Apparently, I am an ENFP personality, so when I had the audacious idea to run a Creativity & Walking Retreat in Margaret River in April 2016, I acted before I had thought things through enough to scare me. Which was not necessarily a bad thing: it was a brilliant idea, I had a vivid vision of the concept: creativity, the content of the workshops, is one of my areas of expertise; I was contagiously excited about it.
Except, I had only been living in Margaret River for about five and a half minutes and never run a retreat before, ever.
‘How hard could it be?’ I thought. It was basically an extra long workshop with sleepovers, right?
You are right to guess that what followed has been a whole lot of delicious learning AND a lot of fun. I ran my eleventh retreat last weekend and I think I am starting to get the hang of it, with still much more to learn.
Here are some thoughts about running a successful retreat.
1. Nail the food!
The first retreat I ever participated in was a three-day silent Vipassana meditation course in the Perth hills. No speaking, no writing, no reading, no Yoga, just breathing …and (thankfully!!) eating.
What stands out from this retreat almost 20 years later? Honestly? The abundant stacks of steaming green beans, bok choi and other colourful vegetables that greeted us after each session, glistening with flavour and bursting with comfort and warmth.
I remember the tea and coffee stand with a huge glass jar always full to the rim with Granita biscuits and scotch fingers. I remember the thick chunks of toast and dripping jam for breakfast before the gruelling day of contemplation and silence.
Whatever you do, make the food outstanding – I knew that whatever I did, the food had to be a hit.
During our first retreat I may have gone a little overboard. I stocked the fridge with 8 types of cheeses, every type of milk: coconut, almond, rice, soy, skim, whole…hazelnut. We had fresh sourdough bread, local jams, preserves and spreads, abundant choice of muesli, gluten free crackers, biscuits, chocolate, nuts, and several bowls full of fresh fruit, enough for each person to have a couple of pieces each of everything, bananas, oranges, apples, mandarins, grapes; yes, it may seem like overkill, but I knew that I’d regret running out of anything. I still go a bit overboard…but only get hazelnut milk if I am asked!
With the rest of the meals I played it safe by having four different caterers provide a range of meals from different cuisines: vegan, raw and super healthy, Indian hot and spicy, Mediterranean hearty and soulful, and homemade, baked & wholesome. Now, we have a local caterer whose healthy & delicious meals can accommodate clients, no matter what dietary requirement they have.
I hope not, but 20 years down the track the food from this retreat might be all anyone remembers, if so I also hope it is remembered with joy.
2. Choose outstanding locations & venues – no brainer!
In 2015 I did a multi-day, solo walk to the Annapurna base camp in Nepal. For 10 days I carried a (heavy-ish) backpack, slept in a sleeping bag on wooden cots covered by mildew and ‘well-used’ blankets; washed in sometimes icy, often questionable, clean water and used the same two changes of clothes and the same damp hand towel the whole time – I was in thru-hiking heaven.
But, ‘oh my gracious me’, as the taxi driver said when he pulled into the Hyatt where I had booked my one night stop-over in Calcutta before heading home, was I joyous to strip off my dusty, cruddy gear have a lush goddess shower in a spotless, white tiled bathroom and then throw myself on a king size bed with crisp, cool sheets and silky pillows? You bet!!
The spacious & architecturally designed homes I hire for our retreats have views (from everywhere you look) of either pristine Australian bush with Karri, Peppermints and Jarrah Eucalypts, vineyards with rows of perfectly manicured vines undulating towards the sun-setting horizon or the Indian Ocean in all its sultry, salty glow.
Make people feel special - the delighted look on the faces of everyone as they walk in on the first evening of the retreat always tells me that it has been worth the investment.
3. The content – do YOUR thing!
There were two components to the retreat.
1. Creativity: I was fully confident that what I had put together for an exploration of creativity using theatre and embodied activities would be well received, engaging, powerful and, most importantly, helpful. After all, what business would I have running a creativity retreat if I had nothing good to offer? Check the testimonials.
However, I was modest enough to know that it would be quadrupled in value if other artists were involved. I simply asked myself: what would I LOVE to do during a creativity retreat? So I looked for artists who could take us on a short but connected and intensive journey into their medium. A painter, a sculptor, a singer gave us gratifying and exquisite opportunities to play with our creativity. This was a huge success and I am grateful for all the artists that have contributed to our unique retreats: Jane Tangney, Rebecca Cool, Megan Hodgson, Paean Ng & Elaine Clocherty.
2. Walking: I can’t take any credit for the breathtaking vistas and inspiring natural environment we walk in, that came from the ultimate creative force – mother nature. I did, however, choose the specific walks, and for this I considered the distance, difficulty and ‘wow’ factor. I also made sure I did each of the walks several times before taking anyone on the tracks so that I knew them back to front; I even cleared fallen branches off the track.
