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Peering Into the Future of Retreats

Getty/Alina Rosanova

“Retreat centers are ready to invite guests back onto their properties, but what that means may be vastly different in 2021 and beyond, even after the pandemic is under control.”

Retreat centers are ready to invite guests back onto their properties, but what that means may be vastly different in 2021 and beyond, even after the pandemic is under control.

Spirit Rock Meditation Center is a nonprofit residential retreat in Woodacre, California, based on Insight Meditation. Sean Feit Oakes, the center’s community dharma leader, says prior to COVID, “thousands of people would come every year on retreats, from a few days to a few months, and live at the center. It’s a beautiful, comfortable place to do a retreat.”

But the center hasn’t been open since March 2020, instead switching entirely to online programs. “It’s different. ... It’s not the same. But [retreating at home] has this other powerful element that it’s being integrated to the rest of your life. You can have a strong spiritual practice in the midst of your life as long as you carve out some time.”

Oakes says online programs are providing a much- needed salve, and that the center plans to open in-person sometime in the fall of 2021. At that point, he predicts that “it will be an experiment in how the virtual and in-person will weave together. Like any organization we are evolving with the times.”

Sensei, a wellness program partnering with the Four Seasons Resort on the island of Lanai, Hawaii, has closed four times since opening on November 2019. Sensei’s president, Kevin Kelly, says, “The staff here has been quite seasoned for opening.”

This experience has taught the retreat to be flexible and to ride the wave of the unknown.

Kelly says Sensei was built to be very private, so it was well-positioned to stay open during the pandemic. “We have more spacing because of the way it’s designed. Each hale (house
in Hawaiian) provides a seating area, massage tables, outside gardens, all within that hale. You can really exhale and relax because we’re not doing it in a shared environment. Our programs are designed with a guide or practitioners that are one-on-one with guests, so people don’t have to do it with other people.”

Guests have the option of dining indoors at a safe distance from others or outside near a Koi pond or firepit. “We have a pretty good solution in an imperfect world,” Kelly says.

Even when things return to normal, Kelly predicts that enhanced cleanliness and hygiene will be expected. “We used to do things behind the scenes, like cleaning at night. Now guests want to see you cleaning. Using masks and facial shields will go on well beyond the vaccination.”

Kelly believes that other disruptive viruses will come in the future. He’s confident that Sensei has learned how to adapt and meet the needs of its guests. “We’re now learning to put the systems in place, the communication, social distancing, hygiene. People are going to be able to respond more easily when we have to shut down or quarantine [in the future].”

“Many retreat owners or directors have struggled this past year and will be in sync with visitors who need to dig deep.”

Ed Newell founded NewTree Ranch in Healdsburg, California, five years ago. He says, “Oddly enough, we were closed last winter (2019) for construction and we were not opening officially until June 2020.” In mid-May and June, guests were reeling from what was going on in the nation and searching for a replacement for a summer abroad. “We were immediately bombarded with people who wanted to come. It was a very busy summer.”

Prior to the pandemic, guests came for a week or two. Through activities like flower arranging, making jam, cooking, fermenting cabbage, and taking care of the animals, they reconnected with themselves. While NewTree Ranch continues to offer these programs, Newell believes that the past year has given guests a desire to relax but also to reflect inward to a greater extent than before. Newell points out that many retreat owners or directors have struggled this past year and will be in sync with visitors who are recovering from a year of struggle.

Canyon Ranch offers retreat and spa and fitness services in Arizona, California, Nevada, and Massachusetts. Jim Eastburn, director of transformational experiences, says, “We’re more accustomed to using technology to access retreats online, and yet I’m a firm believer that human connection is what we all crave.”

In the future, “We may not want to find ourselves in big crowds or crowded places.” Canyon Ranch has the ability to bring in large numbers of guests, but wants to ensure that no one feels packed in.

Eastburn predicts that guests will want “a thoughtful, curated experience.” Canyon Ranch has launched a new program called Experience Pathways that directs guests towards a specific intention, such as joy, purpose, health, or energy. It “was born out of quarantine—having to close our properties—and reimagining and rethinking what we know our guests have always come for and are looking for when we reopen.”

Tonia O’Connor is the CEO of the Chopra Whole Health Retreat in Carefree, Arizona. She says the retreat is in planning mode. “We’ll likely have our programming experienced in smaller groups and outdoor settings. What we’ve come to realize during COVID is no matter what business you’re in, there really isn’t anything you can’t do in a virtual setting.

We’re exploring ways we can offer a combination of in-person and some virtual experiences as well.” Some logistical elements probably are here to stay, including an online check-in process and prepackaged lunches. At the same time, O’Connor says “we don’t want to lose the benefit of experiencing being a guest.”

O’Connor predicts: “We’re going to see retreats, in general, emphasize rest and relaxation and put much more of an emphasis on whole health. Retreats will dive deep on content that focuses on self-care techniques and ways of managing stress, our new reality, and how we create a strong immune system. Health is becoming the new wealth. People want to be informed and take that on themselves.”