What is the difference between a retreat and a conference? Why should you start with a one-day retreat? What is the number one mistake most therapists make when launching their first retreats?
In this podcast episode, Joe Sanok speaks with Megan Gunnell about how to host a retreat.
- Start with a one-day retreat
- The first steps to your event
- The difference between a retreat and a conference
- Selling tickets
- Megan’s top tip for hosting retreats
- Megan’s advice to private practitioners
Start with a one-day retreat
I always caution [therapists] to think about their timeline first. It takes quite a lot of time to build a weekend retreat, and I back that up to say that people should start by testing the waters with a one-day retreat first. (Megan Gunnell)
How to make a one-day workshop or retreat:
- Between 9 am to 3 pm
- Start with something for the body like yoga or a walk
- Plan for the type of talk that you will be giving
- Plan for the type of training that you will be teaching
- Cater healthy lunch
- End the day by touching on the spirit
For me, the perfect retreat, whether it’s one day, one weekend, or one week, is a perfect blend of body, mind, and soul. (Megan Gunnell)
If you do not have any activities in your retreat that is creative or spiritual, people may leave feeling like they have missed the sacred, and often that is what people come back for.
The first steps to your event
1 – Timeline: it can take up to six months to properly plan a weekend workshop, and even up to nine months to plan a great week-long retreat.
Give yourself adequate planning time and space to experiment. Avoid rushing this process.
2 – Venue: as the host, consider:
- Common environments
- Participants’ privacy
- Proximity to the airport
- Distance to the attendees
- Facility sharing
3 – Liability: consider liability contracts, insurance requirements, and your risk involved in the retreat. Put the correct disclaimers on your website and on the event’s page to make sure this is not seen as a psychotherapeutic intervention, but as a wellness offering.
The difference between a retreat and a conference
A retreat is about helping people to discover – or rediscover – what was lost or hidden within themselves.
The hosts of retreats are holding a space for people to reconnect with aspects of themselves or their abilities. A retreat is more experiential and grounding.
On the other hand, a conference is about learning new skills and methodology. The host is giving out information and teaching, and so conferences are education-based.
It is important that you have the right platforms so you are getting information in front of the people who have asked for this … it didn’t take me long to sell out an international retreat … because I had 14k people who were interested in going, and were at least looking at it. (Megan Gunnell)
- Have the right platform: to sell out your tickets, you need to advertise your workshop on the platforms where your audience is.
Put the information in front of the people who are asking for it, instead of spreading it out to anyone.
- Advertise the benefits: be sure to identify what the problem is that you are helping clients to solve, and how attending this workshop or retreat will benefit them.
- Work on creating a buzz long before you open the doors so that the audience is warmed up and ready to purchase tickets.
- Have a waitlist ready for the next offering: if you launch a successful retreat and market the next one well, you will most likely have a second fully booked event.
Megan’s top tip for hosting retreats
Do not overschedule.
People are likely to join your retreat because they want to retreat and have a relaxing time.
Schedule some buffer time for your participants so that they can downshift and enjoy themselves. Move from doing to being, and let them relax, which is one of the best ways to support fellow therapists.
Books mentioned in this episode:
Useful Links mentioned in this episode:
- Visit Megan Gunnell’s website and see also The Thrive Advantage Group. Connect with Megan on Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn.
- Join the Thriving Therapists Facebook Group!
- Check out Slow Down School
- Join Noble for FREE at www.noble.health/Joe
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Meet Joe Sanok
Joe Sanok helps counselors to create thriving practices that are the envy of other counselors. He has helped counselors to grow their businesses by 50-500% and is proud of all the private practice owners that are growing their income, influence, and impact on the world. Click here to explore consulting with Joe.
