Corporate Retreat Round-Up

Need a getaway for your senior staff’s strategysession? The Dallas-Fort Worth area—and beyond—has plenty of options to choose from. PLUS: A handy comparison chart.

 
RETREAT R&R: Laptop rocking at Garrett Creek.
photography courtesy of Josh Gibson

The days of you and your spouse jetting to Hawaii on the company’s dime, playing a few rounds of golf, getting a hot stone massage, and lounging by the pool for days on end are pretty much over. Blame the dotcoms. Blame 9/11. Blame Enron. But these days, companies are getting down to business: spending less time, and therefore less money, and doing more work than play. Mini-retreats—one, two, maybe three days—are all the retreat rage.

“The agendas are packed,” says Angie Feehan, marketing director with Adventure Associates, which has planned many corporate retreats in the Dallas area. “It’s a lot more meeting for their dollar. It might sound counterintuitive at first, but I don’t take coworkers with me on vacation. My expectations for a retreat are not that I’m going to relax and have fun. I’m engaging in activities with my coworkers to make work more palpable, warm, effective, and supportive.”

Since time is of the essence, we’ve narrowed the list for you of what’s available within easy driving distance of the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Whether you want to go on a cattle drive at the Rough Creek Lodge & Resort in Glen Rose or stay closer to home and never leave the premises at the Gaylord Texan, there’s a place tailor-made to get your corporate juices flowing. 

LOCAL FAVORITES

 
Southfork Ranch
photography courtesy of Southfork Ranch

Southfork Ranch & Conference Center (Park)
www.southfork.com
What you’ll find: Southfork is a bit like Madonna—always reinventing itself. The ranch was built in 1970 as a home and horse-breeding ranch. It was forever changed into an icon in 1978 when it became the TV home of the Ewing family. Shortly after the series ended in 1991, Rex Maughan, president of Forever Resorts (known for its environmentally friendly policies) bought the property and turned it into a conference center. He got the gun that shot J.R. in the deal, too.
What clients have to say: Everyone from the planners to the bartenders is engaging and consistent. A favorite activity is dinner underneath the trees by the Ewing mansion. If you don’t know exactly what you want, the planners quickly seem to get a sense of your audience and are helpful with ideas that consider your price range and goals.
What we have to say: Honestly, how can you resist Miss Ellie’s Porch Deli or a chuckwagon dinner featuring her secret barbecue sauce? Sadly, guests are not allowed to sleep in Miss Ellie’s room, so the Southfork Hotel in Plano nearby will have to do.

Garrett Creek Ranch (Paradise)
www.garrettcreekranch.com
What you’ll find: Leslie Schultz was a frustrated meeting planner, annoyed that small groups got lost in the shuffle at large hotels. In the summer of 1988, she stopped complaining and bought her own ranch, catering to groups of 100 or fewer. Her daughter, Jaynie, took over two years ago. The rural staff loves what they do. “It’s a huge adventure for our staff having guests from the big city come and visit,” Jaynie says. Team-building activities include the usual ropes course, but you can also choose armadillo races, paintball, and a murder mystery dinner theater.
What clients have to say: The pace is so slow here, freeing the mind to think (spotty cell phone reception helps, too). It’s very casual out here—so much so that the ranch’s dogs and cats might just pass under your conference table. This isn’t white tablecloths and linen. But you’ll know the bartender—and the dogs—by name when you leave.

 
Garrett Creek Ranch
photography courtesy of Josh Gibson 

What we have to say: It’s just hard to resist log cabins with a big wooden porch filled with rocking chairs overlooking a 460-acre working ranch. The winding road to the ranch is just one of many intentional details, created to get your mind thinking outside the box before you arrive. The fact that the ranch is not open to the public and was started by a meeting planner says a lot. So do the dogs in the meeting room.

