Top team
Gwinganna Lifestyle Retreat

As Australian destination spa Gwinganna celebrates its 10th anniversary, members of its core team tell Julie Cramer about the work that’s gone into making it a global success

By Julie Cramer | Published in Spa Business 2016 issue 3


When Australian entrepreneur Tony de Leede opened the doors to his new retreat in the Gold Coast’s hinterland in 2006 (see SB07/3 p76), it was with the aim of establishing a style of wellness destination the sector had never before experienced. A decade on, the 500-acre (200-hectare) Gwinganna Lifestyle Retreat in Queensland has grown into one of the world’s most renowned sites for ‘serious wellness’ and education.

As de Leede says: “I believe we have one of the most unique offerings. It’s truly my pride and joy and where I intend to spend a lot more time when I slow down.”

Yet unlike the serial entrepreneur’s other business interests – he owns a gym chain and other ventures (see p66) – which are all about expansion, de Leede and his wellness director, Sharon Kolkka, have resisted over-developing Gwinganna and have kept it small and intimate.

Australian actor Hugh Jackman fell in love with the place when he visited in the early days, and has had a part stake in the business ever since (see p64).

Connections with a homegrown, global film star aside, the quality, depth, innovation and reputation of the health programmes at Gwinganna have been the main catalysts for growth and success over the years. Another reason is no doubt the dedication and skills of a very loyal band of staff, with many of them having worked there since the beginning.

As Gwinganna celebrates its 10th anniversary year, De Leede, Kolkka and on-site organic gardener Shelley Pryor give their perspective on the winning formula of the business.


Top Team - Gwinganna
Tony de Leede CEO


 

Accommodation is purposefully limited to help create a special, intimate atmosphere
 

When I first acquired the Gwinganna site, I didn’t really know where the journey would take us, but I knew I wanted to create something that would help people enjoy a long and healthy life.

My mother, Yvonne Marie, was my inspiration. My father died aged 49 of heart disease, when I was just 16. Both my parents drank, smoked, ate rich foods and did not really exercise.

But after the death of my father, my mother changed her lifestyle. She gave up smoking, curbed her drinking and started swimming year-round in the ocean, meditating and doing tai chi. She even started visiting what I believe was Australia’s first health retreat – then known as a fat farm – several times a year.

I knew that to remain healthy, I should live like my mother, but I didn’t have her discipline. So I decided the best chance for me was to develop my own health retreat and spend a lot of time there.

Many of my associates in the fitness industry thought I was crazy when I spent close to AUS$30m (US$22.5m, €20m, £15.3m) buying and developing the site over three years. There were times in those first few years when I thought I was crazy too! But after opening in 2006, we broke even in year three and we’ve been surging forward ever since.

Sharon [Kolkka] and I were clear from the start that we wanted to limit the number of visitors at any one time to 64 people. It’s served to preserve the integrity of the retreat and its special atmosphere. We only offer communal dining, as well as a carefully designed nutritional regime with no gluten or dairy – so people really see results.

I remain very involved with management, but I don’t micro-manage. We have a very talented team led by Sharon. My wife and I visit often and while I’m there I’ll hold business meetings with the team, discuss strategy, pricing, future profit centres, programming and staff training, etc.

Our team have been integral to the success of Gwinganna. If you want your staff to act like owners and treat the business with as much care, you have to give them a piece of the action. In the early days we gave core staff shares in Gwinganna’s operating company, so they’re now able to benefit from the success of the business.


"If you want your staff to act like owners and treat the business with as much care, you have to give them a piece of the action"

 



De Leede, a serial entrepreneur, plans to spend a lot more time at Gwinganna when he retires

Top Team - Gwinganna
Sharon Kolkka wellness director and GM


 

Kolkka loves guest interaction and regularly delivers seminars
 

Playing a part in developing Gwinganna from the ground up has been very exciting and allowed me to incorporate key elements that I felt were important for such a retreat.

As GM, I’m responsible for day-to-day operations and financial outcomes. My role also includes being the wellness director, which centres on the vision and implementation of our programmes. I develop the concepts (we have over 15 programmes) and liaise with guest speakers so that content and formats are relevant.

