I’ve run writers’ retreats for four years. I generally hold them over weekends with days extending either side. I tried it as a business, but this clashed with my desire to run them as low-cost and accessible events, so now they are run for friends and immediate colleagues. I thought it would be useful to share what I have learnt in case you wanted to organise something too.
There are lots of different types of writers retreats on the market. They offer many different things and cater to different groups of people. The best advice I can give about hosting your retreat is to tailor it to how you would like to see it run.
Step 1. Identify your group
Who would you like to attend? How many attendees will you host? Will it be genre / gender/ experience specific – or can anyone attend?
For my original retreat, I put a call out in a writer Facebook group and it flowed on from there. You could already have a group of friends that are interested. If not, you’ll have to do some advertising. But remember, you’ll all be living together for the retreat so think about who you invite!
If you run a retreat on behalf of friends or as a business venture the application in many ways is still the same: lock in dates, source a venue, collect deposits, book events and guest speaker(s), decide what you are doing for meals.
If you are running a retreat as a business, you will wear the set-up costs of securing the venue, and cancellations if the retreat has to be cancelled. There are also legal matters in regard to running a group for other people at a private residence. Speak to your accountant or a business advisor if you are considering taking this on as a financial venture.
Cost affects so many set up decisions: sleeping arrangements, venue, activities, food choices. Assessing prospective attendees’ budgets is essential – people’s decisions are often based on cost.
- Find out people’s budgets and room preferences before you start planning
- Mid-week, weekend and school holiday rates are different. A mid-week retreat will be more cost-effective
- Accommodation requirements
- Sleeping arrangements: shared/own room/both
- Conference room /large lounge with tables
- Eat in/dine out
- What does the venue offer
- Booze – yay or nay
- Who, what, how?
- Genre-specific retreat or general
- Will there be guest speakers
- Length of retreat
- How many
- Who is organising/ who’s the team
- Terms and conditions/agreements
The last point is a must have. If you are all in agreeance about how the retreat will run, it makes for a smoother event. I send out a comprehensive but informal checklist pre-retreat to ensure we are all on the same page regarding times, what’s available and included, and general and expectations.
Once you have an idea of your demographic and what you hope the retreat will look like, it’s time to get down details. Also worth noting, you need to be flexible. What you have in mind and what the group may want could differ. I had wanted guest speakers, but the group wanted to have a weekend of writing and connecting with other writers. In the end, I gave up on guest speakers because I found this was my preference too. It was easier to manage the retreat without guests and, to be honest, we got more writing done.
Step 2. Times, dates and venue selection
Sometimes suitable venues just didn’t have enough rooms, or to hire a bigger space went over budget. A six-bedroom home, for example, was often considerably more expensive than a five-bedroom one. There were places that offered communal rooms with a multitude of beds plus separate shared spaces for writing, but I wasn’t ready to host a retreat for 20-30 people, nor manage the collections and risk to pay that hefty deposit.
The retreats I’ve run have been smaller groups up to 15 people. The initial retreats were in a five-bedroom residence with five or six attendees. This venue had WIFI, two lounge areas, a good outdoor area and was walking distance to restaurants. Finding the right place involved a lot of research, a few phone calls and a deposit months in advance to secure the booking. Now I run the retreats at a motel, where everyone has the option of own or shared rooms, and we have a communal writing space during the day and early evening. This has been the format I have stuck with.
There are many things to think about.
Things to consider when choosing a venue
- Own rooms/shared rooms/number of beds and bedrooms required
- Cooking facilities and/or nearby restaurants and availability
- How far will people travel to get here
- Is the venue you have in mind too far away for some
- What attractions are nearby – if you want a break
It’s also important to think about how you will use the space.
- Are there a few different areas to relax so attendees don’t feel cramped
- Is the outdoor area just as important as the indoor one
- What will it look like if X number of bodies inhabit this space for X number of days
If possible, it’s a good idea to visit the chosen venue prior to confirming your booking to ensure the facility is as it appears in the advertisement and suitable for your needs.
Food and drink
The initial retreats I ran were a combination of eating out and me bringing food. This was a lot of work, and in hindsight, a silly thing to do! I was so busy organising, I barely wrote. There are several options to think about regarding food. You could hire cooks or be fully catered to maximise writing time, or organise precooked meals and snacks. Another option – attendees all bring something to share. The eating choices come back to your budget. My next retreat is eating out/attendees’ choice: breakfasts are available at the motel, but all meals are the responsibility of attendees. In saying that, we’ll probably have a pub night and a pizza night in there somewhere.
Alcohol is another factor. The first few retreats I ran were pretty boozy! Not so productive but loads of fun. Now we have a loose agreement to have a dry day and open the bottles at about 5pm. It’s still a writing weekend rather than a drinking one, so the drinks are social as we eat/write/talk. Also, there are many who don’t drink at all. Again, this part is about preferences and putting things in place before you start.
If sharing food and drink, consider the following:
- Always check for allergies and preferences when cooking/arranging meals for others
- Remember to bring fresh fruit and healthy stuff to snack on too
- Decide if the weekend with be alcohol free or if there are any limitations
Things you could do on a writing retreat
If you don’t want a purely writing-focused retreat, include activities that break things up:
- A welcome dinner is useful to break the ice in a new group. It prepares the group for spending the time together. Plus, it’s something fun and social. One of our retreats was held in July and we booked a ‘Christmas in July’ dinner at a nearby restaurant we could walk to.
- Having a guest speaker can be very inspirational. Reach out to your network and ask a writer you admire if they would like to attend, and compensate them for their time. Or, can you schedule a session where you or any of the attendees have relevant experience you can share?
- Attend a local event like a market or tourist location.
Step 3. Go forth and write!
Speak to attendees about noise levels – what’s okay and what’s not – and about how they’d like the weekend to go. I have found headphones are great, and people bothered by noise use them when they need to. You can decide if you want scheduled breaks or not. My retreats seem to flow organically, with breaks as they happen as needed for each person. People come and go, but the space is there to write or spend time with other writers.
However you decide to work it, remember your goal is to write, so go get those words on the page! And, have a fabulous time in the company of likeminded friends.
Attending a writing retreat is such a valuable experience and hosting one can be a great deal of fun. It’s really up to you what you decide to do, how many people you want to attend or what it will look like, but if you run something that you enjoy, others will enjoy it too.
And, don’t worry if on the first one the calculations aren’t quite correct, or if something doesn’t work as you expected. Like everything, we all have to start somewhere and sometimes it’s just a matter of trial and error.