The joys of being Lodged Out: unplugged retreats by Bobbilee Hartman
How do you make people connect?
Take their phones away.
Photo by Jenny Johannesson
Bobbilee Hartman interviewed by Sabina Fratila
I discovered Lodged Out by chance and, one minute into scrolling through their website, I thought to myself: "I need this". Most of us need it: a retreat from city lights and computer screens, a weekend when we trade looking into our phones for looking into strangers' eyes and having a casual conversation. In nature. At a fireside. After a hike. Or maybe a canoe ride. Did I mention there is no internet?
So the next thing I did was to ask Bobbilee, Lodged Out founder and organizer, to have a call with me, mainly so I could convince her to plan a retreat in Europe. Here's how that call went:
S: How did Lodged Out come to be?
B: I was going to all these big tech conferences in big cities all the time, and I had trouble finding outdoor activities before the events, like trail runs or just something to do outside between sessions. I started asking around about event concepts like the one I'm now organizing, and couldn’t find anything that wasn’t super exclusive, invite-only retreats. But then, at a conference, I met the people who organize Rails Camp in Australia, and they encouraged me to make the US version of it. From that point on, things happened pretty fast. On one side, people warned me not to get into events, cause I could lose a lot of money if I didn’t know what I was doing. On the other side, I felt I had this great support system from the folks in Australia, who helped me figure out the tiniest details for my first Rails Camp, even how many snacks to get for the retreat and such. After a few Rails camps–which I still organize today–I founded Lodged Out.
S: So you had no event planning experience.
B: Not really. I had done a bit of community building before, which is to say I organized like 4 meetups for my professional community. In the end, I wanted an alternative to tech events that was more outdoorsy, more intimate, more focused on conversation, with less than 60 people. So that’s what I did.
S: What’s unique for each retreat that you host?
B: With every retreat I change the location, so that determines the type of activities we engage in (e.g. hiking, running, swimming, skiing). I also change the workshops and speakers/moderators that host them. But what makes each retreat truly unique is the conversation that different groups of people create. Take the last Lodged Out I did: it was a running and hiking event, and we had a workshop hosted by the founder of Juniper Ridge. First of all, the energy and excitement that this guy brought along made the whole difference. He was so enthusiastic about all the workshops and about being in nature, and he transferred that to everyone else. And then his workshop was also special, we went into the woods and foraged plants to make a hydrosol spray. He taught us all about them and we brought everything back to the camp, put it into a small distiller with water from the river and everybody got a small bottle of this facial toner we made together. That was so cool.
S: Do you curate the groups you bring together?
B: No, I’ve been lucky with the people that come to the retreats. I want diverse people from different skill sets and career backgrounds, because I want them to collaborate. The smaller the group, the better I get a sense of everyone’s energy, and spot if someone’s having a hard time fitting in. What I’m learning a lot of as I go is how to balance the energy I spend between keeping each participant's spirits high and having a good vibe of the group as a whole. But I do love it when I see participants becoming friends for life, supporting each other, buying each other’s products, starting projects together after Lodged Out.
S: What do you gain from organizing the retreats?
B: Meeting such different people and getting to know what they’re doing, everybody sharing their skills and experience is so great. Discovering new places in nature, taking pictures, using my creative side, having inspiring conversations throughout the day–I get to do a lot more than when I was a software engineer full time. Also, each retreat is such an energy boost.
S: Do you actually get to enjoy the retreats as much as the attendees, or does having to oversee everything take a bit of the fun away?
B: So that’s been a big thing for me from the very beginning: to always act like an attendee, and always have everything ready before so I don’t have to freak out about stuff during the retreat. Sometimes people don’t even realize I’m the organizer, and that’s my goal. If you’re not enjoying the whole thing as much as everyone else, you’ll burn out so fast organizing events. You create the events you’ve always wanted to attend, so if you’re always behind the scenes and not sharing the experience, then what’s the point?
S: Why do we need to gather?
B: In-person conversations come more naturally. Face to face, people are more real, we connect in an authentic way, not through the pretty-perfect personas we create for ourselves online. Gatherings make us feel like we’re all in the same boat, and that there are no strangers out there really.
S: How do we get Lodged Out outside the US?
B: Well, I’m open to collaborations if anyone is up for it. I definitely need someone on the ground to check out locations and help organize things.
S: How can tech conferences change for the better without having to go to the woods?
B: Take people’s phones away. Concerts are doing that nowadays, comedians too. Not having people on their phones all the time helps with how they connect with each other and with the energy level. Strive for more unexpected conversations and spontaneous activities, even from speakers–as opposed to pre-arranged presentations and very predictable dynamics. Smaller group workshops, Q+A discussions, more panels versus a bunch of talks. Then try to stay away from the bustling areas of cities, so you get a chance to organize some activities off venue.
S: You also do custom retreats for companies and existing communities.
B: Yes, I think companies spend too much time and money organizing offsites at the same ol’ large venues in big cities and dinners at fancy restaurants. I plan offsites and retreats for companies who want to do something a bit more unique at historic summer camps and lodges. They’re typically on private lakes, national forests or wilderness areas at the base of mountains you can hike up. They’re fun, cozy, nostalgic and interesting. And you don’t have to worry about people tucking away in their hotel rooms and disconnecting from the group. Everyone is more engaged, actually spending quality time together…which is hard to achieve in bustling cities. If you want your team to get close and develop that authentic camaraderie, a Lodged Out retreat is definitely what you need.