It’s been at least 6 years since my friend Dana planted the idea in my head. “Hey, we should take some people to Costa Rica – you do an exercise class and I’ll teach yoga”. I immediately LOVED the idea.. And proceeded to do absolutely nothing with it for 3 years. Then finally, 3 years ago I took the plunge on a wing and a prayer. This was stepping WAY out of my comfort zone. I had been in the fitness industry for almost 20 years but had never done anything even remotely close to this before. I had limited international travel experience, zero experience running a retreat and would be taking on a substantial financial risk in doing so.
I jumped anyway.
Fast forward to 2020 and the Lean Minded retreat has just held its 3rd annual edition. The learning curve has been steep and not without setbacks, but ultimately has been enriching and an absolute blast. Whether you are a personal trainer, coach, mind-body practitioner or a nutrition professional, there are some very enticing upsides to running a health/wellness retreat. Here are some of the benefits:
- Community: Very few things can bring people together like spending a week in paradise sharing in cool experiences. Over the past 3 years I’ve seen a lot of laughs, deep conversation and camaraderie emerge – shared experiences that would be difficult to obtain or nurture in other settings. There’s something about a retreat that brings people together, unites and empowers us. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have a diverse group of people who bond over a shared desire to stay healthy, find adventure and decompress.
- Paid travel: The idea of traveling for free or actually being paid to see different parts of the world has always been an enticing one for me. To be clear, as the retreat leader I am there to work – to ensure everyone is getting the most out of their experience. This venture has never been about profit for me, but it does provide a unique opportunity to venture to different parts of the world.
- Diversifying business: I love personal training and online coaching. I also like exploring new ideas on how to grow as a person and an entrepreneur. Health retreats serve as a different and novel way to integrate what I’m already passionate about into a unique experience. It can also serve as an excellent cross-promotional vehicle and an avenue to strengthen your current health offerings.
- Fill a Gap in the Market: The Lean Minded retreat was conceived as a “flexible health” retreat. I sensed there was a growing desire for active vacations. A middle ground where it is health-centric (daily fitness and yoga classes) but where there is adequate opportunity for relaxation and downtime. There were many thousands of options for Yoga retreats but very few that combined fitness, yoga and other adventures. Do you have a skillset or angle that you feel people would want?
- Expand your Personal Development: Running a retreat has grown me as a person as well as a professional. I have personally developed a few different skills and have been challenged in different ways. Hospitality has always been an interest and I’ve been forced to become more organized. As an introvert, I have been granted the opportunity to stretch myself as connecting with people is a big part of hosting a retreat. Having run all of my retreats in Costa Rica so far, I have been forced to learn Spanish along the way – something I’ve been wanting to learn anyway. I’ve also learned to surf, have improved my Yoga (there is a LOT of room for improvement here) and have learned a TON from conversations with incredibly smart and empathic people.
So now that I’ve convinced you of the benefits of running a retreat, here are some nuggets on how to run an amazing one.
- Get amazing people to come: This is the most important thing by a landslide. And I’m not talking about just getting enough bodies there or reaching capacity. I mean getting the right people there. think about the ideal candidate for such a venture and entice those people to go. I have been abundantly privileged to have had amazing people attend my retreats over the past 3 years – most of whom have been to at least 2 out of the last 3. The common denominator is almost all of them have known me either personally or as a coach. If you are looking to get a retreat off the ground, talk about it to your closest people. Many are understandably hesitant to spend significant money and take precious vacation time unless they feel confident in the person running the retreat. Your mission, your vision, your personality will be your attracting force to get the right people on board. Be clear about what you are trying to accomplish and you will attract the right people.
- Partner with amazing people: Over the past 3 years I’ve happened upon some amazing partnerships – both intentionally and through strokes of luck. The first year I ran this retreat I didn’t have a budget for a Yoga instructor but one of the participants had just completed her yoga teacher training. She turned out to be wonderful. The second year I partnered with a local instructor who also taught Pilates and boxing. This past retreat I took a different direction and hired a local Yogi based on a colleague’s recommendation. It worked out brilliantly.
Last year’s installment s aw one of our participants approach a lady on the beach carrying a massage table. Lily the massage therapist has now been one of the highlights of the retreat – performing upwards of 20 massages over the course of the week. Our first retreat connected us with a kind and trustworthy driver. We decided to use him this past year after feeling we were overcharged for transportation last year.
Having reliable, trustworthy people at your destination for support and complementary service offerings is crucial. If you have enough people coming, consider bringing a partner with you to help coordinate. Choose people that share your vision, have skills you don’t have, and those that can help bring others to your retreat.