Due to my background in the fitness industry, personal training and instructor education, I’m very hands-on with the guest experience, which I love. This includes the arrival presentation, delivering seminars each week, along with activities such as qi gong.

I’ve secured a management team with a broad base of skills and a strong understanding or experience of hospitality. We’ve brought together an extraordinary group of qualified individuals – 145 staff members in total – who love the challenge of creating something unique and delivering our guest experience each week.

I’m so proud of my team and what they bring to our business. Sixteen employees have been here since the first year of operations, which is a wonderful confirmation of their commitment to what we do.

We now have so many return guests. In the past 18 months, it’s not been uncommon for us to see up to a 50 per cent return of guests on any programme. We’ve also won many national and international awards (eight awards in 2015 alone).

It’s rewarding for us to be leading the way with our educational wellness seminars, sharing evidence-based research (see p64). When we began 10 years ago, very few of our guests had heard of epigenetics (see p52) or the advances in neuroscience in relation to managing stress. According to their feedback, we’ve empowered them to make changes that have improved their health over the years. Guests often tell us they heard it first at Gwinganna.

We’ve seen a surge in demand for our emotional wellbeing therapies, such as psychotherapy and equine therapies. As a result, we’ve built a new facility with five counselling rooms, plus an additional yard for the horses. We see this as a growing trend and estimate around 30 per cent of our guests currently request this type of service.

We’ve also created three new Meditation Suites. The suites are set apart from the main buildings and are designed to provide a place of tranquility, with high-end comforts, including a private deck with day bed, deep bath, king-sized bed, yoga mat, meditation cushion and meditation sessions on an iPod. They’re incredibly popular and since their release in January, have all been booked out.

We always follow the health issues affecting our guests and look for programmes to help address these. Our very popular Triple S programme is an ideal example – developed to address the three troublesome areas of stress, sugar and sleep.

I find it really exciting that more research is identifying how so many modalities and lifestyle practices can be of significant benefit in a long term health plan.


"According to feedback, we've empowered guests to make changes that have improved their health over the years"

 



Kolkka has been at Gwinganna since day one, playing a key part in its development

Top Team - Gwinganna
Shelley Pryor organic gardener


 

As well as tending to the gardens, Pryor teaches health food seminars
 

I was fortunate to come on board, initially as a trained chef, just prior to Gwinganna’s opening. I grew up in a regional area where my parents grew and farmed everything we needed, so throughout my life, gardening and food were a passion. While working here as a chef, I started taking guests through the gardens at the end of the cooking demos and sharing tips with them. When the gardener left, it was an easy switch for me.

We have four areas of gardens, plus an orchard. All are managed organically without use of pesticides or herbicides.

One of the star ingredients we grow is aloe vera, which is wonderful for gut health, and we show guests how to make the juice. Other ingredients with incredible benefits are turmeric, ginger and garlic, which are always in use here. A very popular dish is our Salad of Abundance – a collection of the best seasonal produce in the gardens on any day. It can include greens, micro greens, herbs, flowers and vegetables or fruits, such as eggplant or sweet lime. Then the chef designs a dressing to complement the flavours and guests love it!

Having been a chef in the same kitchen helps me understand their requirements and design the garden plan to provide what they need most.

My day also includes keeping our six active beehives, which produce all the honey for the kitchen. I may teach a gardening class or tend to the orchard.

Our gardens are an integral part of our guests’ stay and often they don’t expect to be learning about gardening during a health holiday. We have steadily increased the number of presentations I do so that even more guests can learn about protecting the environment, understand more about natural solutions for ailments and the importance of organic processes without harmful chemicals or fertilisers.


"One of the star ingredients we grow is aloe vera, which is wonderful for gut health"

The Hugh Jackman connection

The link between Tony de Leede and Hugh Jackman goes back 20 years, at which time the popular Wolverine star was working on reception at a gym in Sydney – which became a Fitness First Australia facility. The pair met a few years after de Leede started running the business, via a mutual business partner.

