Essex Woods Meeting & Retreat Center: Escape the Ordinary

Last week I was searching for “team building in Boston” and I found Essex Woods Meeting & Retreat Center. This article includes information about Essex Woods’ rich history, including how the business evolved from it’s original purpose as a spiritual retreat center to its current focus on team building, corporate training and company retreats.

Essex Woods’ Highlights

This section is a quick summary of what I learned about Essex Woods and specifically the highlights, AKA “why you should do your next team building event at Essex Woods.”

Because…

  1. The venue is best for groups of 26 to 30 people, but can accommodate up to 50 for an overnight stay;
  2. Essex Woods can accommodate larger groups up to 125, but for daytime only visits;
  3. Your group will have exclusive access to the facilities, i.e., Essex Woods does not double book dates;
  4. The team at Essex Woods is smart and passionate, they care about you and your team a lot;
  5. They work with you on any special dietary needs to make sure the nut allergies and gluten free folk in your group can eat too;
  6. There are great indoor facilities for meetings and workshops and awesome outdoor facilities for rope climbing, kayaking and other sports;
  7. There is a Fire Circle for getting in touch with your deepest team connections;
  8. Essex Woods is open all year round.

Alright, let’s go into the details…

How to Find Essex Woods

Essex Woods is located 45 minutes outside downtown Boston, Massachusetts, close to beautiful Essex Bay. The recommended route from downtown is via MA-128 N, but there are several comparable routes. Here is the Google Map with directions from Boston to Essex Woods, 1 Conomo Point Road, Essex, MA 01929. You will know when you arrive because of the beautiful architecture and unique art installations.

Essex Woods’ Facilities

When I think about a company retreat, I imagine a luxury hotel out in the mountains as one option and something more “campy” as the other option. Both types of retreats have their pros and cons, but Essex Woods appears to be the best of both worlds. Essex Woods is like a luxury cottage, with well maintained facilities both indoors and outdoors.

The indoor facilities at Essex Woods include various meetings rooms, a lounge, sleeping room for up to 50, a hot tub and sauna. Outdoors, there is a brand new rope course, kayaking and a fire circle (s’mores included). There is dining space both indoors and outdoors.

The landscaping at Essex Woods is beautiful. The enterprise began as a non-denominational, spiritual retreat center and then for many years was a wedding and reception venue. Recently, a new owner acquired the center and decided to stop hosting weddings so the business could focus on company team building, workshops and retreats. The scenery is still “wedding photo ready” and is a perfect place to capture photos of your fun company retreat to show off on your blog or careers page.

Team Building Activities at Essex Woods

When you take your team to Essex Woods for a company retreat, you have the option of facilitating your own activities or working with a facilitator. Your choice of activities include:

  • summits and meetings in the meeting room;
  • a rope course that requires collaboration and team work to complete;
  • kayaking to help relieve stress and get fun, physical exercise;
  • the fire circle, with games, songs and s’mores;
  • workshops and training, including how to function better as a cohesive team.

Essex Woods is in the process of hiring expert facilitators for a variety of important themes. Currently, you can book workshops with Adrian Wilkins on the Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team or Gibrán Rivera on leadership and creativity. If you prefer, you can run your own team workshops at Essex Woods. Here are some suggestions:

  • sexual harassment training;
  • health, wellness and spirituality;
  • building cohesion from confrontation;
  • unleashing your creativity;
  • brand or compliance training;
  • new employee on-boarding;
  • safety and product training;
  • positive psychology and “how to be happy”;
  • how to make better decisions faster;
  • company goals & mission;
  • advanced problem solving;
  • how to make lists 😀

A good way to determine what your training workshop should be about is reviewing your employees’ quarterly reviews and seeing what they want to improve or are challenged with. If you notice a pattern of people feeling isolated at the office, you can lead a workshop on improving communication. If many people on your team feel spread thin and like they are juggling too many tasks, then you can lead a productivity workshop to teach them tools and processes to make their work easier.

