The Retreat Conundrum — Is There a Pot of Gold?

David Phillips
November 2021

The last year and a half have seen many organizations stretching, shifting, and praying for the financial wherewithal to keep operating into the future. This may have also included discussing how to leverage existing assets and/or identify new ways to generate income. Even before COVID-19 hit, a number of camps had already diversified and were offering retreats in one form or another in an attempt to get the most from their largest asset — the facility.

Barely a week goes by without someone from the camp world reaching out to ask for guidance regarding how to start a retreat business or how to improve their current operations.

So what’s the answer? If you can make a bucketful of money, surely you should proceed. Not so fast. Multiple components to this decision should be adjudged before you invest time, effort, and money into operating outside of the summer season.

First, though, let’s set the record straight — and likely burst a bubble or two. There is no easily obtained pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It will take time, additional resources, and likely some degree of capital and operational investment to grab that pot and celebrate its riches.

Before we explore the elements that should be considered in order to be successful, you should recognize the three groups associated with hosting retreats:

  1. Operators: These people provide the environment that supports the immersive experience. Simply put, in the camp sector this would be the camp organization itself.
  2. Organizers: These folks create and execute the programs. They will typically rent a campsite to undertake their activities.
  3. Participants: The customers/clients who attend retreats to build skills, explore self, debate, relax, and make connections.

It is quite common for an operator to also be an organizer if you undertake your own retreat programs and market them to camp participants.

Beyond the clarification of the groups is the need to understand how you might segment your retreat business. Building this conceptual framework helps to identify potential usage patterns and the associated risk/reward ratio. For the most part, operators who already have established camps fall into one of five principal business models.

  1. Empty vessel: rental only and operator provides housing, food, and facility
  2. Empty vessel + select services: rent only and operator provides housing, food, and facility, plus select staff such as lifeguards and ropes course staff
  3. Operator/Organizer: provide a self-contained program that is owned by the organization (e.g., photography, sports)
  4. Operator + partner organizer: provide a self-contained program with a partner organization to share the risk/reward
  5. Camp-based programs: extensions of the camp’s regular program focused on camp families (e.g., family camp, camp reunions, etc.)

In addition to these common operational styles, two other usage styles are frequently discussed as part of the retreat world. These are special events/life cycle occasions (e.g., birthday, wedding, etc.) and corporate events.

Each of these styles of operation brings with it associated risk and reward. It is important to understand how these interact and why — depending on your history of service (start-up or long-serving retreat center) — you might wish to focus on one model over another. Risk/reward ratios are identified in Figure 1.

Risk/Reward Ratio

Figure 1

While the risk/reward ratio is only a guide, experience indicates it is an accurate barometer as you contemplate establishing and/or growing your retreat center. For example, a new retreat facility would be well advised to focus on the empty vessel model as they learn the ropes and establish a rhythm. Start-up retreat centers might also consider focusing on camp-based programs that have both a built-in audience who loves you (your camp families) and for whom you have a solid understanding of needs and expectations. This is one of the reasons why many camp/retreat centers focus on family camps and reunions out of the gate. These fall into a relatively safe category of risk/reward because they are a hybrid service built on a flagship program.

Once we understand the types of programs and the risk/reward ratio, a series of fundamental operational issues help determine success, failure, and what falls in between.

Assumption Consumption

As you consider a retreat operation it is worth reflecting on a series of assumptions that are easily overlooked because you want it to work.

  • “This can’t be that difficult, and it’s going to rescue us financially.”   
    You must invest to make money, and while you can be “profitable” in the strict sense of the word, the likelihood is that for the first two or three years you will not reap fiscal rewards. Assume the need for investment in facility, staff, and program resources.
  • “It’s just like camp, and we know how to do that, so we can easily run a retreat center.”    
    You are entering a completely different operational model, especially if accommodating adults, families, and/or professional groups.
  • “Everyone loves us, so they will come to us, and the competition is not that tough.”
    You are now in the hospitality sector, which is one of the fiercest and most heavily resourced business arenas — there is plenty of competition. Nonprofits can compete, and finding your own niche will help. 
  • “Camp is the flagship, and retreats will be a distant second line of business.”
    While camp is almost certainly the highest-profile activity you undertake annually, depending on a series of factors (such as the number of months the retreat center will be open), you will likely find that the sheer sum of immersive hours the retreat center provides guests overshadows or at least mirrors your camp program. This can have significant impact on fundraising, board engagement, and more. 
  • “Talent is plentiful, or we can use the same staff.”
    Whether you run retreats for two or 10 months, the people who operate your camp program should not be the same as those running your retreat center. If they are, you will dilute the talent, and it will impact both programs. 

