This blog post was taken from an engaging Q&A session between The Getaway Co. and WeTravel, which is a fantastic resource for sustainable tourism companies and retreat leaders alike.
Food nourishes our bodies and deeply influences how we feel. What we eat can have a bearing on our emotional and physical well-being. It’s perfectly natural for retreat cuisine to make or break your group’s experience.
As a retreat leader, how do you step up and ensure that the food you offer supports a transformative experience and adds to the inner journey people seek out when they go on a wellness getaway?
Amanda Persi, Founder of fully plant-based international retreat company, The Getaway Co, recently chatted with us about everything cuisine in the context of retreats.
From the role of food in travel, to strategies for catering to different dietary requirements, and how to best communicate about menu-related topics, Amanda answered our questions, giving insights from her own experience in planning and leading plant-based holiday experiences.
Born and raised in Toronto, Amanda worked for many years as a celebrity publicist in Canada. She then caught the travel bug and relocated to Zurich to pursue her dream of living abroad.
After traveling extensively for several years as a vegan, she became aware of the need for an inspiring organization designed to connect groups of like-minded, empathetic, plant-based enthusiasts, and The Getaway Co. was born.
Currently, The Getaway Co. hosts trips in Bali, Italy, Portugal, and Switzerland, with many more destinations on the horizon. Here are the highlights from our conversation.
How Retreat Cuisine Impacts Your Group’s Experience
The Role Food Plays in the Plant-Based Retreat Experience
Jen: How do you see the role of food in the overall context of a wellness retreat or wellness travel experience?
Amanda: I think food is extremely important in terms of any kind of travel! When you’re trying to dig in and learn to understand and appreciate a certain culture, food is a huge aspect of that.
For us, it’s the first pillar of the community-building experience. You certainly don’t have to be completely vegan to come on one of our trips, but our participants are generally following a plant-based diet or are interested in giving it a try.
So, food is one of the main things people immediately have in common; a thread that weaves us together. It’s a huge topic of conversation, especially at mealtimes.
More broadly, it’s important not to underestimate how powerful food is. What we eat is important.
There’s a cultural aspect, especially when we’re traveling. But our diet is also a reflection of our values and has a big impact on our lifestyle.
How to Best Cater to a Variety of Dietary Requirements
Jen: I totally agree. In the context of wellness travel, there’s generally an inherent assumption that we care about nourishing ourselves – mind, body, and spirit.
And food is a really powerful tool for uniting a group of travelers. It helps them forge bonds and also connects them with the communities they’re visiting.
My next question is about setting the stage for success – doing what you can to make sure people are enthusiastic about the culinary experience they have.
How do you paint a good picture of this in your marketing materials?
Amanda: As a plant-based travel company, the food itself and the shared community aspect surrounding the food are a big part of the story we’re trying to tell.
We work a lot with influencers and have an influencer partner for each retreat we lead. The partner typically has a cookbook or at least a lot of social media content on vegan cooking.
Because of this, we’re able to show people a ton of visuals (photography and video) on the types of foods they’ll be enjoying while traveling.
In the early stages of marketing, it can be challenging to give people total clarity on the retreat cuisine. Usually, you’re still negotiating with your partners, getting all of the details nailed down, figuring out your menus.
So, in addition to working with influencer content, we give examples from past experiences.
We also continuously update our website, social media, and other marketing channels with new information as we have it.
Jen: On a related note, what do you think are some of the essential food and dietary questions that you should be asking participants as part of your booking or intake questionnaire?
Amanda: The most crucial thing is that you ask about allergies. We always have a personal conversation with someone if they indicate they have an allergy because there’s a broad spectrum of how severe they can be.
There’s also an interplay between the severity of the allergy and the travel destination.
I’ll give an example here. If someone is allergic to peanuts but wants to come with us to Bali, there’s a big difference between a mild allergy and a severe one. If it’s mild where traces of peanuts might cause the roof of their mouth to itch, that’s really different from triggering a full-on medical emergency.
We’re generally working with local staff, and even when kitchens are super well-run, if we’re in a place like Bali where they use peanuts so frequently, it’s hard to say with 100% certainty that there might not be trace amounts present.
Put this same person and allergy into the context of a trip to Italy, and I’d be far less worried. There, you’d be thinking about an oregano allergy or something!
How to Adapt Cuisine Styles Post Covid 2022
Jen: Keeping a pulse on preferences, sensitivities, and allergies is definitely important.
I think one way that retreat groups and retreat centers have managed around this in the past is by offering buffet-style food service. But with COVID, that’s off the table for the foreseeable future.
So, if we’re talking about plated meals, what do you think is a reasonable amount of choice to offer?
