Female execs are heading to $5,000 fitness retreat weekends to tone up, blow off steam, and network.
One Monday morning last year, I arrived in Austin, hung over and sleep-deprived after attending a weekend wedding in Hawaii, craving a burrito and a nap. What I got instead (i.e., the reason I had come) was the week-long AKT In Motion fitness retreat helmed by Anna Kaiser, the New York-based trainer responsible for the ropy arms and ripped abs of Kelly Ripa and Sarah Jessica Parker. Most of the two dozen women in attendance, each of whom had paid as much as $4,600 each for the pleasure of working out for four hours a day in a conference room heated to 85 degrees, were in positions of power and influence. None of them seemed much concerned with Tex-Mex.
On top of all the things some women already have to do to move up in the corporate world—work harder than their male peers, endure mansplaining (or worse), put their personal lives on the back burner, wear heels—spending a few thousand dollars and precious vacation days to fine-tune their butt lift technique in a foreign place is the latest. After the over-indulgence of the holiday season, many organizers of fitness retreats see a spike in signups. AKT announces its yearly retreat schedule in the first week of January, prompting a lot of calls and emails from regulars. Most who attend AKT retreats see the experience as a privilege, not a chore, a vehicle to expel stress so they can better juggle the demands of work and family. This is not the type of explanation that fits easily into an out-of-office reply.
“No one really understands what it is,” says Kelly Anthony, 42, who works mostly with men at a real estate private equity firm in Austin. She was goaded into joining Kaiser’s retreat by Leigh Rea, a college sorority sister and senior managing director at the private equity giant Lone Star Funds. “They think I went to a gym and signed up for a class in the morning,” Anthony says. “They don’t realize how much it costs and how much goes into these things.”
“I come away from every retreat a better employee, a better wife, a better stepmom, a better everything,” says Rea, 42, who followed Kaiser to Puerto Vallarta in 2016. “It’s not just exercising. It becomes a full mind, body, everything fixer. You go back into the world like, ‘I can handle life again, I can handle work again.’”
Competing retreats draw similar crowds. Executives from such companies as Google Inc. and Toms Shoes, the do-good shoemaker known best as TOMS, flock to “retreatments” of the Class, a yoga-cardio-strength workout invented by former Christian Dior executive Taryn Toomey. Slots for her March 2017 retreat in the Dominican Republic sold out within an hour for $5,000. New York Pilates hosts retreats in Tulum, Mexico; past attendees include the senior counsel of MasterCard Inc. and the director of finance at Moda Operandi Inc., an online luxury retailer.
While the majority of the women in Austin possessed lithe figures and flat stomachs (it seemed inconceivable that some of them had birthed as many as three children), they all professed a desire to look and feel better. Many treated themselves to healthy pours of pinot noir at the end of the day, but even those who just want to “enjoy the food and wine and have a good time” with their girlfriends, as Kaiser puts it, would lay off the sauce if it meant faster results. “You don’t want to come back looking like you just went to a bachelorette party,” says Noelle Heffernan, 47, publisher of Earnshaw’s magazine, which covers the children’s clothing industry. “You want to come back looking a little better than when you got there.” She adds, “as a woman in a corporate world living in New York, there are a lot of pressures in general to try to look good.”
Beyond vanity, there’s empirical evidence linking physical fitness, CEO success, and a company’s profitability. In 2015, Peter Limbach and Florian Sonnenburg of the University of Cologne found that companies in the S&P 1500 index whose chief executive officers had finished a marathon from 2001 to 2011 were worth 5 percent more, on average, than those whose bosses had not. “The characteristics a marathon runner needs to have are quite similar to potential characteristics that a CEO needs,” says Limbach, who is working on an updated study with Sonnenburg. While approximately 2 percent of the 3,000 CEOs in the sample were women, Limbach says he has “no reason to believe there’s a difference between males and females running firms or running marathons.”
Except that if a woman wants to clinch that CEO title, her level of fitness matters more. “What we find is that investors look into this stuff,” says Limbach. “They’re interested in whether CEOs are physically fit or not. What’s important is the stress-releasing component of being fit. You’re better at coping with stress when you have a channel to get rid of it. And I think that’s why fitness is important for females in particular. When they are CEOs, they have even more eyes looking at them and fingers pointing at them.”