Camp vs. Hospitality

Operating a successful summer camp is not the same as running a successful retreat center. Yes, they share a series of ingredients that make us think they are similar, but depending on the clientele, they can be polar opposites. If you are hosting a youth retreat, the operation may appear more like camp, but the moment you host adults, families, or professional groups, you have a different ball game. You are now in the hospitality business, and that is fundamentally different than the camp sector.

In the hospitality sector, you are judged on a number of elements that are present in the camp world but do not necessarily hold the same degree of priority (or the thing that makes or breaks the camper/staff experience). Here are the key drivers that differentiate camp from retreat:

  • Food Service: Quality, quantity, flexibility, special orders, and front-of-house service are all expected to be of quality in terms of taste, variety, and presentation. Think about the difference in service and style between an adult meal for 100 community leaders and one for a camp unit.
  • Cleanliness: Accommodations must be spotless, linens changed, beds made to a standard, toilets and showers immaculate, communal areas cleaned regularly, and so on.
  • Accommodations: Adult retreat users do not typically want to sleep in bunk beds or in dormitory-style housing. Many people do not want to share bathrooms, and in today’s “infection sensitive” environment that is increasingly the case. The ability to house adults in motel-style accommodations is fast becoming the standard.
  • Customer Service: Adults demand a different style of customer service than children or seasonal camp staff. There is an immediacy of engagement and a perspective that whatever the issue, it needs to be addressed and solved as soon as possible. A help-desk-based solution is common where the guest can always find aid tailored to their needs.

If you are going to take the creation and execution of a retreat center seriously, you should take all of these elements into account. The natural outcome of these core ingredients is that the team operating camp is not the same as those who operate the retreat center. They have fundamentally different skill sets. Moreover, combining these functions is not healthy for either operation. Camps of a certain size require year-round, full-time attention from individuals trained in that modality — and so do retreat centers.

Mission vs. Money

If the goal of the exercise is purely to generate revenue, that is fair. If you operate a private camp, shareholder value is all you need to potentially go into or remain in the retreat business. However, in the nonprofit sector, mission should be paramount when contemplating retreat center operations. For those entities it goes beyond a mathematical equation, and, as with any new or upgraded venture, your retreat should meet mission and vison. If it doesn’t, then you run the risk of mission creep and investment in an area that you are not passionate about or committed to. This might be something you can put aside because the money trumps everything, but I advise against it. If it is outside of your reason for being, why do it? This, from a leadership perspective, is a central and key role for your senior management and board to discuss, debate, and determine.

From a philanthropic perspective, why would a donor give to something that is outside of your mission? But let’s be clear, hosting retreats can be framed as meeting mission depending on your operational model. If your customer base includes your own camp families and other nonprofit groups (youth groups, schools, professionals, etc.), then the retreat center can solidly fit mission (though said mission might need to be tweaked).

All Things to All People

As you consider your style of operation, understanding who will utilize your facility is a critical decision. If you have private rooms with private or semiprivate bathrooms, you might consider adult groups as a core focus. However, if your camper cabins represent the majority of your accommodation inventory, youth groups/schools might be a better bet. In considering the hospitality industry prism, you want to be sure that your customer is going to be comfortable, because repeat business is essential and word-of-mouth reviews are equally important.

You can adjust your model over time and invest in facility upgrades or even a new building or two. Being all things to all people is a challenge, which is why it is better to say no to a potential group and help them find the right accommodation for their needs than to accept the booking and disappoint. Remember, the risk/reward ratio includes the impact a negative experience can have on your camp program and/or your organization’s reputation. While you can distinguish the difference between the two products, your customers may well assume if they know about one, then they know the culture of your entire organization.

Talent and Structure

As you consider who is going to operate the retreat center, don’t assume the camp folks can do it. The retreat season typically begins as camp ends and can continue until just before staff arrive for camp the following year. Is it fair and reasonable to expect an employee (or owner, for that matter) to shift from one exhausting and relentless job to another one that takes inordinate amounts of time and effort and includes evenings and weekends? If you value your talented camp team and all they must do to prepare for the summer, asking them to pull double duty is simply unrealistic and will result in a downgrading of output on both sides.