Amanda: It’s a bit easier for us, as the expectations are somewhat there already. People know that the meals are going to be plant-based, and we share a lot of influencer content and even pre-planned menus before departure.
At the same time, we still try to be sensitive to preferences when planning our retreat cuisine. We often offer an appetizer, a main, and a dessert course. That way, if one of the three isn’t a total hit with someone, there’s still the chance for them to love the other two.
Of course, if a person came to us and said, “This one dish is really a deal-breaker for me,” usually we’re in a setting like a restaurant kitchen where the chef can provide some flexibility.
For other groups, I think offering two choices for the main at any plated, sit-down meal works pretty well.
Another thing we frequently do is cooking classes or demos. They can be a fun and creative way to get around potential problems. If it’s a make-your-own pizza night, and someone creates something they end up hating, they’re generally not going to complain!
More than nine times out of 10, though, they love both the experience and the final product.
Essential Questions to Ask Your Wellness Retreat Center, Vegan Chef or Caterer
Jen: Cooking classes and demos are such a great thing to incorporate into a retreat itinerary! What a great option if your venue has the right set-up for it.
That’s actually a good segue into my next question. When you’re doing research and initial planning, what questions should you be asking your foodservice provider, whether that’s a hotel, retreat center, private chef, or otherwise?
Amanda: The first thing we ask is, “do you know what veganism is?” It sounds silly, but it’s not a given in a lot of places!
In all cases, though, it’s essential to have an open dialogue with the venue.
Connect directly with the chef or event manager – ideally someone close to the kitchen. Ask about their existing menu concepts, how they can be adapted for your group’s needs, and how much flexibility they can promise in retreat cuisine.
Once you’re on the same page, the next step is to talk through a set of specific menus that might work well for your group.
It’s also important to get a sense of the overall vibe.
For example, we’ve looked at beautiful properties in Italy that are rightfully really proud of their restaurants.
But if they’re small with just one dining venue on site, or super upscale, formal, and expensive, it might not work. We don’t have a budget of €200 per person per meal, and our guests generally aren’t looking for three multi-course meals per day or a sommelier on hand at lunchtime.
It comes down to figuring out if you’re working with a culinary partner who is set-up to cater to your needs, flexible within reason, and in tune with the experience you want to provide.
Jen: If you do feel like you’ve found a good match on those fronts, how do you start thinking about contracts, especially if you’re not working with a retreat center where they’re pretty standard?
What are the line items that you should definitely make sure are in your contract with your foodservice provider; is there anything that might be easily overlooked?
Amanda: Yes! In each initial conversation I have with our influencers, chefs, event managers, or other food-related service providers, I create a Google Doc.
Here, we start co-creating a menu plan for the entire retreat and list all of the recipes. It’s a collaborative effort because we want to minimize surprises, but we also want to give our partners the flexibility to do what they do best.
Eventually, we have an agreed plan for the full duration of the retreat, and a list of all of the ingredients needed. In our case, sometimes our influencers have really detailed specifications, like a certain brand of nutritional yeast or a specific kind of vegan cheese.
At times, some of the things we need are not available locally, or they are a lot more expensive to buy abroad than at home. If that’s the case, we figure out who’s going to provide what, and it may mean we travel with our own stores of certain ingredients.
It comes down to planning ahead and trying to anticipate any potential issues ahead of time.
How to Troubleshoot if Anyone in the Group is Disappointed
Jen: Let’s imagine that despite your best efforts, someone in your group – maybe it’s you as the host, or maybe it’s one of your participants – is disappointed with the food or doesn’t feel like their dietary requirements are being honored.
How can you troubleshoot on the ground, both in terms of communicating with your participants and dealing with your service providers?
Amanda: That’s a good question. Again, it speaks to the importance of having great communication and strong relationships with your service providers.
The same goes for your communication and relationships with your participants. It’s important for them to feel comfortable enough to be able to come to you and voice those kinds of concerns. If the door is open to that type of conversation, it gives you a chance to figure out the issue and how to best address it.
One example I can think of is a situation where we didn’t have enough food. We were working with a caterer to supply meals and although everyone was getting a portion, some didn’t feel full and satisfied at the end of the meal.
Another challenge, depending on where you’re visiting, can be if there are communication issues. Maybe the kitchen doesn’t understand exactly how much you need, and when you ask for more, it’s hard to get across precisely what you mean.
To prevent mishaps like that, it’s important to go into as much detail as possible ahead of time and while you’re on site.
Generally, everyone we work with is aiming to please. So, it’s a matter of doing all you can to make sure you start on the same page.
And if things go off course a little bit, intervene early to make sure you have the highest chance possible to resolve any issues.