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I’m Joe Sanok, your host, and welcome to the Practice of the Practice podcast. I hope you are doing amazing today. We’re here four days a week, helping you start grow scale and exit your private practice and by exit, we mean growing other things beyond your practice; may be selling your practice and may be building out membership communities. It might be doing retreats or different things that takes your skillset to the next level beyond your practice. Not that having a practice is bad, but a lot of folks say I have these skills that are in this practice that I’m using one on one with people or with a family that I know could expand into the world.
So it’s so fun to talk with different practitioners about how they do things, how they think about things. For me, I remember one of my first retreats and it was in eighth grade actually. Our eighth-grade class was a terrible class. Our principal actually told us that, and this was like really bad that he said this, he said, you all are going to amount to nothing because you are such terrible kids. Then they took us on this high ropes course thing to help us all bond with each other and do trust falls. I thought it was awesome. But I didn’t know there was this whole world of retreats of getaways of reflecting.
Then all through high school, I went to Catholic school. They did like two-day retreats with us and to have time just a way to think and ponder and a lot of spiritual teachings. But throughout my life retreats have been something that I’ve incorporated in and with Slow Down School, those tickets have just opened over at slowdownschool.com, where we hang out on lake Michigan for a couple days, I bring in a massage therapist, we skip stones. Then we work on your businesses for a couple days.
[JOE] Getting away and being able to do these things is just so important for our own businesses, but also it’s a whole different way of growing your own skill set and helping other people. So I’m really, really excited about having Megan Gunnell. Megan is the founder and director of the Thriving Well Institute, a psychotherapist speaker, writer, international retreat leader with 23 years of experience. She’s also a coach to therapists who want to learn how to build a thriving practice and has a Facebook group with over 14,000 members. Welcome to the Practice of the Practice podcast, Megan. I’m so glad that you’re here today.
[MEGAN GUNNELL] Thanks so much for having me, Joe. It’s really my pleasure.
[JOE] Well, what’s your story of how you got into retreats?
[MEGAN] You know, it goes way back to my first year in college. As a freshman at Michigan State University, I went to a bookstore and I felt like a big adult. I was shopping for books on my own, and I picked up a copy of Bill Moyer’s Healing the Mind. In the last chapter of that book, he interviewed Dr. Rachel Naomi Raymond, who was running retreats for cancer patients out in California on the coast. As soon as I read that, I didn’t even know what my, I was a non-preference major. So I didn’t even know what I wanted to do with my life at that point. But as soon as I read that chapter in that book my freshman year of college, my heart was on fire. I knew that one day I would do this. So long story short, I went through a music therapy, BA, lived in Europe for a while, came back, had a baby, went to U of M, University of Michigan, got my master’s in social work and really took off with my private practice. Then I thought, this is it. This is when I really want to be able to actualize these retreats. Now, how do I do it?
[JOE] So when you had that realization your freshman year and then, I mean, you lived, sounds like quite a bit of life before you actually get to doing retreats, what were some things you picked up in your travels or through grad school that maybe were breadcrumbs that led you to what you do in retreats now?
[MEGAN] Well, as a music therapist, I had the opportunity to work with art therapists and all different kinds of really cool integrative medicine folks. I just kept thinking, maybe I’ll build something also for oncology patients and caregivers. We did a lot of like one day experiential programs for people for emotional support or coping strategies and reducing pain, or just helping with expression. We did things with music and drum circles and guided imagery. I brought the harp and did muscle relaxations and all different kinds of cool things. We started to create mandolas and mask making, and we did art projects and photography, and it was just like this really rich, juicy, amazing world of expressive arts and integrative medicine.
The more I did that, the more I was like, this is it for me, because as I was facilitating some of those experiences early in my career, I thought this is where real transformation happens. Then as my life evolved and grew, and I lived in Europe for a while and came back and started this MSW, I wanted to really take my work further. I wanted to facilitate more change for people. I felt like I was limited with the BA training at that point. So the master’s degree really launched me into the next chapter of my career, which was building my solo, private practice.
