I don’t feel like drinking with my co-workers at an all-inclusive resort. It’s literally forced fun,” the 33-year-old told The Post. (“Catherine” is not her real name — she was afraid of getting fired if she revealed her identity.)
“They’re really pulling out all the stops, but it’s going to be a lot of work,” she said of the trip, which will be five days and will include 300 of her co-workers, many of whom she’s never met in person. “It’s giving me ‘senior in high school goes to Disney World’ vibes.”
More than two years into a pandemic that has altered our approach to work, corporations are shelling out for extravagant retreats to celebrate the return to office. They’re sparing no expense as they send their employees to lavish hotels and scenic ranches, all in the name of “team-building” and “bonding.” The problem is: The workers don’t want to go. After adjusting to work-from-home life, they say they’d prefer cash bonuses to trips and resent losing time to unwanted travel.
“This year, [companies] threw the budget out the window and said, ‘Let’s just do this right.’ They saved money by giving up offices, they’ve moved remote and a lot of companies are calling us up with bigger budgets and scale,” said Sean Hoff, founder of Moniker, a Canada-based corporate culture agency that hosts retreats and team-building activities.
Hoff said that Moniker is averaging 30 programs a month from American corporate clients spending upward of $50,000 to host up to 300 people company-wide in places like St. Tropez, Barcelona, Dublin and Paris. That’s up from just 15 programs hosted monthly in 2019, pre-pandemic.
But for Catherine, the upcoming retreat in Mexico is just anxiety-provoking.
“How am I supposed to dress? I don’t want to wear a bathing suit in front of my co-workers,” she said. “Everyone is getting a basic one-piece that’s not cheeky and covers your boobs … Old Navy is definitely about to see an influx of sales.”
She’s already set her own ground rules: “I said if there’s zip lining, I’m 100% not doing this. If there’s a hike, I’m not doing it. I’m not getting sweaty in front of my co-workers,” Catherine added.
She said she already had to sit through an HR spiel about chaperoning the younger employees between 25 and 30 to make sure they don’t over-indulge. “The rule of thumb is don’t be the drunkest person there. I’m honestly not going to drink at all. It’s going to be an exhausting week,” said Catherine.
While the trip, happening during the workweek, is not mandatory, Catherine feels obligated to attend, noting some colleagues with children are opting out.
“It’s very uncommon that a manager isn’t going,” added Catherine, who does not have kids.
Angelica, who works in social media, experienced firsthand how seemingly luxurious corporate travel can fail to live up to the hype.
In March, the 30-year-old — who declined to give her last name, fearing retribution from her employer — trekked to a ranch in San Antonio where 25 employees from London, Paris, San Diego and Mexico could all congregate in the same time zone. The itinerary for the three-day jaunt included horseback riding, alfresco dining and work-related tête-à-têtes by the fire.
But Angelica hated it. The food was “greasy” and sharing a cabin with her international colleagues — many of whom spoke French and just a little English — was awkward. Her allergies flared up.
“There were some communication issues, and someone got COVID,” she said.
Still, employers aren’t giving up on the lure of corporate retreats just yet.
Charlie Saffro, 44, who remotely runs a Chicago recruiting company, used the money her company saved on office rent during 2020 and 2021 to shell out $80,000 for her employees to take a three-day weekend trip to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, in February. While she admits her group of 30 adults had “a lot of skepticism at first,” they loosened up, especially once she said, “Throw away the itinerary.”
“I also knew my place [as the boss],” Saffro said. “I knew I needed to be there and connect, but when dinner was over, I was like, ‘I’m going to go to bed, you have fun and the tab is open.’
“People connected because we took the stress out. We said, ‘What happens in Cabo, stays in Cabo,’” she said.