Star Brand Ranch (Kaufman)
www.starbrandranch.com
What you’ll find: The working part of this ranch has worked cattle since 1850. The corporate part started in 1992, when the Wynne brothers bought it. The food is all Southern: biscuits and gravy, cornbread, coconut cream pie, smothered steak, and cabbage casserole. (Somehow, Greek salad ended up on the menu, but we’ll let that slide.) In the evening, most guests like to take a hayride, culminating in a bonfire and s’mores.
What clients have to say: Everyone loves the steak (just FYI: they’ll share all recipes except their steak marinade). Management is top-notch, easygoing, low-pressure, and completely reliable. From audio-visual equipment to the baked potatoes, everything runs seamlessly.
What we have to say: We like that it’s okay to put your feet on the table. Really. There’s no need to feel guilt while you’re eating your steak dinner, overlooking the ranch cattle. While they used to end up on guests’ plates, that’s no longer the case. Good use is made of the ranch with plenty of outdoor meeting and gathering space.

 
At Star Brand Ranch, the food is all Southern: biscuits and gravy, cornbread, coconut cream pie, and cabbage casserole.
photography by Paul Poplis 

Inn on the River (Glen Rose)
www.innontheriver.com
What you’ll find: This 1916 home used to house Dr. Snyder’s Drugless Health Spa. All that’s left is his inn and his mineral pool. Ernest and Shirley Reinke bought the Inn, a Texas Historical Landmark, in 1998 and have been pampering corporate guests Dr. Snyder-style ever since. The Inn doesn’t offer much in the way of on-site amenities but nearby Fossil Rim Wildlife Center and Dinosaur Valley State Park offer plenty to do.
What clients have to say: Hospitality is first-class, and the food is as good as any of Dallas’ finest. Service during meetings is seamless and not obtrusive. The Adirondack chairs are a favorite, and the actual building and landscaping put one’s executive mind at ease.
What we have to say: While we can’t comment on the healing powers of Dr. Snyder, we can speak for the healing powers of the Paluxy River, century-old oak trees (which inspired “The Singing Trees,” sang by Elvis in the mid-’60s), and a lemon chess pie (the recipe is included in the Inn’s new cookbook). Low-tech bonus: No TVs.

Circle R Ranch (Flower Mound)
www.circlerranch.org
What you’ll find: This is not your traditional corporate retreat setting. For one thing, you can’t spend the night. But if you’re staying in a dull hotel and need some off-site excitement or team-building, mosey on over. The Circle R came about in the early ’70s when Canada Dry executive Alan Powdermaker decided to relocate his family from Baltimore, Maryland. He named the Circle R after his wife, Renate. The idea was an authentic Western setting in which to entertain private groups. The first such group was a 28-person meeting for Eastman Kodak. Now, Circle R plays host to 250,000 people annually, including musicians like KC & the Sunshine Band, Dwight Yoakum, LeAnn Rimes, and the 1996 Country Music Association Awards Gala.
What clients have to say: When people outside of Texas come to Texas, they want to see what Texas is all about (and no, we’re not talking malls). This gives them just that. The staff and events are reliable, get people outside, and always entertain.
What we have to say: The place seems a bit over the top, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If you want a shotgun salute by Western gunfighters to welcome you at the front gate, this is your kind of place. This is true Texas style (or at least true Texas style through the eyes of a New Yorker): beer, barbecue, hay wagons, singing cowboys, trail rides, horseshoes, line dancing, roping lessons, and rodeos. Other themes, like the “Roadhouse Ranch Biker Barbecue,” are also available.

 
Barton Creek Resort
photography courtesy of Barton Creek Resort 

The Sanford House Inn & Spa (Arlington)
www.thesanfordhouse.com
What you’ll find: The first question you’ll ask is, “Is this really Arlington?” The Sanford House was built as a B&B by two doctors in 1997; they started focusing on the corporate side about five years ago. The staff calls the place a “boutique luxury inn.” Certainly, the Victorian mansion is all class: with high tea on Tuesdays and rooms named after Mozart, Vivaldi, Bach, and the like. It’s a nice step back in time—with wireless Internet, of course.
What clients have to say: “Gracious” is the word that comes
to mind. It’s difficult to believe a place so quaint can also be so high-tech. The staff is unobtrusive yet seems to know just when you need or want something. The food is always a treat; don’t assume something that sounds uninteresting like a salad trio will be uninteresting at all. The entire place takes your corporate goals for your event up a notch.
What we have to say: This place looks more like Fredericksburg than Arlington, which is always a good thing. Although The Sanford House doesn’t have traditional corporate retreat mainstays like a ropes course, a large conference room, or a business center, it is simple elegance we don’t have enough of these days.

