You’ve probably seen them on social media: announcements of JMC’s European Voice Over Retreat. JMC stands for J. Michael Collins, by the way. I think it’s fair to say that he’s one of the most successful VO entrepreneurs of our time. In May 2023 he’ll take a select group of voice overs to his ninth retreat, this time in my home country, the Netherlands.
$8000 (pre-sale price), will get you a single room in a luxury location. A shared room will set you back $6000.
Now, what do you get for the money, you may wonder? The advertisement promises a one night, five-star escape in Amsterdam and a week in one of Holland’s best hotels where every room is a full apartment. All food and beverages are included. Travel to the Netherlands is not.
Even though guests are treated like royalty, most of them don’t come for the Michelin star food, the open bar, the fireworks, or the European location. What they are really buying is “60 hours of small-group elite coaching.”
As an added bonus, every participant gets two fully-produced demos after the retreat. To give you an idea of the value of this bonus: in 2019, JMC charged $2000 per broadcast demo, and $1800 per non-broadcast genre demo.
Apart from JMC, people who go to the Dutch retreat get to work with Anne Ganguzza, Mary Lynn Wissner, Portia Scott, Jeff Howell, AJ McKay, Brad Hyland and a mystery guest. The coaching team changes from venue to venue, while JMC’s staff stays the same.
WHO GOES TO THESE THINGS?
Now, if you’re just an ordinary, going from job-to-job voice over like me, you may wonder: who signs up for these exclusive retreats? Why do they sell out, days or even hours after they’ve been announced? Do people who attend these retreats feel they get their money’s worth? Couldn’t they get the same results if held at some Doubletree hotel near an airport?
Robin Siegerman can answer these questions. She told me:
“I’ve been to the retreat twice (Dublin and Barcelona) and am going again to the one in the Netherlands in May 2023.
The first time I went in 2018 to Dublin, I was very new to the business. I wanted to attend a small gathering where I would actually be getting hands-on opportunities to learn from some of the most experienced working talent in VO rather than sitting passively listening in a seminar situation of larger conferences. At that time, I had not yet decided what area of VO was going to be my niche, so I thought the retreat was a good way to get an intensive look at various areas while learning from the best and being surrounded by tremendously talented peers, from whom I also learn so much, and who inspire and energize me.
It turns out that actually, my niche of choice and where I have been finding some success is in audiobooks. And although the retreats are really not geared to that area, I also do other VO like e-learning and medical narration, and want to be sure that my skills are up to date and again, that I’m learning from the best.
Also, like many other VO’s and performers, I’m an extroverted introvert, and feel much more comfortable in a setting with fewer people rather than a large conference, which I find overwhelming. I really enjoy connecting with my fellow attendees and the coaches on a personal level, and staying at the same intimate venue and sharing all meals together gives us lots of time to get to know each other. I feel it connects me to the industry as only personal relationships can.”
THE BIRTH OF AN IDEA
Right after this year’s One Voice Conference in Dallas I asked JMC how he came up with the idea of these retreats. He said this:
“I alway joke that I wish there was some profound and inspirational story behind these. The truth is that I was on a train from Paris to Luxembourg, possibly a few adult beverages in, and a gorgeous villa in the South of France popped up in my Facebook feed.
On a pure lark I put up a post asking if anyone would be interested in a “Big Brother-style” voiceover retreat in Europe, which would clearly require a high price point to be viable. I did not expect a lot of interest, but to my surprise I had a hundred replies within an hour essentially saying, “just tell us where and when.”
So, we began taking the idea seriously and researching venues, and under a year later the first retreat took place at Villa Blanca in Barcelona. They have evolved a bit over the years in the sense that we learn from each one about the expectations and preferences of our attendees, but the core format has remained essentially the same.”
So far it has always been in Europe. What’s the reason behind that decision? Will you ever do one on a different continent… in the USA, perhaps?
JMC: “As many people know we keep our primary residence in Europe, and as such it seemed to make sense that we would launch these there. We have always loved the conference scene in the USA, and wanted to bring a small and special slice of that to Europe, and to share the places we love with the community we love. It also made it a very unique venture.
At this time we have no plans to expand these beyond Europe. Going forward we will be offering one retreat in odd-numbered years, and two in even-numbered years.”
IS LUXURY NECESSARY?
Michael, you made a conscious decision to create a luxury getaway at a price most people in the business cannot afford. Why not ask a small team of industry experts to gather at a reasonably priced hotel, and offer the same program? Wouldn’t the result be the same?
JMC: “There are plenty of industry events both in the USA and other parts of the world, the UK in particular, that are held in standard hotels at price points that are affordable to most. Our interest was in creating an experience where our attendees would not only receive world class training, but a world class experience as well, and where each and every one of them would feel like a VIP for a week in a zero-stress atmosphere of comfort and abundance.
Moreover, I don’t believe the result would be the same. Relationships and bonds are frequently made at conferences and general industry gatherings, but we have found that our small retreat groups of attendees and presenters alike have a way of becoming families. Living together under one roof for a week creates intimacy that is hard to replicate at other professional events, and we have Facebook groups from prior retreats that are still constantly full of activity. Our attendees and presenters become lifelong friends in many cases, and even find ways to collaborate, like Bobbi Maxwell and Kevin Kilpatrick who started an award-winning industry podcast after attending Normandy together.”
I asked VO retreat participant Bob Johnson about his experience. He had this to say:
“First, the investment part (the elephant in the room!). It truly is an investment in yourself and your business and, when people balk at the $7,500 or so price tag I often remind them that it comes with two JMC demos (a $4,800 value). So, now we’re down to $2,700 which includes accommodations and meals.
