Over the last two or so years of running this blog, I have really noticed an increase in popularity of people wanting to spend their weekends / vacation time on activities that support their health. As explored in my Sharing Bali Series, treating yourself to a wellness retreat to come back glowing and refreshed from a holiday has become a real thing. People want to lead healthier lives these days – full time work in high stress jobs has lead to a mass movement into taking time out in rejuvenating ways. Partying doesn’t necessarily fulfill them anymore. They want more. This means a shift away from eating and drinking yourself sick and instead consuming in a more conscious way. In my opinion, people work hard to perform at work and life by getting their bodies and minds in peak conditions and don’t want to come back from a holiday with all that weight and cloudiness back – I’m not saying that partying doesn’t have it place, but it is all about balance and offering an alternative.
This is where yoga and wellness festivals come in – Jonnie Halstead the director for Wanderlust Australia and New Zealand has hosted over ten festivals with around 2,000-3,500 people at each rocking out yogi style.
If you’re not familiar with Wanderlust, it is worldwide yoga festival, as described by them:
“Wanderlust Festivals are all-out celebrations of mindful living. Join a remarkable group of yoga and meditation instructors, musicians, speakers, chefs and attendees for a transformational experience at the world’s most beautiful mountain resorts. Explore new ideas, make new friends, discover new abilities, and dance your heart out. Adventure awaits.”
What this means in practice is a long weekend full of restorative activities. They offer more than your standard yoga though, everything from slack-line yoga, paddle-board yoga, meditations on how to reach your life goals and full potential, forest treks, inspiring workshops with well-known wellness leaders, delicious healthy clean eating as well as music raves where you can dance your heart out and wine tasting. Some camp, others stay in the luxury resorts. It is kind of like wellness glamping for those want more out of life.
With a predominance of drinking in Australia and New Zealand, this kind of event is quite new. But with hugely successful high end boutique yoga studios such as PP Studios, Yoga 213 and One Hot Yoga popping up in metropolitan areas such as Melbourne, this demand for wellness to match peoples designer lives is growing.
Jonnie and his wife Jackie realised this and 2013 they bought the rights for Wanderlust Australia and New Zealand and have eight Wanderlust festivals planned this year alone. Jonnie is a festival circuit pro having prolific events such as Jim Beam Homegrown, Coromandel Gold and NZ Cup Week under his belt.
Jonnie went through his own wellness journey after the work-hard / play-hard festival lifestyle and a difficult divorce took its toll leading to serve depression. Jonnie attributes this dark period to his transformation that led him to his new partner Jackie Halstead and Wanderlust. The two built Wanderlust to cater to an audience of like-minded, progressive-thinking, conscious-consumers.
In this interview we probe his brain on everything about running the business, how to run a successful festival as well as everything else that goes into leading an open conscious life.
Name: Jonnie Halstead
Occupation: Event organiser and mindful entrepreneur, Festival Director Wanderlust New Zealand & Australia
What did you study and what was your original intended career path?
I studied Art & Design – majoring in Professional Photography & Magazine Journalism (albeit in the late 90’s before digital cameras and Photoshop) with the intention of going on to a career in popular media, fashion, music, street culture; as at the time I was heavily involved in the 90’s rave scene, clubs and festivals. I was out flatting at the tender age of 17 so working in hospitality to pay my rent and uni fees and was promoting and photographing dance parties on the side. This would soon become my career focus.
Give us a brief background on your career to date – and how did you go from working on some of NZ’s biggest and hectic raves and festivals to doing something more holistic such as Wanderlust:
In 2000 I moved to Wellington (NZ’s capital city and cultural hub), a time when that city was putting itself on the map through the efforts of Sir Peter Jackson. Through movies our coolest little capital was hitting the world stage, but it was also a cauldron of ideas in hospitality & entertainment. The “flat white” coffee was invented there, cocktail culture was world class with brands like 42 Below Vodka at the cusp, Flight of the Concords were just taking off and many of NZ’s best bands were emerging out of basement jam sessions into thriving late night venues (names like Fat Freddy’s Drop, Shapeshifter and Tiki Taane are just a few). I was lucky to be a part of this emergence and with a couple of mates opened ‘Sandwiches’ nightclub.
