Asheville may never have won an official designation as “city where you’re most likely to encounter someone wearing hiking boots in a bar.” Residents and tourists alike, however, know that this is a place where yoga pants, muddy Tevas and a reusable water bottle are practically the local uniform.
One demographic that’s embracing this health- and wellness-conscious scene are local businesswomen. They are joining and growing the area’s wellness industry in all its many facets: hiking, strength training, yoga, forest bathing and even reading tarot. “Right now is such a rich time — a new, wonderful time — to own a wellness company,” says Nicole Will, owner of Asheville Wellness Retreats & Tours. “After all the upheaval from the past couple years, people are looking for meaning and connection and healthy living options.” Through her business, Will loves to provide visitors who don’t want to “only do the normal touristy things” with plenty of cool options.
Xpress spoke with several women who have started wellness businesses in recent years about finding their way to these careers and riding out the bumps during COVID-19.
Meant to be
Asheville’s wellness entrepreneurs hail from many different backgrounds and previous careers. Nadja Simon got the encouragement she needed to change careers while working out at the YMCA of Western North Carolina. “I was making a meager living as a glass blower in Asheville,” recalls Simon, who has a master’s degree in fine arts. “The dean of arts and sciences at A-B Tech was working out beside me and told me, ‘You’re a beast.’ I took it as a compliment and a sign.”
Simon enrolled at A-B Tech, earning an associate degree in health and fitness science in 2017 and certification as a personal trainer through the American Council on Exercise. The YMCA then hired her to teach TRX (suspension weight training) and Pilates. “I know now that this is the swimming pool I was meant to be swimming in,” says Simon. She now owns the personal training studio Allon Health and Wellness in Woodfin.
Kim Drye took a roundabout path to ownership of West Asheville Yoga. In 2007, she literally fell off a horse and began to explore the mind/body connection while healing. Drye experimented with psychedelics in 2008 while a student at UNC Asheville but “then I wanted to explore different states of consciousness without drugs and fell in love with yoga and meditation,” she explains. After working at West Asheville Yoga for years and temporarily leaving to start a family, she returned and took over the business in May.
After working as a senior vice president for behavioral health companies, Sue Crowell started feeling job-related stress take a toll on her health. She talked to her sister Teresa Olster, a registered nurse with her own set of nonstop stressors, about finding a retreat. Their vision was to relax and rediscover healthy practices.
“After always being on the road helping other people start businesses, I thought it was my time,” Crowell says. “I told my sister that I just needed her retirement money, and we could then open our own retreat.” From that conversation, the sisters founded Skyterra Wellness in 2016 in Pisgah Forest. A one-week retreat provides participants with opportunities for joyful movement, massage and spa services, calming breathing techniques, mindful eating and meditation. Guests can unplug while relaxing in a stress-free environment.
Will from Asheville Wellness Retreats & Tours was more purposeful in her journey toward self-employment. After graduation in 2003, she worked on a fly-fishing ranch in Colorado “just to get the restlessness out of my system,” she says. She then came to Asheville to work for a wilderness therapy program. Working with at-risk adolescents brought her to some realizations about her own trauma and how the outdoors and a wellness focus made her feel freer and more open.
With still too much restlessness inside, Will moved to Ecuador, where she organized custom itineraries for travelers. In 2016, she organized a trip in the Galapagos for a yoga instructor from Asheville. “I realized after meeting her that I was looking outside of myself for meaning,” Will says. “I knew in my bones that my restless period was over. So, I bought a house in Asheville and started ‘adulting.’”
After organizing walking tours around town and yoga hikes, Will opened Asheville Wellness Retreats & Tours with a friend. She now owns the company as a ‘solopreneur.’
Pivoting and regrouping
The COVID-19 pandemic brought some difficulties to the wellness industry given that so many activities take place around other people. But with these difficulties came ingenuity.
The beginning of the pandemic led Will to panic after spending days processing refunds for goat yoga and forest bathing. During this period, she met a tarot card reader and hired that person to offer virtual tarot card readings. Her creative pivot “saved the company,” Will says.
Simon worked at the YMCA when COVID-19 caused the facility to send their instructors home without pay. She found that she missed her clients almost as much as she missed the steady income, explaining, “I did some Zoom [personal] training, but it’s so much more effective when I can see people in person to pick up body signals of what they need.”
But she found an opportunity there. “This was my time to pivot,” Simon says. She visited clients in their driveways and in parks during summer 2020. When restrictions began to loosen up, she rented space from Phil Roth, a physical therapist at Bodylogic Integrative Physical Therapy in Woodfin, to do her personal strength training. She used savings and stimulus money to buy equipment and open the studio she now rents in Woodfin.
In addition to her own personal training with clients, Simon rents space to two other personal trainers, a massage therapist and a yoga instructor.
Drye had a baby during the COVID-19 pandemic and got a remote job until she could return to teaching yoga in the studio. She added goat yoga classes and guided yoga hikes to provide more outdoor services.
Meanwhile, at Skyterra, Crowell and Olster temporarily shut down and “regrouped,” Crowell says. “We remodeled and built an indoor swimming pool, which just opened in September 2022.”
Keeping on, going strong
After a bumpy few years during the pandemic, Crowell says she and Olster, who serves as Skyterra’s general manager, are hitting their stride. “The world is in need of wellness,” Crowell says. She welcomes 30 new guests every week at their retreat center. Nearly half their business comes from visitors who want to lose weight in the Lose Smart program offered at Skyterra — a four-week program consisting of education, counseling and a plan to follow at home to keep excess weight off.
Will recently hired two full-time employees to handle bookings for her wellness tour company. She maintained her bookings numbers in 2020, but grew 355% in 2021 and has seen a 40% increase to date in 2022.
In Woodfin, Simon says she’s searching for a bigger place as her business grows. “I want to have more open space to offer classes,” she says. And in West Asheville, Drye says she’d like to wait to move until she’s “busting at the seams. But I’m afraid we may be ready for that now.”
Trends are tracking
Often in the forefront of wellness trends, Asheville is a great place to carry out her vision to embrace community, says Drye. She recently started a class called Flow of Life for pre- and postnatal women. And at West Asheville Yoga, she is grateful to thrive while maintaining her commitment to community.
Simon sees an increased interest in strength training as older adults receive revealing results from bone density tests. In addition to word-of-mouth, she gets a lot of her referrals from physical therapists who encourage patients to do regular strength training so they can continue hiking and enjoying popular physical activities like pickleball.
At Skyterra, Crowell believes that the most important trend in wellness today is the understanding that with proper nutrition and consistent exercise, a person can be healthy at any size or shape. She says, “Having healthy lifestyle options is a trend that will last.”