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The Worst Retreat I Ever Ran: And What I Learned

I'm Catie!

I'm a lover of mixing the spiritual with the strategic, and sharing my ongoing quest for growth and expansion.  I share what I learned, what I would do differently, and what's helped so that it might help you too.

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The worst retreat I ever led was Camp Goddess, which was the last weekend in September, 2019. 

To be clear, I’ve run a total of 15 retreats, and in all my years and experiences of holding retreats, I’ve only had a situation like this once.  

Retreats are incredibly healing, potent containers of transformation.  I hope to see you on one soon! 

This terrible retreat taught me so many lessons, which ultimately all led me to be a better retreat facilitator and host from then on. 

This is why I got away from doing weekend retreats in Ontario – there simply aren’t enough really quality retreat centers that exist (there’s a business idea for one of you!), and why I’ve focused more on retreats in Costa Rica and Tulum where I can be sure that the retreat centers are a magical oasis with exceptional service. 

I arrived on Friday to do the set-up for the retreat before I welcomed the guests, and met with the head of the camp/event coordinator to show me around. 

At first, the property seemed quaint but great.  It was quiet and had beautiful nature vistas.  The main cabin where we were going to do yoga was spacious enough for our group, albeit a bit rundown, as many Canadian camp properties are. 

Then, we walked the other side of the pond where the cabins were.  I had seen the cabin photos from the outside, and they were as expected – until I realized to the left of the cabins were…port-a-potties.  With plastic flowers around them. 

The washrooms for the weekend were port-a-potties?

“Oh shit, I thought…this was not good.”

I didn’t even think to inquire previously about what the washroom facilities were like.  I thought that all the summer camps in Ontario had similar washrooms, which were…real washrooms?

I was wrong. 

I knew that my guests would be just as surprised as I was.  Imagine going away for a nice retreat and instead being met with port-a-potties? 

It got worse from there. 

Contemplating the port-a-potty situation, I saw clouds roll in.  It was getting chilly and I pulled my sweater closed.  It was getting cold. Really cold. 

The coordinator ushered me to come and take a look inside the cabins. 

There, I was advised that the cabins did not have heating *or* a lightswitch. 

Again – something I just assumed that they would have since this center not only operated as a summer camp, but also did “many weddings” throughout the year, and other events. 

My own summer camp only allowed groups outside of the summer camp to use specific cabins that had heating and lights.  

All of the cabins at least had a light-switch. 

Not at this place. 

Okay, breathe…I thought. Shit. These guests are going to arrive and there’s going to be these quaint cabins that are not heated and have no lights – plus the god damn port-a-potties. 

It was now 4pm and the guests were set to be arriving any time after 6pm. 

It was too late to cancel, and this property had also charged me over $10,000 for the weekend reservation, which I was already operating at a massive loss on.  

I had also assumed that since the property was charging so much, it had to be nice, right? I had run multiple other retreats at this point, and had always been impressed with the spaces I rented.  In this case, I was charged even more than I had paid for a similar Ontario retreat reservation a year prior, and the quality was vastly different.  Wrong. 

The last assumption I made was to trust that this space was going to be great for my group.  I assumed this because a woman who came to my goddess circles who was an event planner herself recommended it (I later found out she was just good friends with the person who owned the space). 

I, too, figured out that I knew the person who owned the space too and was the on-site coordinator. She was a casual acquaintance from when I was living in Australia. 

Because of trusting these two people, I assumed that they would only recommend me a place that was going to be a great fit for the work I did and the retreats I hosted. 

Wrong. 

Here’s what I learned: it is imperative in retreats to make sure that you have vetted the places personally by going to them, or having had multiple referrals from other people who have either attended retreats there or led retreats there themselves. 

There should be no assumptions made when it comes to any aspect of the retreat – even if you’ve seen the website. 

This particular place had an incredible website that made it seem like the property was, in my opinion, incredibly different from reality.  As with everything, what you see online may not be what it seems, so make sure you do your due diligence. 

Make sure that you are always checking the places that people will sleep, yes, and where you will host your sessions – but also definitely make sure that you check on all small details you would not otherwise think of, like what the washrooms are like, if there is heating, and what meals are like. 

Which brings me to meals…

As part of my contract, I had a “catering” contract and had chosen the catering menu.  

When reeling from the lack of heating and the port-a-potty issue, I took solace in the fact that at least the food would be great. 

