San Juan Islands: A Meeting and Retreat Destination Where Nature Inspires Creative Renewal & Engagement
Updated: 3.20.18 Travel

San Juan Islands: A Meeting and Retreat Destination Where Nature Inspires Creative Renewal & Engagement

By: Jessica Sommerfield

The Crunch: The demands of running a modern business can lead to stress, burnout, and even employee turnover. But getting away to spend some time in nature can be rejuvenating for employees, managers, and a company’s creative direction. The San Juan Islands, located in Washington State’s Salish Sea, are an accessible — yet remote — destination that offers more than 30 venues for planning business meetings and retreats. The three largest islands feature a range of casual and upscale spaces for groups of all sizes, convenient and affordable lodging, dining, and recreation. Groups can also participate in unique team-building activities that take advantage of the natural beauty and adventure the islands offer. The San Juan Islands are a business-friendly destination where companies can draw on the power of nature to rediscover their creative spark and build stronger teams.

With pressures to meet quotas, increase conversions, and generate ideas and strategies to stay ahead of the competition, stresses in the modern workplace can quickly lead to burnout. As company loyalty falters among employees, those stresses can also lead to turnover. One survey showed that 81% of employees said they would consider leaving their current job for the right culture and benefits.

Off-site meetings and retreats can be exactly what a company needs to take a step back, boost employee engagement, and get creative juices flowing once again — especially when the destination provides a refreshing break from city skylines.

Attending a retreat in a remote, natural environment can relieve stress, rejuvenate the body, and even lead to inspiration — and there’s science to back that up. Several studies show that spending time immersed in nature, and apart from the over-stimulation of constant digital connectivity, has profound effects on stress, anxiety, mental focus, and creativity.

Photo of Barbara Marrett, Communications Manager for the San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau

Barbara Marrett spoke with us about how business teams can benefit from the San Juan Islands’ meeting spaces, activities, and atmosphere.

The San Juan Islands — an archipelago, or group of islands, located in the Salish Sea between the coast of Washington state and Canada — are one such idyllic destination. The islands are home to more than 30 venues featuring fully equipped meeting and retreat spaces and convenient access to lodging, dining, and unique team-building opportunities.

“It’s the antithesis of the typical meeting venue in a large city hotel, without natural light or clean air. People that set foot on the islands feel like they’re entering a special place,” said Barbara Marrett, Communications & Stewardship Manager for the San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau. “Because you’re surrounded by water, the energy is different, and the vistas are amazing and inspirational. The San Juan Islands are about the beauty and the feeling of relaxation you get here.”

As a retreat destination, the San Juan Islands are a setting that can help a business team relax with a purpose — whether to clarify goals, find creative direction, teach and train, or simply inspire loyalty— while enjoying the benefits of being close to nature.

An Accessible, Affordable & Unique Pacific Northwest Destination

The San Juans have a rich cultural history to share with visitors, who will find many museums and historical buildings to explore. The islands were inhabited by Coast Salish natives for thousands of years before being named by Spanish explorer Francisco de Eliza in 1791. They were made famous by Captain George Vancouver’s northwest explorations and the Pig War border dispute between the British Empire and the US. Today, the islands make up all of San Juan County, Washington. Friday Harbor, the largest city and county seat, is located on San Juan Island.

The entire archipelago includes 172 named islands and reefs, but only the three largest — San Juan Island, Orcas Island, and Lopez Island — are significantly populated.

Each of the San Juan Islands gives visitors a wide range of landscapes to view and explore. The perimeters are marked with driftwood-strewn beaches and rocky shorelines, while the interiors contain dense forests of Douglas firs, fields and farms. The 2,409-foot elevation of Mount Constitution on Orcas Island provides views of the Olympic Mountains on the mainland. The island ecosystem harbors numerous protected species, allowing visitors to have rare close encounters with marine and avian wildlife — the most prominent of which are resident orcas, minke whales, sea lions, and bald eagles.

“You often see or hear a bald eagle. We have more nesting pairs of bald eagles than any other county in the lower 48 states,” Barbara said.

