In 2017 I committed to being offline more, gain perspective on running a business, and apply my digital experience to the tangible — all in hopes to inform my craft going forward. I thought, what better way to practice my intentions than to experiment with designing a retreat business?
- Elsewhere Retreats;
With lofty personal goals, I felt it was important to take part in the whole process of designing a business in order to gain perspective and contribute to the entire experience, digital and physical.
I began with a problem which was already top of mind and hit somewhat close to home: millennials take the least amount of vacation, put in longer work hours, and accept lower pay than their parent’s generation. There’s a need to escape. From work, from commitments & distractions, from kid’s schedules, and from our normal day-to-day.
With an initial idea in hand, I was lucky enough to work with two great friends to help further explore the concept’s architectural design and strategy. In time we went from sketches and research docs to a fully-functioning cabin experience.
An end-to-end experience in an idyllic setting right outside city limits. It’s everything a professional needs to find focus in their work, or for those needing to unplug from work completely.
Having no experience in architecture, I partnered with my good friend and architect Sean O’Neill. We spent multiple sessions together that focused around the end experience of not only unplugging, but a focus on being a productive workspace. We landed on a design that we felt accomplished all the experience tenets we set out to meet.
At the time I had several successful IKEA assemblies under my belt, but that was about the extent of my construction experience. Knowing there would be a construction learning curve ahead, I eased into the process and began with what I knew and built the cabin on a screen first.
Using SketchUp, I modeled the entire blueprint of the cabin down to 1⁄16th of an inch in accuracy to include framing, placement of the outlets and switches, plumbing, utility systems, etc. This process became the prototype I used to learn and make mistakes before the real build began.
SketchUp 3D model for the framing.
Modeling complete, materials gathered, tools in-hand, it was time to start making the real mistakes happen.
Branding a retreat
Luckily, I already had the naming bit done: Elsewhere Retreats. I explored several directions for the identity of a branded cabin retreat & workspace experience. I set up a social presence which allowed me to begin slowly gauging the resonance of the brand with my audience as they followed along with the build process.
After feedback and a few iterations, the brand had evolved into a simple mark & language that showed signs of potential, but in a double-tap world, it struggled to communicate the concept without having a finished cabin to showcase.
Early branding exploration
Brands are like stories — they tell the big idea and set expectations through a dance of dialog and visuals. When you’re building a brand and product at the same time, it can be a challenge to communicate who you are and why you’re here without anything to show for it yet.
Getting creative by visually demonstrating your vision is more important than ever today, otherwise people likely won’t know what they’re looking at or simply not care enough to engage at all.
For Elsewhere, I needed to do just this. Whereas a hi-fi mockup or prototype usually does the trick for digital, I didn’t have a finished cabin to photograph and I felt 3D rendering wasn’t quite the right direction either. I needed the brand to convey the concept without photography so that I could get the ball rolling on building awareness and do it in such a way that it would fold nicely into the brand’s visual language.
Illustration: Amandine Thomas
I thought illustration would strike a good balance of telling the story while supplementing the brand language. I researched styles, put together a few mood boards, a creative brief, and set out to find the right illustrator to help depict the Elsewhere experience. I didn’t take long to discover Amandine Thomas. I reached out, she liked the project, I provided the art direction, and the rest was history.
I updated the preview site I had set up with the new branding and visuals with the goal to continue gauging brand and market interest. It didn’t take long to notice an increase in site traffic, engagement on social media, and email signups; the new direction was definitely an improvement and closed the gap on communicating the concept.
A brief test using Instagram Story ads for lead generation leading up to the preview open date.
Bringing it all together
After putting the finishing touches to the cabin and moving it to its location on the hillside, the space was ready for its first guests.
Open for bookings
After months of designing, construction, branding, marketing, and everything in between, it was time to put it all to the test. Having only ever been a guest in the hospitality space, I needed learn how to operate as a host and work out any kinks in the experience. To do this I ran a soft opening with a handful of guests — a beta test, if you will.
Preview opening touchpoints
In order to set expectations, I messaged the opening as a limited-time sneak peak into what Elsewhere had been working on and charged a discounted rate in exchange for feedback. With short notice and a month-long window of availability I knew it may be difficult to book guests. I sent out the first invite to my list who had signed up to be notified about the preview opening. Within the first 48 hours, all the available weekends were booked.
Soft launch email
Soft launch email performance
And they came
Over the next month, the preview opening went off without a hitch. The guests enjoyed their stay and I received some great feedback that would help refine the experience.
Building digital products and seeing people use them is an incredible feeling. But building a tangible object that people enter into and spend the night in is a whole new, different feeling of gratification I’ll always remember.
Guests’ Instagram stories
Sean and I were ecstatic to learn that Dwell Magazine wanted to publish an article about the cabin retreat. They visited for a full shoot & interview and published it in the new-year issue of 2019. It turned out to be one of their top 5 most-liked Instagram posts too.
Building on the success of the preview opening and Elsewhere making rounds on the internet, I decided to further explore the experiment and dive deeper into the potential growth of the business. What would a second phase would look like? How can I improve scalability? What kind of partnership opportunities are there? How viable would new market expansion be? From this exercise came a couple artifacts seen below.
Financial forecasting models
Informational deck (Tap to view)
My design takeaway
Designing a business is a continuous pursuit in the interactions between all the experience components and groups involved. Seeking out ways to contribute on both strategic and tactical levels can help inform holistic design thinking.
Additional Credit: Dan Romanow (Writing, Strategy), Shanna Williams (my incredible partner ♡)