As travel finally surges back following nearly two years of restrictions and lockdowns, it has become clear that traveller expectations have changed. As a result of a growing spotlight on personal wellbeing following a drastic pandemic, travellers have come to demand more from their trips than ever before.
According to the US-based non-profit Global Wellness Institute (GWI), wellness tourism is defined as “travel associated with the pursuit of maintaining or enhancing one’s personal well-being.” Essentially, wellness tourism brings the joy and freedom of a vacation together with activities related to health, well-being and an overall “feel good” sentiment, incorporating elements such as physical activity, nutrient-balanced meals, and natural health treatments into the itinerary.
Founded in late 2019, a few months prior to the pandemic, UAE-based travel marketplace RetreatMi has dedicated its offerings to this sphere. While the past two years have been very difficult for travel industry companies, RetreatMi has reported notable growth, with a nearly 100% month-on-month increase in revenue since the start of 2022. Property registrations on the startup’s platform are also growing, reporting a 40% increase, while retreat registrations have increased by 20%. Visitor return rates remain high, the company reports, as well.
To learn more about Retreatmi and its approach to travel and tourism, the Abu Dhabi SME Hub spoke with company founder Stacey Sharp, a British expat and wellness expert.
Let's go back to the early days of Retreatmi, when it was just an idea. Where did this spark of inspiration come from, and what market gap were you trying to address?
After years of working with clients of different needs and abilities, I noticed that they lacked confidence or were looking for a way through a sensitive healing process and were looking for more of a ‘wellness’ holiday experience. The process of finding suitable vacations and retreats with qualified practitioners etc was arduous and incohesive.
I could see the need to create a platform to draw all of these people and experiences together, to enable people to connect with amazing providers and a true wellness experience. I could create a marketplace where people could experience wellness and transformational experiences within an environment they are comfortable with, whether that is a fully immersive retreat experience or custom building a retreat around your own private accommodation - helping clients easily find their ideal health-driven getaway and book with ease.
Why did you decide to launch in the UAE?
Dubai has been home for a long time so it made sense to launch in the UAE. Dubai is a hub, with many creative entrepreneurs and the business environment is supportive and nurturing. As a technology platform, Dubai is great to centralise operations. there are benefits to a company based out of Dubai financially, but also being close to technology hubs in India and many direct flight connections.
Can you share with us the primary services/products offered by your company? And, who are they aimed at?
We are an online platform that connects people to great wellness experiences or properties in locations that can offer them a healthy environment. B2B, we offer a platform to market and generate increased revenues and also software to help streamline management and bookings for even the smallest wellness business. We offer local companies and experiences the same ease as more corporate platforms. The ease of use and offerings work to benefit the consumer client also.
As you know, the travel industry remains extremely crowded today. How does RetreatMi differentiate itself from the competition?
We are the first of its kind automated retreat builder and wellness aggregator. We are not a ‘rebranded travel agency’ but a community experience. We connect people to people - a supportive community to collaborate and create the best options for wellness experiences, whether privately or to join experiences and connect with like-minded people. It is our aim to not only generate a booking, and provide experiences etc, but to actively support the small businesses so that they can continue their incredible work.
You launched your company in 2019, one year before a pandemic that had a devastating impact on your industry. How did you pivot and adapt during this period, when most of your customers couldn't leave their homes?
We launched in November 2019, so just started gaining momentum before March 2020. Launching just prior to COVID was incredibly tough, never mind when your entire industry has been disrupted. We remained focused on the long term goal with the knowledge that post-pandemic, people would need to heal and look after their health. We pivoted to focus on the domestic market and smaller outdoor events and staycays rather than international travel. We raised funds from friends and family to keep the platform and digital footprint developing and allowing us to reach a point of critical mass for our inventory (B2B) so we could then start to generate revenue within that domestic field.
How would you describe your journey as an entrepreneur so far? Any particular challenges you've faced or lessons you've learned?
The only paid salary I have ever taken was when I moved to Dubai to work for Emirates Airlines back in 2008. Entrepreneurship is within my blood and my family nurtured me in this way.
Irrespective of your ‘business education,’ you are always going to face challenges and have to constantly develop yourself and be willing to learn. I have challenged myself many times, step-by-step, with each business I have opened. I launched one of the first female-led businesses in Abu Dhabi in 2010, which was challenging, not only to learn the difference in the landscape of operating a business in this region vs the UK, but culturally as well since it was very different to what I was used to. Retreatmi has however been my biggest personal challenge, not only in having to learn about tech development, but raising investment. These are two worlds which were completely alien to me as a wellness practitioner. it has been a very big drive to learn very quickly.
Although COVID did delay our development, it did give me time to learn and develop the skills that I needed to push this business to the next level. I was lucky to be picked up by the Barclays Female Founder Network, which [proved] a great support, and they advised it usually takes a startup on average 18 months to gain their first investment. I kept pushing towards this goal, and I kept moving forward even when running out of funds for Retreatmi, and I had to keep bootstrapping. I made sure I did at least one vital job even when I was exhausted. I am pleased to say I finally found my first angel investors right on the 18-month mark, which I was proud to achieve considering that COVID was still very much ongoing.
Did you receive any support from regional ecosystem entities like accelerators or incubators?
I have been a part of a number of accelerators - Intelak here in the UAE, Barclays Female Innovators (eventually cancelled due to Covid as we couldn’t travel to San Francisco, but had a smaller version online) and Nova in Liverpool, UK, where I was connected with my angel investors. I did also receive a small grant from the Natwest ‘Back Her’ scheme in the UK.
What's next for Retreatmi?
We are now starting our seed funding round for Retreatmi. Raising this level of funds is a challenge but it's time to really see RetreatMi grow. We will be expanding our platform and software offerings (B2B) and elevating the user experience (B2C) to something even better. After a long hiatus, now is the time for those looking for wellness experiences to get out and enjoy their visits and experience different cultures.