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The Team that Plays Well Together, Works Well Together

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As businesses put 2021 behind them to welcome the New Year, many have a renewed focus on health and wellness. In that spirit, with hybrid offices in play and large gatherings still on shaky ground, corporate team and social building strategies are increasingly important to workplace satisfaction for Edmonton’s professionals.

Last fall, Rob Gillespie, CEO and founder with the Calgary and Edmonton Sport & Social Clubs, saw a spike in interest for the Clubs’ events with every weekend tournament sold out. “The demand is far exceeding the supply we can logistically provide over the last couple seasons,” says Gillespie. “People are raring to get out and be active again.”

The Edmonton and Sport & Social Club (ESSC) is a one-stop shop for adults wishing to maintain physically and socially active lifestyles. They host approximately 1,000 teams, upwards of 10,000 people, per season. Around the calendar, the Club offers seasonal nine-week league sessions including indoor sports such as dodgeball, basketball, volleyball and pickleball.

Outdoors, soccer, slo-pitch, beach volleyball, flag football and ultimate frisbee are popular. There’s no membership, leaving participants free to sign up and play as they like as individuals, small groups or full teams for any league, tournament or sport they choose year-round.

Single-day tournaments, such as curling “fun-spiels” and snow-pitch competitions are a flexible offering many enjoy. “They’re a ton of fun with more of a party atmosphere,” says Gillespie. “Our beach ball volleyball tournaments often have a beer garden. We have sponsors who like to show up with their services, including physiotherapy and massage professionals or local brewers with samples of their products. These tournaments are just as social as they are sporting events.”

Over the years, the ESSC has worked with many corporations. Oftentimes, company HR programs or social committees cover or subsidize the cost for employees to join. In other cases, staff organize their own group attendance. Either way, corporate team building events are increasingly a larger focus. “One of our big initiatives this year is to reach out to more companies and get them involved in these amazing opportunities for team building and getting people active,” says Gillespie. “[There are so many] trickle-down benefits these healthy physical, social and team building activities have to offer. We’re seeing more companies become increasingly organized in helping their people to get more involved in these kinds of activities. We also recognize that the organization around these events is time consuming and we’re happy to take that on [where people] don’t have the time or resources.”

Also popular are leagues organized around a single industry as great networking opportunities that serve up some friendly competition. For instance, several different law firms around the city have participated in an ESSC slo-pitch league over the last few years.

While the last two years’ pandemic restrictions saw the ESSC intermittently forced to shut down about 50 per cent of the time, they are ensuring all participants are vaccinated so they can safely resume in-person activities. Also challenging has been the inability to rent out school gyms as was traditionally done in the past, but Gillespie and his team are happy to help support their private facility providers. They’ve also created mutually beneficial partnerships with sponsoring businesses, including pubs around the city. “They welcome and provide discounts to our players after their games for additional socializing,” says Gillespie. “That social aspect is so important to players as well as it’s a great opportunity for these pubs to get some additional business and recognition.”

Turning pandemic challenges into opportunity and despite many people reimagining new career paths, Gillespie is proud to report that both the ESSC and the CSSC retained a strong core group. As an organization, the Clubs are reenergized in terms of keeping happy staff. “We’ve spent some time working on creative new perks and benefits to offer our people,” he says. “We’re really excited to keep things fun, creative and interesting for everyone working here.”

Amongst new corporate culture strengthening strategies are additional Fridays off to allow more long weekends, a paid day off on the employee’s birthday and free snack and beverage offerings at the offices. “We’ve had fun brainstorming all these different things we can do for our people to help keep them healthy and happy to be here,” says Gillespie.

Pandemic-related challenges pushed other team building businesses to pivot into exciting new directions. “I’m proud of the ways our team found new opportunities through all of this uncertainty while staying true to our core purpose, which is connecting people through play,” says Kristi Herold, CEO and Founder with JAM, a Canadian based international company specializing in corporate team building events and adult rec sports leagues.

JAM is a recently rebranded evolution of Herold’s original organization, the Sport & Social Group started in 1996. The business continues a tradition of intramural-style adult sports leagues with a new suite of virtual and hybrid event offerings. Up until the pandemic, the company hosted adult sports leagues in 11 different cities for 150,000 people in Ontario and Michigan. They’ve since grown to 13 cities including Winnipeg and have affiliations with similar adult rec sports leagues in the Edmonton and Calgary Sport & Social Clubs.

“When the pandemic hit, we were forced to stop our adult sports league operations entirely,” says Herold. “It was pretty soul crushing and scary to be honest. We didn’t know how our business would survive. We had 40 full-time and 350 part-time employees.”

Government-regulations put a halt to in-person sports and shut down Herold’s core service offering for 18 months. She and her team worked to create new revenue generating strategies, expanding their offerings into the virtual events realm, including bingo, trivia nights, escape rooms and game shows. “We realized people were really enjoying this playful connection we were providing. We rebranded as JAM, selling these events to companies working remotely around the world,” says Herold. “It took off. We produced over 1,500 events, connected over 55,000 people through play in that first year and we’re still growing strongly.”

Bringing on approximately 60 part-time hosts including actors and comedians with a knack for getting people engaged and laughing, JAM’s corporate team building events kept the 25-year-strong company in business. “We can now cover off both the events and the sports sides of our business and we’re back to our pre-pandemic number of people working for our organization with sports going again,” says Herold. “We still have a way to go to get fully back to our prior revenue numbers, but I do think that two years from now, we will be better off because of this journey.”

Corporate health and wellness is a topic Herold is especially passionate about. She’s spoken internationally on the importance of creating healthy corporate culture and is currently writing a book on the benefits of play in the workplace. She identifies three key pillars that help create a strong culture – clear vision, clear purpose and clear values. “But you also need a team that works well together to live those values while driving that purpose and vision forward,” says Herold. “I believe one of the easiest ways to build that strong team is to make some time for play. When we play together, bonds form. We then become more willing to offer to help coworkers out when they need support.”

The benefits in establishing a healthy corporate culture are numerous and wide ranging. Employee turnover is vastly decreased while creativity is sparked, energy is boosted and happy employees increase customer service and satisfaction. The time and cost investment can be minimal with endless advantages. Herold says company employees across multiple cities can team build over a simple lunch and laugh virtual experience while avoiding hotel and flight expenses.

Since expanding their events offerings West just over a year ago, JAM has already produced over 80 events for corporate clients in Edmonton and Calgary. Available as virtual, in-person or hybrid events for groups of 10 to 1,000 people and 45 minutes to three hours in length, JAM provides staffing for a multitude of play opportunities. Amongst some of the most popular are Survey Says, Guess My Sketch, Jeopardy, Escape rooms and Name That Tune bingo. JAM’s event planners can also partner with businesses to custom create events.

“Connecting through play is so important to physical and mental health in our society,” says Herold. “We’re so excited to have built this B2B business that we didn’t have before the pandemic.”

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