Read on to find how we dealt with the unexpected and what we learned from the experience
I’m just back from running a 5-night wellness retreat for women in Portugal. It was a gorgeous experience and left our guests feeling positive, uplifted and supported.
Connecting with like-minded women and sharing practical tips and tools for living a healthier and more fulfilling life is why we started The Reset.
There was a lot that ran smoothly and exactly as we expected.
It didn’t all go to plan. And that was due to the effects of COVID-19 or Coronavirus, the phenomenon we’re all becoming far too familiar with now.
I wanted to share just a few of the things that happened as a result of the pandemic and how we handled them, imperfectly, but in the best way we could.
My hope is this brief roundup might be of help to you if you find yourself in a similar situation either during this crisis or another situation where plans have to change and you’re not in control.
Firstly I have to say: we were incredibly ‘lucky’ in many ways with this retreat.
Having chosen Portugal, over let’s say Italy, Spain or France, meant we were sheltered from a lot of the worst impact that Coronavirus has wrought in the last week to businesses and international travel.
At the time we departed for our retreat (we flew Wednesday 11th March 2020, our guests flew Thursday 12th March 2020) there was no national government or international level advice against travel, apart from to China, South Korea, Italy or Iran, the worst affected countries at that stage.
At the time of departure there were less than 40 confirmed cases of Coronavirus in Portugal. That rose to 331 by the day we left, Tuesday 17th March 2020.
As far as we were concerned, following Irish government and WHO advice (not salacious gossip and rumours from WhatsApp groups), there was no reason not to travel.
There was no official government or international advice against travelling to Portugal.
In order to fulfil our own terms and conditions of the purchases our guests had made, we had to go ahead in order to retain guest payments. If we had changed or cancelled the retreat we would have had to offer refunds or transfer guest payments to a future retreat or event (of which there are currently none planned).
I don’t say this to sound cruel and money-grabbing. But to be clear that we had an obligation to deliver what we had promised for guests, or there was a financial implication.
The most obvious and immediate problem was that we had people cancel.
Originally we had 11 people booked on the retreat – this was our maximum capacity and we had sold out the places back in January. The final number that chose to join us was 6.
Without divulging personal information, the reasons were all Coronavirus related. One guest suffered with auto-immune diseases and knew as soon as the news started to come out that she would be at risk if she travelled, so made the choice not to come.
Another guest had a sick relative who they wanted to stay at home to be with and not put at risk in case they picked up the virus.
The other three guests decided they didn’t want to travel based on the information they saw in the news and other commitments in the diary that they didn’t want to miss or relinquish if they had contracted the virus while travelling.
This is because, as I’ve already mentioned, there was no official advice not to travel at the time of our departure and because we were still committed to delivering the exact retreat we had promised, no changes.
Being a small business, running purely on cash and having already paid out to all suppliers, we would not have been able to reimburse these guests without suffering losses ourselves.
Throughout the whole lead-up to the retreat we communicated as frequently, efficiently and effectively as we could with both those guests who had questions about cancelling, and also the whole group about how we were handling the situation and the fact that we were going ahead with the retreat.
We kept a consistent party-line throughout and treated everyone the same: if you choose not to travel that is entirely your choice and we respect that, but no refund will be available.
The 48 hours before our guests were due to arrive, we sent a final email updating the group on the way we would conduct ourselves in the venue.
Based on government advice we suggested no physical contact between any guests and also reiterated the government-issued hand-washing recommendations, asking everyone to adhere to this whilst with us.
Of course as human beings, and particularly women coming together to share hopes, fears, goals and dreams, we love to be able to hug, touch and make physical contact with one another. So this was tough. But something we knew we had to respect in order to make everyone feel safe and ensure they knew we were taking the virus threat seriously.
We also stated to the guests in both the pre-arrival email and also in our in-person welcome, that if anyone felt uncomfortable with any of the suggested activities e.g. market visit, boat trip, dinner out, that they were very welcome to stay in the venue and not participate.
