Fitness retreats are booming, with many clients ditching their usual beach escapes for holistic health getaways. Could retreats add a profitable dimension to your PT or group exercise business? Olivia Hubbard investigates.
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Paula Kerr, a fitness instructor and journalist, set up her fitness retreat after recovering from breast cancer. “When I was going through treatment, I was looking for a place to relax – somewhere I could enjoy exercise, nutrient-dense food and a spa.” Kerr set up Fitter, Stronger in 2015, a luxury fitness retreat in peaceful, rural environments offering a realistic and sustainable approach to exercise and nutrition that fits in with busy lives. Kerr has no concerns about the crowded marketplace because, in her eyes, Fitter, Stronger is delivering a unique approach. Many of Fitter, Stronger’s clients have suffered from illness, are coping with mental health issues or are recapturing their fitness.
According to Kerr, if you’re going to make a success of it, you’re going to need staff members who are emphatic and highly skilled. Fitter, Stronger has a team of two nutritionists, a hiking guide, two fitness instructors and a Pilates instructor. “Your staff should be your biggest investment,” says Kerr. To help increase revenue further, she offers a weekly two-hour session at Brandshatch Place Hotel and Spa (a concise version of the Fitter, Stronger retreats) where clients can attend weekly and have their improvements in fitness monitored; this, in turn, helps promote the retreat. She aims for a minimum of two full retreats a year, with six clients attending to make the venture financially viable.
Making your retreat stand out is one of the keys to success. Shaun McGill has branched out from his Shaun McGill Personal Training business in Newcastle to run weekend retreats that are based on the concept of making fitness fun. “I set up a fitness retreat with friend and fellow personal trainer Nathan Honess. My reason for setting up the retreat was to do something a bit different and fun. The idea of training a group of people all day long and pushing them to their limits mentally and physically sounded enjoyable to me.”
The group bonds over games on the first evening. “Everyone writes down a fact about themselves and everyone else has to guess who it is. It’s a good ice breaker. Fitness games, such as bulldogs and stuck in the mud, are great. It makes exercise fun,” McGill says. “The most important thing is to get good camaraderie between the people. Get them to feel like a family during the retreat and they will love it. Work them hard but make sure they enjoy it, as they’re training all day, every day. Make the exercise different from what they would normally do.” McGill works alongside a chef and one other trainer to take the workouts. His advice is that your biggest investment should be the food: “If the food tastes great, clients will enjoy the experience a lot more.”
The retreat is aimed at women aged between 25 and 35 and word of mouth has proved successful so far. Many of McGill’s regular clients are guests. To help increase revenue further, the two PTs have additional revenue spinners, including sports massage and healthy snacks. McGill does it for brand awareness and the extra income but the main motivation is about creating a fun weekend with his clients. Putting the concept first has paid off: the last retreat McGill ran made a £1,600 profit. Currently, 5% of McGill’s business income comes from the retreat. The aim is to grow the retreat sector to 15-20% over the next few years.
Making location the priority
Maximising family assets is how David Youldon approached setting up Revitalise Fitness Retreat. “I had worked as a personal trainer for four years before coming up with the idea of a retreat. My parents own a beautiful place in Cornwall, which includes five luxury barn conversions and 30 acres of stunning countryside. The sole purpose of the retreat is to combine physiological and psychological needs to benefit the clients’ goals, while creating an enjoyable and effective atmosphere.” At Revitalise Fitness, clients can choose activities including coastal cycling, coastal walks, woodland workouts, countryside runs, Tyre Tastic, kettlebells, BeAtBoUnCe and legs, bums and tums. The stay lasts either a week or a weekend and all classes are included in the price. “We like to keep group numbers low, so it’s more exclusive,” says Youldon. The Revitalise team aims for around 15-20 retreats a year. Packages include single guest occupants and group bookings, where they can accommodate groups from two to 16 people.
The retreat location wasn’t a decision to be taken lightly for Rachel Le Feuvre, founder of the Reset Button. “Taking a plane and being whisked off into the Spanish mountains instantly leaves your work and stress behind.” she says. “We hold the retreat in a Spanish maisa farmhouse near Barcelona, hidden in the mountains overlooking the Pyrenees. I explored a number of locations before deciding on this one.” There are no neighbours at the Reset Button and the intermittent phone signal only enhances the solitary experience. Le Feuvre had never considered a holiday tailored towards improving health and well-being until after she quit her job in advertising. “I needed to recharge and reconnect, so I left my job and house and went to Brazil for six months. I met lots of inspiring travellers; I was introduced to meditation and yoga and started to get back in tune with my body.”
Activities include intense yoga and HIIT workouts and impromptu expert talks over dinner. A team of between eight and 10 deliver a one-to-one guest-staff ratio. Le Feuvre began her retreats with four a year, now has six annually and took time to carefully select her team. “While it’s quite straightforward finding people with the right skill set, it’s harder getting the correct personality mix – which is essential for a small group. Making a difference to our clients’ lives is what really drives our trainers.” And the finances? “It’s very difficult to earn a reliable income from running retreats. They are a very good way of getting loyal customers but it does take time to grow the business. I would advise on deciding on a minimum number of guests for each retreat to run. As a rule of thumb, I would aim to cover my base costs by filling one third to one half of capacity, although this would vary depending on your personal requirements.”
Using skill to your advantage
Does every PT have the potential to run a successful fitness retreat? Apparently not, according to Suzy Walgate who runs well-being retreats. Walgate believes that a PT needs good interpersonal skills to run a retreat. Walgate has used her 27 years of experience as a therapist, yoga teacher, workshop facilitator and franchise business owner to develop her own model. “A PT should consider whether they have that combination of social and people skills and a measure of business acumen as well. Attention to detail is necessary.” Walgate goes on to explain her business plan: “Your biggest area of investment depends on the market you’re aiming for but, for me, it is finding the ideal venue and successfully marketing it. My work teaching yoga, working as an EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques) practitioner and my JuicePlus+ businesses are the foundation of my income. These create the income to cover setting up and promoting the initial retreats.”
When it comes to what to avoid, Le Feuvre raises the importance of conducting market research before setting up shop. In particular, the Reset Button retreat founder asked and interviewed friends, family and experts about what she should avoid and what is currently lacking in the retreat space. Le Feuvre found that an indifference to conventional advertising was her biggest barrier to growth. “Fitness retreats simply grow by word of mouth and personal recommendation, rather than a nice, big, sexy 60-second TV commercial or outdoor poster – which is a real shame, because advertising is what I had spent my previous career doing.”
Fitness retreats are a growing trend but what’s clear is that fitness professionals need to be open to change. Le Feuvre urges personal trainers to get “as much advice as possible”, to “always listen to guests” and to “get as much feedback as you can”. But remember: “It’s impossible to please everyone, so you have to decide for yourself what to listen to and what to ignore.”
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