Featured Team Building Activity: The Fire Circle

One of the unique activities at Essex Woods is a fire circle, a safe venue for a powerful fire. The act of gathering around a fire has brought people together since the “invention” of fire, and gives your team an opportunity to bond with activities, songs, s’mores and more. Notice that Essex Woods’ doesn’t call this a fire pit or bonfire. I expect the choice of wording is intentional, as the word circle connotes harmony, cohesion and completeness.

Interview With Adrian Wilkins, Owner of Essex Woods Meeting & Retreat Center

Adrian Wilkins and I jumped on a call to talk about Essex Woods’ history and unique approach to team building. Adrian is an experienced entrepreneur, owner of Essex Woods and an Authorized Partner of the 5 Behaviors of a Cohesive Team. Adrian’s expertise and passion is in building teams and working with people, which is clear when he talks with pride about his own team at Essex Woods. You can see Adrian’s full profile here.

Listen to this interview to learn more about Essex Woods’ unique history, it’s mission to help build better teams, and it’s world class facilities. We also discussed some of the common challenges teams face in today’s work environment and practical solutions for overcoming them.

Interview Transcript

Michael: The first question I have for you is about yourself. So you said – tell me a little bit about your history with this business.

Adrian: Sure, yeah. Well, first of all, my own personal background I have, I was an entrepreneur, opened and started, built and sold a number of small businesses. Then about 20 years ago I became more interested in coaching other people in their businesses than running my own, at least in the way that I have in the past. And I do a lot of work around my own personal growth and personal development. Took some courses, did some additional training and started a business coaching and consulting.

The way that I got involved with Essex Woods is one of the programs that I helped facilitate was an emotional reeducation workshop that was held at the Essex Retreat Center, the Essex Woods and I’ve heard that it was ultimately going to be sold and I wanted to continue the business because I thought it had a lot of value. And so back in January of 2016 I purchased the business.

Michael: Wow, okay. So there’s a lot there I’d love to unbundle a little bit.

Adrian: Okay. Sure.

Michael: So can you tell me a little bit more about your background as an entrepreneur?

Adrian: Yeah, I started a retail chain back in 1986, I was 28 years old, built it to 12 locations and sold it. And I went on to purchase a printing company but I found that I was relatively successful in business but it wasn’t what really excited me. What really excited me was building the teams that I had within the businesses and helping people sort of understand why they do what they do.

And so as I said, what I did is I made a decision, I sold the printing business and made a decision to start a kind of a hybrid of a coaching and consulting business where there was some training and some expertise brought from owning businesses but working with people more as an executive coach before people were really doing a lot of executive coaching and brought those two worlds together.

And as part of that, I also worked with a therapist upon the North Shore in Massachusetts running emotional reeducation workshops for people that were trying to accelerate their personal growth.

Michael: Got it. So when you were in your – it sounds like early to mid 30’s you said “Okay, this business thing is great and I’m good at it but I really like the people part of that, I want to double down on that.”

Adrian: Absolutely.

Michael: I love that and the presence of mind for that and I expect it works really closely together with what you’re doing now with the company retreats and meetings etc. I’ve got a very specific question though which is what is emotional reeducation?

Adrian: Yeah, so a lot of people will do some kind of personal growth whether it’d be therapy or coaching or whatever they decide to do and they’ll still find that they are still – even though they now understand why they do what they do, they find themselves having a difficult time making the actual changes in their life. And so we do a weekend-long workshop where we help people kind of release traumas in the body or really learn where these things came from and actually change them on a more physical-emotional level than is typically possible with the traditional modalities.

Michael: Got it. So I’m missing a step because you had this expertise in business, you started a retail chain etc. but then to go to emotional reeducation, I understand with the therapists involved but how did you approach kind of teaching that and facilitating that?