By the time de Leede opened Gwinganna, Jackman was a successful actor, headlining in the musical Boy from Oz. While rehearsing for this role, he visited Gwinganna and was so impressed that he wanted to invest. Today, de Leede retains an 80 per cent stake in the property assets of Gwinganna, with Jackman and three other investors making up the remaining 20 per cent.

Jackman told Spa Business: “I believe in the service Gwinganna is offering and the incredible team – which incidentally hasn’t changed since the beginning.
"Honestly, I woke up the fourth morning of my first stay feeling better than I had in 20 years.”

Jackman and his wife are said to have experienced Gwinganna’s 'life changing' Tribal Dreaming treatment – a two-and-a-half hour journey combining massage, dance and a forest initiation with didgeridoo healing and ochre clay dot body painting.

Jackman is also a significant partner in de Leede’s Fit n Fast gym business and was a partner in Boxmaster, which the entrepreneur sold three years ago.

 


Ian West/PA Wire/Press Association Images

Jackman is an investor and regular guest
Capturing health data

Gwinganna is in the process of gathering data from its programmes, after being approached by Professor Marc Cohen and a team from Melbourne’s RMIT University to participate in a formal, independent study around health outcomes for guests following seven nights in a wellness destination.

It’s one of the first pieces of research to report on a wide range of specific wellness measures such as anthropometrics, depression, anxiety, stress, mood, sleep quality, health symptoms, cognitive function and urinary pesticide metabolites in health retreat participants. Initial results are said to be “very positive” and will be released soon.

 



Cohen is working on spa research at Gwinganna
De Leede's new ventures

Tony de Leede is widely known as the man who launched Fitness First Australia. Since selling the business in 2008, he's become increasingly involved with the wellness sector.

In 2009, he launched the first Fit n Fast budget club, which he grew to a chain of 18 clubs over three years. After being inspired by a visit to Pure Yoga in Hong Kong, de Leede is now in the process of rebranding Fit n Fast into a boutique fitness village concept known as YogaBar, where people can experience disciplines such as yoga, meditation and barre under one roof, eat in a wholefoods café and buy branded exercise apparel. All the current Fit n Fast clubs will be converted, and there will also be new acquisitions, says de Leede.

The entrepreneur also developed Komune, a surfing/wellness resort concept with extensive fitness facilities. There’s one location on the Gold Coast (opened 2009) and one in Bali (opened 2012), with the main focus on the expansion and evolvement of the Indonesian site. It currently has 66 rooms, with 38 due in phase two, and operates at 92 per cent occupancy in high season, and 72 per cent in low season. De Leede says he’s been surprised by the mix of customers Komune has attracted since opening – with a fairly even split between families, couple and singles.

“My wife’s parents are in their late 60s and absolutely love it there. They’ve been there four times,” says de Leede.

“We’ve also just completed our new Health Hub, which offers dedicated areas for cross training, and a huge yoga shala, which can host stays for yoga teachers with their trainees.”

After experiencing the meditation pod Somadome in 2015 (see SB16/1 p113), De Leede soon acquired a significant share in the company and will play a key part in its expansion and the transferral of manufacturing from the US to China.

“I realised that this meditation pod – or what I call ‘easy meditation’ for the 95 per cent of people like me who can’t meditate in the traditional way – was going to be very relevant as we move forward,” says de Leede. The pod, already in US spas, will make its Australian debut in Gwinganna in the coming months.

 



De Leede has launched Komune, a popular surfing/wellness resort concept, in Australia and Bali
 


De Leede has launched Komune, a popular surfing/wellness resort concept, in Australia and Bali
 
 


Virgin's Richard Branson is a fan of the Somadome meditation pod
 


Julie Cramer is a health, hospitality and travel journalist and a former BBC news online editor

Email: [email protected]

Home-grown, nutritional cuisine is a key element at Gwinganna
New meditation suites have been fully-booked since January
 


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SELECTED ISSUE
Spa Business
2016 issue 3

