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A new corporate spirit

Executives are following Nicole Kidman to the hills to discover deeper truths. Rachelle Thackray reports
The Lake District has always attracted spiritual types: Wordsworth and his cronies, an entour-age of landscape painters - and now City folk. Yes, business is casting aside its stuffier tendencies and abandoning the boardroom in pursuit of deeper truths.

Having had their fill of team-building, character-forming crawls through swamp land and survival on half a Mars bar a day, executives are heading for the hills in search of a more aesthetic ethic. One prime destination is the Samling retreat centre on the shores of Lake Windermere, a luxury conference facility that takes just 20 guests at a time, and where the dream of escape can be realised.

The Samling's founder, Roger McKechnie, ran companies including the Phileas Fogg snack firm and decided that executive getaways were the way ahead.

"I was a great believer in the advantage of groups of senior people getting away from everything to sort out the issues of the business," he says. "Instead of board meetings, we used to go away for two or three days to revise our forecasts and decide who was going to do what. It was a fantastically good way for a small team to work together, and good for understanding each other's roles. But at the time, it was almost impossible to find anywhere in the UK where you could get the exclusivity at a decent venue. By and large, the quality of the accommodation, service and food was very poor."

This led him to consider establishing something of his own. "I thought there would be a lot of people who felt the same. We did some research and said: `If such a place existed, would you use it and pay for it?' The answers were very encouraging. When I went to look at the Samling, I found that the location was absolutely stunning, with views down the lake, a lot of heritage, and the capacity for a conversion into something suitable."

Mr McKechnie bought the estate in the mid-1990s and spent pounds 2.5m doing it up, giving each of its 10 rooms a different look. "All accommodation had to be of equally high standard, with big bathrooms, working areas and relaxing areas. We wanted to make it more interesting than the Hilton, where you're going to get every room the same."

Designer Amanda Rosa used open fires, Ralph Lauren fabrics and innovative furniture in suites already equipped with CD players, faxes and videos. But less is more: when Mr McKechnie sold the Samling to Sage entrepreneur Tom Maxfield last month, its general manager, Peter Lawton upheld the creed of minimalism. "He said to me `What do we need?' and I said `Not that much'. The beauty of the place is its simplicity. We've got squash courts and a swimming pool, but if you really want to clear your mind, one of the nicest ways is to walk up into the ancient woodland. When you get to the top, the views are fantastic."

Simplicity, of course, comes at a cost: today's per-person price for a 24-hour stay is pounds 275, which includes discreet personal service and an atmosphere that somehow eludes even the sleekest and most hushed hotels in town.

This atmosphere attracts repeat custom from clients as diverse as Bradford & Bingley, Durham University Business School and Hollywood stars Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman.

Among those who regularly use the centre as a training venue is Ann Bowen- Jones, a consultant based in Hexham, Northumberland. She has witnessed the growing popularity of a new approach to management development.

"At somewhere like the Samling, you get a different experience very quickly. It's useful to step off the treadmill, to see things not just from a different perspective but almost a different consciousness," she says. "People might still be in overdrive when they arrive, so the first evening is important for relaxing. It's about pampering and giving a real welcome and not being too rigid."

Exercises in the open air - in which clients climb into the woodlands to meditate upon a particular question, or walk across the lawn very slowly to change their breathing patterns - produce profound changes, Ms Bowen- Jones says. For a start, people begin to communicate properly.

"What's happening in business life is often influenced by what's going on in the world or in personal lives. People really want to talk about spiritual issues with their business colleagues; they feel they've compartmentalised their lives. They suddenly realise that there's an awful lot to say about what they are doing at work," Ms Bowen-Jones says.

She also uses creative techniques - metaphor, music and myth, for example - to help clients to examine challenges such as relating to difficult people, leading a team, or coping with pressure.

So far, so cosy. But let's not forget the bottom line: what do employers get out of the experience? Ms Bowen-Jones says sometimes it's nothing more than a treat for hard-working senior executives - a freebie luxury break. But even two days away from the workplace can have far-reaching effects.

"Employers are entitled to look for results," she said. "They want fresh ideas on old problems and evidence of new thinking. They're also concerned for people to find a way to sustain the energy needed to meet all the demands on them, and deal with the massive complexities on every level. Strategically, these breaks also help people to see connections between things and work better together."

The Samling is not the only venue that can foster such results. At the other end of the spectrum, Ms Bowen-Jones takes clients to a Ba'hai community, Burn Law, based on an organic farm in Northumbria. But what both venues have in common is an atmosphere that seems to play an important part in fostering creative thinking.

n Contact the Samling on 01539 431922; Ann Bowen-Jones at Awaken on 01434 602437.