Wildcatter Ranch (Graham)
www.wildcatterranch.com
What you’ll find: In 2001, a few folks from around Graham got together and decided the area needed a ranch to rent out for private events. Wildcatter can accommodate groups of 50 or fewer for corporate events and has a cozy, lots-o-wood library if you have no more than 20 coming to the table. Each of the guest rooms tells a story about local history, from the Southwest cattle raisers to the Indian battles (one room even has a teepee-style bed).
What clients have to say: Staff is genuine, honest, and helpful. The chicken-fried steak and fried catfish are excellent—but you really have no choice but to order the steak. Guests don’t like to brag about the place because they’re worried too many will follow them out there.
What we have to say: The Wildcatter is like a 6-year-old boy set loose on the world—they’ll try anything. One client wanted a unique team-building experience so the staff created the “GPS Amazing Race.” Teams drove around the ranch, finding a challenge at each destination, including building a fire, fishing, and shooting.

 
The Woodlands Hotel
photography courtesy of Kaplan Public Relations
 

Rough Creek Lodge & Resort (Glen Rose)
www.roughcreek.com
What you’ll find: Rough Creek is impressive—from the 40-foot-tall limestone fireplace in the main lodge room to the care taken to identify local wildlife along the 5-mile nature trail. According to the North American Restaurant Association, the restaurant is “by far the best dining in Texas.” They have a rule against anything frozen. Rough Creek caters fairly equally to corporate visitors and families on holiday. But no worries; you won’t have any cannonballers splashing water in your martini if you don’t want to; the adult-only and family pools are nowhere near each other.
What clients have to say: From a business perspective, the conference facilities are state of the art. The staff has a can-do attitude and if you want to sit on the porch, drinking beer and eating popcorn, they’ll make it happen. The restaurant is five-star quality and flexible (whether you want vegetarian, low-fat, or low-sodium), and the bar area has the perfect design for socializing.
What we have to say: The staff treats you like you are the most important person in the room and will do anything they can to make you happy. Activities are varied—skeet shooting, archery, spa, horseback riding, ATV, even a cattle drive if you are so inclined—to keep everyone interested. The place has a very Texas feel—but in that pampered Ewing way, not the annoying Walker, Texas Ranger way.

Gaylord Texan (Grapevine)
www.gaylordhotels.com/gaylordtexan
What you’ll find: The idea at the Gaylord is that everything is under one roof—six restaurants, shopping, spa, strolling entertainers, etc.—so you don’t have to leave if you don’t want to. They even opened a nightclub recently, the Glass Cactus, completing their own little Gaylord universe.
What clients have to say: The staff does a good job of keeping everyone happy. The food in the Old Hickory is great, and a private dinner by the pool is even better.
What we have to say: Some people think it’s too crowded, too big, and too suburban. But sometimes having everything under one very large roof is easy. If that’s what you’re looking for, Gaylord does a good job of it.

Doral Tesoro Hotel & Golf Club (Fort Worth)
www.doraltesoro.com
What you’ll find: This is a resort that’s all business. Although it looks like a leisure resort, the focus is on the corporate sector. The Texas Motor Speedway is across the street if you’re interested in a NASCAR team-building adventure.
What clients have to say: The all-in-one package makes things easy for those planning retreats. The ergonomic chairs and tables are comfortable, customer service is attentive, and no one is ever hungry. The location is convenient if you have people making the drive from DFW International Airport, which is only about 20 minutes away.
What we have to say: The hotel’s “dreamy beds” sound, well, dreamy. They are promised to be the best in the industry—the best mattresses, best pillows, highest-quality bedding. The staff must expect guests to get pretty cozy in them because they offer two wake-up calls 15 minutes apart—a nice touch, as is the free Starbucks coffee.