Our mission was to put the best of everything into a nightclub environment & service; the best sound, décor, food, cocktails, right down to the state of the toilets at 5am. Our parties were legendary and over my 5 years at the helm we won every hospitality award under the sun. But it wasn’t enough to satisfy my drive to change entertainment culture. So in 2006 I started Picnic Events (a nod to Sandwiches and a play on words meaning “the little guys doing big events”) and over the past decade we have been a part of some of the largest most prolific music festivals in New Zealand including Summerset, Homegrown, Coromandel Gold, Sounday and many more.
In 2008 my life took a turn for the worse; the nature of the entertainment industry is that you work hard and you party even harder. This was taking its toll. My entrepreneurial spirit had taken me north to Auckland where I bought a couple of clubs that I planned to open as the sisters to Sandwiches. But it was too much. My first wife and I decided to amicably part ways, I pulled the plug on the venture and had to sell my house and shares to pay the debts on the project. It was a tough time especially loosing my wife, my best buddy of 8 years, and the home we had built together. But looking back it was like God intended to empty my cup so that I was drained of all the bad as will as the good and thus able to start filling my life a fresh.
6 months later, as I emerged from my depression ready to be an active human being again, I meet Jacque (we already knew each other – but not romantically) and she swept me away. In the 7 years since we have travelled the world together, had three gorgeous kids together, and now we have a business together; a business that reflects our beliefs, our lifestyle, and has a purpose or legacy for ourselves, our kids, our community and our planet. It feels good. Looking back, I don’t think I would know exactly HOW good it is if I had not hit rock bottom in my previous life.
Jacque is a stunning woman and a truly inspiring individual. She leaves everyone she connects with smiling from her presence. As an American-born, daughter of an Egyptian father & Swedish Mother; she migrated to New Zealand 12 years ago and is a true Wanderer and global citizen. She left behind the corporate slog for a career in yoga and wellness long before I came along. She brought the practice of betterment to my life and ultimately is the muse or measure of quality to everything we do at Wanderlust. I am so grateful to her as my wife, mother to our kids, and business partner. Most of all my best friend.
Don’t get me wrong – I still love producing music festivals, and I am very at home in any sort of entertainment and hospitality situation (my favorite seat is still and always will be a bar stool, not lotus position); but I love everything about Wanderlust. It is a festival promoting, design and programming dream. I am catering to a desirable audience of like-minded, progressive-thinking, conscious-consumers. We are at the vanguard of cutting-edge culture; and doing some good in the world in the process.
For me, I don’t drink, so a yoga festival is a great way for me to travel, meet new people and try something new without the focus being the typical ‘let’s get wasted’ mentality that you get in NZ. Do you find that as we get more health conscious about our lives that there is a change in how we spend our downtime as well? Or is it just as we get older we get more sensible?
I’ve had my days or parties, and I have had my fair share of managing the drinking habits of New Zealand youth. Wanderlust is a move away from all of that; but that’s not to say we are anti-alcohol. Many of our attendees have come from a previous life of hedonism and recreational partying. They didn’t find what they were seeking on that path, and instead yoga has become their vehicle for positive change. Their daily practice by which they set their compass to. Thus doing away with the need to polish off a bottle of wine on a regular basis. That’s a good thing; but so is the ability to still enjoy the odd drink (at a festival or at home) and socialise without taking it to excess.
I think this shift to quality over quantity, or even renunciation of alcohol all together if that’s what you need, does come with age. We all should come to a stage in life where we start reflecting on who we are. That self-reflection is the essence of yoga, We are all students learning how to detach from the vices of our crazy modern lives. Maybe in an environment like Wanderlust you gain the tools to reconstruct your relationship to stimulants like coffee, alcohol and food. I’ll drink to that!
How does yoga, clean eating and all of the Wanderlust ethos fit into your life?
I am a foodie – so the diet side of living a mindful life really resonates with me. It is the easiest path to conscious living. Either by growing or making your own. If not then supporting local producers. Avoid any sort of unnatural food item or process (especially preservatives & nitrates) and where ever possible choose organic. And of course be choosy of brands based on origin, packaging and the process it took to get from mother nature to your belly. As a life mission, it is the gateway to being your best self.
Then, once your diet and sustainable footprint is clean – find your practice. Even if just 15 minutes of flow in a quiet space. This will eventually flow on to a fully functioning yoga routine and ideally a place of meditation. Which is the ultimate end-goal to a transforming your life. I believe, if we all partook in some form of meditation on a daily practice, a lot of the western world’s problems would cease to exist. It’s not easy, I will always be learning as I go, but it is so worth it. Enjoy the journey as you go.