From there I could hear the call. I heard my clients asking for exactly what they wanted me to build. When I do coaching now with clients who are therapists, I always say, listen carefully to the population that’s in front of you, because they’re going to tell you what they want. That’s how I built my first retreat because I heard a ton of busy working moms who were my clients saying, gosh, what I wouldn’t do for a chance to have a weekend to myself. I’d love to get a massage and I’d love to eat clean and I’d love to be able to focus on myself for a change. I thought you got it, I’ll build it.
[JOE] I love that. we talk about the three Ps when you’re walking through launching a new product where you interview people and ask them what’s your pain, what’s your ideal product that you wish I would make, what’s the price. We’ve used that with almost every product that we’ve launched over the last few years. Then you have a built-in audience of people that want it. You’re not squeezing people into this box that you’ve created or spent all this time and energy on only to have one person buy it. Was that something you like iterated to get to learning that? Or did you just hit it the first time when you did your first retreat?
[MEGAN] I hit it because I just started, I think as therapists we’re really keyed into being great listeners and so I was doing all this listening with my sessions, but then I was doing that secondary listening where you’re hearing what they’re not saying or hearing what you think they need. As I kept listening for that, I heard this call also not only for a break from the stressors of everyday life and a chance to really self-care deeply, but also a craving for community. I think that’s the piece of retreat work that you can’t really get in one-on-one work and you can’t really get it even in group therapy. There’s something really powerful that happens when you take people into a retreat experience where you’re going there for a weekend, or even recently, I just took another group of therapists this time down to Costa Rica for my seventh retreat down there.
It was a one, one week experience. So it was a week long experience and there’s something magical that happens when you foster a lot of safety and you build the right container. It’s just like this powerful transformation that happens only in the context of real community. When you build a retreat the right way, you’ll find that people will have this experience of looking across the circle to say, wow, I see myself reflected and someone across the room and now I feel instantly less alone or weird, or like I’m struggling by myself with this because I can see myself in you. So that I think is what was missing for most people.
[JOE] I would love to walk through the process that you go through or that you would suggest people go through from sort of the planning phase and deciding whether they want to do a retreat, then maybe the implementation phase of the retreat. Then I imagine there’s some sort of follow up phase also afterwards. Could you just walk us through what that looks like for someone that may want to host their first retreat?
[MEGAN] Yes, it is a long process and I think you have to think carefully about it as a therapist because people hear about building retreats and then they just like want to leap into it really quickly. But I always caution them to think about their timeline first. It takes quite a lot of time to build a weekend retreat. Actually, I back that up to say, people should start by testing the water on a one-day retreat first. So just make a one-day workshop or retreat. Make it from nine to three, start with a little something for your body, plan for yoga, plan for like some type of talk that you’re going to be giving, some type of training, whether that’s mindfulness, self-care or some type of coping strategy or whatever you think your audience is looking for based on the theme and then have some healthy food involved there for lunch that’s catered or someone that can provide that for you.
Then end the day with something to touch on spirit. Because for me, the perfect retreat, whether it’s one day, one weekend or one week is really a perfect blend of body, mind, and soul. So if you don’t have like that creative or spiritual element wrapped into it, people leave feeling like they may have had a good stretch with yoga and something that they’ve learned, but they’re missing the sacred. I think that that’s what people keep coming back for. So to get back to your question, I think it’s important people think first about the timeline. It takes like three to six months to build a one day offering that I think you can do in a really successful way. When I plan a one-week retreat, I give myself at least a nine month runway. So that just gives people an idea of how long you’re really working on something that takes a week to execute.
Next you really have to think about your venue. If you don’t know where you’re going to host this thing then it’s going to be very hard to plan it. So you have to think about everything that goes into picking the perfect venue. There’s lots of things to know about that. If you’re doing a week-long retreat, for example, you really, as a retreat leader, need to think about your common spaces, your privacy, your proximity to the airport, how far away or close are you to all the attendees? Are you sharing like a bathroom with them or are you in your own space? Those things matter as a retreat leader because you have to be sure that you’re taking good care of yourself so that you can have the energy to hold space for this group for the entire week or weekend.
