Last week, we hosted a group of 35 emerging and legacy leaders in the human services sector on Bowen Island to kick off our sixth Leadership 2020 cohort. Hosting the group on Bowen Island is a powerful way to begin and end this ten month program, and there is tremendous value offered by hosting it on Bowen Island.
We are a small island with a working village and we have evolved an inventive way of hosting gatherings. We call it “Village as a Venue” a name coined by my friend Tim Merry to describe the way he hosts gatherings in Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia. This is a way to reimagine the local economy of small villages who can compete in unorthodox ways with larger venues in nearby cities for conference and meeting business.
On Bowen Island, our village as a venue model starts with one of the retreat centres on island We use the Bowen Island Lodge mostly for our work (and sometimes we host at Rivendell and Xenia as well). The Lodge is ideal because it is set up to host groups (as opposed to acting like a hotel), it is right on the water, and is only a five minute walk from the ferry dock and the village, meaning that people can actually arrive using public transit from anywhere in Vancouver. It is located in a neighbourhood so we keep a careful eye on our noise levels at night, but if people want to socialize in a rowdy way, there are pubs nearby. The Lodge is also perfect in that it is not a high end retreat facility, and it provides an incredibly affordable and accessible venue to accommodate and host people. It has shared rooms and shared washrooms, but the beds are comfortable and when we are there we have the whole space to work in. Overflow registrants are housed at the Lodge at the Old Dorm and other local B&Bs.
The Bowen Island Lodge is a dry rental, meaning that they don’t have their own catering staff. This means that we get to hire local friends to provide us with food. Usually we have our events catered by The Snug which is a little cafe that has always punched above it’s weight in terms of quality. Over the years, both The Snug and the Sam Trethewy, the manager at the lodge have come to appreciate to people we bring to Bowen, who are often social workers and others on the front lines of human services. They treat them well, with good food and sensitive hosting which makes for a superior experience for people.
Spreading the joy further, we always schedule a night out at Rustique, where our friend Thierry Morbach cooks us up a rural French feast. We book the whole restaurant for this, and it becomes a raucous and memorable dinner. On other nights we will head up to the pub for drinks (this past week a group of 15 or so invaded on a Tuesday night, which is no small boost to Glen’s business on a January night). On the Thursday night we usually have a celebration at the Lodge which necessitates folks walking up to the Beer and Wine Store for supplies.
During the day, we give people a couple of hours at lunch to be hosted on the island. Many folks end up going to the village to walk around, buy chocolate and meet folks. They get to see our village for what it is, a friendly working commercial centre. It is not set up to attract tourist dollars, and my friend Edward Wachtman and his partner Sheree Johnson has just completed a study that shows that tourists are looking for something other than that tourist experiences that are sold in many other small towns on the coast. What they find on Bowen is authentic community. They notice the way we look after each other, the way people talk and discuss issues. They often head out for early morning walks or runs on the nearby trails and stop in at The Snug and get to see a community as it is. I hear story after story of these encounters and we often talk about the friendliness of the village and what it says about leadership and community. What happens on Bowen becomes a living teaching for how it is possible to live and work together, and visitors SEE that.
And finally, we use the island itself to host. Bowen is a beautiful place and to get there you need to cross three miles of water. this is an almost archetypal journey, and it marks a thresh hold to a different experience. When you arrive you are received in Snug Cove, and when you leave again, it is as if you are birthed back out into the world. While on the island, we often take people out on the land, to experience the serene calm of the place and to spend time in reflection about their lives. There are so few places in the modern world, especially in the social services sector, where people can just slow down and reflect and pause, surrounded by forest and water and ravens and deer. It becomes transformative, which is the point. Edward’s survey revealed that this is a primary reason why people come to Bowen Island.
We are in a loose conversation with friends in Mahone Bay and in Ballyvaughn, Co. Clare in Ireland about this concept. In Ballyvaughn a group called The Burren Call has set up to host gatherings at the Burren College of Art and on the land around it as well. This pattern is repeating and it takes these places of beauty and transformative potential and leverages what we already have to provide experiences for vistors that also benefit us locals, both financially (and especially in the off-season) as well as psychologically. There is nothing nquite like having your place seen through the eyes of visitors and reflected back.
For Bowen that reflection is that we have a special place, a beautiful natural setting, a friendly and welcoming community and an authentic working village. Locals are always curious about what our visitors are up to and Piers at The Snug or Paul Ricketts at the Beer and Wine Store are always curious and, its fair to say, appreciative of the folks who are “in that workshop with Chris and Caitlin.”
Village as a Venue holds a lot of promise for villages like ours. Having run more than 30 events on Bowen like this, I think we have hit a stride in bringing people over for 3, 4 and 5 days. It is the unique and quirky local character of our community and the beauty of the land and seas that makes this possible. These are strong assets and contribute to the visitor experience of renewal, restoration and serenity.