We're taught to focus on the journey, not the destination. But what if we want to embark on a spiritual journey in an exotic destination, like say Sayulita, Mexico, or Machu Picchu, Peru … with all-inclusive accommodations, optional excursions, and daily yoga taught by one of the best instructors in the world? Now there's Seek Retreat, a Venice startup that connects travel-minded yogis with their ultimate vacation experience.
Consider it the Airbnb of yoga retreats. You can search by date, location, venue, yoga instructor and yoga type, including hot yoga or Kundalini, as well as attributes such as retreats for couples.
"I came up with the idea for Seek Retreat after I ran into a friend who produced yoga retreats, and Waylon from Elephant Journal in the same day," says Alex McAfee, Seek Retreat co-founder and CEO. "I went to the Tadasana Festival and thought about doing a festival in Aspen or Jackson Hole. After doing some digging on the internet, I found there was no centralized place to find all of the instructors schedules all in one place, and for most of them you couldn't even book their events online, and some of them you even had to send a check--through the mail!"
The world traveler and rugged adventurer spent nearly a decade rock climbing throughout North America before moving to Boulder, Colorado to study at Naropa University, a Buddhist-inspired liberal arts college where he met many of the people who would eventually propel his entrepreneurial venture. Afterward he hit the road again, exploring the world and educating others about organic living for Pangea. During this time, he visited organic markets and yoga centers, which gave him a newfound perspective of yoga in America before eventually settling in Venice, a hub for both yoga and tech startups. It was the ideal setting for his new venture. He wrote a business plan that merged his love of Airbnb, a community marketplace to book travel accommodations, with yoga retreats, and the Seek Retreat concept was born. Soon afterward, a friend of a friend introduced him to his co-founder John Mullin.
"It was like we lived the same lives," say McAfee. "We lived in all the same places, Minnesota, Brooklyn … we spent a lot of time in Chicago and Boulder, and I was like, 'You wanna do this?' and he was like, 'Yeah.' We just had the perfect skill sets at the perfect time in our lives to come together and do a project like this. It was really very serendipitous how it all came together."
Mullin is a Brooklyn native who lived throughout the Midwest, attending grad school at the Institute of Design at the University of Illinois in Chicago. From there, he headed back to Minnesota to build green homes, but with the economy struggling and construction at a halt, he moved to LA to pursue other opportunities and settled in Venice. Mullin oversees all product and merchandise design and branding for Seek Retreat and tells us about the layers of meaning that he incorporated into the logo:
"We wanted to merge the idea of a flower and a compass because the flower is a sign of new growth, and a compass is obviously direction, and how you find your way," says Mullin. "Our leaf in the northeast quadrant of our flower compass, the one that is green, symbolizes new growth or change. It's in the northeast, which is a bit of an homage to my birthplace and the idea that the knowledge we're seeking really emanates from the east."
Seek Retreat launched in February 2013 with 20 listings. Currently, there are 88 yoga retreats on the site (about 150 total have been posted since they launched) with about 50 percent of the instructors based in and around Venice. Instructors pay a flat membership fee of $500 annually to list their vacation experiences on the site, and with the help of the Seek Retreat team -- who almost all happen to be certified yoga instructors -- retreats are accompanied by photos, instructor profiles, and other details that make it simple to learn about the travel experience as well as the person who is leading it and what other events they have planned in the future.
"Ten of my good friends over the past handful of years have become yoga instructors," says Mullin. "So it was one of those things that I could see was more than a trend. It was really established, and a growing part of our culture - at least the one I was involved in."
The Venice/Santa Monica area is said to have the highest concentration of certified yogis in the United States, with more than 100,000 certified yoga instructors.
"We take it for granted because we're here in Venice and they're just here, and they're people we know," says McAfee. "But you go back to Kansas or Minnesota, or somewhere like that, and there are amazing teachers there, but a lot of those teachers were trained by these people here who we see everyday."
With plans to target more cities including Seattle, New York and Austin, as well as expand their international reach, Seek Retreat aims to achieve 1,000 active listings by the end of 2014. They will also continue to focus on helping fellow yogis grow their own businesses and better serve their students by offering even more tailored experiences to fit their needs.
"We're really passionate about a lot of support for the instructors," says Audra Stanley, director of operations and a certified instructor who moved to Venice for yoga. "Our team is built with instructors, and there's always been this gap with instructors not knowing how to correctly handle themselves in the business world. Because they are subcontractors to studios, and they're technically a seller of travel in that they're leading these retreats, how can we empower them to do this correctly, legally and ethically? It's important for not just the world practicing yoga, but the people who are providing yoga."