ellness tourism – the marriage of two multi-trillion dollar industries – is growing at a faster rate than the overall tourism market.
According to the Global Wellness Institute (GWI) the industry was worth $639bn (€577bn, £485bn) in 2017 and is projected to be worth $919bn (€829bn, £698bn) by 2022.
This trend is being driven by the desire to use travel as an opportunity to maintain health, reduce stress and have authentic experiences. According to the GWI, there’s a misconception that wellness travellers are a small, elite and wealthy group of leisure tourists, but in fact, this is a broad and diverse group of consumers with many motivations, interests, and values.
This cohort doesn’t want a cookie-cutter experience: they want the retreat to reflect the destination, embracing the local culture, food and environment. The more discerning wellness travellers, particularly millennials, are interested in what destinations offer that’s different from other places.
A change of scene
Taking the HIIT class to somewhere sunny and beautiful, combining it with meditation, excellent food and some countryside hiking offers operators the opportunity to engage with consumers in a different way from in the studio - allowing them to create memories and form friendships, which will build brand loyalty and improve retention.
Canny operators have realised this: Third Space, SoulCycle, Digme Retreats and BLOK all launched retreats businesses last year with intentions to build on them in years to come. But retreats aren’t a new thing. Independents have long been using them as a way to engage with their clients.
London-based PT and ChiRunning coach, Gray Caws, has been organising retreats for a number of years, as he realised taking his clients somewhere different for a few days is an excellent way for them to progress their skills.
“My 1:1 clients often arrive a bit stressed, with their heads full of work, or whatever else is going on with their lives and it takes them a while to focus on the session,” he says. “But retreats literally give them the space and the time to learn a new skill or develop an existing one. Plus the change of environment and taking them out of their everyday lives is extremely beneficial and can result in meaningful transformations.”
This year Caws is taking groups to Spain, Portugal and Bali. Often he teams up with local operators to offer the experience, such as Mindfulness Travels or Run the World Adventures. Although people don’t necessarily want luxury, and many will be willing to share a room with a stranger, they do have a checklist.
“Getting the location right is important, as this is part of the appeal,” says Caws. “In Portugal, we’re staying in the mountains, with good running trails, and in Spain, we have access to the Costa Brava, medieval villages and forests. Authenticity is also key. For example, in Bali accommodation is basic and the food simple, but it’s traditionally Balinese.”
The itinerary needs to be a balance of fulfilling activities, but include enough downtime for people to recharge and assimilate what they’ve learned. Finally, they need to feel some sort of transformation, whether that be nailing a tricky yoga posture, or having an epiphany during a mountain hike.
Nahid De Belgeonne creator of The Human Method, has a high flying clientele of fashion editors, A-list actresses and city CEOs for her restorative yoga and breathwork classes. She ran her first retreat to Puglia last June, which sold out in 30 minutes of being announced, and now has three more planned for 2020 in Somerset, Oxfordshire, and Portugal.
“The speedier our lives become, the more it seems we need to detox from them,” says De Belgeonne. “Wellness retreats are a great way to kick start your health goals or learn a new skill or discipline. They appeal to people who like to travel on their own, but like a structure to their travels, or those who want a break from their families and partners, but don’t want to feel lonely. They can also be a healthy holiday option when travelling with friends if you don’t want to drink or overeat.”
The Human Method retreats involve meditation, restorative and yoga nidra, swims, treatments or simply lying in a hammock. “I wanted to create something which cosseted my clients and their burned-out nervous systems and remind them what it was to be in harmony with their bodies,” says De Belgeonne.
Boutique fitness businesses are built on responding to customer needs, and operators which have launched retreat operations all say they’ve been driven to do so by feedback from members, who want ways to engage with the brand beyond the four walls of the studio.
SoulCycle has teamed up with luxury travel company, Black Tomato, to run Retreats by SoulCycle. Pilots were held last year in Austin and Texas Hill comprising mindfulness exercises, breathing workshops, spinning classes and stargazing by the campfire.
In launching the venture, then CEO, Melanie Whelan, said: “With Retreats by SoulCycle, we’re giving our community another opportunity to devote attention to themselves and deepen their ties to one another over the span of multiple days in a beautiful setting, outside the day-to-day hustle.”
In a mission to extend the Third Space experience beyond its six London clubs, the brand launched Third Space Escapes last year, kicking off with a trip to Morocco in partnership with luxury travel operator, Sunny Side Up.
Led by two master trainers, the retreat was a mix of HIIT training and meditation sessions, sunrise runs and hikes in the Atlas Mountains, all backed up by cultural experiences, organic food, nutrition consultations, treatments and classes.
“Having listened to members, the decision to take the brand into adventure travel outside the club seemed a natural next step,” says marketing director, Lauren Wilson. “Third Space Escapes will take what members like about the clubs to incredible destinations, allowing them to test their capabilities in challenging, fun environments, among like-minded people.
“By providing your community with all of their needs in one place, you will ultimately build loyalty and retention. Retreats provide an overall lifestyle experience to reboot the mind and body, while creating memories of a lifetime.”
Co-founder of Digme, Geoff Bamber, agrees retreats are all about building community and creating unique experiences for members. Digme – which has four clubs in London and one in Oxford UK– unveiled Digme Retreats last year, saying members had requested to take the workouts to sunnier climes.
Two are planned for next year: Crete in April and Sicily in October. “The retreats are being curated to appeal to everyone with a keen interest in health, wellbeing and being outdoors,” says Bamber. “There will be cycling – for both experienced cyclists and those looking to build confidence – running, hiking, swimming, yoga and Gyrokinesis – or simply relaxing by the pool for those who just want to unwind.
There is no pressure and no expectation, only that you’ll relax and have fun with others.”
BLOK also piloted a retreat concept at a former French cognac estate last year. It will run again this year and eventually be grown into a sizeable arm, with 10 to 20 retreats a year and a permanent base.
Co-founder, Ed Stanbury, says it’s a great opportunity for members to immerse themselves in a new experience and meet new friends: “Our retreat is about community and building skills. It’s not a bootcamp or about weight loss.
“Last year people were eating Magnums by the swimming pool and drinking wine in the evening, but still learning to do a crow into a headstand.”
The format involves a few hours of exercise every day – starting with a run and meditation, followed by yoga and a fitness class – and complemented by delicious, plant-based food, designed by a nutritionist to complement the training.
Building a community
Stanbury says revenue is not the driving force behind this decision, it’s about building loyalty, as well as engaging with those who live too far from the clubs: “Realistically it will not be a huge revenue generator – we would need to run about 150 retreats a year for it to be as profitable as our Shoreditch club running well – but the retreats reward loyal customers and allow us to engage with people who don’t live close enough to come to the clubs.”
Is this a trend that’s here to stay? GWI figures point to this being the case, plus the retreats model is flexible enough to be pitched to a range of budgets: a rural field with yurts could work if done well.
Global fitness authority and author of Building a Badass Boutique, Emma Barry, cites retreats as a top trend for 2020 and HCM’s Fitness Foresight 2020 trends report also confirms this.
“Travel is the highest expression of luxury experience and resides at the sharp end of the experience economy,” says Barry. “Combining your preferred fitness addiction with the complete immersion of a curated travel experience, with zealots just like you is an intoxicating mix.”