Niki Smirni shares her story

Travelgems Founder Niki Smirni on Company Origins, Secrets to Europe’s Best Retreats, and 2024 Plans

I don’t believe humans change. I believe people evolve. Every day we are evolving. We might become something different, but it’s part of a process that happens in stages as we learn new things about ourselves. The story of Travelgems is a story of evolution too. 

I never set out to build a retreat company. I’d been in a corporate position, travelling all over Europe. In the wake of the financial crisis, I felt embarrassed by what I heard people saying about Greeks – that we were lazy, distrustful, that my country was backward somehow. I’ve always been proud to be Greek. I thought if those people only knew my country like I did, they would see things differently. I decided to create an app, Travelgems, where people could find and learn about the hidden gems of Greece. I invested a lot of money and time into the research, but by the time it was done, I realised I had no budget left to market it. 

Someone close to me gave me a copy of The Power Of Now, a book by mindfulness leader Eckhart Tolle. I wasn’t a spiritual person, but Tolle’s advice resonated with me. I started to read a lot of books, like those from Deepak Chopra, and more of Tolle’s works. I started studying the works of Greek philosophers too.

I learned about a spiritual retreat at a resort in the Western Peloponnese, Costa Navarino. I decided to see what it was all about. There I found inspiration. I’d been investing my time into technology, when what I really loved was bringing people together, fostering connections, and making people happyFor me, the meaning of life is to know yourself. If you can do that, you will become better for yourself and everybody else around you. I wanted to spread that message. I decided to do retreats of my own, and that was how today’s Travelgems was born. 

Our first retreat was in October 2019 at Costa Navarino, bringing together a group of people who loved the ancient world for a week of reading and meditation with renowned author Madeline Miller. A small yoga retreat followed, then another, then another. What struck me was the way that people on the retreats came out of themselves, opened up, found new friends. It was a hectic few months but everyone in my life could see how much it meant to me. I deleted the app, and I haven’t looked back. 

Evolution is at the core of what we do on our retreats. Our three pillars are education, evolution, and integration. You come on a retreat, you  learn about a subject you’re interested in, whether that’s yoga, mindfulness, fitness, self-love, nature, history, or something else entirely, and that allows us to evolve. We hope that what you learn on our retreats, you’ll be able to integrate into your own life when you return home. Plus, you’ll meet a lot of new friends from all over the globe. 

You’ll also stay in some of the best hotels in Europe, those who embrace wellbeing in the same way we do. I call it ‘barefoot luxury’; hotels which respect sustainability, who make guests feel embraced, who offer the best of their communities. Take, for example, Minos Beach Art Hotel in Crete which has become a cherished partner. You won’t find a croissant at the breakfast table because they celebrate the best local produce from their own area. 

Travelgems retreats are open to anyone. I mean that. Some people worry that it won’t be for them, but if you come with an open heart, willingness to learn more about yourself and the world around you, I promise you’ll have an experience which will change you for the better. All of our hand-selected teachers are the best in their fields and will draw out the best of you. When we agree to do a retreat with someone we find alignment in values, all of them have something special to offer. 

Every year our retreats become deeper, richer, and more inspiring. We’re going to more countries than ever before – Greece, France, Portugal, Spain, Italy and more. Up until now we’ve split our retreats into themes: body, mind, or soul, but in 2024 things are more holistic. You can’t change your body if you don’t change your mind, and that will move your soul. This will be the future of our retreats for this year and beyond. 

I am also proud to launch the Travelgems School Of Well-Being this year. Wellbeing should be accessible to everyone. This is my attempt to do that, offering pupils simple challenges, prompts and ideas for living more mindfully, as well as lessons from our retreat leaders and other world-leading experts. In 2024, I’m more excited about Travelgems’ evolution than ever before and I can’t wait to meet you and see how we evolve together.

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