Anne Bucciarelli and Emily Neubert of Bernstein Private Wealth Management work with wealthy families on everything from investment planning to multigenerational-wealth transfer to philanthropic planning. Part of their expertise lies in planning and executing family retreats. Bucciarelli, senior national director of family engagement, responsible for wealth management research; and Neubert, director of family governance, discuss the nuances of what it takes to make a meaningful event come to life.
The integration of a family retreat can be transformational for some families. How do you begin that conversation with families about starting them?
It really starts with helping families understand what we mean when we say "family meeting" or "family retreat"; that although they may spend time together eating dinner or taking a vacation, the conversations that happen during these times are often more casual, and people can get distracted because there is a lack of structure. So we redefine what a "meeting" or "retreat" is — it is an opportunity to achieve a specific objective in a focused atmosphere. We also stress the importance of gatherings from an educational perspective and to establish and reinforce trust, strengthen relationships and instill values in the rising generations.
Once the purpose and benefits are understood, we begin discussing the specific needs and relationship dynamics of the family.
What do the details look like when creating a family retreat?
We recognize that every family is in a different starting place with regard to planning a family retreat or assembly. We take an active role in defining the purpose and specific goals of the retreat, shaping an agenda, coordinating and securing the appropriate subject matter experts, and setting family expectations.
For smaller families, meetings and retreats can be shorter and less formal. But as the family evolves and grows, the complexity of the retreats should keep pace with the family's evolving needs. In cases where a family office exists, it often helps organize and plan logistics for family gatherings. Key considerations for planning a family meeting or retreat can include:
- An outline of any specific problems that need to be solved.
- Changes and decisions that need to be made.
- Plans for an upcoming transition.
- A check-in with family members and a feedback gathering process.
- A celebration of milestones and achievements.
It is important to allow enough time for planning because organizing a family meeting or retreat doesn't happen quickly. But families can leverage the planning process as another opportunity to build relationships and bond with each other.
Can you share an example of what one type of family retreat can look like?
In smaller families, an individual can take the responsibility of planning, and as the family grows, a small group of family members typically own the logistical planning. Logistics can include evaluating who needs to be present and what the meeting objectives are. In cases where there is a representative body making plans, a best practice includes polling the broader family for ideas and agenda topics and allowing the broader family the opportunity to provide feedback prior to finalizing the agenda.
Agendas can include a combination of education, family business discussions (if necessary), philanthropic planning and family bonding activities. These can be accomplished in one day for less complicated situations or span multiple days for larger, more complex families.
The same rationale applies for the timing of gatherings. We recommend families gather one to two times a year. As families grow, there may be shorter one-day gatherings more frequently throughout the year, or annually, and a longer two-to-three-day retreat every other year.
Successful agendas often include as many social activities as any other activity. Agenda items can include welcome dinners, icebreakers to welcome new members, shareholder meetings, breakout sessions that cover family and business history, current challenges and philanthropy discussions.
Families also hold retreats for a specific reason. For example, a family we work with holds a "newly wed" weekend when there is a concentration of new members marrying into a family. These can be a great opportunity to introduce new members to the family values, the family business and how the family works together and makes decisions. A retreat like this reinforces relationships across family branches and is a fun way to clarify where opportunities exist for spouses versus lineal descendants.
When deciding on a location, success comes when retreats and assemblies become "special outings" for the family. Choosing an interesting location can boost participation, and family members are excited to join. Often, when a family still has an operating business, the family retreat is held on-site or in the same city or town as the headquarters. This offers the opportunity for families to tour the business facilities on a regular basis.
At what age should families think about including young children in the retreat?
This is really specific to the family and understanding the different types of participants that may be present. Are they shareholders of a family business? If so, at what age do they gain ownership? While younger children may not participate in the formal shareholder meetings, having them in the vicinity of discussions can increase transparency and reduce uncertainty, bettering the chances of creating future stewards. Hearing certain terminology can help develop skills they'll use to integrate family values into their day-to-day and establish a foundation for future involvement. Being around family they don't see very often also builds and strengthens relationships. Most important, kids can see adults navigate difficult conversations, disagree, have conflict and then move on, knowing they remain a family.
How can children be integrated into family retreats in a meaningful way?
Families can use the meeting or retreat to focus on developing savings plans for allowances, learning about family and/or family business history or for incorporating them in family philanthropy discussions. The gatherings can be a great place for them to learn about different charitable causes they might be interested in supporting.
Overall, finding the opportunity to include them builds the kids' self-esteem by giving them a voice, ensuring they know they are a valued member, and it is great practice for everyone to be open to new ideas and perspectives. One family we work with is planning a “day in the life” session with the teenage children, where they will sit in on a curated portion of a board meeting happening during the retreat. This will offer the children a chance to experience the important decisions that are made and the responsibility expected of the board members.
How is success measured after the event is over?
Regular, effective meetings ultimately lead to better-functioning families over time. When done well, they lead to better communication techniques and a deeper appreciation for the benefits of healthy conflict. Family members develop new talents, learn from each other and figure out how to work with each other, and the broader family gains a stronger sense of the family's history and values.
At the start, family meetings can be awkward. But over time, the process becomes more ingrained and each one more valuable. Having an outside partner to help facilitate the family retreat and ensure effective follow-up can be helpful for many families.