Adrian: Yeah, I think what I really did more than anything, well, first of all, I had participated in those workshops for a number of years and then learned as I went along but I also did a lot of different trainings along the way that anything that I found that was helpful I participated in those and learned as much as I could. And that really was a learning on the job.

Michael: Right. Are there any other kind of workshops or self-improvement learning that you did over the years that really stand out that you’d recommend to other people?

Adrian: One that I do currently that’s very relevant is something by Patrick Lencioni, he is a famous author in business. He has written a number of books but probably one of his most famous books was called “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team”. And he developed a training called “The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team” through Wiley Publishing. And I became an authorized partner and certified to teach that training. I had actually been teaching it for a number of years, with that knowledge and they formalized the process a few years ago. And earlier this year I became an authorized partner. It’s a very powerful training for leadership teams in really any industry to help them get leverage out of the organizational health of their team.

Michael: Right. I remember we actually worked through “The Five Dysfunctions” a few months back. Yeah, we haven’t kept up with it as we should but I remember that I got crystal clear on things like communication, do you feel comfortable like speaking your voice and challenging other people? Things that perhaps you might otherwise see as confrontational but in hindsight you realize oh, well, that’s actually part of a productive business.

Adrian: Yeah, it’s actually counterintuitive because I think a lot of companies look for harmony and although you don’t want people emotionally fighting in the company, to conflict is a very important piece. And Lencioni’s model basically starts with having trust and it’s a different kind of trust than most people think about. And then he moves into what allows conflicts because you now feel safe to disagree which fosters more powerful commitments and then which when you have commitment people are then willing to be held accountable and then really having an attention to results of the company and not the individual.

So it’s a very, very powerful model and if it’s implemented fully which is I think the challenge most people will read the book, talk about it a little bit but they don’t really will roll up their sleeves. And so what we do is we do a 2 day program where a leadership team can come in and really learn and apply the 5 behaviors and when they do that the results are exceptional.

Michael: Got it. What’s a specific example of how they go from kind of reading the book, being involved with it but then actually applying it in their business?

Adrian: Sure. So you know I just did a training with a company and the owner is a great guy, very open, very progressive and when he got finished he came back to me and he said “Wow, we’re having conversations we never had before. We’re having disagreements we never had before. Issues that we would get pocket vetoed are no longer getting pocket vetoed. People are actually speaking their displeasure with the idea in advance, we work through it and then we move on. So our meetings have been a lot more productive and we’re actually getting traction on the things that we said matter to us.”

Michael: Awesome. I want to dig into that, those kinds of like best practices and applications a little bit more but first I really want to focus on Essex Woods so that I can…

Adrian: Sure.

Michael: …promote that and give it the attention it deserves. So in a few sentences can you tell me what is Essex Woods?

Adrian: You know, Essex Woods is currently a meeting and retreat center. It has an incredible history, it was built back in the 70’s truly by a group of hippies that were creating a spiritual retreat center and then went on to become a commune where families lived and then became a photography school with a person who actually apprenticed with Ansel Adams. It’s got a tremendous history and energy to it.

About 5 years ago in addition to doing retreat so even longer, back around ‘09 when the economy got hurt they decided to expand and do weddings and it kind of diluted the brand and there was a lot of question as to whether or not it would continue. The owner of the property was getting a little bit older and said “I don’t know if I’m going to keep doing this or not.” And I looked at it and said, you know, this is such a special place, it has an incredible energy to it that I really don’t want to see it go away and I thought that it was totally in alignment with my purpose and what I believe in and doing all kinds of things that I like to do.

So I offered to buy it which I did and the first thing we did is we actually stopped doing weddings, not because we have anything against weddings but it really wasn’t in alignment with the brand. And we really focused on finding great facilitators, you know, improving the center. We did some enhancements and remodeling and cleaning it up, that kind of thing. We have a ropes course on the property, we expanded the ropes course so that team building can be done on the ropes course. We also have a fire circle around 17 acres. We have a separate building with a hot tub and sauna for relaxing at night. We can sleep close to 50 people. We have our own dining rooms.