That also explains why most of the women in Austin remained on the clock, in some regard, cracking open their laptops between workouts or ducking out of dinner to take a conference call. “I still called in and kept up,” says Anthony. “I didn’t go totally off the radar.” Rea had the week’s vital conference calls scheduled after 11 a.m. so she could finish the morning sweat session and then dial in. Though exercising for many hours a day and sitting poolside with a laptop might not sound like a vacation, as far as most offices and families are concerned, the time off has to come from somewhere. “I’ve given up extra weekends in the Hamptons so I can go on a retreat in the fall,” says Heffernan. “You budget for these, vacation-wise.”
Sometimes work creeps in, whether it’s invited or not. At a Class retreatment in Vermont two years ago, the brand strategist Amy Swift Crosby, 45, met the founder of an online home decor retailer who then hired her to lead a company rebrand. “I didn’t even say what I did,” Crosby says. “It was not on my agenda, it was not on my mind [during the retreat]. Anytime you have like-minded people around someone who has the magnetism and attention that Taryn does, there’s going to be alchemy, chemistry. Things bloom.”
For centuries, men in positions of power have bonded over scotch and gilded sports such as golf, tennis, and squash. Women, says Nell Merlino, a founder of Count Me In, a non-profit that supports female-owned businesses, rarely receive invitations to these outings. A July studyconducted by the New York Times and Morning Consult found that men and women would rather not socialize at all with each other, one-on-one, without their spouses, a line of thinking that has likely accrued adherents in the post-Weinstein era. Merlino says the high-end fitness retreat offers a crucial outlet for women of a certain economic and professional echelon to meet each other and better themselves, “because you don’t play golf with the men that you work with, for the most part, so that kind of physical activity is really not available.”
“And you don’t do this with your family,” she adds, “because if there are kids, somebody doesn’t get to work out—and usually, it’s mom.”
If yoga-and-meditation retreats mandate enjoying the silence, AKT In Motion turned up the bass until the floor throbbed. The workouts were high-energy, and women SnapChatted each other’s hip-hop routines, in which white mothers over 40 unselfconsciously shook their rears to Soulja Boy. Among dance cardio and leg lifts, there were catered, gluten-free, Kaiser-approved meals of 1,500 to 2,000 calories (mmm, grilled chicken again) and “education” sessions in which Kaiser elaborated on how she bounced back after the birth of her son and dismissed the faddish methods of Tracy Anderson, the celebrity trainer who was formerly her mentor. Most participants successfully ignored their cell phones for the duration of each two-hour workout session, although exceptions were made to document arm-flailing dances with names like “The Wobble” and “Swoop It.” Otherwise, the action went on non-stop until Kaiser—who used to choreograph music videos for Shakira and therefore can dance for days—mercifully dismissed everyone.
On the fourth day, I awoke with a revitalized sense of purpose: This is who I am, a woman who rises, ties her hair in a ballerina bun, gulps some coffee, and exercises for two hours. I was starting to feel holy. Any divisions I had perceived between me and the rest of the attendees had evaporated. No matter what size we were or what we did for a living, we were all sore and desperate for more pain. There’s a primal pleasure in dancing, especially dancing in groups, in doing the same move at the same time (or at least, attempting to), and generating a power greater than the sum of its parts.
Fitness retreat veterans get this. “You realize there’s more to life than what you do for a living,” says Meg Marchant, 37, finance director for the high-end e-commerce site Moda Operandi, who attended a week-long New York Pilates retreat in Tulum in April 2017. “Yeah, your job is important, but it’s not an end-all, be-all of life.” Adds Heffernan: “It’s almost the way you wish you could have your lifestyle, having that moderation, having everything curated and planned for you, knowing you’re just going to have that one glass of wine at the end of the day.”
If only moderation could be taught like the Wobble. I knew that dance by heart when I boarded the plane in Austin to return home. That night, I accepted an invitation from a chef I’d recently profiled to dine at his trendy, new restaurant, which served gluten-rich tostadas and chorizo—and also, since I partook in the beverage pairing, five glasses of wine. As many women do in many situations both work-related and not, it seemed wise to give 110 percent.