A topic of conversation floating around in our Retreat Leader Hub Facebook group of late is how to design more socially impactful retreats.
And what we mean by this is strategies that will allow us to go in and create positive, lasting change in the communities we visit when we do regain the ability to travel. We’re thinking: supporting local businesses, empowering the community, being less of an outsider, contributing to uplifting and sustainable causes, and so on.
Perhaps it has been brought on by a newly heightened awareness of how connected we all are and how much our connection and cooperation matters to communities. Add to that our longing to get back out there and explore the world, and it’s a really pertinent topic for retreat leaders as we take steps to build mindful travel experiences once again.
In light of this, it was exciting to connect with Christophe Cappon of Thailand Yoga Holidays and get some insights into this.
Originally from Canada, Christophe has lived in Thailand for over a decade. His company offers amazing planning, logistics, and marketing support for retreat leaders looking to give their groups an authentic Thai experience.
Strategies For Hosting Socially Impactful Retreats and Creating Positive, Lasting Change In Local Communities
What Is Social Impact In The Context Of Hosting Retreats?
Jen: Could you define what socially impactful means to you, in your capacity as a company that plans and facilitates retreats?
Christophe: I look at it from a broad perspective – “socially impactful” really just means an experience that is making a positive impact on people’s lives, whether it’s physical, mental, or spiritual. Inherently, in terms of what we do as retreat leaders, there are many ways of creating social impact.
I break that down into two parts. First, the impact that our retreats have on our participants and guests. And second, the impact that they have on the local population.
Regardless of where you take a group, whether it’s just out of town, across the country, or internationally, the act of travel disrupts patterns and changes perspectives. It forces people to see things differently, to do things differently.
Often, this results in a sense of gratitude for the experience and an appreciation for all we sometimes take for granted day-to-day. And that transformation in perspective ripples outward, positively affecting all of the people in our lives.
Beyond this, there’s the social impact of our retreats on the communities we’re visiting. There are so many ways we can aim to make a difference here. But for now, in this moment, it’s really simple – support local businesses.
This is all the more true if we’re talking about countries that are particularly reliant on tourism because they’ve been so hard-hit by COVID. They’re relying on our tourism dollars to survive. To help put food on their tables, keep their kids in school, pay for housing and other basic necessities.
For that reason, we need to do all we can to get back out there as soon as we safely can.
What Are The Key Elements of Planning Successful Retreats?
Timeline planning • Selecting your venue • Itinerary & program design • Sustainability considerations • Marketing • Financials & profitability • Legal forms & liabilities • Insurance
Key Questions To Ask Your Retreat Venues and Other Partners
Jen: Let’s say you are a retreat leader who IS ready to get back out there, and you’re performing due diligence on a potential venue.
If it’s important to you that they’re an operation that truly treats their local partners well, what sort of questions should you be asking as it relates to their employment and operational practices?
Christophe: I recommend working in layers.
Firstly, when you’re looking at a new destination, use this as one of your ‘filters’ as you start to scope out the available venues. Check out their websites – what do they say about the social or environmental initiatives that they support? Do they have any awards or accreditations in this area?
At the same time, take this information with a pinch of salt. Talking about social and environmental responsibility has become a trendy thing to do and almost a basic requirement in marketing. So, beyond checking for a certain stamp or star rating, you do really need to have direct conversations.
Secondly, ask detailed questions. Start with the ones that relate to issues closest to your heart.
Does the operation support things like artistic or cultural programs that involve the community locally? Do they use biodegradable toiletries or solar energy?
A big one is food: where does it come from? Do they have an organic garden on-site that’s contributing to how they feed their guests? Or are they supporting sustainable farming initiatives?
Finally, as a third layer, if you’re really going to commit to working with a venue, then you ideally need to go there a year in advance.
See it yourself; meet the owners, chat with the general manager, participate in the activities and excursions, go for coffee with the guides, chat up the waiters, take a tour around the kitchen.
You’ll get a firsthand feel for things, and you’ll benefit from this in so many ways. As a retreat leader, you’ll have a much better understanding of where you’re bringing people, so you’ll be able to sell your retreat more authentically.
Not to mention that you’ll have photos, and that will be great for talking about your retreat on social media!
But maybe the most important thing you’ll gain from an in-person visit is building professional relationships. These connections with owners and staff really help establish mutual respect. When you do arrive on retreat, you’re much more likely to be treated as a person, as opposed to just another booking number.
Ways To Really Get Involved With The Local Communities (volunteering and beyond)
Jen: Even if you’re working with a socially responsible venue that you feel is a partner you can trust, sometimes staying within a property’s walls means you’re seeing a pretty privileged view of things.
If you’re called to spend more time experiencing what life is really like for locals, in a way that is respectful and impactful, is volunteering the best way to do this? Are there other approaches you recommend?
Christophe: Great question. Volunteering is always an option, and it’s a particularly good choice if you have a legitimate, useful skill set that you’re bringing to the table.