Our hosts, Casa Fuzetta and the amazing team there, were also incredibly supportive. They told us that if anyone suspected they had any symptoms at any point during their stay they should stay in their room and text / call us. The Casa Fuzetta team could then summon medical help which was available to us. Luckily we didn’t need to call on this, no-one displayed any symptoms or became ill at all during their stay.
We still went out for dinner one evening to a local restaurant.
In order to take as much precaution as possible we asked the restaurant to seat us away from other diners to respect ‘social distancing’ advice which they kindly honoured, giving us a whole section of the restaurant to ourselves.
It was a fantastic night with delicious Portuguese food and a welcome change of scenery for our guests (and a night off for our in-house chefs!).
Sadly on the morning we were due to take a day trip around the Algarve islands, the owner of the tour company called to say there was an official ban on all tourist activity on the water in order to avoid groups gathering.
Whilst this was a huge disappointment, as the boat trip is always a highlight of the retreat and a chance to really appreciate the location and all it has to offer, we reorganised the schedule to run the food demo on this day instead and offer an extra Pilates class.
In a way it allowed for more free time and less pressure on the rest of the schedule, which was appreciated by all.
Needless to say, we wanted our guests to feel as safe and cared for as possible whilst staying with us and for them to see that we were taking advice seriously.
We all washed our hands before meals, before meal-prep and used and shared hand sanitizer when we were outside of the venue.
The Casa Fuzetta House Manager also made the house it’s own hand sanitizer, as all shop-bought stock was sold out, and this was placed at the front entrance for use whenever entering or exiting the venue.
Everyone used their own yoga mat kept in their room and we ensured all glasses and cups were washed and not used by more than one person.
As you can see, in the end we didn’t have a huge amount of impact to our retreat.
We seem to have managed to get out of the country in the exact window where travel was possible and get home safely, while delivering 95% of what we promised to our guests.
Above and beyond everything else I would recommend you communicate clearly and effectively with your guests about what you are deciding to do with your event.
I can’t make specific recommendations to you. The situation is evolving daily. But whatever you decide, you need to let your guests know together, in a clear and concise manner.
It’s really hard and really uncomfortable for many of us to write to people to say things they don’t want to hear e.g. your event is being cancelled or that they can’t have their money back.
But like ripping off a plaster, the quicker and more effectively you do it the better. Make the decision either way and communicate. People will respect and thank you for it.
Of course this is easy to see in hindsight, but if at all possible I would recommend spending some of your time now to revisit your Terms & Conditions to ensure you would be covered in the event something like this happens to you.
I am so glad we had robust terms and conditions to fall back on during this time.
Whilst in hindsight they weren’t perfect, they were at least there as guidelines for us to direct people to and to steer our decisions about what to do.
Because we had T&Cs that stated clearly that if guests gave us less than 21 days notice of their intention to cancel, and if we hadn’t renaged on our offer and content, we would not refund anyone. This meant no arguments, no animosity and no tough decisions. Our policy was clear.
Whilst we won’t be refunding guests who didn’t join us their full investment, we will be looking at places that we managed to make ‘savings’ on items we didn’t spend. If there are savings we made by e.g. not going on the boat trip, not paying for their dinner then we will return this cost to them.
These items were not things we planned to make a profit on anyway, so as they haven’t been spent, returning the money to the guest doesn’t leave us worse off.
But in order to foster goodwill we have decided this is something we want to do.
Despite everything that’s happened we want people to think well of us and the way we have conducted ourselves throughout this crisis and potentially come and join us again on a future retreat. This is our small way of trying to ensure this.
If you can find any way to give back even a small fraction of the money someone has invested in an event that you’ve had to cancel then it’s a great way to make a gesture that speaks to your character and integrity.
If you can’t make refunds at all, then that’s fine too if you’re covered by your T&Cs. Just a suggestion.