There’s a lot of other moving parts to it. You have to of course think about liability and waivers and your risk in terms of hosting it, your insurance requirements. Are you putting the right disclaimers on your website to make sure that it’s not seen as a psychotherapeutic intervention, but rather a wellness offering. So there’s just a ton of different things you have to know. But I walk people through that, whether it’s in a course, I have on retreat building or in coaching, but yes, there’s a lot of things, a lot of moving parts to think of, for sure.
[JOE] So once you get the planning stage done, talk a little bit about selling tickets to it. How do you think through a retreat differently than if someone was going to host a conference, even a micro conference?
[MEGAN] For me, a retreat is really about helping people discover what’s lost or hidden in themselves. So that, for me, that’s how I define what work I do when I host retreats. I’m holding space for people to get there and experience something about who they are and where they want to be that was either lost or hidden from them. A conference on the other hand is something where we’re feeding information to you. So we’re teaching you something, we’re training you, potentially giving it to you. It’s much more educational based. A retreat to me is much more experiential. If done correctly, people leave with this powerful mantra of, wow, that was in me all the time. Now all I have to do is like, learn how to make space for it and now I’m able to execute the real vision of who I am and when, where I want to be. So there’s a little difference there, but yes, I don’t know if that resonates with you.
[JOE] No, that’s helpful. When you think about the sales portion of leading into a retreat, what have you discovered in regards to selling tickets, getting people to sign up? How much do you have people maybe pre-buy before you go live with it? Walk us through some of that.
[MEGAN] Those are good questions. Yes, I’ve done it so many times now that I’ve learned a few tricks. First of all, you have to be sure that you have a platform. So that could be just your clients. It could be the clients in front of you that you’re working with in your practice and you’re building something for them, whether it’s a one day program, a weekend retreat or something else. If you’re doing a long, big international one, it might also be a great idea for you to have a co-facilitator when you first start out, because you could cross promote this and draw from two audiences instead of one. That’s what I did when I first started my retreats in Costa Rica. I had a wonderful friend in colleague that we both had very large practices and we said, okay, we’re going to rent this expensive venue. We’re putting $17,000 down on this retreat house in Costa Rica. It’s either going to be a super successful retreat or a very expensive family vacation.
So we decided that if each of us could sell 10 tickets, then we would be full at 20 guests. We did, we sold out very quickly, even though that first retreat we hosted back in 2012 was not the best of economic times for the US. People told us oh, you have to be careful. You shouldn’t really do this right now. You probably won’t be able to do it or sell it out. But we were clear we could. So I want to also tell people not to listen to the peanut gallery. When you have decided that you’re going to build something and you’re really committed to what you’re putting out there and you’re pretty sure that you’ve listened carefully to the audience that’s in front of you and you’re meeting that demand, it may not be those folks that have asked for it that actually sign up, but what you’re doing is answering the intention. So if there are people in front of you sort of asking you to create this, then you build it and you put it out there and you need to hold the intention that you were guided to do this in some way, shape or form and it will sell out. I do believe that if you hold that intention, you’ll have a very successful turnout,
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[MEGAN] The other thing I have learned about selling tickets for a retreat is it’s really important that you have the right platform. So you’re getting information in front of the people who have asked for this. For me, it was my clients for years and years and years until I built the thriving therapist, Facebook community, and now have a big audience of therapists who are craving a retreat for themselves. It didn’t take me very long obviously to sell out an international retreat. I sold it out in one day because I have 14,000 people who were interested in going or were at least looking at it. So having the right platform is important. Putting the information out in the right way is also really important. So by that, I mean, and I think you teach this too, Joe, that you have to really identify what the problem is and really speak to the results of what you’re promising.