- Be there to serve: Your entire mission should be to ensure people are taken care of, made to feel welcome and safe. Be especially vigilant in the first 48 hours of the retreat to make sure everything is ok. Make efforts to reach out to people and ask them how you can make this the best experience for them. Be responsive to any issues and ensure your local staff are also responsive to any issues that may arise.
- Have a niche and target audience: Retreats are popular and will continue to grow in popularity. If you’re thinking of running one, how will yours be different? Who are you trying to attract? For example there are many thousands of Yoga retreats, so if Yoga is your thing, what will differentiate your retreat from your competitors? Will it be in a unique location? Will it appeal to those who are experienced? Novice? What non-Yoga entities are you selling your idea on?
The Lean Minded retreat’s USP (unique selling proposition) is “flexible health”. It’s a fitness and health-based retreat that includes daily fitness and yoga, excellent food and balances the activity, adventure and nutritious food with some vacation-like indulgences. I also include some “deep dive” talks on various aspects of health. When planning a retreat ask yourself: Why should someone attend YOUR retreat over someone else’s?
Things to consider for establishing a niche;
- Location (warm destination? Country, continent. Popular destination or off the beaten path?)
- Price point (luxury, budget, mid-range?)
- Focus (yoga, fitness, spirituality, holistic, personal development, sport-specific, nutrition, hiking)
- Target age range (i-gen, millennials, gen-x, boomers?)
- Experience/practice/fitness level (beginners, novice, advanced?)
Keep in mind that people who train/practice with you trust you and will sign up for your retreat based on that trusting relationship. Attracting those outside of your inner circle will need more convincing.
- Balance your structured/non-structured time: In my experience one of the keys to running a fantastic retreat is striking the right balance between structured activities and free time. The Lean Minded retreat has 2 daily sessions (strength/conditioning, yoga), set meal times and 3 deep dive talks in the evenings. The rest of the time participants get to explore on their own or as a group, relax, nap, hit the beach, sit poolside, go for a bike ride, swim or get a massage. The ratio of structure to unstructured time will depend on your participants and the type of retreat you are running. Striking a great balance, however is essential as you want people to feel energized, refreshed, adequately tired but not worn down.
- Take in the local things: One of the most enriching aspects of a destination retreat is to explore the local scene. Do your best to take in the culture and atmosphere of the country and its specific location. Perhaps get a guided tour, visit some areas of interest, enjoy the local culinary delights and natural beauty. Make a concerted effort to take participants outside the grounds of your accommodation and take full advantage of the surrounding beauty.
- Take in all feedback: On the last day of every retreat I debrief. With pen and notepad I take inventory and specific, honest feedback. I take note of what went well and what people would like to see change if they were to come back. I conduct a formal survey as well and have people evaluate the following;
- Exercise sessions (fitness and yoga)
The feedback of the participants is VITAL and I’ve been able to improve the retreats year after year based on this feedback. Also, the current guests are the very people you want to ensure are not only happy but feel like you are wanting to do even better next time. (repeat business is the most reliable business – take excellent care of those people). For the Lean Minded retreats it’s not enough for me that the guests enjoyed it. I want it to be memorable.. A highlight experience that they will cherish forever. A tall order? Perhaps. But this doesn’t mean one shouldn’t strive to make it the very best.
It’s worth noting I received some very candid feedback from a fellow colleague from the first retreat. I made changes to follow-up retreats based on her thoughts.
Running a Retreat What to Expect
- Expect to operate at a loss.. Or at least to not make much money (initially): I shouldn’t say “expect” so much as “don’t be surprised”. I am admittedly terrible when it comes to budgeting and unforeseen expenses, but have improved over the years. Be sure to calculate all of your costs (accomodation, travel, food, excursions, taxes, exchange rate (if applicable) and any extras that might creep up. Also for the fellow solopreneurs out there, when gauging profit margins, you will want to take your lost wages of being away into consideration.
- It may not run at all (yet): There is no shame in pulling the plug if there isn’t enough interest. Just ensure your retreat space has a reasonable cancellation policy and you can refund anyone who has already paid. Don’t let it deter you from re-visiting the idea. I had to cancel a planned retreat to Bali this past year. It was a great concept, amazing accomodation and reasonably priced. My mistake was partnering with people who weren’t serious. I made the mistake of relying on someone else to promote and bring their contacts and I was left holding the bag. Lesson learned and I plan on running one there in November, 2020.