NOTE: Don’t jam pack too many activities or too many other facilitators - for one of the first Walking & Writing Retreats we did yoga, sculpting, aromatherapy, sound healing, natural textile dyeing, walking & creativity, all in three days … at the end of it I felt I had been on a boot camp and worse, so did some clients.
So far, so good. But this is not a blow my own trumpet piece, above are the aspects of the retreat that I know I got right, but I’m not finished because, well, there are a few things that I had to work on to improve for the next ones…
4. Don’t be a solo act - get help.
OK…working alone has many advantages: flexible hours, quick decision-making, spontaneity; you can also cut costs by doing a lot of things yourself, like doing your own filing and making your own coffee.
However, holding a space for people to examine, unpack and transform creative blocks takes full attention, all I really wanted to be focused on was facilitating & guiding the work.
I realised that it is imperative to have someone (or a team) with clear roles and responsibilities; someone to serve food, get people blankets, clear up meals, do the dishes, refill the water, tidy up the space, take photos, drive.
During the first retreat I sort of had someone helping me, a dancer who could not afford the retreat asked me if we could do an exchange: her help in exchange for participation – I agreed. She had a vague idea of what she had to do… she kinda knew how to load a dishwasher and to set a table…she sometimes paid attention to what everyone needed, she almost let me focus 100% on the content and the facilitation…almost. It was OK, but it was not ideal; it was not the set up for the best results.
I’m still working on getting the right balance here.
5. Marketing: let’s face(book) it…social media works…but give it time!
Over the years with Act Out I ran a number of workshops and half-day/all-day events to which I had to attract people so I considered myself someone who can make use of her database and really get ‘bums on seats’.
So about a month and a half before the first retreat (I can hear you laughing) I wrote over 350 individual and 300 generic emails to people on my database, (yes, it took me days – 5 long days exactly) and tried to get them onside for promoting my retreat – no luck – just a lot of great & encouraging responses from lovely peers, friends and clients.
Then it occurred to me, duh, since I had the event posted on the Edgewalkers Facebook page (yes, go LIKE it now!), to write Facebook messages to my friends and acquaintances asking them to share the event - that was better, a few passed on messages, shared the event and helped promote the page. Then, double duh, with only four weeks to go before the retreat…I realised I could pay to advertise on Facebook and sell the retreat that way…it was a bit late for that one. I ended up slashing the price in half to sell it (see next session on pricing) but since then, almost every person that has come to all of our 11 retreats was attracted through Facebook & Instagram.
I drive 80% of traffic to the website through social media - it is an integral part of our marketing AND selling strategy so I am constantly learning how to do it better. Making videos, sharing stories and…you might cringe at this, but actually speaking myself on video and connecting with our potential ‘perfect’ client. I have learnt a lot from the amazing women at Wanderlust Entrepreneur.
Start marketing the retreat at least 6 months if not more before and keep doing it…all year round. I have had people tell me they have been following me for 2 years on Instagram or Facebook before they came to a retreat!
6. Price it right: cheapo begets cheapo
I am getting better at pricing! But the first retreat was priced at $1,050 this 3-night/4-day luxury accommodation, all meals and snacks plus hours of facilitation and workshops and guided walks and free books and four weeks on online coaching following retreat was an absolute BARGAIN…too much of a bargain!
As much as I truly enjoy working with people and facilitating a transformative result in their creative practice, this is a business venture where I get to do what I love but actually make a living from it. Of course, I was testing the water to see if there was interest so I was invested in running a retreat as long as I got my costs back.
After much coaching from business colleagues, friends and mentors, I have realised one thing: there is ALWAYS going to be someone who will find whatever price you put on your product too high. Even when that first retreat was reduced to half price (yes, it ended up being sold for $525!) there were people telling me they could not afford it, and asking if they could they get a discount - I’m not joking.
Do the math, make the sums, add a profit you would be happy with, and make it work for you and for everyone who participates. Don’t be fearful about it sounding expensive - your work is valuable and the people who value you and your unique offering are out there.
7. Get feedback … and listen to it!
I know that at the end of a retreat the last thing you want to do is to be sending out customer feedback forms… but DO IT! There are so many reasons:
We improve our product - during one retreat I scheduled two 12 km plus walks - it was OK for clients wanting to walk the Cape to Cape but it was too much for the clients who came to a weekend to nurture their creativity. Thank goodness I asked - this has improved their experience as an Edgewalkers client;
We get to see that our clients are satisfied and this will make them long term clients … I am so happy to say that most of our clients stay in touch and many have joined other events and adventures;
We know we value our clients but asking them for feedback shows THEM we value their opinion and experience;
8. Don’t give up - if you really believe that retreats are what you want to do, then keep going. It takes time to establish yourself, your client data base, your marketing strategy, your pricing…but it is SO worth it when you get to the end of a retreat and you KNOW you have delivered a beautiful and powerful experience that your clients have found beneficial AND you have made a great income doing something you LOVE …that is magic!