So if you have problem to promise really clearly defined in your landing page or your offer, it won’t be hard to sell what you’re building, because the people who are reading that copy will understand what you’re marketing and what they’re going to get out of this experience. I also think it’s important to create maybe a wait list or a little buzz before you go live with your open cart. I find that to be very successful, to have a warm audience, that’s like, I got to get into this and the second that you open it sells. Then on the other end of it, you’ll want to have a wait list for the next time you launch it so that after it sells out, which hopefully it will very quickly, you’ll have your wait list for the next offering. Usually when you build one successful retreat and you build it the right way, meaning you also bring photographers or you do the right PR and marketing before, during and after you’ll sell your next one before you even build it.
[JOE] So when you’re actually in the retreat what are some guiding principles that you think through in regards to experience? Like you talked about mind, body, spirit, what are other things within the retreats that you think through when you’re hosting a retreat?
[MEGAN] I’ll tell you the number one thing that comes to my mind do not overschedule. People want to retreat because they want a break. They don’t want to be scheduled back-to-back. I think that’s the number one mistake most therapists make when they’re building a retreat. I made it myself when I built my first one. I was like, okay, from nine to 10, we’re going to do this. Then from 10 to 11, we’re going to it was like crazy, crazy scheduling. I realized as we got there, that people were really wanting to pull back. They were really wanting to downshift from their everyday overscheduled lives. They really wanted to move from doing, to being.
When you get people to a beautiful place like this paradise that we host these retreats at, in Costa Rica, you don’t have to do much in terms of scheduling. You’d really have to just be in tune with what your group needs in that moment. I will tell you that after years and years of doing this this year actually marked the 10th anniversary of my first retreat in Costa Rica, I don’t bring a schedule that I lock hard into. I have a rough outline, but I also am highly in tune with what the people need based on their energy. So if I’ve planned a drum circle for the night when they feel drained and exhausted, we’re not doing a drum circle that night. We’re going to be doing a yin yoga session with candles.
So there’s different things that we do with regards to flexing the schedule. But the number one thing I have to tell people is don’t, overschedule because just getting people to a space where they can like think clearly and tune into their body and feel what it feels like to open their senses is more than enough. Of course, there are things that are lots of like rich content that you’re planning, hopefully as a retreat leader. I mean, I’m always invested in what I’m offering this community when I bring people this far and for this much money, but I’m not going to overschedule them. That’s one thing I think I can say with confidence after doing this for so many years, so many people leave my experiences and say that was the perfect balance of like content and downtime.
[JOE] When you’re done with the retreat, like what follow up do you do? What upselling, up-marketing share this with your friends to perpetuate and grow what you’ve already created.
[MEGAN] You know what, I’m not a fan of the like upselling and the sort of post offer. I mean, every once in a while, I’ll say, hey, if anybody wants to follow up with like a coaching call or something after this last retreat, I said that, then you can certainly get on my calendar. That’s fine. But I feel like that’s a little bit I don’t know, abusive. I mean, I hate to sound so strong with that, but I don’t like to do that. I’ve just, these people have put a lot of money and time and investment in me and my product and my offering. I am invested in making sure that they get everything they need out of that experience. I don’t want them to feel at the end of it like I’m doing a sales pitch for more.
I feel like that’s greedy and just not my style. I know a lot of people are like, you’re missing an opportunity. You’re leaving money on the table. I don’t think so because I think people leave their experience. Basically, every single therapist that came to this last retreat in Costa Rica was like, when can all 20 of us sign up for the next one? Because they’re like, we just want more of this. We want to do the next one together with this same group of people. So I don’t have to worry that I’m going to lose interest because that’s not going to happen. But as far as aftercare, I am really committed to that as well. I usually follow up every retreat with a very extensive email guidance that I give of like, here’s all the things we just got out of this great experience. Here’s a few tips on how to make it last. Here’s how your reentry might go. It might be ugly and messy. People might not recognize the transformation in you or even understand or have the timer space to really like make room to understand the profound, sacred stuff that happened to you, but we get it. So if you need to have more of a connection point with people who live this experience with you, here’s how to find that.
