In this episode, I talk with Megan Gunnell, therapist and the Founder and Director of Thriving Well Institute, on the topic of retreat building (and how to step up and host one, even without retreat hosting experience).
Megan is well known for her Thriving Therapist Facebook Group with over 12k members, as well as for hosting international retreats in places like Tuscany, Costa Rica, and more.
Tune in as we talk about chasing your passions, the fears of hosting retreats (Will people actually like them?), and how to move from idea to action.
We also talk about the need for connection, restoration, and self-care.
You won't want to miss the fantastic advice that Megan offers on how to plan and host retreats, pursue your dreams, and, of course, face your fears and failures head-on.
Megan has an upcoming retreat this May 2022 in Red Rocks, Utah. There are still spots available for this amazing, self-care-filled experience, so make sure to check out the details.
You can find more of Megan and her upcoming retreats here:
🎙️ Listen to more episodes of the All Things Private Practice Podcast here:
🗨️ Join the All Things Private Practice FB Community: www.facebook.com/groups/privatepracticebuilding
Season 1, Episode 6 – MEGAN GUNNELL (HOW TO HOST A SUCCESSFUL RETREAT.)
PATRICK CASALE: Hey everyone, this is Patrick with the All Things Private Practice Podcast. I'm here with Megan Gunnell, LMSW, out in Michigan, owner of Thriving Well. She is a retreat builder, she has a massive private practice Facebook group called Thriving Therapists, and she's got a really cool thing going on out there. We're going to highlight moving from private practice into other ventures that you can do, so that we can let everyone know that you don't just have to see clients for 60-minute increments of your time for the rest of your life. Megan, I'm really happy to have you on. Tell the audience a little bit about what you're doing, what you're offering, and how you kind of got there.
MEGAN GUNNELL: Thanks so much, Patrick. It's really my pleasure to be here. I'm so excited to talk to your audience about how to really move beyond that one-on-one model of care, because there's so much more we can do as therapists. For me, I built a solo practice, and that got very full very quickly. I wish somebody would have told me how to build a group practice sooner in my career, because I just kind of consistently had a giant waitlist and didn't know what to do. I felt like I had a great education at University of Michigan. My graduate degree was amazing. But I left that degree feeling really ill-prepared to be an entrepreneur and a business owner. And so, I kind of wish that the graduate degree programs would help people understand what the business building side of owning a practice is all about, because I think we're really missing that. And you know that well, and your audience is looking to you for that guidance as well. I think it's amazing now to see so many coaches in this space helping people do this, because we're just not getting trained on it.
PATRICK CASALE: Yeah, that's really well said. We can have the best clinical experience, and graduate school experience, and yet, we still leave without the understanding of how to build a practice, how to start a group practice, how to transition and evolve. I think we almost think that the only options are to go into community mental health or to work at a hospital setting. And then, we get to this point, mentally, where it's like, “Oh, my God, I am so burnt out and exhausted. What else is there?” You're spot on. I wish more grad school programs would offer just advice, and it's almost taboo to talk about, discouraged, or there's just no information at all about the topic in general.
MEGAN GUNNELL: Yeah, I agree. I just think they're kind of missing that market. I think a lot of people go into these graduate programs hoping to have their own practice and serve the clients in need, but they're just ill-prepared to do it. I felt like I also personally wanted a lot more from my own career. I was originally a music therapist. My first degree was in music therapy. I spent 10 years working in hospitals, doing really cool integrative medicine with our therapist and guided imagery practitioners, and all different kinds of really cool creative arts specialists, and therapists in different realms that were really rich to my soul.
But I felt like I needed something more. And that's what brought me to my MSW. But then when I started just doing exclusive talk therapy, I also felt like something was missing. So that's, I think, where the birthplace of the retreat model really started for me, because I also heard my own audience of clients saying, “I want something else too.” They were all echoing the same cry, which was busy working moms that were in my caseload saying, “I need a day for me.” And so, when I heard that over and over, I thought, “Maybe I should just build this, maybe I should just build a self-care day for women.” I started there with this one-day offering. And then it just grew from listening deeply to the audience that was in front of me, And that's kind of really the first pillar of advice I would have to share with your audience today, is listen carefully to what's being echoed in the audience that's right in front of you.
