Understanding The Business of Retreats

Life coaching and wellness retreats are a very big business. Learn how to run a life coaching retreat that will serve your audience and grow your client base.

The Everything Life Coaching Podcast, featuring Lumia Coaching founders John Kim and Noelle Cordeaux, is a deep dive into the experience and business of being a life coach. Subscribe to get new episodes weekly!

The Business of Retreats

Episode transcript

John: Hey guys on today’s episode, the business of retreats. So, the birth of the retreat, let’s go back a little bit. I think it’s really interesting and thank God that the retreat has been invented and popular, because it gets us outside.

Noelle: Yeah, absolutely. Let’s back way up and tell everybody what we’re talking about and why. We are talking about the role that coaches can play in hosting retreats for folks to get away, to get out into nature, to get out of their comfort zone, to get out of their own heads, and to do therapeutic and growth work in a new and different and invigorating way.

John just hosted his first ever Angry Therapist retreat at Joshua Tree and I called him the next day because I wanted the scoop, I was curious and I had a million questions and we thought this would be a really great topic for our podcast listeners because so many coaches, that’s the dream, right—to be out in nature, to be with your people, to be running a retreat and to have that experience. So, we’re gonna pull the curtain back and get down to what it really takes, what it was really like, what real expectations are, and how you can do it too.

John: I love that as I swerve the car, naturally by bird walking, you grab the wheel and you bring it back to straighten out where we’re going. So thank you for that.

Noelle: That’s what we do John.

John: Yes absolutely, realignment. Yes, absolutely. And I want to remind you guys, in the 80’s, there were a lot of business conferences and workshops and powerpoint and the projector and all that, but the retreat—really, it was I think about 7, maybe 5 years ago—really exploded. And I think part of that is due to the yoga movement, and nature, and people now wanting to get outside. So, it’s a good thing.

Noelle: Have you ever gone on a wellness retreat before hosting one yourself?

John: No, just ours.

Noelle: Just ours, through Lumia (formerly JRNI.)

John: I’m trying to think. Yeah, just ours.

Noelle: I mean and I was thinking about it too and it’s actually something that I wanted to do for myself for a really long time and I have never done it either, I’ve just hosted our own. So, thats on my bucket list for the year ahead, is to go away and participate in a wellness retreat.

John: Oh, you’re going to love it. I mean I did go on, I guess you could say it’s kind of a “manventure” from Sequoia to Yosemite on dirt bikes. I guess you could technically call that a retreat, there was no wellness. The wellness wasn’t in the program, it was more in your own inner journey.

Noelle: In the company?

John: What’s that?

Noelle: And in the company you had it sounded like.

John: Yeah, so it was like a wilderness company. So there’s a lot of that stuff happening. So I guess you could say technically I’ve been on one retreat if you wanna call that a retreat. So, let’s talk about the retreat business. I know a lot of our coaches are getting their feet wet and they’re super interested in doing their own retreats, which is great.

Noelle: Yeah, so let’s start from the beginning. Why did you want to try this in the first place?

John: I love, whenever I get an idea, I know that if I don’t pull the trigger, it doesn’t happen. And I think this is something that I’ve also come across with a lot of our own coaches. They have such great ideas and they want to do things and if they don’t just start pushing the first domino or getting things rolling, then fear kicks in—it’s very natural, it happens to all of us—then their dreams and their ideas never manifest. So, I thought you know what, the Joshua Tree is right in my backyard, 2 hours away, I would love to just throw a retreat and let’s see if anyone comes. So, when I had that idea, I was like okay I have to do it, I have to at least—I won’t be okay with myself unless I give it a try.

Noelle: Right, absolutely. So, I think what you expressed is really important to clarify for everybody—there’s fear and doubt involved. Even at a point where John is a published author, has a following of thousands and thousands and thousands of people all over the world, there was still this huge gaping what if—can I do this, can I pull that off? So that’s really the first thing that you have to defeat when you’re going into a venture like this, is the little voice in the back of your head that says but what if.

John: Yes, you have to slay that dragon I think before anything, which is—

Noelle: Mhmm.

John: It always starts there.

Noelle: Yep, so then there was the logistical part where you had to have a date and a location.

John: Yes.

Noelle: How did you approach that? What was that experience?

John: The good news is, because retreats are so popular, there’s a lot of spaces now, all over the world, whether we’re talking about Costa Rica, Bali, L.A.. Now there are these retreat houses. Because of things like Airbnb, people actually have facilities that are just kind of designed for retreats. So I was referred to a house in Joshua Tree and there was a huge—it’s kind of segregated—but it’s a really beautiful property and she rents them out for yoga retreats. So it was very easy to just say “oh its all—everything was already there”.

