Pricing

Camp SketchDeck: Hosting our first virtual retreat

2020 popularized the concept of virtual corporate retreats. In this article, we’ll cover how we prepped for our very first one, provide a sampling of our activities, and share a few logistical lessons we learned. 

Pricing

Ever since SketchDeck was born six years ago, retreats have always been a yearly highlight. 

We have built bonds and made memories in places like Portland, Austin, Lake Tahoe, Miami and more. 

That’s why in spite of COVID, we knew a retreat had to happen–we couldn’t miss out on an opportunity to foster community during the craziest year yet. So we took our retreat planning online, and created Camp SketchDeck!


Much like everyone else, we were new to the virtual retreat concept–but as a startup, we’re well familiar with the unknown. In this article, we’ll cover how we prepped, provide a sampling of our retreat activities, and even share a few logistical lessons we learned. 

So what are we waiting for? Let’s go to camp! 

How to prep for a virtual work retreat 

Preparation depends on many factors–budget, timeline, goals and schedule, to name a few. 

But no matter if you’re planning a 2 or 5 day affair, have a few thousand or tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars at your discretion, and a few weeks or months to plan, here are a few of our recommendations:   

Brand it 

Branding is just as important for a virtual retreat as for an in-person event. (So much so that we wrote about it in this article.) 

We took our own advice and combined it with a longing for simpler times, spending time outdoors, and reconnecting with each other to create the custom Camp SketchDeck brand. 

Inspired by nostalgia for childhood summer camp in the 80s, we created a complete custom branding pack of assets, from save the dates:


To event presentation templates: 


And even virtual Zoom backgrounds: 

Even though our team sees design every day, we couldn’t stop talking about the brand–which was several times touted as a favorite element. It amplified the excitement for the event itself, then made us feel like we were getting to experience something new together. 

Using the virtual backgrounds was particularly satisfying for some–so much so that they may or may not still be using them…

One of our designers, Roberto, holding down the fort

Set up separate, event-specific communication channels

A dedicated communication channel for the event not only goes a long way to carry through branding, it also helps cut down on the fatigue and clutter that ensues when a channel is being used for multiple company communications. 

Once the branding for camp was underway, we debuted the #campsketchdeck Slack channel on our “fun” channel: #watercooler. Then we invited everyone to the channel itself, setting the precedent that future camp communications would take place there. 

We then launched and started fun camp-themed questions and conversations about a week before the event, in order to continue building up the buzz.

Send reminders… and then send more 

People are busy with–you guessed it–work. Because of this, there is almost no such thing as too many reminders. A pressing project timeline or client call is one thing, but there’s nothing worse than a teammate missing out because they lost track of time or didn’t remember. 

Employ the tools at your disposal–Slack, email, calendar reminders, and more–to make sure people are sufficiently informed about the activities planned, both asynchronous and not.

We sent out calendar invites in advance, then posted a complete schedule in the #campsketchdeck channel. If your event has a webpage, posting there is even better! 

We also found that sending additional slack reminders in advance, typically 30 minutes and 5 minutes before the event, helped colleagues remember to stop and join the fun whenever possible. 

Slack schedule announcement

Set the tone and energy early 

With no one knowing exactly what a virtual retreat looked like (not even our planning committee), we knew we had to set the standard upfront with humility and yes–silliness. So, we shared a promo video to get everyone ready for the week. 

Stay tuned until the end for a surprise guest of the furry variety...


What to do at a virtual work retreat 

Now that we’ve discussed how we prepped for the corporate retreat, let’s dive into a popular question… What do you DO at a virtual retreat?

We won’t act like we know exactly what your company needs–your goals for retreat could range from rolling out a new strategy to fostering community and more. And depending on your headcount, some activities may be more feasible for your team than others.  

With that said, here are just a few of the things we did at ours, to inspire your future remote retreat activities. 

Social hours

At an in-person retreat, unplanned, off-the-cuff conversations occur naturally–whether it be at dinner, amidst games, in transport to the next destination or elsewhere. Sometimes, these conversations are the best ones. 

That’s why on top of prompting our community to schedule their own Donut dates and Slack calls, we knew we wanted to incorporate space for fun group conversations. So we scheduled social happy hours for teammates from across the globe to connect via video call.

At SketchDeck, no matter where you live or what your first language is, one thing is pretty universally loved: pets. Since this was the first retreat where bringing our furry friends was an option, we couldn’t waste a golden opportunity. As a result, one of our hosted social hours was a midday yappy hour where we met dogs, cats, and even turtles!

We didn’t discriminate against non-pet owners, though–yappy hour was also inclusive to those who had plants, or even imaginary pets. After some chit chat, we were all tasked to draw our pet/plant as a superhero.

Not all of us are designers/artists by trade, but regardless we had a great time sharing our pets strengths, weaknesses and supernames. As you can see below, clearly some SketchDeck superhero comics are in order: 

Super Huitla: Will run for raw chicken, but has an angel chicken (in heels) to keep her safe and not too far from her obsessively loving human parents

Movie screening 

We all spend so much time in front of screens these days, but do we do screenings anymore? 