View issue contents

Leisure Management - Gwinganna Lifestyle Retreat

Top team

Gwinganna Lifestyle Retreat


As Australian destination spa Gwinganna celebrates its 10th anniversary, members of its core team tell Julie Cramer about the work that’s gone into making it a global success

Julie Cramer
The 500-acre lifestyle retreat is known internationally for 'serious wellness'
Home-grown, nutritional cuisine is a key element at Gwinganna
New meditation suites have been fully-booked since January

When Australian entrepreneur Tony de Leede opened the doors to his new retreat in the Gold Coast’s hinterland in 2006 (see SB07/3 p76), it was with the aim of establishing a style of wellness destination the sector had never before experienced. A decade on, the 500-acre (200-hectare) Gwinganna Lifestyle Retreat in Queensland has grown into one of the world’s most renowned sites for ‘serious wellness’ and education.

As de Leede says: “I believe we have one of the most unique offerings. It’s truly my pride and joy and where I intend to spend a lot more time when I slow down.”

Yet unlike the serial entrepreneur’s other business interests – he owns a gym chain and other ventures (see p66) – which are all about expansion, de Leede and his wellness director, Sharon Kolkka, have resisted over-developing Gwinganna and have kept it small and intimate.

Australian actor Hugh Jackman fell in love with the place when he visited in the early days, and has had a part stake in the business ever since (see p64).

Connections with a homegrown, global film star aside, the quality, depth, innovation and reputation of the health programmes at Gwinganna have been the main catalysts for growth and success over the years. Another reason is no doubt the dedication and skills of a very loyal band of staff, with many of them having worked there since the beginning.

As Gwinganna celebrates its 10th anniversary year, De Leede, Kolkka and on-site organic gardener Shelley Pryor give their perspective on the winning formula of the business.


Top Team - Gwinganna
Tony de Leede CEO


 

Accommodation is purposefully limited to help create a special, intimate atmosphere
 

When I first acquired the Gwinganna site, I didn’t really know where the journey would take us, but I knew I wanted to create something that would help people enjoy a long and healthy life.

My mother, Yvonne Marie, was my inspiration. My father died aged 49 of heart disease, when I was just 16. Both my parents drank, smoked, ate rich foods and did not really exercise.

But after the death of my father, my mother changed her lifestyle. She gave up smoking, curbed her drinking and started swimming year-round in the ocean, meditating and doing tai chi. She even started visiting what I believe was Australia’s first health retreat – then known as a fat farm – several times a year.

I knew that to remain healthy, I should live like my mother, but I didn’t have her discipline. So I decided the best chance for me was to develop my own health retreat and spend a lot of time there.

Many of my associates in the fitness industry thought I was crazy when I spent close to AUS$30m (US$22.5m, €20m, £15.3m) buying and developing the site over three years. There were times in those first few years when I thought I was crazy too! But after opening in 2006, we broke even in year three and we’ve been surging forward ever since.

Sharon [Kolkka] and I were clear from the start that we wanted to limit the number of visitors at any one time to 64 people. It’s served to preserve the integrity of the retreat and its special atmosphere. We only offer communal dining, as well as a carefully designed nutritional regime with no gluten or dairy – so people really see results.

I remain very involved with management, but I don’t micro-manage. We have a very talented team led by Sharon. My wife and I visit often and while I’m there I’ll hold business meetings with the team, discuss strategy, pricing, future profit centres, programming and staff training, etc.

Our team have been integral to the success of Gwinganna. If you want your staff to act like owners and treat the business with as much care, you have to give them a piece of the action. In the early days we gave core staff shares in Gwinganna’s operating company, so they’re now able to benefit from the success of the business.


"If you want your staff to act like owners and treat the business with as much care, you have to give them a piece of the action"

 



De Leede, a serial entrepreneur, plans to spend a lot more time at Gwinganna when he retires

Top Team - Gwinganna
Sharon Kolkka wellness director and GM


 

Kolkka loves guest interaction and regularly delivers seminars
 

Playing a part in developing Gwinganna from the ground up has been very exciting and allowed me to incorporate key elements that I felt were important for such a retreat.