Noelle: Awesome, so data collecting, figuring out a location that works for you geographically, it wasn’t too hard for you personally to get to, knowing that wellness tourism is a huge industry, and as with any industry, there are different people who make a living out of providing different facets of it. So there are people out there that host properties exclusively for the purpose of wellness retreats. And then you chose a date, and then what was the next step in the process, what came after that?

John: Then I kind of sat with myself and thought “what kind of retreat do I want this to be?” And I think this is a really important step. You can’t just throw a retreat for the sake of throwing a retreat. I mean, you can, but I think it will just get lost and people will wonder what’s different about your retreat. So I sat there and I thought “Okay, is this an adventure retreat, am I going to talk about my concepts? What exactly do I want to do over the weekend to really make it meaningful to me?”.

So I wanted it to be based on my book, because I wanted to give everyone my book, and inside the book I had one of these little typewriter thingys that I typed for every person, and I wanted to do a lot of group work and I wanted it to be something where not a lot of activity other than maybe one hike, but I really wanted to get into the work. So I also knew that me alone would make it kind of boring, so I brought in a couple other people to do energy work and yoga and mindfulness.

Noelle: Awesome, okay. So I think that something you said here is super important—you weren’t reinventing the wheel, you were going off of work that you have created, concepts that you have worked with for a really long time, things that you felt comfortable with, things that you believe in deeply, and you wanted it to be about doing internal work. I think that when we’re putting on retreats and events, especially as coaches, there is a tendency to want to throw in a ton of activities, but what coaching is and what coaching does is getting people to do the internal work. So, from a data perspective, it’s really great to hear that, number one that was enough for everybody that attended your retreat, that that was what they came to do—they all came to do the work.

John: Yeah, and what I noticed was that, we did a hike and there was some small activities, but it was actually the groups and the exercises in the groups that was the value—that’s where there was emotion, that’s where there was connection, that’s where you could tell people were really thirsty for information, and all of that. So it wasn’t necessarily in the food or the hike, it was in the actual group work, that’s where it was really magical. And you can’t—because of the unique people and unique stories, the group work—you can’t repeat it. You know what I’m saying?

Noelle: So break it down, what does group work entail? What actually took place?

John: It was me facilitating, and through exercise and of course through structure, various topics, concepts, and then going around and it wasn’t about me lecturing—because no one wants to sit and listen to someone for 2 hours—but creating a space and facilitating other people to talk about their stories. I always use the analogy of the movie The Breakfast Club, one of my favorite movies. How people who normally may not be friends or wouldn’t hang out are connected by this common thread, in that movie it was detention, but here it’s wellness and self betterment, and then by the end of the movie, they humanize themselves and they realize even though we’re kind of different, from different cliques or different worlds, over the weekend, or in that movie it was detention, but you realize we’re all the same. And I think that that kind of character arc, if you can get that in your retreat, that’s where the magic happens. And I was nervous because I told the group “it’s either going to be The Breakfast Club or The Jersey Shore and I don’t know and I’m terrified”.

Noelle: Yeah, so I mean that’s another really important point too, is you tossed a wide net out there and I think when you were gonna put this retreat on, both you and I assumed it was gonna be L.A. locals who came. What actually happened?

John: Yeah, no one was from L.A., everyone was from other—they flew in.

Noelle: They flew in.

John: There was a couple people who were taking this retreat as a part of a bigger trip, starting at Joshua Tree and then maybe taking a week off and doing other things, but for me it was in my backyard but for no one else, because I assumed since its in L.A., it would just be L.A. people and people flew in, which really shocked me.

Noelle: Which is going back to this really strong market trend we’re seeing of wellness tourism, of people not wanting to just take a vacation, but to take a vacation that’s actually going to be restorative, that I’m gonna get something out of on a deeply personal, emotional level.

John: And everyone there, they were all going through something. And so this is what I think is a really important piece if you guys are throwing or planning a retreat—without the vulnerability piece, without the, and you know the person running the retreat has to set the tone, right. So without the showing yourself—whether you do it through exercises or conversations or however you wanna do it—without that tone of being vulnerable and showing yourself and sharing your story, then it does become a Jersey Shore. Because then it’s just activities and it’s superficial and it’s a lot of people fronting, and judgement, and all that, but it’s when you’re vulnerable and you create a space where it’s safe, that’s where I think the retreat has a lot of meaning, a lot of growth, you know?

Noelle: So when everybody got there, did you give ground rules?

John: Yeah, of course. And this is, I think, what’s really important, there has to be rules. Yeah, we gave rules, we also had a structure. I think if you just say I’m gonna throw a retreat, it’s gonna be fun, we’re gonna make s’mores and just kind of cross our fingers and hope that people share, that I think can go south. So everyone’s looking at you for structure, so we had a very tight itinerary where there was something happening almost all the time. And then of course mixed with some free time and it really needed that because it makes people feel safe, and it makes people feel like “oh I paid for this and I got something out of it” instead of just the location.

