Wellness Woman: Diana Stobo, Entrepreneur & Owner, The Retreat Costa Rica
Serial entrepreneur Diana Stobo credits intuition and kindness for leading her into the hotel and spa business, though certainly she had prepared herself years before with a master's degree from the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration in culinary science. After graduating, she married young, at 24, and was a stay-at-home Mom to her three kids, until her health hit a crisis point and she turned to food to heal herself and lose 100 pounds.
Through this personal journey, she became a nutrition expert and an early pioneer in the raw food movement. She wrote 15 best-selling books, including "Get Naked Fast, A Guide To Stripping Away The Foods That Weigh You Down," coached thousands of people back to good health as an online coach and healer, became a trusted expert on wellness, and created a range of successful products from nutritional supplements to the Truth Bar, first line of prebiotic and probiotic gut health bars. Diana now has turned her energies toward The Retreat Costa Rica, a lifestyle hotel with 13 guestrooms that opened in May 2016 and was dubbed “#1 Detox Spa Worldwide” by W Magazine. We spoke with Diana about her path to becoming an entrepreneur, her thoughts on leadership, and couldn’t resist getting some personal detox tips.
Tell us about your struggles with food and health…
Really it comes down to how misinformed we are, like many people I thought I was eating healthy. I loved to cook and prepare food, I was never a “fast food” person but actually the ingredients I was using--sugar, dairy, flour--is actually full of toxins. The combination of what I was eating and a number of medications I was on had caused serious inflammation in my body. Finally, when I was admitted into the hospital for problems with my thyroid I turned to food to heal me. At the time I had a friend that was a raw food chef, and I remember Googling raw food, but there was nothing. It didn’t register to me that raw food was just food from the garden. This was still a time when you went to the grocery store and the organic section was wilted lettuce and some sad looking strawberries. Turns out, my weight gain had everything to do with mineral deficiencies in my gut, and through changing my diet to raw, organic foods I was able to heal myself and lost 100 pounds.
Do you still eat totally raw food? How many years have you been doing this?
In 2003, I started a raw food diet to heal my body and saw great results in two years. I do not believe a raw diet is sustainable for long term. I believe one should eat with the seasons, so I do eat cooked food in the winter.
How did you get into the hotel business?
Honestly, you might not believe this, but the initial purchase was an impulsive act of kindness. A relative was upside down on the property in Costa Rica and I wanted to help out. I had only seen photos of the pool. It was a decrepit, run down pool, but I had intuition, so I said, “don’t worry, I’ll buy it.” That was it, I bought the property sight unseen. I had just gotten a divorce and wanted to put my energy into something to distract me from my pain. What better than a renovation project.
But when I actually saw it in person, it was a big property and a strange layout for a house but perfect for a retreat. Perched on a quartz mountain overlooking the Pacific Ocean with stunning views of the Nicoya Peninsula and the Pacific Ocean, it is a place where the land calls you but you don’t know why. Many guests have said this since. So even though I hadn’t been to see it, I’m glad I listened to my intuition to buy it.
That’s interesting. Recently, author Sean O’Neal recently wrote in Forbes, “Intuition is unique in that it bridges the emotional reaction of instinct with the intellectual response of analysis. In other words, it combines feeling with thinking. It is balanced. More specifically, intuition is built on our past experience, which is the richest source of wisdom.” (May 4, 2021) Is “intuition” a way you normally make business decisions?
Wow, I love that quote. I am a big researcher and investigator, but I always have to make a decision on what feels right. I can’t tell you how many naysayers I had when I built The Retreat. But I had a vision and knew it could work. Honestly, it doesn’t matter how many degrees you have. At the end of the day you have to make choices.
Has your intuition ever led you astray?
I have made a lot of mistakes, a lot of expensive mistakes, but usually in people. As a healer and an empath, people can let you down. I’m a bit more jaded now. I miss the girl that trusted everybody!
What was the process to develop The Retreat?
It was built over time. I went in blindly with no grand plan. I was teaching online courses, had my own business in San Diego, and my youngest son was still living with me going to high school. So, I went there, saw the property and I said let’s do a bunch of things! Just because I had a master’s from Cornell, I had a natural affinity for hospitality, and thought I could just wing it. But not being there full time to manage the process, there were lots of mistakes. I trusted people and not always with great results. It was a growth opportunity for me. I learned a lot. And I got better over time. When my son graduated from high school I was able to be there and then it started to take shape. I moved there, met my love, Enrique Herrera, the foreman working on the pool building, and now he is an amazing partner at the hotel and in life.