For me, that served me well for years in front of my client population. And then, I've shifted over the years into now being a coach and consultant for therapists who want to really learn how to build a thriving practice or scale beyond that and build retreats, courses and things like that. But I'm listening now to the Thriving Therapists community on Facebook tell me what they want, and now I'm building things for them. When you're hearing that, I really want therapists to kind of use that skill set of listening deeply, not only to what's being shared and the clinical work, but also what people are asking for. Because I think, especially, and I'm sure you agree with this, Patrick, after COVID we've all been craving connection and community so deeply that the retreat model or the group therapy group model, or the workshop model can really meet that demand.
PATRICK CASALE: Yeah, that's so well said, and I really like what you're saying about listening deeply to your audience, regardless, of whether it's your clinical audience or your coaching clients, therapists that you might be working within one capacity or another. It's also just good market research, right? There's so much psychology in marketing and getting a sense of what does your ideal clientele want? What do they want to be different? I think with COVID, you're spot on. We want connection, we want community, we also want travel experience. We want to get out of our fucking homes and just be like, “I need to be away from my computer screen or from the daily grind, because time feels like we're in this weird, never-ending continuum.” That's really fantastic that you started to do this, and you've got a couple of retreats coming up. I'm wondering about, when you first started with the one day for women and relaxation, did you ever think that it would become retreats internationally, globally, like expanding, expanding, expanding?
MEGAN GUNNELL: Never. I don't think I really ever saw that. But I will tell you where the inspiration also came from. When I was an early undergraduate student, I went to Michigan State for my BA and U of M for my master's. I always say we went on game day, because at either school we got it.
PATRICK CASALE: [CROSSTALK 00:06:08], yeah, yeah.
MEGAN GUNNELL: I remember going to a bookstore in my freshman year, and I felt so independent, and really like who am I now? Now that I'm independent, and I'm a college student, I'm going to this bookstore, what kind of book will I buy? Who do I want to become? You know that kind of like coming of age thing that happens when you leave home? I picked up this book called Healing and The Mind. It's still one of my favorite books on my self-help shelf. It was written by Bill Moyers. He interviewed a lot of really amazing people in the world of mind, body medicine kind of before it was even cool. The last chapter, I believe it was in that book, or one of the last chapters was one written by Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, who was offering retreats to cancer patients out in California. She took people out to the coast to help them feel alive, awake, and that they were able to access their healing, and have this wonderful transpersonal and transformative experience.
And they were eating clean, they had a dietitian, a nutritionist, and staff. They had sand tray and art therapy. They would do walks on the beach. I just was like gobbling this up thinking, “Someday I'm going to do this.” But at the time, I was just at the entry-level of building my career. I thought, “How? How do you ever, like, do it?” I didn't feel like I have the knowledge or expertise. But I knew I had the vision and that helped me a lot. Because years later, when I was in front of opportunities, even in my first career, as a music therapist, I was building kind of these conferences, workshops and things like that, that were meeting some of those needs for something more healing and transformative, a little beyond kind of what they were getting maybe in front of their Western medicine appointments.
I loved that. But then again, as I grew, I just thought, “Okay, I can do this one day model, and then I can do this weekend model, and I'll take people to like some cool retreat house in northern Michigan.” Or, “I'll do, you know, an Airbnb, and I'll just like, bring a chef, and build my own structure.” I absolutely loved it. I felt my own sense of being alive as a therapist when I was hosting these. And then, I got to a point where I still wanted more, and I was in a group practice at the time. I was a young therapist and a group practice at a group agency. I had a colleague that was also running some of these kinds of programs and women's retreats. And so, I looked at her one day in the break room, and I was like, “We're kind of doing the same thing. Like, we're both doing this really cool, Michigan-based, like weekend programming for our clients.” And she was like, “I know, I love what you're doing.” And I was like, “I love what you're doing.” And we just had a handshake on it and decided to build an international offering together.