As GM, I’m responsible for day-to-day operations and financial outcomes. My role also includes being the wellness director, which centres on the vision and implementation of our programmes. I develop the concepts (we have over 15 programmes) and liaise with guest speakers so that content and formats are relevant.

Due to my background in the fitness industry, personal training and instructor education, I’m very hands-on with the guest experience, which I love. This includes the arrival presentation, delivering seminars each week, along with activities such as qi gong.

I’ve secured a management team with a broad base of skills and a strong understanding or experience of hospitality. We’ve brought together an extraordinary group of qualified individuals – 145 staff members in total – who love the challenge of creating something unique and delivering our guest experience each week.

I’m so proud of my team and what they bring to our business. Sixteen employees have been here since the first year of operations, which is a wonderful confirmation of their commitment to what we do.

We now have so many return guests. In the past 18 months, it’s not been uncommon for us to see up to a 50 per cent return of guests on any programme. We’ve also won many national and international awards (eight awards in 2015 alone).

It’s rewarding for us to be leading the way with our educational wellness seminars, sharing evidence-based research (see p64). When we began 10 years ago, very few of our guests had heard of epigenetics (see p52) or the advances in neuroscience in relation to managing stress. According to their feedback, we’ve empowered them to make changes that have improved their health over the years. Guests often tell us they heard it first at Gwinganna.

We’ve seen a surge in demand for our emotional wellbeing therapies, such as psychotherapy and equine therapies. As a result, we’ve built a new facility with five counselling rooms, plus an additional yard for the horses. We see this as a growing trend and estimate around 30 per cent of our guests currently request this type of service.

We’ve also created three new Meditation Suites. The suites are set apart from the main buildings and are designed to provide a place of tranquility, with high-end comforts, including a private deck with day bed, deep bath, king-sized bed, yoga mat, meditation cushion and meditation sessions on an iPod. They’re incredibly popular and since their release in January, have all been booked out.

We always follow the health issues affecting our guests and look for programmes to help address these. Our very popular Triple S programme is an ideal example – developed to address the three troublesome areas of stress, sugar and sleep.

I find it really exciting that more research is identifying how so many modalities and lifestyle practices can be of significant benefit in a long term health plan.


"According to feedback, we've empowered guests to make changes that have improved their health over the years"

 



Kolkka has been at Gwinganna since day one, playing a key part in its development

Top Team - Gwinganna
Shelley Pryor organic gardener


 

As well as tending to the gardens, Pryor teaches health food seminars
 

I was fortunate to come on board, initially as a trained chef, just prior to Gwinganna’s opening. I grew up in a regional area where my parents grew and farmed everything we needed, so throughout my life, gardening and food were a passion. While working here as a chef, I started taking guests through the gardens at the end of the cooking demos and sharing tips with them. When the gardener left, it was an easy switch for me.

We have four areas of gardens, plus an orchard. All are managed organically without use of pesticides or herbicides.

One of the star ingredients we grow is aloe vera, which is wonderful for gut health, and we show guests how to make the juice. Other ingredients with incredible benefits are turmeric, ginger and garlic, which are always in use here. A very popular dish is our Salad of Abundance – a collection of the best seasonal produce in the gardens on any day. It can include greens, micro greens, herbs, flowers and vegetables or fruits, such as eggplant or sweet lime. Then the chef designs a dressing to complement the flavours and guests love it!

Having been a chef in the same kitchen helps me understand their requirements and design the garden plan to provide what they need most.

My day also includes keeping our six active beehives, which produce all the honey for the kitchen. I may teach a gardening class or tend to the orchard.

Our gardens are an integral part of our guests’ stay and often they don’t expect to be learning about gardening during a health holiday. We have steadily increased the number of presentations I do so that even more guests can learn about protecting the environment, understand more about natural solutions for ailments and the importance of organic processes without harmful chemicals or fertilisers.


"One of the star ingredients we grow is aloe vera, which is wonderful for gut health"

The Hugh Jackman connection

The link between Tony de Leede and Hugh Jackman goes back 20 years, at which time the popular Wolverine star was working on reception at a gym in Sydney – which became a Fitness First Australia facility. The pair met a few years after de Leede started running the business, via a mutual business partner.

