My Retreat Business StoryDec 15, 2021
Opening A Craft Retreat Center in Wisconsin
I've never been one to be vocal about anything, but I'm pulling away the barriers to share my retreat experiences and knowledge to encourage more people to go to retreats and more people to start retreat businesses.
I remember the moment perfectly: December 2004, my cousin’s 40th birthday celebration. My husband and I had just finished the first season at our hunting lodge in Buffalo County, Wisconsin, and I was looking for a way to rent the lodge during the off-season. The lodge was a vintage 1850s farmhouse that was part hand-hewn log cabin. The location was a big draw for hunting, but I didn’t want to leave it sitting empty January through August. I was talking about this situation with my cousin, who was working for Fiskar's Craft Division, and she told me to check into quilting and scrapbooking retreats. My ears instantly perked up, and when I got home that night, I started searching online to learn more.
I was not a scrapbooker or quilter—really, I didn’t have an inkling of crafty talent, but I loved the idea! I was so used to guys, including my husband, taking time for themselves and their hobbies, taking hunting and fishing trips, but it was always hard for me to take time for myself. I didn't have a passion I felt strongly about, and the girls’ getaway options seemed to be centered around shopping or club hopping, neither of which appealed to me. When I thought about a Ladies’ Craft Retreat where you could get away with your family and friends and come back feeling productive and inspired—now that sounded like a trip worth taking!
I decided to go out to our hunting property without my husband and kids, to see if I could really hold a craft retreat at the lodge. I asked a few friends to join me for a girls getaway. All but one said “no, too busy” and the one that said yes backed out the night before, so I headed out by myself.
I spent the night alone and made it through without any Yeti attacks! (You may laugh, but it’s a remote location… who knows what could happen.). Being alone did give me the time to really think about whether I could realistically offer craft retreats at the lodge. The answer was no: the lodge still needed a lot of work, and I didn't think the rustic decor would appeal to women.
Despite all that, I couldn't stop thinking about craft retreats. I told a colleague of mine about the idea. We had often brainstormed business concepts together as we were both new moms and wanted to escape our corporate jobs for more independence and flexibility. After showing her the research I’d done, she was on board. Her husband too was outdoorsy hunting and fishing kind of guy, so she liked the idea of a crafting retreat for women. We decided to look for a different property and go into business together.
We searched several areas for the right property and landed on one in Wisconsin Dells, WI. The house needed work, and we met with several contractors to get bids on the remodel. Once the remodel was underway, I had a gut feeling that we should start marketing. We knew the details of the retreat that we’d be offering, and we knew when the remodel would be complete, but my partner was adamant about waiting until the remodel was done and a test run retreat weekend was finished before we pulled the switch on any marketing. We also hired a marketing guru to help us, but we ended up severing ties after spending hours meeting with her so she could get a clear understanding of our business which resulted in a 3-page positioning statement document and a $2500 bill!
After the test run weekend, we opened our doors on Memorial Day Weekend of 2006, and when we did, we got crickets! No inquiries, no reservations, nada! That's when things started to go south. The bills were coming in, and we didn't have retreat income to pay for them. Our partnership was strained for many reasons. They say that 99% of partnerships fail, and we were not the 1%. I ended up selling my half of the business a year later, and our partnership was over.
This was a devastating blow for me. I was passionate about helping women take time for themselves as I struggled to do that myself. I had to sign a two-year non-compete, so during those years, I started the Scrapbook and Quilt Retreat Directories. Finding effective online advertising had been a major pain point when we were trying to market the retreat, so I worked on solving that problem.
After the two-year non-compete was up, I did end up starting a retreat at the hunting lodge. We invested in a remodel so that the property would be more appealing to my target audience, and I started marketing as soon as I had a firm date for the remodel to be complete. My marketing efforts were successful, and I had my first group of guests the weekend after the remodel was finished. I loved running a business of my own, and the guests loved the remote, rural location and appreciated the peace and beauty the farm had to offer.
Two years into the retreat business, I found out I was pregnant with my daughter, our bonus baby, as we like to call her. Living 3 hours from the retreat, running the hunting business, and still working full-time as a retail merchant in corporate America proved to be too much. We decided to sell the lodge and the hunting business.
We have another farmhouse on the property, but that house did not lend itself to serving retreat guests. However, I found out that the area does attract vacationers. So now we operate a vacation rental, and I do still host a few women's retreats. I also continue to promote and support retreats with the online directories, Scrapbook Retreat Directory and Quilt Retreats. I started offering some virtual retreats, and that’s been quite an experience, getting out of my comfort zone, creating videos, and learning technology. I love it, and I still think about opening a craft retreat venue and browse through properties once in a while.
My new passion is to help others who have retreat businesses or want to start a retreat business learn the exact steps to retreat success. It's been two years in the making, and I'm thrilled to launch Retreat Business Academy, an online program that provides the blueprint to owning and operating a retreat business.
A favorite quote of mine is "Experience is the best teacher. The test come first and then the lesson." Well, in the nearly 15 years that I've been in the retreat business, owning two retreats, and marketing over 325 retreats, I've seen it all. I have had my share of success and failures. I’ve made some mistakes, had some wins, and this journey has brought me here, to my mission to continue promoting and supporting retreats. This is the year: I'm not going to be quiet about what it takes to have a successful retreat.
Here's to many years of attending, planning, and finally owning a retreat business!
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