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It's a fine line between living for the moment and being a sociopath.

Patricia B McConnell: For The Love Of A Dog.

Pema Chodron: The Places That Scare You

Daniel Wallace: Mr Sebastian & the Negro Magician

All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are. --Pablo Neruda

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Conference at Stinky Cheese

I am not the least bit ashamed that what I'm about to write is intended to make others jealous.

Not everyone. Just all the other corporate tie-wearing types in my life.

If you spend enough time in the pay of folks who think wearing a tie is a mark of either character or sufficient submission, you end up going to plenty of meetings at places that aren't your office or theirs or your customers' or your suppliers'. This limbo world is someone else's place. It is the place you go and have a meeting when you want to have a meeting somewhere, um, else. It is the conference venue.

My favorite term for these meetings that take place somewhere else is "off-site". "We're going to have an off-site." Or, "I'm sorry, but he's not available today. He's at an off-site."

Meaning, there's something so important going on that someone decided to spend money to do it somewhere other than the meeting rooms in the absurdly expensive office space we already pay through the nose for. It *must* be special. And, oh yeah, maybe even tinged with secrecy and importance I can't tell you about.

Yet, while many off-site's are the tie-wearer's sick-weak version of a day out, there clearly are good reasons to do a lot of things away from the office: away from the air-borne viruses of monotony and group think that inhabit most office spaces. Wanna do something creative? Wanna keep people undistracted? Want good catering? Better have the meeting off-site.

The cruel joke is that most of the places that set themselves up to be venues for corporate off-sites are the worst possible places because, in order to be attractive to the tie-wearing types that hire them out, they bend over and make themselves look, for all the world, like the very places off-sites are supposed to be trying to get away from: corporate meeting rooms.

How many of my tie-wearing brethren and sistren have spent how many hours in windowless off-site conference rooms with modular tables, set with ruled pads (imprinted with the venue logo) and some cheap pen and some LCD projector that nobody knows how to work because we are, after all, off-site? How many of us have reveled, for just a few minutes, in the venue's differences from our familiar meeting rooms, just because these differences represent a break in routine? Only then to realize that getting the least bit enthusiastic about mints and bottled water and ruled pads with the venue's logo on them is really very sad and we should be celebrating the grand celestial rebirth that every waking moment represents, instead...but that we're really still very grateful for the break in our normal tie-wearing routine. Hey, this off-site is even "dress casual"! (I really, really, really hate that term. Why don't they just say "Everyone must, under pain of death, wear dockers and either a button-down oxford or a polo shirt"?)

So, imagine my wonder, like a kid in Willy Wonka's chocolate factory, when my company recently started sending us to a place that is what every off-site venue should be.

I don't know how he got the idea, but this bloke in France started buying old Chateaux properties that needed some doing up, sprucing them, then marketing exclusively to the corporate types that put on "residential off-sites": the kind where you sleep away.

He tweaked the formula to completely end-run his hotel competition. He made them feel like the most extraordinary vacation destination and like your own home, at the same time. Then, he equipped them with all the technology any corporate dweeb would need. With no front desk, each property is run by a young married couple that lives there, plus a very few other staff. There's always a full bar, but no barman. Go behind the bar and pull a few beers out for you and your colleagues. Sit in the big leather chairs in the great hall of the Chateau, in front of the fire, and chat until late in the evening over your wine. You feel indulged even thought no-one is serving you. What an ubelievably brilliant service model!

Another touch: the rooms are simple and spare. No TV. No mini-bar. In other words, no reason to spend time there, and every reason to go spend time with your colleagues.

The chateaux are majestic piles with glamorous histories. The settings are beautiful. The food is fabulous. The folks that live there will do absolutely anything for you. There's always a dog running around wanting a pat. Didn't bring a swimsuit or running shoes? They've got plenty to loan you. It's like being at your rich cousin's place.

I've been to four of these places, now, always for intensive courses or conferences over several days. By the end, I don't want to leave; I want Geri to come join me.

Here are a couple of pics of the one I visited most recently: Fief des Epoisses, (Epoisses being the origin and name of one of France's famous stinky cheeses). Each of the other venues is just as remarkable, but also remarkably different from this one. But the formula and its execution are so seamless that the experience has been close to perfect each time.

So, my fellow tie-wearers, next time you're in a dress-casual off-site in some non-descript conference room, think of me at Fief des Epoisses, looking out the window at the French countryside and looking forward to dinner.

Comments on "Conference at Stinky Cheese"


Blogger bea said ... (4:51 PM) : 

Loved this blog. It made me laugh as it is so true.Glad you're being spoiled by those who value your life!


Blogger Quack Corleone said ... (7:57 PM) : 

I wish I wore a tie and went to off-site conferences in French chateaus! But one question: aren't these places uncomfortably far away from the urban workplace? They sure look like they're out in the countryside.


Blogger Quack Corleone said ... (7:58 PM) : 

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


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