We have a lot of movie buffs at SketchDeck, so we did a Slack poll to vote for camp movies. Funnily enough, a movie not in the original poll options triumphed in the end–Meatballs came was a surprise addition by a teammate who ended up recruiting a following, leading to the movie’s victory over Moonrise Kingdom by a narrow margin. 

We used the Kast app to host a private movie party and it was a super user-friendly experience! So much so, in fact, that we may have to host more movie watching parties in the future… starting, of course, with Moonrise Kingdom!

Private Meatballs movie screening via Kast

Yoga session  

Just because you can’t be physically in-person at a virtual retreat, doesn’t mean you can’t incorporate physical activity into your time. (The team that sweats together stays together, right?) 

We were super fortunate to have worked with myYogaTeacher on a design project, so we reached out and coordinated a private group class for our company mid-week. Our teacher Sheena taught an All levels class and those interested joined in for a relaxing (yet challenging!) Hatha yoga class. 

As one of our project managers, Matt, said: “Wow, I have never seen so much flexibility–she is impressive! Thanks so much for setting it up…. was my first yoga class ever, and will 100% do some more!

Sheena at myYogaTeacher leads us through poses

Cooking lessons 

One perk of having colleagues all over the world? We get to share international cuisine often, whether it be recipes from our very own talented chefs like Lorena of Hola Vegan or simply ones we find on the internet! 

In fact, we love food so much that we have a slack channel, #recipesbydesign, dedicated solely to sharing it. 

So when one of our teammates Caio Tomazoni offered to teach us the art of Brazlilan BBQ live, we couldn’t say no. He grilled live on camera for us, while also instructing us on how to make the perfect farofa and caipirinhas. 

Main takeaway: Meat and salt is all you need. And literally the only downside of this session? We were all starving afterwards!

Caio grills meats, cheese and bread while we watch hungrily

Friendly competition

With past retreats often consisting of late nights of Code Names, Mafia and more, it wouldn’t be a SketchDeck retreat without a game. 

We ended the week with a surprise competition: A friendly round of I shot the serif. If you like testing your typography skills, you’ll want to try this game. 

I predict that we’ll be trying to beat the high score of our winner, Peter, for quite a while… 

Peter wins by an 115 point margin

Virtual coworking 

Perhaps one of the most seemingly underrated activities was in fact a runaway success: virtual coworking hours. 

That’s right–simply sitting in a zoom room with cameras on and a group playlist was a hit. So much so that people were jumping in with song suggestions in slack, even when they weren’t in the room!

Try it–the results might just surprise you! 

Playlist created during day 2 of cabin coworking

End on a high

If you have the budget (if you usually have an in-person retreat, you probably do!) and time, there’s no better way to end the event than with swag. 

Not only are swag bags universally known for their mood-boosting abilities, a gift can make people feel like they were really there. Never underestimate the power of even a small physical token–Having a t-shirt to wear or postcard to hand on the wall can keep colleagues reminiscing about the memories for years to come! 

Give the team something physical, and you give them something to talk about (and take pictures of!) long after the event is over. 

A post-camp care package

Lessons in logistics

We had an amazing virtual work retreat, it’s true. But as with everything in life, there’s always room for improvement! 

Here are two recommendations we have based on our experience: 

Test tech in advance 

We were surprisingly lucky with how many little technical errors occurred over the course of a 5-day virtual retreat. With that said, we’ll rely on luck even less next time! 

Just like you would for an in-person event, be sure to conduct dry runs to test audio, visual, and even features like breakout rooms, etc. in advance with a crew. We also suggest following Lindsay Selvitelle’s, Director of Events at Y Combinator, advice on IT–assign these responsibilities to a colleague or group of colleagues before the event, so that your team feels supported and taken care of whenever technical difficulties arise. 

If you test in advance, after all, you may avoid a few of our hiccups, such as listening to Spotify + background noise. 

Time zones

One challenge that we anticipated but didn’t manage to solve perfectly for was time zones. With SketchDeckers spread worldwide from California to Indonesia, navigating time zones can be a tad tricky at times. 

While we did our best to incorporate sessions at different times and/or times where more of our community was awake and available, we still could’ve done more for our Asia Pacific team members. For the next virtual work retreat, we plan to continue to mitigate this by polling more in advance for best times and offering duplicate sessions for meetings and activities whenever possible.  

Takeaways

Now that we have one virtual retreat under our belt, we can’t wait to plan more regular virtual events. Not only that, but we are excited to start incorporating the highlights–like regular virtual coworking sessions–into regular SketchDeck life. 

We’d love nothing more than to help you make your next virtual event a success. Check out our virtual event design services and get started here! 

Sending virtual retreat vibes from our team to yours!


Sandra Draude

Sandra’s passions? People and creativity, making SketchDeck a natural fit. She holds a BS in Advertising, but currently dabbles in marketing, people ops, billing and more–she’s proud to elevate a team whenever and wherever she can. On the rare chance she’s not working, you can find her doing jigsaw puzzles, dreaming of France or exploring the outdoors with her husband and young son.

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