When we first met Sarah Packford, it was as a client looking for assistance in setting up the foundations for her new business, True Elk, in 2021. We helped her with bespoke terms and conditions, data protection documents and general commercial advice. Her journey to entrepreneurship truly captured our imagination, and her story serves as proof of what can be achieved through hard work, excellent organisational skills – and a great deal of passion.
Sarah’s career started out in the family business, Packford’s Hotel in Woodford Green, Essex, which had been established over 60 years ago by her grandparents. As an events organiser, Sarah was responsible for organising large-scale gatherings such as weddings and parties at the hotel; she believes that her time in the family business taught her the life skills she needed to become the entrepreneur she is today.
In 2014, Sarah left the hotel for a publishing job in London until, in 2016, she was given the opportunity to work for the Centre for Arts and Creativity in Banff, a resort town in Alberta, Canada about an hour and a half’s drive from Calgary. Nestled within 6,641 square kilometres of national parkland and set against the stunning backdrop of the Canadian Rockies, Sarah jumped at the chance to relocate. “I was really fed up of the underground at this point,” she says. “And I thought, there must be more to life than this. So I went from commuting in packed trains to literally walking up snowy mountains in minus 30 degree temperatures and passing elk and other wildlife on my way to work. I loved it so much that I wanted everybody else to experience it too.”
Despite starting out in hospitality, Sarah had always had a huge passion for writing, and graduated from the University of Kent with a Master’s degree in Creative Writing in 2013. Her love of writing took her on a journey into the world of creative writing workshops, and she attended her first event in 2015, which took place in Greece and was led by bestselling author Cheryl Strayed. Her second workshop took her to the Esalen Institute, a wellness retreat centre located in Big Sur, California. Surrounded by gorgeous mountain scenery, it was here that Sarah first began to appreciate the link between creativity and nature, and the therapeutic benefits of combining the two.
“I knew I wanted to bring people to experience nature, and Banff was the perfect place to do it,” Sarah explains. “As I started looking into it, I saw that people were doing yoga retreats and wellness retreats – but nobody was doing writing retreats as part of a therapeutic wellness strategy. I began to see a need in the market for people who wanted to do retreats, but weren’t interested in yoga or hiking for hours in the mountains. So I thought: I’m really good at organising events, and I love the mountains and creative writing.” She concludes: “That’s when I started putting two and two together.”
In 2019, Sarah decided to put her ideas into action and planned her first retreat. To promote the event and to encourage like-minded people to attend, she used a mixture of word of mouth and online advertising to drum up interest. “Banff is any aspiring entrepreneur’s dream; it’s how I imagine business must have taken place 40 or 50 years ago,” Sarah smiles. “Everyone knows everyone – by the time I’d been living there three years or so I had met the Mayor, I knew the owner of the local museum.” She used these connections, in addition to advertising in local bookshops and via social media networks such as Facebook and Instagram, to promote her event. “I even went to Calgary, where I’d done a course at Mount Royal University, to ask if I could promote an event there. I really hustled to make sure I’d spread the word as far and wide as possible.”
Six weeks later, Sarah found herself at Emerald Lake in British Columbia, with a group of eight retreat participants. “It was just a day workshop,” Sarah recalls. “We started off with a gentle walk around the lake and stopped for lunch at a lovely hotel on the lakeshore. We then moved on to a four-hour writing workshop, which was better than I ever imagined it could be.” Her relationships with Banff locals had paid off – the writing workshop was taught by Sonya Lea, a local author who had written a non-fiction memoir detailing her husband’s journey through illness.
The workshop started with Sonya reading a poem and then giving the attendees a writing prompt, which was followed by 15 to 20 minutes of free writing. In this session, Sarah truly saw the benefits of therapeutic writing in action. “As a form of therapy, writing is a great way of getting to the core of people’s emotions, allowing them to access feelings and memories they may not ordinarily be able to recognise or recall,” Sarah says. "It’s also a lot less traumatic than, say, group therapy sessions where you’re asked questions and expected to share your private thoughts with others. It’s a much gentler way of approaching therapy and a softer way of tapping into your emotions and connecting with yourself.”
