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Tools for Teachers

Sell Out Your Yoga Retreat

Pay attention to the business details when planning a yoga retreat.

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Here’s how the story goes: A well-known, experienced teacher with many students painstakingly organizes her first retreat abroad.

Two people sign up.

As you can see, there is more to planning a successful retreat than many teachers dream of. It’s not enough to choose a retreat destination, plan your lessons, and plan the menu (although that probably seems like plenty). There are still several important details to take care of. In Part III of our Yoga Retreats series, we’ll take a look at three key considerations: attracting students, making them feel well cared for, and dealing with the inevitable legal considerations protecting both them and you.

It’s All in the Advertising

Retreat planning carries risk. Most locales require deposits, from several hundred dollars to thousands, to reserve guest rooms. To cover your investment, you need to enlist enough students. (The retreat newbie who attracted just two students decided to go anyway, and looked at it as a learning experience as well as a vacation of sorts.)

Start with your own base, advises Marianne Wells, a yoga teacher in Minneapolis. Students and yoga travelers take trips with the teachers they know, she says. “Nine out of 10 of the people who are on the yoga trip are there because they wanted to travel with the teacher,” says Wells, who has led four retreats in four years.

Advertising is important. You can advertise in the studios where you teach, making posters and handing out flyers. You can e-mail invitations to those in your student database. You can also broaden your invitations to people you don’t know, via the Internet, newsletters, or magazines. Sudhakar Ken McRae, who leads four retreats a year through his Global Yoga Journeys, has an e-mail service that can send newsletters with photos and links. “Our e-mail list includes only 800 people, but they have a personal connection with us,” McRae says. Either they have been to a class or a workshop, or they have requested his newsletter, which he sends out eight times a year.

This year, Internet advertising has paid off for McRae. He estimates he spends about $300 a month in Google AdWords, a service that provides a link to his Web site when people perform Google searches. By picking the right words—such as “Kripalu, yoga, June, Tuscany”—he can take advantage of a smart form of targeted marketing. This year more than half his retreat clients found him on the Internet.

Having a toll-free number also helps attract new students, McRae says, because they can call and connect with you, which soothes their fears and helps them decide whether they like you.

Once you’ve done one retreat, word of mouth and referrals become invaluable. “We have 15 to 20 percent repeats,” McRae says. Repeat customers sometimes want to experience new locations, so McRae is scouting for a new, fifth location.

Customer Service

Some of the details necessary to produce a successful retreat fall under the umbrella of customer service. This can come in the form of personal attention from you before the retreat even begins. McRae estimates that he and his wife and coproducer, Kathleen Knipp, spend at least three hours with each person before the trip, on the phone or via e-mail. With 42 people joining them in Europe this summer, that works out to nearly a month of 40-hour weeks of hand-holding-before the journey has even begun.

On the first night of the retreat, welcome each student individually and give them all a chance to air any grievances. Kelly Kemp, co-owner of Via Yoga, a Seattle-based company that organizes about a dozen retreats in Mexico each year, says that allowing people to vent early can nip problems in the bud.

Finally, make your students feel special. Wells gives all participants a gift bag containing personal care products, magazine articles, candles, and other goodies, right at the beginning of the retreat.

The Fine Print

Even though the focus of the retreat is yoga, sometimes things go awry, and peace and calm fly out the window. Clarifying financial and other responsibilities in the form of a contract can help smooth things out in the case of conflicts. As the retreat leader, you front the money necessary to reserve the location, and if someone books the tour, you can’t sell her space to someone else. If the student cancels, she should be responsible for a portion of your lost income. Entering into a contract when each student registers makes such stipulations clear.

Wells and McRae both have students sign contracts. The contract can list cancellation and refund policies. It can remind students to be responsible for getting health insurance if their home policy doesn’t cover them. It can include a waiver that reminds students that their safety is their own responsibility. The contract should spell out what the fee does and does not include: which meals are covered, whether any airfare or ground transportation is included, and so on.

Ask for emergency information on the contract, and take along copies so that you always have that information handy, McRae suggests.

The contract can also encourage your students to buy their own travel insurance, in case they—or you—have to cancel. “I tell people to think about it the way you live your own life,” Wells says. “If getting insurance makes you more comfortable, get it.” However, neither she nor McRae buy their own. Both say that once they plan a retreat, they are committed to attend, so they don’t feel it’s necessary.

Finally, remember to protect yourself as well. Check your insurance policy. Does it cover you anywhere you go? Or does it only cover classes in your studio? Does the location you’ve chosen have its own insurance, or does it require you to carry some?

These are just some of the details that go into planning and managing a retreat. At the root of all these considerations is another big question: Do you want to take care of all these details, or would you rather hire someone else to do that, so you can simply show up to teach?

To Produce or Not Produce

Wells has gone both routes, producing her own retreats and working with Via Yoga. A former science teacher and graphic designer, she draws on all her skills in organizing retreats. “When I was the science teacher, I would rent a bus and go to a museum. Now I rent a plane and go to a country,” she says. (Wells is one of the few who includes airfare in the cost of the retreat.) She uses her design skills to produce her Web site and brochures. McRae, who has a business background, likes being in charge of everything. He even wrote his own contract, getting ideas from boilerplate contracts found in the backs of travel agency brochures. Wells also wrote her own, and then had a lawyer friend check it over. Kemp, of Via Yoga, hired a lawyer to write the contract and attend to legal details when she and her partner formed Via Yoga.

Outfits like Via Yoga deal with the potential problems, so that teachers don’t have to worry about an unhappy participant whose roommate snores or whose cabin roof leaks.” We’re a buffer, so the teachers can deal with keeping good energy for their classes,” Kemp says. The downside to organizing your own retreat is that you have to deal with complaints and other problems. “We’re on all day long,” McRae says. Working with an outside producer is a lot less work—almost like a paid vacation. “The ones I put on myself are a lot of work,” Wells says. The other way, “when you just show up, there is someone else taking care of the fact that the shower doesn’t work or the food isn’t ready on time. You just clock in.”

Risk vs. Reward

One final point to consider when deciding whether or not to produce your own retreat is the financial reward versus risk. Teachers can make more money producing their own retreats. Some teachers tack on $500 to $900 per student, and when they bring 20 guests—well, you do the math. But if not enough students sign up, the teachers take all the risk. When you use outside producers, they shoulder the financial risks: If not enough students sign up, they lose the money, not you. If a Via Yoga retreat sells out, the financial gain for the teacher isn’t as great, but he or she can still make up to $1,500, in addition to getting free lodging and covered expenses.

However the details come together, what teachers often remember best is the unique experience they create for their retreat students. One year, in Jamaica, Wells taught a class on the end of a pier. As the students turned upside down in Fish Pose, their gaze met the setting sun. “It was beautiful,” she says.

Jodi Mardesich lives and teaches yoga in Rincón, Puerto Rico.