So that's another point for your audience to think about. Because the idea of offering a one-week retreat experience that is across international borders is a lot to take on if you haven't built something local and smaller first, but you can also do it with a team, so you don't have to build this alone. The first time I did it. I brought a colleague with me and we did several more together until I thought, “Okay, now I can do this alone.” I already know the venue, I know Costa Rica, I knew where I was going, and I just felt very comfortable hosting those on my own. But yeah, in the beginning, I really benefited from having her partnership and collegial support. I really trusted that.
I also knew from a business side that she would be able to bring and fill half the guest list and so would I. And so, that's also something to consider, because you wouldn't want to build this with some big dream and vision, and then not be able to sell it or fill it, and then you're on the hook for what feels like a very expensive vacation.
PATRICK CASALE: Yeah, well said, and that's such a great, great way to start. You knew, like, Airbnb is for the weekend, “Okay, this feels doable.” And then you start to conceptualize like, “This is my framework, this is who I'm catering to, this is how to put the pieces in place.” Then to take that step overseas, and think, “There is more risk here, right? But it's such a cool feeling to see it come to fruition.” And then, having that teamwork and camaraderie, so you don't feel like I'm doing this alone. But what I'm hearing is constant stages of evolution herewith, “Okay, idea, conceptualization, let's try it and see what happens.” And then like, “Okay, this can be a thing, this can make me feel really energized, and really fulfilled in my business. And now, let's start taking this abroad so that people can have these cool experiences and connections together.” I love that. It's almost by imperfect action of like, I'm just going to put it out there, and then start building the framework, right? Like, I don't have to have a perfect model or a perfect situation to be able to put this out to the world.
MEGAN GUNNELL: I guess that would be point number three. I always tell people that I'm working with to-do list, but it takes a lot of practice. Start before you're ready. I know you preach this and practice it yourself, and I think the difference with people who do these kinds of things, and people who dream about it is that we're willing to be uncomfortable, and still take action. I really try to encourage people to do that, because I wasn't ready to build my first international retreat. I was really terrified, actually. I hadn't even been to the place where I was hosting. So that talk about going in blind, you're like bringing a whole busload of people to a place you've never seen. I was like, “I sure hope this looks like it does in the pictures.” It's a little scary.
I didn't feel ready to form this Facebook group that grew from zero to 12,600 people in two years. I mean, it's like, “Well, how did that happen?” I wasn't totally ready to formulate an online course, I wasn't 100% ready to pitch coaching packages, I'm still not ready when I'm in front of things today. I never feel ready when I do keynote speaking, I never feel ready when I even do podcast interviewing. I still get nervous. I think part of it is just like leaning into that and having your own sense of just stress tolerance skills to be comfortable being uncomfortable. I think that's part of what this is all about as therapists. I'll say this too, and I know you know this is true. So many therapists, I think, are landing in this place of, am I really enough? There's so much imposter syndrome. I don't know any other career on the planet where somebody gets all the kind of education in the world that we got, and they finish like this really grueling master's degree program, and all the supervision, and training, and practicum, and internship and everything, all the layers of everything that we have to do to actually be qualified enough to do the work we're doing, and then sit down and say, I'm still not enough. I mean, we got a problem here. And I felt it too.
I just think it's really a complex thing, because I think a lot of therapists are feeling like, “I don't know, can I really be a coach? Am I qualified enough to run a retreat?” Let me tell you one thing you are. You have more than enough knowledge, more than enough training, more than enough insight, wisdom, education, and experience to do these things. And there are a heck of a lot of coaches out there that are like self-proclaimed gurus that have zero training and expertise, running retreats that are like six times the cost of mine. I totally want to encourage your audience to just lean into that, because you're more than ready.