Moreover, in the hospitality world you have two sides of the house — sales and fulfillment. As you might imagine, the salesperson is out and about meeting with potential and repeat customers, while the fulfillment folks are based on-site and provide the hands-on support. Lots of operational nuances delineate these roles and reveal fundamentally different skill sets.

Along with the fulfillment role are a series of individuals who round out the team that provides the experience. This includes housekeeping, food service, front desk duties, security, and increased facility maintenance support. Again, asking people to do more with less is a recipe for loss of morale and, sooner or later, talent.

Figure 2 outlines a fully built-out staff organizational chart that bifurcates camp and retreat but also demonstrates how they can operate under one umbrella. Of course, as you build your retreat center team, you will have some degree of duplication of roles that can transition over time. For example, your salesperson may work some retreats themselves — which doesn’t hurt, because it’s always good to understand what you’re selling from a hands-on perspective.

Remember, if you’re searching for the pot of gold, you’re going to need employees who can help find it.

Staff Organizational Chart

Figure 2

Location Matters

Most successful retreat centers are found within 90 minutes of a metropolitan city and/or major transportation hub (e.g., airport, train). This provides the audience to market your center to and the staff to operate it. This does not mean a retreat center two hours away won’t work, but it will require more work to attract user groups. Experience also suggests that groups will travel an additional 10–15 minutes for each night they stay beyond the typical two-night booking (i.e., a three-night booking will likely accept a 90–105-minute travel time, and so on).

If your facility is accessible during inclement weather by car or bus, that is an added bonus. Remember, this includes the capacity to keep interior roads and pathways clear of snow and ice for guests, which can cost money in equipment and additional staff.

If you have a special niche that you can market, the issue of distance can be mitigated. For example, if you have a well-regarded song leader or remarkable chef who can attract customers, then distance may be less important.

Benefits

Operating a retreat center can bring significant benefits. For example:

  • You will have a more resilient financial footprint with two core lines of business that leverage an expensive asset — your facility.
  • You will purchase supplies in larger amounts, increasing your leverage with suppliers.
  • You will have opportunities for mutually beneficial branding and promotion between camp and retreat services.
  • If you are a nonprofit, your retreat center can help attract donors who either want greater utility for their investment than nine weeks in the summer, or favor supporting retreats.

While these items represent the high-level benefits of operating a retreat center, keep in mind that not all the benefits are monetary.

Recommendations

  • Determine if this is a mission or money effort. There is nothing wrong with it being about money, but a powerful narrative can be leveraged if it is also about mission (or multifaceted business strategy).
  • If you are a nonprofit entity, develop a Retreat Task Force to explore the issue. If you are a for-profit entity, bring in someone (a consultant with real credentials) who understands the hospitality business to help guide you through the process of establishing a retreat center or upgrading an existing one.
  • Develop a three-to-five-year written plan that is detailed and realistic in both expense and revenue. Take into account all the factors associated with operating a retreat center, and allocate overall organizational resources that are now split between camp and the retreat business.
  • Take your time and be sure to include a ramp-up period before opening to paying guests. The hospitality industry is unforgiving, and hotels and restaurants all run practice training drills before opening to ensure that the first guest who arrives is treated appropriately and has a great experience.
  • Be purposeful in branding the retreat center, and ensure the messaging is supportive and symbiotic with your camp. Retreats can have a positive impact on camp (and vice-versa).
  • Review and determine policies and procedures regarding myriad operational issues including pricing, advance booking, priority partners, nighttime security, menu choices, registration software, and so on.
  • Determine a timeline and comprehensive plan for the various stages of opening or upgrading. This might include master site planning, a capital campaign, staff recruitment and training, and marketing, among other factors.

Finally, let’s not forget why people actually attend retreats. They do it to rest, relax, and renew. To immerse themselves in new learning opportunities and hear their own heartbeats. Perhaps to reconnect, escape, get inspired, and listen. Whatever the reason, our job as operators (and organizers) is to facilitate the pursuit and take seriously the need for personal connection, learning, and reflection.

The pot of gold is potentially real. I just urge you to think about the money as only one of the treasures you can find at the end of your journey toward establishing or upgrading your immersive retreat center.

David Phillips is principal of Immersive1st, a firm specializing in fundraising, planning, visioning, governance, acute organizational analysis, and program creation, implementation, and evaluation. His passion is doing important things with good people who make a difference (and having fun while doing it). He holds an MSW in Social Work with a focus on community organizing and development from the University of Pittsburgh. David can be reached at david@immersive1st.com or via the web: immersive1st.com.


Chalmers ad