Taking her group out in nature was an equally important part of the therapeutic process, says Sarah. “The walk allowed the attendees to relax, appreciate the scenery and just connect with nature and each other. Rather than throwing them straight into the workshop, those hours allowed them to get to know each other a little and helped them be more comfortable with sharing their creativity and ideas with the rest of the group.”
The event went so well that Sarah immediately sought to arrange another. During that time, she returned to England for a few months to see her family and continued making her arrangements from afar. Her second retreat was scheduled to take place in September 2020. People began to sign up and pay their deposits for the trip – and then the COVID-19 pandemic struck.
“At that time, True Elk had to be put on the back burner because the family hotel was now in difficulty and we had to make some hard decisions. In the end, we decided to sell the hotel and I spent most of 2020 and 2021 helping to close the business,” Sarah says. After handing over the keys to the hotel on 31 July 2021, Sarah was emotionally exhausted. She needed a break, so she took a trip to the Isle of Skye in Scotland. “It was at this point I felt a renewed passion to get people out in nature together – not isolated as they had been during the pandemic,” she continues. “I didn’t have the worry of the family business in the background, and the drive and passion I’d felt at my first retreat came flooding back. So I decided to go for it. I registered the business and consulted Tees to help me get things set up properly.”
Turning her idea into a viable enterprise involved more than the legal aspects of establishing her business. Sarah also had to work out how to price her retreats in order to cover her costs, including the author’s fee, venue costs and the cost of feeding her guests. “I’m very lucky in that sense,” Sarah smiles, “because I worked at the hotel so I already understood about events costing.” She continues: “I have to add up the total cost of the entire event including the food, venue, the author’s fee, the estimated cost of marketing, small gifts for each participant, etc. The hardest thing is costing my own time! Then I calculate how many participants will be needed to make the event viable for a reasonable cost per ticket and to turn a profit. The difficulty is that the more intimate the retreat, the higher the price needs to be per ticket, so it’s also about doing that research to see what people are willing to pay.”
So, how many events does Sarah envisage she’ll need to hold to keep the business viable? “My eventual plan is to have my own retreat centre, because at the moment the bulk of my costs are with the hotel or venue for each retreat. I think to make the business financially viable and to bring in the capital I need for the retreat centre, I’ll need to run at least six a year – preferably 10 – for a couple of years to really build things up.”
Sarah is already looking weighing up the cost of land in Canada and Scotland, and has even found a company that sells build-your-own cabins, so watch this space!
So, it’s clear that Sarah has big plans for the years ahead. In the long term, she wants to build her aforementioned cabin, either in Canada or the Isle of Skye. In the short term, she wants to build up to hosting as many retreats as possible, both in Canada and Scotland, to get her fledgling business off the ground. “My next big event is taking place between 5 and 10 June 2022 at the secluded Juniper Hotel in Banff, with New York Times bestselling author Christie Tate, and it’s already nearly full. I’ve also hired Ronna Schneberger, Forest Therapy Guide and Chair of the Canadian Association of Nature and Forest Therapy to lead the group on a forest bathing session prior to the workshop beginning. It’s been really heart-warming to read people’s applications and the reasons they want to attend the retreat and I’m so excited to see it all come together.”
Looking ahead, Sarah would like to further extend the therapeutic benefits of her retreats by combining her writing workshops with sessions led by trained therapists. In October 2021, she attended a group therapy course, allowing her to build up a network of trained therapists who are keen to work with her in the future. Looking further ahead, she would like to team up with non-profit organisations and other healthcare advisers to transform her retreats into prescribed treatments for people with mental health conditions, in place of a traditional hospital stay.
“I may be at the beginning of my journey, but I have lofty dreams for the future,” Sarah concludes “I’m building an excellent network of specialists I’m excited to work with and learning more about this industry with every day that passes. I truly believe that True Elk can and will achieve great things in the future.”