PATRICK CASALE: I love that message, and I preach it all the time as well. I think you're spot on. I've been doing a lot of talks on imposter syndrome over the last year, and maybe it's because we have so much introspection and self-awareness about how we move through the world. Or maybe we're just really as a community, group and culture are like kind of anxious and insecure human beings in some ways. I don't know what the answer is. But ultimately, we are ready and you are ready, if you're listening to this. And this even comes up when you're thinking about leaving community mental health to start your private practice. When I did that there was no part of me that ever felt like I could start a practice and have it be successful. I had imposter syndrome all the time. Then it became, can I become a private practice coach, building and strategist for people, because how the hell am I going to help other therapists? And I would have that anxiousness or insecurity. Then it would become, can I start a group practice?
And now it was, can you start a Facebook group? Can you do private practice courses? Can you speak? Can you start a podcast? But you're so right about leaning into that discomfort, leaning into that and just feeling the fear, recognizing it, embracing it, but also working through it, and not letting it paralyze. I think that's where people get stuck, is that paralyzing perfectionism and fear that comes up with, “I can't ever put this out to the world, because it's not perfect, and I can't put it out to the world, because I'm really afraid of being seen, critiqued, judged, and potentially if it doesn't go well then I feel almost a failure.” I want to normalize failure, because we have to make mistakes, and hit road bumps, and obstacles along the way to grow and to evolve into change.
MEGAN GUNNELL: Very true. I will add that one of the biggest lessons I ever learned came from this very concept, the first Costa Rica retreat I ever lead. I feel like I had enough material for a six-month mini master's program. It was embarrassing. I had like a suitcase, just like literally full of notes. I was so worried that people would leave this one-week experience and say, “Gee, that was kind of expensive and not enough.” And actually, the opposite thing happened. People arrived in this magical space, and even prior to arriving, they pushed pay now, and made the commitment to the intention that this was going to be life-altering for them. And that alone is so powerful, that the most important thing you're really supposed to be doing, I think, as a retreat facilitator is holding space, so that they can be there and have this experience, of course, you have an agenda, and you're teaching something, and you're giving content, and value, while they're there.
But the biggest mistake that I see in therapists that build retreats is they overschedule them. What I learned from that very first time was my biggest fear was that it wasn't going to be enough, and then it was actually too much. And so, I learned how to have better balance the second time I ran it, and I leaned back into the schedule, and I didn't over plan. I really paid attention to the energy of the group, and I could feel when they needed breaks, and when it was too much, or when I needed to pivot or change what we were doing that day and leave a lot more open space for the important work of integration. Because when you're on retreat, a lot of deep transformation happens, because you've committed to giving yourself space to have that experience. The mistake most therapists make would be getting in the way of that. You have to be careful of that.
PATRICK CASALE: That's such good advice and such good insight, and it's a learning experience for sure, and adaptability as you go, right? Even with my Ireland retreat coming up in March, I did the whole like, I've never done this before, I'm just going to put the pieces together as we go. And I'm definitely having that fear of, people pay a lot of money for this. They're going across to Europe. Are they going to think this fucking sucks? Are they going to come away with value? But you're so right, holding that space, pivoting when necessary, trying to have a hybrid for me of like experiential immersion and culture, as well as learning, coaching and growth opportunity, and then, relaxation sprinkled in between. It's very cool to start thinking about how these things are possible. I love travel, so it's really important for me to start implementing that into my business as well. I wanted to ask you, you do some tours with your husband right in Italy. And that seems really, really cool.
MEGAN GUNNELL: That has been really fun. For about eight years, my husband owned a little bakery and cafe in our local town. He recently closed it to kind of pivot into more of what we're doing now. But it was funny, because he came from the world of executive chef work, and kind of missed that white linen tablecloth fine dining experience, because he worked with Wolfgang Puck, and all these high profile chefs, and he missed that so much when he was running his own little shop that he was like, “Oh, I'm like, I'm loving the bakery, but I'm kind of missing like that evening, you know, glamour of these, like, high fine dining experiences.”