Is this a full time gig or do you have multiple lives?
At the moment my work as an event organiser is all consuming, but I have other aspirations. But primarily I am a father, husband, son, brother and friend. So sometimes it feels as though I have many lives.
There are some pretty progressive classes at Wanderlust such as slack line yoga (doing yoga on a tightrope) and meditation about enjoying sex and love without alcohol – how do these classes get picked and how do you find experts to run the classes?
Wanderlust is the perfect marriage of Jacque and my worlds – I produce the festival and she curates the curriculum of classes & activities. I take my hat off to her ability to know the next trend in yoga. I suppose it comes down to her connection to the leaders in the global community and what they are doing to advance their student’s practice. Wanderlust presents an opportunity to bring these progressive practices to a large-scale, urban audience in a very fun and accessible way.
Do you get time to participate in the events or are you too busy? If so what are you most excited about and why?
Funny you ask – at our festival last weekend in Great Lake Taupo, Jacque and I both finally attended a class. It’s take nearly 3 years and 9 festivals. But I guess we must be doing something right that our crew can say to us “hey, go do a class”.
I chose to a class lead by the amazing Claudine Lafond of Yoga Beyond (she’s from New York but now resides in Sydney) with DJ Tazdeen Rashid (of Chicago). The class was called “Yoga, Sex, Drugs and Rock n Roll” and was a hedonistic mix of deep asana, playful flow and a sexy dance party. Wanderlust perfection and appropriate for me and my journey. Collectively the 300+ people in that class laughed, danced, flowed and cried with release and pure joy.
What are some of the most exciting parts of running Wanderlust?
Seeing our programming gambles work – especially as every night what is effectively a super-sized wellness conference slash adventure retreat convert into a music festival. It’s no “nanny state” as we have evening wine tastings and the resort bars get popular. The additional “music only” ticket holders show-up for the concerts and mix effortlessly with the yogis and it all turns into a giant party. I love it. Especially if the band or DJ on stage is one I have chosen out of left field. I have already had several career highlights watching the big crowds collectively go crazy to acts like Nightmares on Wax, Nahko & Medicine for the People, Thievery Corporation and Xavier Rudd.
As well as the music side, seeing the mazing line-up of presenters that Jacque hand-selects is always mind-blowing; the world’s best yoga teachers, workshop leaders, inspiring speakers and leaders in green-living. These guys do amazing things over the 4-days and we get such amazing feedback about the experiences they lead. It is a regular sight to see our attendees crying (in a good way) and hugging, often with people they have only just meet with and shared a transformative experience with.
What has been some of the biggest challenges for you?
This is not easy; we have 8 festivals this year – Jacque and I work ridiculously long hours as well as raising kids, often on the road. Our single biggest challenge is finding great people to help us pull this off.
How has the average New Zealander responded to this kind of event? Are the attendees mostly Kiwi or do you get international attendees as well?
The attendance at our New Zealand events has been outstanding – with approx. 4,500 – 5,000 unique attendees at our 108 city events or the Taupo festival. But the truly outstanding statistic is that at Wanderlust Great Lake Taupo nearly 45% of attendees are visitors to Aotearoa. Many coming from Australia, Asia and of course North America. As a Kiwi businessman taking our brand to the world and seeing the respond to the invitation in such great numbers is truly humbling.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to run their own festival?
Come work for us first, help us change the event landscape here and we teach you everything we know so you can go on to spark your own bonfire. Institutional knowledge should be shared, not held close to ones chest. Learn from our successes and failures and together the industry will thrive as a whole.
Also, be prepared to hire people that are better than you at the specialist area. But at the same time be the hardest working and the most positive person on the team. Show them how it’s done and inspire them to shine.
How do you define success?
Realising it’s about the doing not that end result.
What would you say to your 21 year old self?
“Yea bro – take that opportunity and own it! And if you fail, it won’t define you as you’ll find something else to do.”
What person dead or alive would you invite to a dinner party and why?
I’m learning a lot about Allan Watts at the moment – what an amazing thinker he was… If Allan wasn’t available to join us for dinner then Bill Murray would be my second pick.