It started nearly a decade ago at the Squaw Valley ski resort near Lake Tahoe, just as the yoga and wellness movements were gaining mainstream momentum. The Wanderlust festival concept went like this: bring together in a natural environment a community of people who share similar interests and values, and build a ''container'' to nurture a spirit of mindful living. The motto: ''Find your true north.''
Picture thousands of fit and trim people of all ages floating from yoga class to concert to lecture to hike, mats tucked under tattooed arms, all smiles and “namastes,” and you begin to get the vibe. In the shade of an open-air pavilion, 100 yogis are attempting the crow position, which entails balancing one’s knees on one’s elbows. Others are practicing “HoopYogini,” described in the program as an “intense and sweaty” workout combining hula-hooping and Hatha yoga. Others are hiking, indulging in a musical “sound bath,” attending a talk on mindful relationships, finding their bliss on stand-up paddleboards, grooving to live music or going deep within themselves during guided meditation sessions. As for the pool party at the end of the day: Vegas has nothing on this bikini bacchanal.
About 700 people attended the first Wanderlust Squaw Valley yoga and wellness festival in 2009, says Kim Small, director of publicity. This year, some 11,000 yoga mattoting devotees, about 80 percent of them women, showed up at a four-day July gathering featuring more than 100 mindful activities and events. Adding to the scene was a vendor village and food court where attendees could shop for everything from kombucha and vegan breakfast bowls to yoga clothing, harem pants and more. The “flow” continued to the festival’s main stage, where headliner bands played ticketed concerts at night. Inside a geodesic dome tent in the food court, mellower musicians played daytime sets for free.
If the goal of Wanderlust is to inspire, the festival itself has inspired a lifestyle enterprise that annually produces more than 60 branded events around the world. In North America, they include six multiday festivals like the one at Squaw Valley (five are held at ski resorts, the other in Hawaii), plus more than a dozen one-day Wanderlust 108 “mindful triathlon” (yoga, running, meditation) events staged in city parks around the country. In addition, Wanderlust-branded yoga studios have opened at Squaw Valley, other studios and mountain resorts, along with permanent venues in Austin and Hollywood, Quebec and Montreal that offer live music, yoga and organic food year-round. There’s also a TV platform.
Producing a roaming festival is “quite the game of Tetris,” says Heather Story, Wanderlust’s senior vice president of events. “We have 22 people full-time on our staff. That includes four event managers, three operations managers, a production manager and a series of support and administrative roles— and that’s just for planning. We basically work all year long. We have great resort and park partners; each year, it’s like coming back to summer camp.”
As Wanderlust has grown, Story adds, planners have established a festival template, sharpened communications and learned from experience what elements work best for each venue (at Squaw, for example, events at the top of the iconic tram and at nearby Lake Tahoe are woven into the schedule). During the springtime Wanderlust 108 circuit, she adds, “We run two kits in 53-foot trucks that go to different events, often on the same weekend. We have staff who are cross-trained so that whatever role they fill, they know all the pitfalls.”
Securing hotel accommodations for staff, instructors and entertainers is another piece of the puzzle. At Squaw and other mountain resorts, festivals take place during the height of the summer high season. “For a couple of years we used a single hotel partner across all the markets,” Story says. “This year we booked hotels within a certain driving distance of the festival sites.”
So how do Wanderlust events maintain their signature blissed-out vibe from venue to venue? “It has to do with the community of people who come to our festivals,” Story says. “We can ‘Wanderlust’ the space, but it’s the people who work with us and their commitment to providing the experience that makes it special. Our job is to build the container so people can come have the experience they want. Some may want to just have a girls weekend, others are doing deep internal work, and others come to find community.”
Story comes from a background that includes music festival production. And while music is the “heartbeat” of Wanderlust, the vibe is uniquely different, she says. “We still have to rent forklifts, order so much fencing and so many porta-potties and that sort of thing, but at Wanderlust festivals, we whisper into our radios when classes are going, as opposed to screaming over music.”
The annual Squaw Valley festival, said to be the largest gathering of its kind in the world, draws from throughout the western United States and beyond, enlivening a resort village that is otherwise fairly sedate in summer.
“I always describe it as a circus, in the very best sense of the word,” says Jackie Worthingham, manager and instructor at Wanderlust Studio Squaw Valley. “There are people everywhere. The energy in our sleepy little mountain town is completely transformed during the festival; it’s incredible how many renowned teachers they bring to this beautiful environment; it makes for a very lovely marriage.”
“We were the first to host a Wanderlust festival, and we’re very proud of that,” adds Liesl Hepburn, public relations director for Squaw Alpine. “The way I see it is that we are getting people who could potentially be anywhere at this time of year to do something together that is so different, so beyond what they’re used to in their day-to-day lives. It’s a way to be here in Tahoe but experience it in a different way, taking time to look inward while also looking outward. For us it’s a huge draw. We fill out every year; lodging is full, the valley is full, restaurants fill up, and that spills over into PHOTOS: CHRIS ECKERT surrounding areas.”