He and a couple colleagues decided to do one pop-up dinner, and they put together this amazing plan. It was so much fun. They had five courses, and it was three chefs, and they transformed the whole bakery into a beautiful one night only, one menu, for 44 guests. And we just did it for one night. I was a waitress for the evening. I brought some friends in, and my kids helped. We just kind of pieced it together. We printed menus, and we had this really fun atmosphere going in there, candles, flowers and music. And we set up this whole thing, and it was so wildly successful that we were like, “Okay, we should maybe do this on a regular basis.” We did these pop-ups every month or so for about three years. Towards the end, we were realizing, “Oh my gosh, like this is the audience. These are the people who love good food. They love culinary adventure, and they probably love to travel too.”
These were not inexpensive pop-ups, so we knew that it was more of an affluent community that could afford to do more of a luxury tour and travel opportunity. We have lived in Europe for a while, my husband and I, before we had children, and we had this little secret dream of one day renting a villa in Tuscany, and bringing people over for this really fun like culinary immersion experience, and do a food and wine tour over there. Once we did the pop-ups for a few years, we were like, maybe we should at the next pop up, just like announce that we're going to do this, and we should just find an Airbnb villa that can hold 20 people and just bring the chef's with us, and try to make this happen. And of course, with all the years of retreat building experience I had, I was like, “No problem. I can whip up a landing page, and like, you know, host a group of 20 people internationally, like in my sleep.”
I helped on that, and the chef's prepared what they were going to do from the food end, and I found the property, and the venue, which I was used to doing too. We did it. We launched the first one in 2018, and it was like a sold-out overnight success. Then we did another one in 2019, and it was even more spectacular. In 2020, we had two booked, and we had to rip them down, of course, because COVID, so you can relate to that. It's a painful, painful thing, but we decided to rebuild, and we have two more for October of 2022. We just love doing these so much. It's been just an amazing experience and a fun way for us to blend as a married couple, kind of, his expertise and mine, so that's been just a really joyful part of what we do together.
PATRICK CASALE: That sounds so amazing. I love food and culinary adventure. I always felt like that was the best way to actually connect with other people was over food, and just really having that experience. I really hope to be able to get to that one day when the schedules align, because that sounds absolutely amazing, and that's great that you're able to partner like that, and just bring both of your expertise into the equation, into the mix. Before we go to talking about what you have going on, I know you have a retreat coming up in Utah. Is that right?
MEGAN GUNNELL: Yeah.
PATRICK CASALE: And then, you still have the Costa Rica retreat coming up. Any advice you would give people listening right now about how to go from point A to point B in regards to the evolution of their careers?
MEGAN GUNNELL: Well, first listen to the people who are in front of you, for sure. And then build something small, so you're kind of testing your theory, like is this sellable? Do people love it? Do they want more? And listen to what they want. You could always build a small workshop or a one-day program. I mean, let's do numbers for a minute. The one-day programs I used to run, I probably had about 50 people attend, and the price point was around $100, so you're talking about a nice $5,000 day minus expenses. And that to me was worth building, because if I did it quarterly, it was not only building a nice little extra stream of income, it was also something really fun for me to do, because it was touching on the creative aspect of wellness and some of the things I was missing from my first career.
And then it was also building an audience for a larger offer. Every time one of these people would attend a one day workshop for me, they were automatically funneled into an email tagged list for my bigger offers, so then when I had a big retreat coming up, I knew I had a very large audience to sell that small number of tickets. There's different kind of strategies here that you can take. I do a lot of one-on-one support and coaching around retreat building and some of these things, so if anybody does want more specific help with that, there's a lot to know in terms of your budget, your venue, your liability waivers, your release forms, and what to do and what not to do in terms of like, hosting, and aftercare, and there's just like a thousand things I've learned over the years.