So it’s an amazing space, 17 acres of land. When people come it’s only 45 minutes from Boston and yet when they drive up the driveway they invariably will say “I can’t explain it but I feel so calm when I come here.” And that really is the essence of Essex Woods is it creates an environment for really powerful change. And that can be on a personal level, on a business level, in a team building environment, it can be for college retreats. Anything where people’s commitment is to their own and their company’s growth.

Michael: That’s interesting. It sounds like you’ve really been able to retain the original idea of it being a spiritual retreat but perhaps reframing it to be more accessible to other groups.

Adrian: Yeah, because there is no one spirituality that it follows, it’s just really more about communing with nature and being in an environment where everyone who’s been in the building has been committed to a deeper learning.

Michael: Right. Now, you decided to let go of the weddings business and you have a beautiful property. In my understanding weddings can be a major revenue generator for a lot of businesses. Can you tell me a little bit more about that decision?

Adrian: Sure. Yeah, it was actually immediately a 50% drop in revenue but it just as much as it was a great space for doing weddings when we really looked at it and thought about it and thought about it we said how does this line up without our vision of personal growth? And it really didn’t. It was a difficult decision in one way in the sense that financially obviously it had impact but it was an easy decision knowing what we were committed to doing.

Michael: Incredible. I think that’s a bold decision but I love to hear when businesses make these because it does sound like it’s been a correct one for you. Can you tell me a little bit more about your team? Who runs Essex Woods?

Adrian: Well, we have a business manager, Christine, we have Cecilia who is our events coordinator. We have a number of other people that are support to it. But the people that are there are the same people that were there before I bought it and I expect they got to continue. They’re terrific people; they really, really get it.

In fact, shortly after I purchased the business – just to give you an example of the kinds of things I think are amazing – I was calling into the office to speak to Christine and I got her on speakerphone and she said to me “I’m in the car with Michael” – was the name of person and that was a client that spent the weekend there with their group. And I said “Oh, okay.” And she said “Well, their car service for whatever reason didn’t pick them up and they needed to be at the airport so I just figured I’d give them a ride on the way home.” So from Essex to Logan Airport is not on your way home. And I said “Okay, well you call me when you’re all done.” And she called me later and I said to her that “It was awesome that you did that, Christine.” She said “Well, like why wouldn’t I? They needed it and I was there so it’s no big deal.” And that’s sort of how they treat all of our guests and I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have the people that I have.

Michael: I love it. It’s so great when you can rely on your people like that. And I hear you and giving credit to them and their kind of willingness and empathy and helping out the guest. I’m interested in how you have helped cultivate that further. Like what do you do for own kind of team building and team integrity and communication, etc.?

Adrian: Yeah. We meet regularly, we have a 5 behaviors workshop plan for ourselves and the challenge there is that I don’t want to facilitate it because I can’t. There’s a lot of open communication. I think the gift that they really bring is that they treat it like it’s their own and they think I’ve done a good job at it striking that balance between leading the team and staying out of their way. I think if I were to be too much in the way, that would be a problem and yet they do need to understand where we’re going. And so I think all I’ve really done is help them understand where we’re going and they’ve done the rest of it.

Michael: Right. Fantastic. All right. I want to dig into Essex Woods and the team building retreats, how that business has evolved. You mentioned the specific examples; you mentioned the rope course, the ability to sleep 50 plus people overnight. What does a typical retreat look like for a company?

Adrian: You know, it can really vary. Most of the time, a company will come to us knowing that they’re looking more for the space to hold their own retreat and they’re not actually looking for facilitation services. So they may know they’re having an annual board meeting or whatever they’re doing and they’ll say “Hey, look, we need space, we need food, we need meeting rooms, we need some options for hour and hour and that kind of thing. And that’s all they’re looking for.