Otherwise, as well-intentioned as we may be, our presence as foreigners can present challenges. We’re actually a little bit more high maintenance than we like to think we are!
It’s very easy for a volunteer to end up being a drain on a local organization if they’re having to arrange for training, on-site orientation, accommodations; especially if they’re not totally set up for this.
Still, volunteering can be a solid option if you really have something to offer or if you’re ready to commit to staying for a significant time period.
If you have less time, extra hands can sometimes be most helpful at the very beginning or very end of a project, rather than coming in at the middle.
Another option, one that I often recommend, is that people study. It’s a great way to get involved with locals, and I like it because it’s a very reciprocal interaction. People tend to really appreciate knowing that someone has flown around the world to come and learn about them, whether it’s their language, culture, or something else.
Being a student can also help you get special visas; there are some nice perks there. And there are so many options.
In Thailand, for example, you can study the Thai language, Thai massage, cooking, permaculture, meditation, you name it!
Considerations For Choosing An Organization To Support With Retreat Proceeds
Jen: That’s great insight, and using the lens of local involvement through education is an approach retreat groups can take even if they are in a certain destination for a shorter period.
But, since I know some of our audience is interested in how they can partner with local groups like non-profits, collaboratives, and similar organizations, how do you go about choosing a cause or project that feels genuine and worthwhile? Both from the standpoint of those ‘giving’ the support and those ‘receiving’ it?
Christophe: Yes, that’s a big consideration. When you’re arranging something from the other side of the world, you never really quite know what you’re getting into!
My advice to people is, as much as possible, try and go by some degree of word of mouth. If you know someone in the city you’re visiting, or even in the same country, talk to them. Chances are, they’ll be able to at least point you in the right direction relative to a Google search.
But if you don’t, there’s nothing wrong with starting exactly there, with a Google search. There is so much information out there, including third-party reviews and online discussion groups. One website that can be a good resource is volunteerworld.com.
Ultimately, my advice is that the most important thing is to be mentally prepared. Try to unpack all your expectations and be ready to take the experience as it is rather than what you hope it might be. A cross-cultural volunteer experience will never be what you imagined, and that’s kind of the whole point.
Jen: Well said! Another approach taken by many retreat leaders is to contribute a portion of their retreat’s proceeds to a socially impactful organization.
If you’re going that route, what kinds of things would you take into account to decide on who would make the most worthy recipient?
Christophe: Right off the bat, I would say that we should separate supporting an organization that I, Christophe, may be personally fond of vs. one that makes the most sense in the context of my retreat.
I love the idea of saving penguins in the Arctic, but that might be totally wrong if I’m hosting a tropical retreat.
So, it may sound obvious, but first, make sure it’s a cause that’s as relevant as possible to your destination.
Even go beyond that. Make it relevant to the experience people will have on your retreat. We can create more impact, not just for the local community but for retreat participants too.
It means tackling the question of where you want to make your donation early in the planning process. This way, you can thread getting involved with that cause or bringing more awareness to that effort into the actual retreat experience.
It’s much more real when guests can see with their own eyes where their money is going; how it’s impacting peoples’ lives.
An Impactful Moment For Thailand Yoga Holidays
Jen: We’ve touched on a lot that can be applied no matter where in the world you’re going or the vendors and partners you’re working with. So hopefully, there’s lots of universally actionable wisdom here!
However, it would be great to hear about some of your personal experience in this area with Thailand Yoga Holidays. Could you talk about one initiative or project that you’ve supported and are particularly proud of?
Christophe: It’s hard, as quite a few that come to mind. But the one that’s maybe closest to my heart took root many years ago.
I went to visit a friend who lived on the border of Thailand and Burma at a property outside of a Karen village [the Karen people are an ethnolinguistic minority in Thailand].
We were having dinner, and then basically, through some kind of serendipitous series of events, we connected with some girls from a local school who had been training to learn traditional Karen dance. We managed to get them to come to the property and show us what they’d been learning.
For them, having an audience of even two people was quite fantastic. They’d been practicing for years with no audience, so the two of us became their first audience.
They were fabulous! We got to thinking, “These girls are so talented; let’s build a real audience for them.”
So, over the years, I began integrating this experience into some of my trips. Now, when they put on shows for our groups, it’s like a rock concert, all lit up with lanterns!
As a group, we support them financially. I bring my own little envelope that I give, but I also create an opportunity for every guest to contribute individually in whatever way they’d like.
But it’s also so much more than that. At the end of the day, what it does for the girls is show them that their indigenous culture is valued and that they’re appreciated. That we’ve traveled from across the world to see them dance. And that in itself is amazing; it’s priceless.
As retreat organizers and travelers, we have a responsibility to move mindfully and care for the communities we visit.
It requires digging a little deeper to find out how your retreat venues and partners are handling their social impact.
It means discovering creative ways to have a positive interaction with local communities, one that is more reciprocal than one-sided.
Ultimately, it’s about closing the gap between host and community in a way that adds value rather than draining resources.