But it's just something that you can for sure lean into building and dreaming about even right now. I would encourage anyone listening to think about what you're hearing from your audience that's in front of you, if it's clients, or maybe it's other providers. I was just working with a therapist last week, and we were talking about retreat building, and we came to the conclusion that maybe the offer isn't for your client population, but maybe it's for healthcare heroes. There's a lot of people right now who are really in need of more support, restoration, deep self-care, mindfulness, and all of those wonderful things. And maybe it's like more of a B2B model, maybe it's more like therapist to provider, maybe it's therapist to therapist, which is what I'm doing now too.
The therapist community was so desperate for one of these offers. That's why I actually built my next Costa Rica retreat, which is now sold out for March to therapists. And that's why the Thrive Summit in Utah is only for therapists, because for years and years I was doing these for my caseload of clients. But then I realized, “Oh my gosh. Like, I know what it's like to have just lived through being a therapist during a pandemic.” We're all ready for some restoration and a healthy break. Again, listen to the audience that's in front of you, start building small, and be strategic about it, because if you have great intentionality, and a really good solid plan behind you, you can scale that and grow it very quickly.
PATRICK CASALE: That's absolutely fantastic advice. Really, really fantastic advice, so that I truly appreciate for our audience and for people who are trying to think bigger and to grow. Megan you have so much coming up, can you tell the audience where to find you and offers that you may have, especially around the Thrive Summit that's happening in Utah?
MEGAN GUNNELL: Yes, I would love to invite all the listeners to take a peek at that. You can find out more on my website thrivingwellinstitute.com. And there's a tab there for retreats. You can also learn how to build your own retreat by taking my online workshop. There's a whole bunch of resources for you, from coaching, to consulting, to retreats that will help restore yourself and help you thrive as a therapist, which is really my mission and purpose these days, and I love it.
PATRICK CASALE: Amazing. What are the dates for that retreat, again? I can't remember.
MEGAN GUNNELL: The Thrive Summit is happening May 19th through the 22nd, at Red Mountain Resort in Utah. I have hosted there before, so I wanted to return. I absolutely love the location. It is so spectacular, it's beautiful, the hiking is amazing. For me, when I'm searching for a venue, I need to be really moved and kind of have that sense of awe, wonder and inspiration. You can host programming anywhere in the world, and it could be spectacular, even in a conference room in Toledo. I'm sorry to say, maybe that's a Michigan bias. I'll say Detroit, but you can really get a lot out of the experience for your guests when you select a place where they have headspace. So you really want to help them find that clarity, so that they can start to remove the clutter and really actualize in a way that's really powerful by opening themselves up to thinking bigger, clearing their minds and starting to return to a sense of purpose and passion, and who they are. And you can only really do that, I find, successfully when you find a venue that supports that. So that's why I love Red Mountain Resort.
But I will say that anyone attending the Thrive Summit is welcome to attend and buy their ticket to the workshops and even stay nearby. I have a couple people who said they live near that area. And so, they don't even have to stay on property. You could stay in an Airbnb or stay at another hotel nearby. It doesn't have to be the kind of thing where you're spending the night on property for that experience to be really meaningful for you.
PATRICK CASALE: That sounds amazing. The pictures look amazing, the lineup of your coaches, therapists and the people who are involved. They all seem to bring a lot to the table and a very diverse experience. So that sounds wonderful. Megan, I really appreciate you coming on today. It's been great connecting over the last couple of months, and yeah, I just really appreciate it.
MEGAN GUNNELL: It's my pleasure to be here today. Thank you so much Patrick for all you do.
PATRICK CASALE: You're welcome. I appreciate it. To all of our listeners, please download, subscribe, like and share wherever you listen to podcasts. We're on all major platforms now. If you want to find more of me, my coaching, private practice building, or my private practice Facebook, Facebook group is All Things Private Practice, website is allthingspractice.com.. Thanks for listening, and we will see you next Monday.