In other cases they will come and say “Hey, look, we really want to do something special and the ropes course sounds great” and we’ll bring in our facilitator for the ropes course and we’ll do that. Or they’ll say “What we really want is we’re having some dysfunction on our team. Do you guys do that?” And there’s a case where I might step in but we’re also in the process this year of putting more and more talented facilitators on our team so that when someone comes to us and says I need help with creativity, we’re stuck. That we’ll have the right person that’s great at facilitating that. I mean I can do the 5 dysfunctions work or the 5 behaviors work but it’s not the only option out there. So we’re growing that slowly because we really want the right people, it’s so important to me that anybody that’s associated with us is well above average. But it’s getting there.

Michael: Right. When you hire a people do you look that – how to put this? – do you look for certain personality traits and an ability to learn? Or are you looking that they already have the hard skills for what you want them to teach?

Adrian: Well, yeah, I think they have to have it for what they want to teach. I’m really looking for that person who says I’ve been doing this for a number of years; this is the kind of group I’m incredibly successful with. I promise you that your guest or your client will have had a powerful experience. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t – if someone came to me and said I really want to learn how to teach the 5 behaviors that I wouldn’t help them or if I wouldn’t help them teaching them some team dynamics work. But if I’m going to recommend somebody I need to know that they have it down.

Michael: Got it. So…

Adrian: And usually those people come to us from a company that brought a facilitator in that they knew about and you just keep getting rave reviews about that person then we’re likely to reach out to them.

Michael: Got it. What does the kind of booking and scheduling process look like? So imagine, I’m a big company based in downtown Boston, I’m interested in doing retreats so I have contacted you. What are the next steps?

Adrian: Sure. Yeah, it’s pretty easy. First of all, our rates and our availability is online so you can jump onto our website and get an idea what things cost and then you can actually look to see the dates that are tentatively open. I think the important things for most people is to get in early enough. In another words, what happens our cycle looks like is a year out we’re not particularly booked. 6 months out we’re more booked. 3 months out we really start to book a particular month. So right now we’re booking January and February. November and December are pretty much what they’re going to be. So I would give people – I would encourage people to book early.

And then it’s as simple as picking up the phone, calling Christine, saying I want these dates. Once they do that we send out an agreement that explains what the costs are, what’s included, what’s not included. And basically we include everything: all [inaudible 18:21], food, everything is included.

And then once they have signed an agreement with us then our event coordinator, Cecilia will reach back out to find out about things like food allergies, when they’re coming, when they’re leaving, what specific needs do they have, is there anything that we need to know in order to make their visit a positive one.

Michael: Got it. Great. I think that’s very clear. Now I’d like to come back to the part of the conversation we were talking about, kind of best practices and challenges the teams face. So when groups come to you you’ve mentioned the 5 dysfunctions, you’ve mentioned some other challenges that they may have. What are the top 2 or 3 reasons that people are booking a retreat like this?

Adrian: I think most of the time it’s because that they know that they need to be working on their business not in their business but they need to take a step back and gain some perspective that they need the phone to stop ringing, they email to stop and really slow it down and ask the difficult questions which is difficult to ask when you’re answering all those emails and phone calls and have deadlines etc. It’s really that opportunity to unplug and I think when a good facilitator comes together with a great environment, the leverage that a company can get is phenomenal.

Michael: Right. Definitely. So with that in mind, with these groups coming in, do you find that you’re working with kind of entrepreneurs and managers that are a little bit higher level, that are a little bit more kind of self-aware about the challenges that they’re facing?

Adrian: Yeah. You know, that’s a little hard for me to answer because I know the groups that I’m involved with, absolutely that’s the case but in some cases we’ll have team building for a group of college students. And we just had – we’ve had probably this year a dozen of the major colleges come and do retreats with us. So it may not be quite at the same level. Then you’ll get nonprofits who have a tendency to be much more self-aware and there’s a lot more depth. Then you’ll get corporations where it’s really, there’s depth but it’s really about results. So it varies depending upon the group. Our only, not condition but our guiding principle is that there’s some level of personal growth happening.