- You can’t please everyone: No retreat will be the right fit for all people. And that’s ok. Do your very best to make sure everyone is comfortable, safe and happy. Also be very clear about what your retreat is about, the accommodation, food, activities etc so that there are very few surprises. Aim to cater to the majority and you will be just awesome.
- There will be hiccups: There have been less missteps over the 3 years I’ve been running a retreat but there are many things that can go wrong. Roll with it, be responsive, have backup plans.
- Jet lagged guests (and hosts?): Depending on how far people are travelling it can be a busy and exhausting day for the guests (and yourself). Expect that it may not be all enthusiasm all the time for the first day. People need adjustment periods and to get their bearings. For example to get to Costa Rica from my hometown (Vancouver, Canada) there are no direct flights and often there is an overnight or otherwise long layover (the chairs at O’hare airport are not very comfortable, FYI). Long flights, layovers, lack of sleep and potential time zone changes can throw people off. Be prepared as possible.
Your Retreat To Do’s
- Research: Research the crap out of how to run retreats. Ask others who have run them, ask people close to you about what kind of experience they might want. Look at retreat centers, VRBO’s, locations. Once you’ve decided on a location, gather as much information as you can about said location: The city/town, the accommodation, the food, the culture and the surrounding areas. The more details you can solidify before the retreat, the better off you will be. Consider using an agency that can plan out the location/logistics for you so all you have to do is teach/lead.
- Get there early: I recommend being at the destination at least 24 hours before your guests begin to arrive. If you can stay on the retreat premises – do so. If you cannot, at least arrive at the grounds well before the first guests arrive.
- Have transportation figured out: This is especially important with airport pickups (do try and organize this for participants – even if you aren’t footing the bill for it). Throughout the trip, ensure you have transportation booked in advance. Ensure you have someone reliable to drive you around (preferably the same person).
- Have a welcome package with an itinerary: I like to deliver electronic versions of welcome packages and have hard copies for all guests. A welcome package should include the following;
- An overview of your mission
- A fact sheet of the resort and surrounding area.
- An “about us” section with bio’s.
- A “what to bring and other useful information” list
- A description of activities (classes, excursions, talks etc)
- A menu of meals (if available)
- An itinerary of the week’s activities (this is very important as it gives an overview of day to day happenings).
- Have all relevant contact numbers on hand: I highly recommend having a what’s app group but also listing numbers of grounds staff, drivers and other relevant people that can solve issues. Having the local emergency numbers is also a good precaution. Ensure that everyone has your number.
- Cut out as many “middlepeople” as possible: One thing I learned from last year’s retreat is that too many “middlemen” can make for confusion and being overcharged for services. For example, the same drive we took last year cost us double what we paid this year but going directly through an honest driver. A driver that we paid directly rather than paying someone later who is skimming off the top – forcing you to collect exact change from guests.
- Take a lot of photos/video: These serve as excellent promotional tools for follow-up retreats. Nothing sells like social proof – people having fun, enjoying exercise sessions, the retreat place, the surrounding scenery. Post daily updates – make people wish they were there.
Promoting Your Retreat
Have a killer concept/location/price point for your retreat? Awesome. Time to tell the world. Here are some suggestions.
- Warm list first: Approach your friends and family about the concept first. Get some initial feedback about your idea. These will be your most likely participants and the one’s most likely to bring others along or at least tell others about it.
- Have a website: A simple landing page is effective and inexpensive. Have dates, concept, bio’s and a general idea of what you’ll be doing there. Include some call to action. A quick link is the best way to get all your details in one place for easy shares.
- Give plenty of lead time: Because retreats are a substantial expense and require planning for vacation, people often need to know several months in advance. I recommend having a place booked at least 9 months in advance. This way people can plan around it both from booking vacation and saving for it.
- Build a social media campaign: Visuals sell. If this is your first crack at it, post photos of the accommodation and some photos of activities you’ll be doing at your retreat. Get the audience to picture themselves there.
- Have an early bird rate: This will help create urgency and incentive for early sign-ups.
- Consider using a retreat directory: Although I have not personally had success with this method, there are some free and low cost directories you can use.
- Collaborate/Joint Venture: Even if you don’t have a partner coming with you, this doesn’t mean you can’t create a joint venture of sorts. Either someone local to the destination or someone with influence can help you promote your retreat in exchange for promoting something of theirs or for a fee/commission.
Hosting a retreat can be an incredible experience. It’s a perfect opportunity to provide something unique, bolster your offerings and a means to travel the world. With a great idea, sound planning and smart promotion, it can be a lucrative side business – or even turn into a primary offering. Start by bringing up the idea to clients and friends and then run with it. Nothing is stopping you from trying.