By the time de Leede opened Gwinganna, Jackman was a successful actor, headlining in the musical Boy from Oz. While rehearsing for this role, he visited Gwinganna and was so impressed that he wanted to invest. Today, de Leede retains an 80 per cent stake in the property assets of Gwinganna, with Jackman and three other investors making up the remaining 20 per cent.

Jackman told Spa Business: “I believe in the service Gwinganna is offering and the incredible team – which incidentally hasn’t changed since the beginning.
"Honestly, I woke up the fourth morning of my first stay feeling better than I had in 20 years.”

Jackman and his wife are said to have experienced Gwinganna’s 'life changing' Tribal Dreaming treatment – a two-and-a-half hour journey combining massage, dance and a forest initiation with didgeridoo healing and ochre clay dot body painting.

Jackman is also a significant partner in de Leede’s Fit n Fast gym business and was a partner in Boxmaster, which the entrepreneur sold three years ago.

 


Ian West/PA Wire/Press Association Images

Jackman is an investor and regular guest
Capturing health data

Gwinganna is in the process of gathering data from its programmes, after being approached by Professor Marc Cohen and a team from Melbourne’s RMIT University to participate in a formal, independent study around health outcomes for guests following seven nights in a wellness destination.

It’s one of the first pieces of research to report on a wide range of specific wellness measures such as anthropometrics, depression, anxiety, stress, mood, sleep quality, health symptoms, cognitive function and urinary pesticide metabolites in health retreat participants. Initial results are said to be “very positive” and will be released soon.

 



Cohen is working on spa research at Gwinganna
De Leede's new ventures

Tony de Leede is widely known as the man who launched Fitness First Australia. Since selling the business in 2008, he's become increasingly involved with the wellness sector.

In 2009, he launched the first Fit n Fast budget club, which he grew to a chain of 18 clubs over three years. After being inspired by a visit to Pure Yoga in Hong Kong, de Leede is now in the process of rebranding Fit n Fast into a boutique fitness village concept known as YogaBar, where people can experience disciplines such as yoga, meditation and barre under one roof, eat in a wholefoods café and buy branded exercise apparel. All the current Fit n Fast clubs will be converted, and there will also be new acquisitions, says de Leede.

The entrepreneur also developed Komune, a surfing/wellness resort concept with extensive fitness facilities. There’s one location on the Gold Coast (opened 2009) and one in Bali (opened 2012), with the main focus on the expansion and evolvement of the Indonesian site. It currently has 66 rooms, with 38 due in phase two, and operates at 92 per cent occupancy in high season, and 72 per cent in low season. De Leede says he’s been surprised by the mix of customers Komune has attracted since opening – with a fairly even split between families, couple and singles.

“My wife’s parents are in their late 60s and absolutely love it there. They’ve been there four times,” says de Leede.

“We’ve also just completed our new Health Hub, which offers dedicated areas for cross training, and a huge yoga shala, which can host stays for yoga teachers with their trainees.”

After experiencing the meditation pod Somadome in 2015 (see SB16/1 p113), De Leede soon acquired a significant share in the company and will play a key part in its expansion and the transferral of manufacturing from the US to China.

“I realised that this meditation pod – or what I call ‘easy meditation’ for the 95 per cent of people like me who can’t meditate in the traditional way – was going to be very relevant as we move forward,” says de Leede. The pod, already in US spas, will make its Australian debut in Gwinganna in the coming months.

 



De Leede has launched Komune, a popular surfing/wellness resort concept, in Australia and Bali
 


De Leede has launched Komune, a popular surfing/wellness resort concept, in Australia and Bali
 
 


Virgin's Richard Branson is a fan of the Somadome meditation pod
 


Julie Cramer is a health, hospitality and travel journalist and a former BBC news online editor

Email: [email protected]


Originally published in Spa Business 2016 issue 3

Published by Leisure Media Tel: +44 (0)1462 431385 | Contact us | About us | © Cybertrek Ltd