Noelle: So, people came in and there was a really strict agenda and you put everybody through the paces of a process flow?

John: Yes.

Noelle: Now, another thing that came to mind is you, as the host, didn’t know who was coming, didn’t know what to expect, what kind of personalities, and I think that your attendees probably experienced the same thing. It takes bravery.

John: Yeah, absolutely.

Noelle: Especially in our digital age, where we’re so used to texting, being behind a computer, being behind a profile picture. an Instagram persona, that to actually show up and show yourself is freaking terrifying.

John: Yes, 100%. And that was actually the most terrifying piece. The night before I was in bed thinking “what if someone—it only takes one person to destroy the atmosphere”. I had no idea who was coming, never talked to any of them, they were just people kind of falling from the sky and so yeah, I was terrified. I had the insurance, but anything could have happened. And so, it’s really important to kind of set the tone.

Noelle: So, what actually happened?

John: Well people came in, and it was like it was the first day of school where everyone’s nice, but you could tell they’re skittish you could tell they’re kind of quiet, everyone’s waiting for the first person to go eat at the buffet if you will—if I could use that as a metaphor—before they all start doing it. And what I mean by that is waiting for someone else to kind of show themselves before they open up. So it’s a little bit of a process, a slow burn.

It’s different if you are throwing a retreat within your community, so with our Life Coach Training program, our retreats. They start off instantly, with hugs and everyone kind of knows each other, or we’ve seen each other. There’s already that soil, you know? But if you’re throwing a retreat that is just under your brand, where you have no idea where they’re coming from, have some exercise, do something to kind of get people warmed up and to open up—whether it’s questions or an exercise, or maybe it’s done through food or sitting around and just sharing a meal, I don’t know, whatever you want to do.

Noelle: I think it’s all about finding common ground. Now, we’ve built the Catalyst community over a period of about 6 years, and I remember, in the early days, having the same kind of fear when I would go into a retreat environment or go to visit with Catalyst, not knowing who I was gonna get and something that I’ve learned over a very long career of working with humans is that most people are awesome.

John: Yeah, I mean people are good, inherently, you know?

Noelle: Yeah, and most people have a lot of common ground between them, and I think that the fear of who is this gonna be—it’s funny that you mentioned The Jersey Shore because reality television distorts our perspective of what it’s like to be in communities so vastly. Those shows get the most unstable people they can find and then put them in compromising positions, right?

John: Right.

Noelle: That doesn’t happen in everyday life. Most people are like pretty chill and pretty great and so I think that when we’re talking about going on retreat, when we’re talking about retreat, when we’re talking about sitting around in a circle and sharing our stories, we all have to remember that that’s primal—that’s what humans have been doing since the dawn of civilization.

John: Yeah.

Noelle: Literally is sitting in a circle, telling stories.

John: Also, remember that if people are going to your retreat, they probably have somewhat trust in you. These 18 people, they didn’t come to the Joshua Tree just because they’d never been to the Joshua Tree. They’re trusting me to lead and give them some value. So, there’s something to say about that—you’re collecting people who have already either been following you or trust that you’re gonna provide a safe space for everyone.

Noelle: And that’s the common ground, whether it’s a bunch of people who are coming together around a specific topic, or whether it’s a bunch of people who are coming together because of a specific person, in which case it was you and your work that everyone was familiar with. So there was already common ground established.

John: Yes, 100%.

Noelle: What would you do differently next time?

John: Just to challenge myself, I would like to do that retreat, but maybe different locations. This was Joshua Tree so I would like to do one in Big Bear, maybe in the winter or I would like to do one, in Ojai, or maybe in Big Sur. I think that, for me, would be more exciting then, because I think retreats can also become, if it becomes too “business-y”, you lose the flavor of it and if the facilitator isn’t enjoying it as well then it just becomes like work, you know?

Noelle: Absolutely.

John: And people can feel that.

Noelle: How was it for you as a facilitator?

John: It was terrifying, it was rewarding, it was you know—if you leave a retreat, and I think this is kind of, for me, the marker—if it felt like summer camp, if it felt like people came in and then left wanting pictures and wanting to connect, and you could tell that they were moved in some way—to me, then that’s a success. It doesn’t matter if the meals were bad or if classes didn’t go well or whatever, but if people left a little bit different then they came, and maybe the difference is just a change in perspective, or if they just were hurt or whatever, then it was a success. To me, that was my measure.

