Istmo Yoga and Adventure Retreat and Boutique Hotel is run by husband and wife team Sean and Ayesha. Located only an hour and a half from Panama City, the property is a healthy and quiet retreat nestled in the jungle and just steps from a secluded beach.
The hotel offers its guests the opportunity to disconnect from the outside world in air-conditioned, stand-alone bungalows furnished by local artisans and equipped with luxury mattresses and linens. There is also a porch with hammocks for lounging and enjoying the jungle setting.
This is the first time the couple had run a B&B or hotel or indeed worked together as Ayesha explains,"My husband was a Director of an international school in Panama City and I was an environmental engineer for an international firm. We saved up and "cut the cord" about two years ago to start our Retreat Centre".
"We got the land about nine years ago – it did not have water or electricity – just a piece of wild land. We have been working on it ever since, planning it out in every detail and supervising the work. It was seven years of saying 'we WILL open in two years'. Now we can say we have been open for nearly two years! All of this was built while we were holding down our full-time jobs in Panama City and starting our family."
When did did you first start offering instant online room booking?
"We starting our online room booking using freetobook a little over a year ago. It was all a humongous learning curve. Freetobook was on the top of the list of the TripAdvisor booking channels at the time. I shopped around a little and it seemed like a good option. Since signing up and learning more/investigating other options, freetobook has the best price and service for a small hotel/retreat centre like ours.
"I would recommend freetobook – without a doubt. When you are running such a small hotel, your margins are slim, the prices freetobook offer and the service they give is unbeatable (and I have shopped around since). As a retreat centre we very often need to close out rooms when a group will be here, freetobook makes it very easy to do that. And did I mention their amazing pricing?"
"We get a good percentage of our hotel guests from Booking.com – especially during high season (November to March) so as a booking channel they are invaluable.
How do you market/promote the property and the retreats?
"NOTHING works better than word of mouth. We make sure each person who walks through our doors is treated like family – that goes a very long way and has kept us alive! TripAdvisor is great too – having our guests write reviews.
"We do use social media, but we are not very consistent with it. As we grow I see it being very helpful for our retreat business. Instagram seems to have a wider reach than Facebook, especially for international clients and retreat leaders. We use Facebook and Instagram and try to keep information on our webpage very updated. But for hotel business nothing beats word of mouth, TripAdvisor and booking.com.
We have started using some retreat webpages, pages that sell retreat packages and take a commission, but still to see results."
Do you have any booking 'patterns'?
"Most of our hotel guests stay one night, we would like that to change. We have also had many who stay for various nights, and they love it. They convinced and inspired us to offer our signature retreats where you stay with us for six nights and participate in a daily adventure (mostly exploring the biodiversity of panama on a SUP board) and have a daily yoga class. Our location really allows people to explore the diversity for panama. We are really excited about offering these retreats and hope they do well!"
"We get many expats from the city who want to get away to the beach for a night but we also get travelers who use us as a stopover on the way to the more remote areas of Panama. During high season we get mostly Dutch and German guests which is quite interesting."
"The number one pattern is actually more the type of person who comes here – always amazing people with great stories – people who are looking to travel off-the-beaten track. There are many all-inclusive big brand hotels in our general vicinity, so the people who overlook them and choose us are always very special. That makes our job easy in a way!"
"It is pretty much the two of us running the business here. We have a housekeeper (she is a god-send), someone who helps in the kitchen (our dinners here are amazing – my husband is the chef, many of our return clients come just for the food!), a volunteer as wait staff and a couple of additional "on call" staff."
What are your plans for the business over the next couple of years?
"We really want to grow as a retreat centre and have more people plan their yoga and spiritual retreats here. We want to encourage groups to plan their family reunions and getaways here and also offer more package deals that inspire people to stay longer with us."