It’s either through our private Facebook group, that’s just for that particular cohort of people who were on that retreat or actually in our case, we had a WhatsApp chat going and the women that went on this past retreat are just continuing to chat and share photos and information and actually some of their challenges in that chat thread. So that’s been a wonderful way for them to stay connected. I don’t feel like I have to do much though beyond that in terms of aftercare.
[JOE] I think that it’s important to decide if your retreat is the product in and of itself or is, are you seeing it as some lead magnet into something else? Because I’ve been to things that I thought was just a conference and like half of it was this sales pitch and I’m like, it doesn’t work for me. Then there’s other times when people, when your audience does want more and by just mentioning, hey, like, if you want more, here you go. So like for us Killin’It Camp we talk about if you’re inspired and you want to grow here’s options, but it’s not this giant sales pitch. It’s more, a lot of these people don’t even know all that we offer. So just making sure they know that, but also we’re not going to spend two hours using all these sales techniques on you. That’s not the goal of putting on the conference. So I’m glad you parsed that out for us now. When you think about what doing retreats has just done for you personally or the impact it’s made on you in regards to enjoying your career or expanding your skillset, like just personally, how have retreats changed or shaped you?
[MEGAN] It’s been a really transformative and healing experience for me too, and I’m going to get really vulnerable here. I’m a pretty confident therapist. I’ve done a lot of cool things in my career. I’ve been really devoted to all the things I’ve offered, whether it’s one-on-one sessions, group therapy, programs, retreats, and workshops, and consulting with hospitals or all different kinds of things I’ve done in my career and lifetime, but there’s still a piece of me that sometimes wonders, am I too much? Or am I not enough? When I host retreats, even though I’ve done it so many times, I still enter with this little bit of uneasiness that makes me wonder, is this going to be too much or not enough?
I think we all have those shame, fears and vulnerabilities, whether we are confident and have tons of expertise or we’re brand new at something. But every time I finish, I feel so like fulfilled and grateful and humbled by my experience. It’s really a powerful reminder that when we allow ourselves to show up in our full self unapologetically, then I think there’s just this beautiful transformation that happens for all the people there, but also for you as the retreat leader. So that to me is the golden takeaway.
[JOE] Well, and you may have said it in that answer, but the last question I always ask is if every private practitioner in the world were listening right now, what would you want them to know?
[MEGAN] Never hold back and show up brave. If you have an idea and something is burning inside you, or if you have a little whisper that’s been gnawing at you for years, I would hope that this gives you the confidence to move forward with it, whether it’s just build your practice a little bigger, or take that leap and do something different, or try to build a one day retreat or an international one. If you have an idea, there’s nothing that should stop you from trying to do it.
[JOE] So awesome. If people want to follow your work, connect with your Facebook group what’s the best way for them to connect with you?
[MEGAN] You can find me at thrivingwellinstitute.com or the Thriving Therapists Facebook group.
[JOE] That’s so awesome. Well, Megan, thank you so much for being on the Practice of the Practice podcast.
[MEGAN] Thanks so much, Joe, for having me
[JOE] Well, I hope that inspired you to think bigger or beyond what maybe your skills currently are, to think of your clients that you’re seeing and to say what are they asking for? Are they asking for a retreat? Are they asking for extra help? Do they want some trainings that go beyond what maybe I’m already offering? So go take some action. We often say, yes, you can consume, but just like with food, if you just consume and never move your body, it’s not going to work out for you. As well as if you consume this information and then go take action, that’s going to be much different. So go take some action this week.
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Special thanks to the band Silence is Sexy for that intro music. This podcast is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is given with the understanding that neither the host, the producers, the publishers or guests are rendering legal, accounting, clinical, or other professional information. If you want a professional, you should find one.