No bridges connect the San Juan Islands to the rest of Washington, but there are many easy and affordable ways to access them by air or sea — with each mode offering scenic views of the Puget Sound region.

“It’s obviously more of a challenge to get here than to go to an airport hotel, but the reward is that you’re in a more remote location,” Barbara said.

Photo of ferry headed to San Juan Islands

Ferrying from Washington state is the most economical method of travel to the San Juan Islands.

Groups arriving at Sea-Tac Airport can take the Airporter Shuttle and Bellair Charters 80 miles north to the city of Anacortes and walk or drive onto a Washington State Ferry — one of the most economical ways of getting to the islands. There’s also the San Juan Clipper, a high-speed passenger-only ferry that runs from Seattle to Friday Harbor in summer and shoulder season.

By air, arrivals at Sea-Tac Airport can transfer to one of several smaller commuter airlines and charter planes throughout the Seattle area for a 30-minute flight to the islands.

The San Juan Islands’ inexpensive lodging options make it possible for businesses to plan a more extensive retreat or accommodate larger groups. “Hotel rooms in cities can be expensive. It’s very affordable to stay here,” Barbara said.

Besides luxury resorts, the islands are dotted with quaint bed-and-breakfast inns, historic hotels, and deals on one-of-a-kind lodging such as the Juniper Lane Guest House on San Juan Island.

30+ Venues for Convenient Lodging, Dining & Team-Building

The San Juan Islands resorts and meeting venues give business groups many options for hosting events — with upscale dining and reception rooms, standard conference rooms, casual theater-style venues, or outdoor gathering places. Each is designed to showcase the surrounding beauty and provide attendees with convenient access to lodging, dining, and recreation.

“Most of our meeting venues are small, and the largest ones are on the water, so you can always look out and see a beautiful vista. And wonderful ways to de-stress are just steps from the meeting rooms,” Barbara said.

The largest venue on San Juan Island is Roche Harbor Resort, home of the remodeled and expanded Pavilion, where kayaking or whale-watching excursions at the adjoining marina can double as team-building opportunities. For a more intimate setting, there’s Lakedale Resort at Three Lakes and Snug Harbor Resort, which features high-tech waterfront meeting space, 16 rental cabins, and direct access to the marina.

Photo of Roche Harbor Resort

The Roche Harbor Resort is the largest venue on San Juan Island and has ample meeting space for business retreats.

Orcas Island is home of the islands’ largest meeting rooms at the Rosario Resort, as well as some of the best fresh, local dining at the Inn at Ship Bay, the Doe Bay Café, or the New Leaf Café at the historic Outlook Inn.

The Lopez Community Center for the Arts, the largest venue on Lopez Island, has three meeting rooms equipped for multimedia presentations. The island also has a golf club where business groups can play a few competitive rounds or host retreats, meetings, and dining events.

The venues at the San Juan Islands give business groups what they expect from meeting facilities — access to state-of-the-art technology and adequate space — and they also provide uncommon opportunities to relax and have fun. Unique San Juan Island experiences such as zip lining, schooner sailing, kayaking, and wine-tasting give teams the opportunity to create memories that strengthen bonds among co-workers, employees, and managers.

The Change of Scenery Inspires Creative Thought & Problem-Solving

The San Juan Islands offer an isolated, yet accessible, destination where companies can recharge and feed off the inspiration of nature. Business groups looking for the best weather, prices, and availability should consider booking trips in either early summer or late fall, Barbara said.

“I would recommend coming in June — before the summer rush — or in September. The weather is the best in July, August, September, and often into October. However, the islands are a lot less busy when school is in session,” she said.

“Even when the weather isn’t perfect, there are still cozy places to have meetings,” Barbara said.

The instant-access, digitally connected business world demands teams that are focused, engaged, and can creatively adapt to changing industry needs. The simultaneously calming and stimulating influence of nature can be the catalyst that helps companies innovate, overcome burnout, and inspire loyalty among both workers and customers.

“The San Juan Islands would be both a meeting and a vacation. We provide a sense of renewal you can’t get in the city,” Barbara said.