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Corporate Playbook
Executive teambuilding begins in the kitchen at Blair House Inn.
By Michael Costa

Blair House Inn corporate cooking retreats
Cooking school retreats are a business-winning niche concept for the Blair House Inn. “When [executives] come here, it’s to create a bonding situation they feel is not present at their company,” says Co-owner Mike Schneider. “But that bonding does happen while working together in a kitchen, because everyone is contributing toward one goal.” [click to view gallery]

Vince Lombardi’s motivational musings inspired the Green Bay Packers to multiple championships in the 1960s. Although he died in 1970, his ideas still inspire others outside of football—including the owners of the Blair House Inn in Wimberley, Texas. At Blair House, about 30 minutes southwest of Austin, Lombardi’s wisdom forms the backbone of the 12-room country inn’s corporate teambuilding program.

“Lombardi’s philosophy of team play was based on individuals carrying out their assignments to be successful, which I think applies to cooking too,” says Mike Schneider, co-owner of the Blair House Inn. “Each person has to complete their job on time for dinner to be successful, and it can be taught to [meeting attendees] in the kitchen.”

Initially, Schneider, along with co-owner and wife Vickie, focused on leisure guests when starting their multi-day cooking school about eight years ago. Positive press and word of mouth followed, including a Food Network feature about the inn’s Texas BBQ Camp. “Weekends are full here, so our challenge is to fill mid-week. That’s when our cooking school works best for us,” says Schneider.

Approximately three years later, cooking retreats for corporate groups were introduced as a way to build on that early success. “The biggest thing for us is it creates a point of difference from other operations, especially around Texas,” says Vickie Schneider. “We’re hands-on—that’s our niche.”

“Hands-on” at Blair House means “90 percent for the student and about 10 percent demonstration by me,” says Executive Chef Norris Sebastian. “In my past, it was the opposite, so this is new and fun for me.”

Sebastian—who started his career with Four Seasons 25 years ago and was also the executive sous chef of AquaKnox restaurant at the Venetian in Las Vegas—is Blair House’s “coach” in the kitchen, assessing talent and assigning tasks to attendees, based on the menus they’ve selected.

Class size is limited to around 10 people due to the small footprint of Blair House’s kitchen, but this scenario also allows Sebastian to “coach” effectively should assistance be needed, which happens more often with business clients.

“With corporate groups, there’s usually someone that’s a little uncomfortable,” says Sebastian. “But once they’re working side-by-side on certain dishes, I think the time they spend in an intimate setting is beneficial when they return to the office.”

Because the classes are 90 percent hands-on, Sebastian says he’s always conscious of safety, whether it’s a knife, hot stove, or potentially volatile ingredients such as hot peppers.

“I can gauge someone quickly just by the way they walk around the kitchen or pick up a knife. I’m always making jokes and keeping everybody comfortable, and through that I figure out where people are in their skill level so I don’t have a novice doing something technical,” says Sebastian.

Relax and Return
A corporate group usually stays for two days, and companies often buy out the property for a retreat. Nine of the 12 rooms are stand-alone cottages, surrounded by 23 acres of scenic Texas Hill Country, with hiking trails, a pool, spa, and multiple outdoor lounge areas.

Attendees have more than a dozen menus to choose from, executing three to five courses each day, sometimes for both lunch and dinner. Seasonal and regional ingredients are sourced from around the Hill Country, and in addition to BBQ Camp, one of the most popular classes is Nuevo Texas Cuisine, where attendees make chipotle fettuccini, grilled catfish enchiladas, bread with local Shiner Bock and molasses, and more.

Because the calendar fills quickly with leisure travelers, Blair House hosts executive culinary retreats about once per quarter. The companies are often big names with high expectations: Tyson Foods (Dallas), Williams Gas Pipeline (Tulsa), Chaine des Rotisseurs (San Antonio), and Texas Performing Arts (Austin), to name a few.

Those at Blair House know those high expectations have been met if they see repeat business. Being a 12-room inn means they won’t be hosting a larger group later, but they will see those corporate influencers and their employees return with their families as leisure travelers. Schneider says approximately 60 percent of their business comes from return bookings.

Before opening Blair House, Schneider spent 13 years at multiple Hyatt properties, working in F&B, purchasing, and as a general manager. He says for a larger hotel, offering smaller, managementonly cooking retreats can have a huge impact on business later. A rebooking might include a few hundred or a few thousand employees for a multi-day conference.

“When [executives] come here, it’s to create a bonding situation they feel is not present at their company,” says Schneider. “But that bonding does happen while working together in a kitchen, because everyone is contributing toward one goal.”

Michael Costa is industry relations editor for Hotel F&B.

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