Chocs away, chaps

Paintballing is out. Corporate bonding workshops now invite us to unlock our dark (or milk) sides. Kate Burt gets stuck in
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Think team-building, and the images that come to mind probably fall into two categories. There's the once- a-year "company do", when you have a once-a-year conversation with Jim in accounts, and half the office gets embarrassingly drunk and shares all sorts of secrets they later regret. Or there's a more structured, but equally scary, activity which requires deeply practical clothing and involves It's a Knockout-style games that find you building to-scale suspension bridges alongside colleagues you loathe.

But now a whole raft of companies are starting to offer businesses more civilised alternatives. My Chocolate, a small company based in west London, is one of the newest. Twenty-five-year-old Hannah Sexton set up the one-woman business, which offers chocolate-making workshops, a year ago. In her two-and-a-half-hour sessions you get an introductory chat covering the history and appreciation of the topic, and a few Nigella-like demonstrations of basic techniques, before the group splits up and gets stuck into creating and decorating their own chocolates to take home.

Originally, Sexton aimed the service at giggly birthday parties, hen-nights, and children. But, a couple of months in, she discovered an unexpected market: businesses wanting to book her for staff-bonding sessions. These have been an unprecedented success.

"I've done banks, law firms, even the National Lottery. At first I assumed it would be a bit too 'girlie' for some people," says Sexton. "But then I took a mobile-phone-company booking, and found myself in front of 25 men and only three women. I thought they'd hate it. But after tasting a bit they all underwent quite a dramatic change. It's all the chemicals in chocolate - it softens them. The more hands-on it gets, they really loosen up - it's like kids messing around with Play-Doh. It also brings out their sensual and sexy side.

"I think another reason is that this isn't the sort of thing most men would think they could come along and do on their own, or even think of doing on their own unless they were sent by work. But if they're made to do it, they enjoy it."

Dan Collins is the managing director of Fresh Tracks, a company which specialises in team-building, and he has been surprised at the take-up of the more creative workshops he offers to business clients. "It's the companies that don't always want something overly structured, but do want much more than the old 'go down the pub' team-build," he says. "They figure that, if they're going to spend £80 a head on their staff, they should get more out of it than a drunken night. It makes it a better investment. Plus, in many industries, telecommunications for example, there is a particularly high proportion of Muslim staff, who don't drink; not to mention pregnant women or people who simply don't want to get drunk. This sort of option means they don't get left out.

Sexton came up with the idea of My Chocolate when she dropped out of a fine-art degree course at the Slade, frustrated by the course's lack of creative thinking. She loved cooking, but it took a while before she realised that her future lay in chocolate.

"I love it," she says, "and everyone else is always crazy about it too." Having enrolled herself on a three-month, online, chocolate course and bought every chocolate book going from Amazon, her business took off. She now offers a corporate package for up to 100 staff, and, while she can't fit groups of more than 10 into her Ladbroke Grove flat, she'll happily deliver the service to your door: most companies with a canteen or sufficient kitchen facilities can book Sexton to set up shop on their own premises.

Jane De Cruz runs Rollerball, a corporate entertainment company. Last year, after hours of deliberation, she booked a My Chocolate evening for her 30-strong team of entertainers. "Where do you take entertainers?" she says. "They're not easy to impress. I had different age-groups, backgrounds and genders to please. And we're never all together in one place, so it was really important to get it right," she says. "I didn't just want to go for a meal. It needed to be something with a point - not just going out and having everyone get hammered and out of control."

"Originally" continues De Cruz, "I had thought about more traditional ideas, like paintballing, but my lot are too mellow for that kind of fired-up competitive thing - plus it was winter and the thought of being outside was a horrible prospect." Not only did she find a creative workshop a more civilised option, she also found it to be a more constructive one. Creative workshops, allow "the quieter ones to come out of their shells gradually without feeling pressurised or intimidated by being part of a competition. Everyone starts off being very polite, but after you've all stuck your fingers in the same bowl of melted chocolate and tasted things together and compared each other's efforts it's hard not to feel relaxed. In that atmosphere, people found it easy to talk to people they didn't know that, and quite a few new working partnerships came out of it."

Julian Anthony, the head of audit at Gulf International Bank, has been surprised at how much he has enjoyed the more creative workshops that have been organised by his company.

"I don't normally get the chance to do anything practical in the course of a normal working day," he says. "Something creative is pretty interactive. Everyone mucks in and you do really get very messy together, which breaks down quite a few barriers. You end up talking to people you wouldn't come across in the course of a normal working day; you get split into small groups. I was with a woman from the telephone room and someone from the dealing room."

Anthony also appreciated the convenience. But, says Sexton, people aren't always so easy to please. "You get the occasional idiot", she says, laughing. "There's sometimes the older man who'll deliberately try to catch me out. It's like he's thinking, 'Who's this young girl, what does she think she's doing?' I remember one, he was like, 'So, tell me, does the EU regulate the amount of cocoa there is in chocolate in England?' Which, of course, was a question I could answer." Her solution to difficult customers? "Give all these stiff public school boys and city types a bit of champagne and get them making chocolate. It's just what the corporate market needs."

www.mychocolate.co.uk

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