Wrong again. 

The event coordinator, the same woman who I knew from Australia and considered a friend, didn’t communicate with me that she had “made a change” to the meal planning. 

My final numbers were too small for the catering company to accommodate, and so *she* was going to make the meals herself for us instead. 

She is not a caterer or chef, and the meals sucked. She had gone to the local Loblaws and picked out the same food I could have purchased myself, but still charged me the same catering fee. 

When I inquired about this, she said that the fee was then for the cost of groceries and her cooking the food. 

The lesson on this one was that I should have demanded a refund of the catering costs and fees, but after the retreat I was so exasperated about the whole thing that I just wanted to cut my losses and move on. 

The other lesson I learned was not to let personal relationships cloud your judgment.  Now I wouldn’t have had a problem demanding those fees be refunded, but at the time, I had trouble bringing out “lawyer Catie mode” with people I considered friends who I thought had tried to pull one over me. 

So now you know that the center was terrible and worn-down and the food was terrible. 

What happened next?

Well, it was exceptionally cold for that time of year.  I, in my own cabin, had to sleep in all the layers I had brought and was still freezing.  I expected my guests felt the same. 

So the next morning?

Well, I had to deal with a bunch of angry people. 

I’ll share the first of these angry experiences with you.  

One woman who had been trying to get really close to me in the weeks leading up to the retreat and on the retreat because she was a professional who had been having her own spiritual awakening, went right back into “human” mode after this cold sleep. 

She was furious when she woke up, and I apologized for what had happened, explained that I hadn’t visited the center before we arrived, which was my fault, and that I would give her a refund. 

Instead of wanting to accept the refund, she said “Forget it.  This showed me everything.  I’ve learned from you how to never run a retreat, and so when I run retreats, I’ll never do it like you.”

By the way, this person is NOT running retreats or in the healing or coaching space as she thought she was going to be those years ago. 

I still processed her refund. 

Luckily, I had run 5 retreats before this that were absolutely magical and had the most incredible feedback from the guests, so I didn’t take her words personally. 

Instead, it was a lesson in radical responsibility.  While I wanted to blame the center, it was my fault for having brought people to this place and not having known the full parameter of what it was like there. 

After that conversation, I went to the 6 other guests there and sat them down, explained what happened, took full responsibility, and offered them refunds.  

This was a lesson I had first learned in law, where the best thing to do in any defence of a lawsuit is to admit the facts that you can agree to.  You can admit where you hurt someone.  Where you messed up. 

In this case, I had to take responsibility for having not come to the site before to know what we were signing up for. 

Half of the group went home and I never heard from any of them again, and the other half were really gracious and stayed around for the closing circle and practice together. 

Another lesson? All you can do is control what you can control, and people will react in whatever way they want.  

I left that retreat in over $12,000 in losses, and with a lot of lessons like the ones I’ve shared with you. 

Overall, through that terrible retreat, the biggest lesson I learned, aside from due diligence, was to not use blind trust in all matters.  

I blindly trusted that the retreat center would look and be the way the photos depicted…

I blindly trusted the person that I knew that she would take care of the retreat group and bring to my attention things I should’ve known, like that there was no heating during a Fall retreat….

And interestingly, there was SO much resistance with this retreat to even get people signed up. 

In the end there were 7 guests, but typically my weekend retreats were drawing in 20-30 people. 

I was also supposed to collaborate with this other yoga teacher, but he bailed on me a month and a half before the retreat, and since he and I had never signed anything, and it was me who had given the retreat deposit and not him, I decided to just “trust” that I was going to be the one to take the full responsibility for the retreat. 

I wish that I had cut my losses early on with the retreat, but it was a tough decision to make when I was less experienced with it at that time. 

I also wish that I had trusted my intuition that there was something off about the energy of the retreat, again, because of the lack of interest in it from potential attendees and my general feelings around it. 

And…we live, we learn. 

If you want to come on an INCREDIBLE retreat, then I would love for you to join for the Journey to the Heart retreat March 5 – 21, 2022 in Nosara, Costa Rica.

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3/5 generator. scorpio sun/rising + capricorn moon. adventure lover.

Hi, I'm Catie. I love humans, chatting, and how to live life of meaning and purpose.  

I started this blog as a way for me to share more of my writing about everything from how to strengthen your intuition, find your purpose, and call in partnership, to my favourite travel destinations and tips. 

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