Noelle: So, for everybody listening, they might be wondering well how do I do that, how do foster an experience for connection and if I’m listening to John, the magic sauce was setting expectations for an experience of vulnerability early on and leading the way with your own vulnerability, keeping it really structured so that there was something of value that was happening on a regular basis and that there wasn’t down time with people kind of sitting there lost in their own thoughts.

John: Right.

Noelle: What else? What was the other magic sauce that contributed to the spirit of connection that people walked away with?

John: I think intentions and authenticity. So your intention, especially if you’re running your first one, isn’t dollars, it can’t be. People can smell it, you know? So the intention to connect and have a good time and make it a meaningful weekend, that was my intention. The business side, you’ll work it out later. So, if you didn’t make much money, well you’ll figure that out and it shouldn’t be about that in the beginning. And then authenticity—how real are you? People can smell that shit really fast.

Noelle: Mhmm, yep.

John: If they walk into a room and the person leading it doesn’t feel authentic or real they’re going to instantly backpedal, hide, maybe want a refund.

Noelle: Something like that. So, being yourself, being real. And on the business side of things, if you don’t lose money on your first retreat, you’re doing great.

John: Sure, and I’ll be honest with you, I had no idea what I was doing and things add up, it gets expensive. These locations are pricey and feeding 18 people for a weekend is expensive. So, get on top of that, find someone who can—if you’re not a numbers person like me—find someone who can crunch numbers, because you don’t want to give yourself a really bad experience where you’re like “okay I just ran a retreat and I lost a ton of money”, because then you’re not gonna be motivated to do it again.

Noelle: Right, and there are different services out there that you can join with, that will help you with your location, that will help you with your meals, that will help you with sourcing the whole thing. And as a first go around, nailing your content as a coach is probably the most important thing that you can do, because that is your product.

John: Yeah.

Noelle: Everything else is the business of running wellness tourism. And that’s something that you have the rest of your life to get good at, but people are gonna come for the content. So that, I think, is where folks will really want to focus on.

John: Yes, and I want to kind of give three tips as we end. But first I want to say that if you’re a life coach, and we’re big believers in building a practice that is honest to you, right? And I think that when people think about life coaching, they just kind of go to this idea of online sessions and practice and people hang onto that. And it’s like you don’t have to just do that you know, and so that was one of the other reasons I wanted to do this, is just kind of set an example where a practice is defined by however you want it to be—and it could be outside or it could be retreats or it could be audio courses or it could be—and I believe it’s the combination of all that that makes it interesting, exciting. It’s not just the sessions. And I think life coaches hang onto that so much, like I just want sessions, I just want sessions. But, there’s other ways to help people, there’s other ways to make money.

Noelle: Absolutely. It’s only one narrow way of work in a vast world.

John: Yes and so play with all of your crayons.

And so here are my three tips. One would be if you’re going to do a retreat, it takes about five months to get the word out. I think a lot of people expect to just make one post and then no one buys tickets and then they’re like okay forget it then. No, you can’t, you have to push it, you maybe have to spend some ad money, I don’t know, but it takes about five months. Get your word out, do pre-sales, do contests, do whatever. You gotta hustle that shit, you know?

Tip two, make sure that your retreat is uniquely you and it’s different. So, if your thing is surfing, then you shouldn’t go into the mountains, you should do something that is—unless that’s where you’re at in your life—you should do something that fits under your brand and provide value. If you’re gonna do some kind of wellness retreat where you are doing group work and helping people process stuff, then that’s your foot forward, and that’s what you have to do. Don’t try to be something you’re not, don’t try to throw in zip-lining and bungee jumping because you think it’s cool. Do whatever kind of retreat that you would want to go to yourself.

The final tip is have fun. If it becomes too much of a business because there’s the business side of life coaching in general, it’s very easy to start to lose the whole fun of it, you know?

Noelle: Yeah, fun is the key to everything or you’re just gonna be miserable across the board.

John: Yeah just a general life rule.

Noelle: Yeah, cool. Well I’m proud of you.

John: Thank you.

Noelle: Thanks for sharing the tips with us and the way my brain works, John was telling me all about it and I had immediately structured an entire year of retreats in my head.

John: Exactly.

Noelle: Okay cool, this is a new product. So we’ll see how it goes. Stay tuned as the TAT Angry Therapist retreats unfold over the upcoming year. Maybe you guys will want to join in with John in one of the new cool locations. I’d like to go to the Big Sur retreat when you do that one.

John: Oh I would love to have you and I would love to have you where you could take off your CEO hat and just hang out and shoot the shit. For you, that would be amazing.

Noelle: I’d need a lot of beer for that.

John: Absolutely. Guys, I also can’t wait to see what you guys do and the retreats you throw and the little fires that you guys start, campfires, and that’s exciting. I’m really proud of all our life coaches and everything they’re doing.

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