WORTH DRIVING FOR

Barton Creek Resort & Spa (Austin)
www.bartoncreek.com
What you’ll find: If you love to golf, you’ve probably been to one of Barton Creek’s two golf courses designed by Tom Fazio (there are four in all). That was the initial draw to Barton Creek, although now it’s only one of many reasons people come. Team-building activities are some of the most unique around: Happy Hour Shootout (including cocktails and golf), Whole Foods Progressive Meal Challenge (ever competed in a vegetable peeling relay?), Canopy Tours (you, a zip-line, and 100-foot-tall cypress tress), and the Corporate Rock Stars (with the assistance of local musicians). If you want to meet in a fancy boardroom, they have it. Amphitheater more your style? Done. Ballroom? Yep. Outdoor pavilion? Poolside patio? Your meeting wish is their Hill Country command.
What clients have to say: Basically, you can’t think of something they won’t do (within good taste, of course). One international corporation wanted a Gatsby-style croquet game with bagpipes and champagne on the greens. And they got it. They will cater to any whim—and every whim, as is necessary with a large group. Everyone from the greenskeeper to the chef will go over your plans to make sure all is well. Says one client about his Barton Creek coordinator: “She knows me as well as my wife for 27 years.”
What we have to say: Face it: It’s pretty much always worth driving to Austin, isn’t it? Although we love the crunchy side of Austin, it’s nice that they don’t serve granola bars during the breakouts here. Dove bars, Tazo teas, cheese, pastries, and fruit really keep the mind going. Most key staff members have been around for 10 to 20 years. Barton Creek also gets extra points for its environmental policies, which include all four of its golf courses being named “Certified Sanctuaries” by the Audubon Society. The Fazio Canyons course is ranked even higher, as a “Signature Sanctuary.”

Woodlands Hotel & Conference Center (The Woodlands)
www.woodlandsresort.com
What you’ll find: The only distraction here are the trees and view of Lake Harrison (all highly visible by the floor-to-ceiling windows in most rooms). The place is so inspiring ExxonMobil and Shell Oil both have complete learning centers on-site. But it’s not all work. The Center has a 16-foot-tall Alamo replica if you want the backdrop for a margarita party; a “Restaurants of the World” event that takes you from New Orleans to Jamaica to Spain; and a Hawaiian feast featuring flaming pineapples and traditional Polynesian music and dancing (which apparently also involves flames).
What clients have to say: Although you’re really still in urban Houston, it feels as though you’re in the middle of a forest—deer sightings are common. The Boursin-stuffed chicken is a must-try. The staff—from the meeting planners to the waiters and waitresses—are top-notch. Lots of breakout rooms give nice flexibility.
What we have to say: You know it’s good if we’re recommending a drive down I-45. The Center has put an added emphasis on families lately, adding water slides to the pool area, weekend poolside movies, clowns, face painting, and the like—a nice bonus for families making a little holiday out of mom or dad’s work retreat.

Roddy Tree Ranch (Hunt)
www.roddytree.com
What you’ll find: Owners Gretchen and Keith Asbury originally bought 31 acres and seven cabins, eventually expanding to 45 acres and 16 cabins. Today, the Asburys and co-owners Jim and Helen Gambrell specialize in small events. The Ranch’s outdoor pavilion, the 1925 Hunt School Barn, comes complete with a dance floor, Wurlitzer jukebox, and picnic tables. The Ranch sits on 800 feet of riverfront along the Guadalupe, where you can fish, canoe, or try the paddle boats. Many activities are off-site (horseback riding) or brought in (spa treatments).
What clients have to say: This is the antithesis of Corporate America. You will hear no highway traffic here. If you’re dealing with heavy-duty corporate planning or strategizing, there’s nothing more relaxing than taking a break to listen to the birds and walk along of the Guadalupe. Meeting spaces and rooms are cozy, and the small space gives it a family weekend environment, bringing employees closer together.
What we have to say: This is the Hill Country at its finest—slow-paced, low-key, and lovely. You can’t put a price on what a walk in the woods or by the river will do for productivity. You may remember going to camp in this area as a kid. But don’t worry—rustic here means being close to nature when you want to be and sleeping in 300-thread Egyptian sheets when you don’t.

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