From company cricket tournaments to desert survival courses, teambuilding is big business, and the Middle East is emerging both as a developing market in this sector as well as a venue for challenging and different programmes. Kathi Everden reports.

Teambuilding hit the headlines recently, albeit in the sports pages of international media, when it was revealed that the venerated Tiger Woods was made to join in a singing session organised by the Ryder Cup team captain in a bid to generate fighting team spirit prior to the US/Europe golf tournament. Unfortunately, the US failed to play in harmony and suffered yet another defeat, but the attempt to bond together a group of normally individualistic golf players signalled the value of teamwork, an area increasingly highlighted as a key to success in the corporate world.

This sector - designated teambuilding, team development, corporate bonding, and various other decidedly clunky terms - is one that is taking off in the Middle East, where potential to exploit the relatively immature nature of the corporate culture in the destination is exciting the interest of global specialists from overseas.

And, with increasing demand for new and challenging events from international clients, the region is also being targeted as a corporate playground for innovative products organised in conjunction with a conference or incentive - adding a new dimension to the MICE product on offer.

Corporate Tool

Across the world's mature markets, teambuilding continues to enjoy intrinsic value as a corporate tool but it is a sector where ROI has entered the equation, upping the ante for organisers to add in a measurement tool to justify expenditure.

Director of Asia-based Tirian, Andrew Grant, concurs with this view of the increasing sophistication of the market. "Most organisations now recognise that good teams require ongoing targeted improvement, not a one-off fix," he said.

"Basic games that focus on the 'feel good' factor can be perceived as childish and are no longer as popular as programmes that are more intelligent in their approach, as companies have to justify the outcomes and see the results."

And, while fun and games has become serious business, Grant emphasised that 'teambuilding' itself is a term that now has more depth than the perceived notion of homogenising a cross section of people into a harmonious whole.

"Quality teambuilding programmes should help people recognise their personal strengths and areas of challenge in the context of a team. They should also enable individuals to become more tolerant of each other and develop communication strategies vital in multi cultural regions such as Asia and the Middle East."

Teambuilding Events Not Only 'Group Think' Between Like-minded People

He stressed that teambuilding events should not simply promote 'group think' between like-minded people but instead encourage expressions of diversity while working with a common goal in mind.

But, as the science of teambuilding reaches more sophisticated levels and aspirations are on the rise, achievable results are not always matched by budgets or delivery.

According to Anne Thornley-Brown, president of Toronto-based Executive Oasis International, many companies still tend to view teambuilding as a discretionary expense. "Companies such as ours have to be more creative in what we present and the key challenge is to differentiate yourself in the market by presenting options that focus on applications - however, clients are rarely realistic in their expectations." Thornley-Brown said a cost per person of between US$200 and US$350 could be justified for a business related teambuilding session, dropping to US$100 for a team recreation session, but many companies allocate just US$50 and request multiple facilitators, debriefing and business applications.

"One factor contributing to this 'sticker shock' is customer confusion about teambuilding versus team recreation since many organisers market activities that are strictly recreational and try to pass them off as teambuilding."

It's a trend that Tirian's Andrew Grant also robustly decries: "We design programmes, we don't just run games," he said. "Those DMCs that copy us have no concept of the thinking behind our events and why particular activities were set up.

"We had one exercise where a team of bankers had to develop a strategy to cross a river and the whole point was they had to consider risk versus return, which is integral to their business - it was not just a matter of building a bridge, which was what outside observer would have seen," he said.

"There is a need for education as the market expands as clients often don't know what to ask for, while a hotel might offer a teambuilding product that simply entails the recreation manager supervising a beach Olympics."

Orgueil has found similar trends in Europe, where teambuilding is moving away from the old image of outdoor games and bungee jumping.

"Events should be based around learning and team dynamics, but it has to be a fun environment away from the office where participants can relax and have a good time away from office politics," he said.

While there is market for longer away-day retreats and survivor-type exercises, Tirian sees a great deal of growth in the conference-related sector.

"By taking the intellectual content of the morning conference and building on this with a team session, participants can apply what they have heard about and it becomes a three-dimensional exercise from learning through to facilitation."

In response to this demand, those companies specialising in team development have become more cerebral in their product offerings, moving on from simple song and dance between-speech sessions to intricate games and events.

Tirian has space, Antarctic, mystery and golf themes....

Mickey MICE games?

This type of progression is one that has been tried and tested by Tirian, which started out by developing in-conference programmes in Bali.

“Hotels came to us as they could see companies coming in for a conference once or twice, but then having done all the tours and culture, needing something extra to bring them back again,” said Andrew Grant.

“We designed special events that had a Bali theme but offered more than the average tour, and the company has developed that there - but we still tailor make all our programmes.”

For Tirian, the Middle East is seen as a natural expansion out of Asia, helped by the peripatetic nature of management executives who gravitate from one region to the other.

“There are many people moving from Asia to the Middleeast and this gives rise to cross cultural issues which we are used to dealing with - the latter region is probably unique in that 90 percent of the workforce is expatriate and companies need to address teamwork probably more than in other parts of the world.”

Banks, hotels and oil companies in the Gulf have already employed Tirian’s services and Grant is keen to capitalise on this momentum with the establishment of a franchise operation.

“We are looking at running public seminars in Saudi Arabia in tandem with a consultancy there, and also have work in Oman and Qatar pending,” he said. 

One major coup for the company was a casebook programme run at an Omani oil company in which a Chinese group had invested in a 40 percent share, sending over its nationals to join the primarily local workforce.

“There was a great deal of tension between the two nationalities and the HR director brought us in to look at the problem - we interviewed 40 key personnel and as a result of information gleaned from this, organised a one-day programme at the Muscat InterContinental,” said Grant.

“The focus was on collaboration and we demonstrated the stupidity of individualism at any price. What started as two hostile nationality groups ended up with them all sitting together and laughing and joking by the end of the day.”

Equally beneficial was a teambuilding programme for the top nine executives of the Four Seasons Doha, where general manager Simon Casson called on Tirian’s experience to galvanise his colleagues after the opening phase of the hotel.

“Hotels are generally operationally focused but I am a strong fan of the whole process of executive development and team dynamics, and engaged Tirian to act as an outside facilitator,” he said.

“The company had worked with Four Seasons in Singapore and were then engaged on a project with a bank in Doha, so I brought them in - the first task was to explain our company promise of ‘intuitive personal service’ and then agree on ways to develop this in delivery terms.”

Two day long sessions took place in the hotel’s top suite, a far cry from the image of strenuous team development events, but for Casson, the results have set the management team on the right track to boost breakthrough performance in a competitive environment.

And, Grant sounds a warning against injecting too much of a competitive edge in teambuilding programmes: “There is a value in adventure based activities but outdoor learning can alienate some people who like air-conditioned comforts, and it adds pressure to perform.

“If people want to get out of the conference hall, we can take over a ballroom and turn it into Antarctica or outer space, for example.”

And, for the team-building sector as a whole, the Middle East is becoming an inviting business proposition, both as a source market and a venue.

Because of the multicultural nature of teams and the pace of growth, this region needs sophistication (in teambuilding programmes) as it is critical for companies to start performing very quickly - and teambuilding can be a fundamental driver to success.

Article © MICE International