Some companies buy retreats, skip rented resorts

Ed Kozel's estate in Sonoma County. (Photo credit: Jason Henry for the Wall Street Journal )
Ed Kozel's estate in Sonoma County. (Photo credit: Jason Henry for the Wall Street Journal )

Some companies are buying large secluded estates for corporate retreats and other events instead of holding them at posh resorts.

Knoxville, Tennessee-based Gulf & Ohio Railways, for example, plans to hold corporate networking, brainstorming and socializing events at an 11.5-acre estate in Huntsville, Tennessee, instead booking a hotel in downtown Knoxville.

The founder of Gulf & Ohio, Pete Claussen, bought the estate for $700,000 at auction in June. The property, once owned by Howard Baker, the former U.S. senator and chief of staff to President Reagan, has a main house measuring 6,800 square feet and is located near a bluff above a tributary the Big South National Park River.

“Now we have the opportunity to do lots of things outdoors, which is better for everybody,” Claussen said. Gulf & Ohio is holding its first event at the estate this weekend, a gathering of 50 people, including senior executives and their family members.

Corporate modesty is in fashion, said Merianne Liteman, president of Liteman Rosse, a boutique corporate planning and consulting firm that has coordinated retreats for Sprint, Fannie Mae and Coca-Cola, among others

“Very few organizations are willing to invest in the most expensive kinds of venues and entertainment,” she said. “It looks bad to everyone.”

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Claussen said company events at an upscale hotel can cost $50,000 over a two-day period, but now that he can host them, he expects their cost to fall significantly.

Ed Kozel, a former executive of Cisco who has advised tech start-up firms, has hosted retreats in Sonoma County, California, at his private ranch and estate. His property, located less than a two-hour drive from San Francisco, includes a 12,000-square-foot main residence with a wine cellar and library, plus two barns that serve as event space, hiking trails, a fitness facility and tennis court.

Hosting retreats at the Sonoma estate can “get people out of the rat race and into an area where they can focus on team-building and strategy off-site,” Kozel said. “The reason retreats work here is because it’s extremely secluded, beautiful and quiet.”

Southern Fidelity Insurance paid $5.7 million for a quail-hunting plantation called Oldfields, which covers 1,268 acres in northern Florida at a location 15 minutes east of Tallahassee. The property includes a guesthouse, two duck ponds and lakes filled with bass.

The insurance company bought Oldfields to “do company retreats, employee horseback riding, board meetings, and for investment value,” Southern Fidelity CEO James Graganella said. [Wall Street Journal] — Mike Seemuth