Michael: Right. Got it. All right. Just a couple quick questions to wrap this up. One thing I made note of is you’re all-season, correct?

Adrian: Absolutely. Yeah.

Michael: Awesome. So you book people throughout the winter. Although do you see many around kind of Christmas and the holidays or does it slow down at that time?

Adrian: It’s funny, we’re booked up solidly for Christmas for the month of December. They say in the past it has been slow but they’re seeing more bookings happening at this time of the year then they’ve noticed in the past so I think that something is changing. We are looking at adding amenities for the winter like we have lots of trails, we’re near the ocean so we’re looking to doing some snow showing, we’re toying with the idea of adding outdoor skating rink for people to use when they’re here. Like I said we have the fire circle that gets used all year round, the hot tub, the sauna. So we’re geared for the winter but absolutely I would say that our busier seasons are from spring through late fall.

Michael: Got it. Okay, I think that wraps it up pretty well. You’ve given me kind of a ton of information about the business and the teams etc. Is there a suggested group size; minimum and maximum?

Adrian: You know, I would say that a great group size for us is about 25-26. And certainly smaller groups like a lot of the 5 behaviors work ends up being 8 to 10, 8 to 12 people. But one of the things we do with the center is we offer exclusivity to the group that’s there. So what we don’t do is we don’t put two groups in at the same time if we can because we really want that experience to be a special one.

So what can happen is if the group size is too small it can have an impact on the cost per person. So at that 25-26 level is great, I would say even less than that is fine but not a lot less. And when you get up closer to 50, it’s fine, we’ve even had bigger groups and we have outside resources to increase the numbers that we can handle, like local lodging but I would say that that’s probably – the range is in that 25 to 50 range.

Michael: Got it. All right. Before we wrap up, anything else that we kind of didn’t cover, could have gone a little bit deeper into, anything else that you’d like to kind of talk about or share about your business?

Adrian: Yeah, off the top of my head Michael, I can’t think of anything. I think your questions were helpful. It helped me reflect but so no I think that’s pretty good.

Michael: Awesome. Thank you. Thank you for chatting with me.

Adrian: No problem.

Essex Woods Reviews

I wanted to get other perspectives on the experience Essex Woods provides for company team building and retreats, so I searched for “Essex Woods Reviews” on Google. The reviews are mostly positive and are available on Yelp, Facebook, Trip Advisor and Google.

Here are some of the more informative reviews that I found…

This one from Yelp talks about Essex Woods’ ability and willingness to accommodate special dietary needs:

A beautiful location with all the amenities you an ask for. The Essex Meeting and Retreat Center was a perfect spot for our strategic discussions. The staff was 100% supportive and accommodated all of our special requests and needs. We had several different dietary needs and all were met to perfection! All of our questions and needs were exceeded. We strongly recommend Essex – affordable, accessible, eco-friendly all with a staff that aims to please.
– Amber B., Yelp Review

This one from Facebook talks about the positive outcome of doing a training workshop at Essex woods:

My team and I had a great experience at Essex Woods. Adrian Wilkins helped facilitated a session with our leadership team of nine people. The time spent was well worth the investment. I’d recommend the experience to any team looking to build trust, accountability, and commitment within their team.
– Gregory R., Facebook Review

And this one from Trip Advisor reviews the accommodations for overnight stays:

Perfect for a group retreat. My work group had a retreat here in May, and this was the perfect setting. The accommodations were exactly what we needed for talks, meals, downtime, and fun activities. Everyone in the group complemented the food, and the staff were very helpful with anything we needed. The woodsy, artsy setting was good for relaxing as well as brainstorming. The rooms are very simple mostly with shared bathrooms, but no one in the group seemed to mind.
– Cary D., Trip Advisor Review

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