How has Enrique helped you with the project?
I have never felt a victim of being a woman, but I see the power of being a man, and a native Costa Rican. I like to say, I have many husbands that help me manage my projects! I am the person that creates and builds and they run operations. They push back on me a lot, but eventually they come around. I believe that my intuition is usually right on. We all have a natural sense of what to do, but maybe women are more receptive to listening to it.
Were there any surprises along the way?
Underestimating the power of nature. The rain, the animals, the insects, we have 60 acres in the tropics and that is a lot to maintain. Where The Retreat is, it’s a mild climate, actually National Geographic has called it the best climate in the world. There's not a lot of rain, but the humidity brings challenges - our biggest expense is maintenance. I keep learning. For example, I understand now why in hot places all the flooring is tile. I’m very eco-minded so I originally chose bamboo flooring. I didn’t know in the winter bamboo swells and in the summer it shrinks, tile doesn’t move! The reward for all the effort is that it is stunning to be surrounded by nature. When I built the property, there wasn’t much around in terms of landscaping, but the birds have helped the flora and fauna to grow around us by eating and dropping seeds. It is amazing to wake up in a lush environment with birds chirping.
How many years has the retreat been open?
We just celebrated our five-year anniversary, but technically we were in “soft opening” for two years before, partly because I was still raising my son. I learned so much in that phase. I had a few different managers who didn’t work out for a variety of reasons. One was a wonderful Cuban lady from Miami, who was amazing but her brash style didn’t work with the Costa Rican staff who are more quiet and reserved. Then I had an American chef who was a fantastic cook but was a perfectionist that couldn’t delegate, so she ended up getting super stressed out, and left but took our computer, cell phone and all of our recipes with her. I had a property manager that didn’t work out because he liked to party too much, but I learned many valuable lessons during that “soft opening” phase.
Who are your typical guests and what programs are popular?
Our guest profile is changing, it used to be 80% women and 20% men, but that has shifted. Now we see more couples, ages ranging from young 20-something professionals to people in their 80s. In terms of what people book, most take packages with meals and spa services. Interestingly, many of our guests plan to come to us and then go elsewhere in Costa Rica, but once they arrive they don’t want to leave, and stay on if we have availability!
Tell me more about The Retreat Costa Rica and completing construction on the first Ayurvedic Healing Center and Spa in Costa Rica.
The Healing Center was finished in 2019, it is an 8,000 sq feet spa perched atop the Crystal Mountain. Within three months of opening Spa & Wellness MexiCaribe magazine named us #1 Spa in the Americas. It’s a truly special place, the location, the philosophies, the therapists, it all works beautifully, but I never rely on my laurels, I am constantly redoing, creating, reinventing. The design is gorgeous, I did it mainly as I had an architect that I fired. I have fired more architects and builders than I care to admit, but generally, I actually hold on to people longer than I should. When you have a vision, it is hard to find people to carry out your plans. Before building, everyone told me I was crazy to build such a large spa, and I ignored them because I knew if we built a healing spa people would come. And they do. What has been the biggest surprise is the day spa business we receive from the locals.
How many people do you employ? Where do they live?
40 and 8 live on property.
Do you speak Spanish?
How is The Retreat sensitive to the environment? What eco-programs do you have in place?
Sustainability is a core value for me and everyone who works on property. It is not only a responsibility but a pleasure to commit to sustainability and social consciousness — this is done every step of the way - from the food, to the cleaning and maintenance to guest services. Our aim is to make a positive impact on all that surrounds-—community, guests, environment—examples of our efforts include: our own organic farm which we use for food, composting, chemical free spa treatments, regular cleaning days of local forest and river, biodegradable products for cleaning and recycling program, organic products used for fumigation and bug repellent. Equally important, we employ 90% locals, we train and educate them, and we have a very strong ethics code.
What’s next for The Retreat?
Wellness real estate! Basically, I realized I needed to buy up the neighboring land to keep the area aligned with our vision, values and goals for the environment and community. Then guests started asking me about villas or rentals and now I’ve decided to develop vacation homes. I already have 35 buyers without doing any marketing or a show home. So, I had the Feng Shui master David Cho come have a look at the land, lay out the best angles, placement for homes and he said I need to build everything by 2023, so we will!
Back to you, how old are your kids now? How have you balanced work and being a mother?
My twins are 28 and my youngest is 24. I had my kids when I was in my late twenties-early thirties. I was a stay-at-home Mom, devoted to my children’s lives. When I started healing myself and writing my book, my kids were in high school. We are all still close today and they are very supportive of my work in the wellness industry.