Icelandic lessons: what I learnt from our company awards weekend

I recently had the opportunity to be one of the hosts of Pontoon’s annual awards weekend. It was my first such weekend and our third as a company.

The Pontoon awards celebrate successes on many levels, recognizing not just our top regional sales people but also those who have “moved mountains”, delivered outstanding client programs, been genuinely innovative or exemplified our company values of team spirit, passion, entrepreneurship, customer focus and responsibility.

We also have our “Rookies of the Year” (for the most impressive newcomers) and President’s Award winners, who our President handpicks based on nominations and pitches from across the business.

In an age when every penny (cent, rupee) needs to be spent wisely, our investment in the annual awards weekend is something we rigorously debate. This year, the decision was taken to go Iceland in a 50-strong group that included the award winners, members of the Pontoon leadership team and a number of spouses and partners (who had been actively encouraged to attend).

It would probably be cheaper to give our winners a cash reward rather than dragging inviting them all to one of the most sparsely populated countries on the planet to spend a weekend of their own precious personal time with their colleagues.

But anyone who knows our President knows that “spending time together” is something he places huge importance on, and he truly believes in recognizing the essential support we get from friends and family in our careers. (And he’s the boss – so he wins this debate!)

In any case, the choice of destination is not as extravagant as it may seem. Our ever cost-conscious CFO had shrewdly identified Iceland as a natural stop-off point for several US-based team members who were due to visit EMEA the week following the awards. The hotels are always comfortable but not lavish; ditto the refreshments (think set menus rather than a la carte); our partners pay their own travel costs; and it’s economy/budget airlines all the way (impressed by WOW, though still slightly dazzled by their bright cerise colour schemes!).

So what did this Pontoon awards rookie make of the experience? Here are my main takeaways from our Icelandic weekend:

  • Spending time with people makes more of an impact than simply spending money on them. It’s “easy” to write a cheque. Giving up personal time that would otherwise be spent with our families and friends is an authentic way to recognize the commitment of (just some of) the superstars we work with.


  • Face-time matters. Yes, technology and social media are fantastic enablers. I am fortunate in that my role means I get to meet and work with people from all over our business. But many of our award winners don’t get the chance to spend physical time with people outside of their team, country or program. Listening to people who would not otherwise get the chance to meet in person spark up a conversation and find areas of common interest or learnings was inspiring.


  • Firsts will always be remembered. I don’t think there was a single member of our party who had been to Iceland before. Some had never left their home countries before. Discovering that uniquely quirky, friendly culture and those stark, dramatic landscapes as a group is a memory that we will all collectively share. Personally, I will never forget watching the members of our party who had never seen real snow before gleefully making snow angels.


  • We’re a competitive bunch. We like to collaborate but we also like to win. Never was this more apparent than when the 50 of us took to 25 snowmobiles for an hour-long journey across a glacier. Despite being told to “stay in convoy”, I bet 70% of our drivers were desperate to overtake their colleagues….


  • We all aspire to work/life “balance” but there are times when work/life “blending” is more realistic… and more rewarding.  All of us who put a lot into our roles can only do so with the back-up of our partners, families and friends. To include them in our weekend and to recognize the role they play in our successes is spot on.


  • Snowmobiling was fun. The journey up to the glacier was long and motion-sickness-inducing (although I WANT one of those superjeeps for my family car!). But  I will never forget the adrenaline rush of the snowmobiling or the laughs of seeing us all zip ourselves into bright orange protective suits that instantly made us look twice our normal size, and with helmets that made us look like Stormtroopers.


  • The Northern Lights are definitely worth the wait. (Even though it was a long, cold, LONG, COLD wait to see them.)

Finally, what’s not to love about Iceland? If you’re a geography graduate, it’s the fieldtrip you always dreamed of. If you’re a Game of Thrones fan (who isn’t?), it’s an opportunity to see those remote, wintry landscapes where much of the series is filmed. This is a country whose people have elected the world’s first female and first openly gay prime minister… and yet the majority of them still appear to believe in elves. Somehow this feels like an appropriate place for the Pontoon team to spend time together.

I loved my weekend in Iceland. But I was only there because of the achievements of others. So thank you to everyone – you know who you are – who made it such a wonderful, memorable, inspirational weekend. I hope you have all taken away the positive memories and learnings I have.

Author: Marisa Kacary


Contact us today and find out how we can help with your global HR outsourcing.