OK, the accommodations are absolutely first class so you probably wouldn’t have paid that much, and the meals are exquisite so let’s call that a conservative $1,000 that you would probably pay if you were away for a week. That leaves $1,700 for direct group and one-on-one coaching and, based on $100/hour that a coach might charge (ok, I’m very low on this) you’re getting a bargain. So, I’m honest when I say that, outside of airfare, the retreat pays for itself.
Now, about the coaching. We’re all used to coaching for an hour or so over some video chat. All good, by the way, but what hit me when I attended the JMC Euro Retreat in Dublin was just how much better that coaching can be – and beneficial to you as a voice actor – when the coaches get to know you, can interact with you. They know your sense of humor. They know your tone of voice when in various situations. They get to actually see who you are as a person and they were able to work all of that into their coaching sessions. My experience with coaching was so much more elevated just by being around them for an entire week.”
IS JMC ELITIST?
Back to my interview with J. Michael Collins:
Exclusivity is one of the selling point of your retreats. What do you say to people who think you’re elitist by excluding people with small pockets who may need the training even more than those who have no trouble paying for it?
JMC: “I like to think that the biggest selling point of our retreats is the quality of the content, and the ability to engage both in and out of sessions with the best minds in the industry on a personalized level that is not as available at conferences or webinars and other appearances these people make.
The retreats are targeted primarily at rising full-time professional voice actors. Our average attendee earns mid to high five figures in voiceover, is full-time or close, and is looking for the final pieces of their training puzzle to push them into the next strata of success. If you are new to VO, not booking much or at all, and worrying about how to keep the lights on, a retreat is absolutely not something you should be considering.
Elitism is a lazy pejorative. I hope every voice actor aspires to be among the elite. If you don’t, why are you here? People see Anna (JMC’s wife, PS) and I flying around the world and enjoying the fruits of our labor, but Paul, the time in my life when I walked through the first class cabin on an airplane on my way back to 37C isn’t all that far in the distant past. When you walk past the people with their fancy drinks and big plush seats you can be the person who says, “that isn’t fair!” Or you can be the person who says, “How do I make that happen for me and those I love?”
ARE THESE RETREATS MONEY MAKERS?
In business it is never about how much you make, but about how much you get to keep. Organizing these retreats must cost a fortune. Without disclosing financial details, do you make any money on these retreats or are the margins very slim?
JMC: “Depending on the venue we may clear enough to cover what I lose in a week of not doing voiceover. At venues like Dublin and Switzerland, with 5-star hotel costs, we essentially break even. They are a labor of love, and a way to share a week with our tribe in places we adore, and each group tends to become a little family. But these are not moneymakers.
I would never present something we are charging for as “giving back,” but profitability isn’t what these are about. We could very easily run the same event and serve cheap sparkling wine instead of Veuve Clicquot, or pick the cheapest thing on the hotel menu, and probably squeeze tens of thousands in profits at each event, but that’s not how Anna and I treat the community we love.”
In spite of the price tag, your retreats always sell out in a matter of hours or days. Why do you think that is?
JMC: “This is a very small industry. There is nothing more powerful than word of mouth. We let the quality of the retreat experience, (and whatever else we are involved in,) speak for itself. The stories our attendees tell is all the advertising we need.”
Bob Johnson is quick to prove the point:
“I was completely transformed by the experience. The coaches took me places with my voice that I never thought I could go – and thus never even tried. I was transfixed by the talented voice actors who were around me, some of whom were quite accomplished and others who, really, were just starting their journey. The support from them coupled with guidance from the coaches made the whole experience so much more welcoming and allowed each voice actor to reach new levels of performance that, for me anyway, I never thought I could reach.
What about the fun??? J. Michael and Anna (who runs the whole thing!) were just so accommodating and truly made you feel “First Class.” From the stately accommodations to the 5-star meals we had every evening just made you feel regal in every way. I kept telling both of them that everyday brought a new surprise and they just smiled knowing that this is exactly what they were trying to do. It was an unbelievable, transformative experience in every way.”
At this point you may think that I’m writing an infomercial for JMC, instead of an independent blog. But I have to tell you, as someone who has always insisted that voice overs get paid what they are worth, I totally get what JMC is doing. When you offer a premium product, it is fair and justified to charge a premium price.
When Apple first introduced the AirPods Max, everyone was talking about how expensive they were. Who would be crazy enough to pay $549 for some over the ear headphones? Yet, they sold out within days and sales are still strong. I just bought a pair and I can tell you they are worth every penny.
Here’s the thing: if you want to grow your business, you have to invest in the best you can afford. The people who complain that they can’t make a living doing voice overs either lack talent, or they can’t or won’t invest enough in their career. Remember: the best investments ultimately pay for themselves many times over!
JMC AND HIS CRITICS
Yet, you do not have to agree with me, and there are many roads that lead to Rome. Some are cheaper. Some are more expensive. Not everyone in our industry is a huge fan of J. Michael Collins, and some say that he’s got his hand in too many things. So, my final question to him was this:
You are putting a JMC stamp on so many aspects of the voice over industry. There practically isn’t a conference you aren’t involved in either as a speaker, an organizer, or a sponsor. You’ve even bought VO Atlanta recently.
While so many in our community are grateful for all you do, and we see how hard you and your wife Anna work to elevate the people in our industry, some people think it’s too much. A colleague told me:
“I think Michael is a great guy, but he shouldn’t have a hand in so many events his business benefits from. One minute he is chairing a panel or giving a talk, and the next he is selling his services handing out free champagne.”
Do you understand this critique? Do you think it’s fair? How do you respond to that?
JMC: “I understand the critique. I have personally worked very hard over the years to be aware of and avoid conflicts of interest as much as possible. Integrity and honest conduct is the first principle in my business and in my personal life. When one has a hand in so many ventures, it becomes a fine line to walk. It’s something Anna and I both take very seriously.
To that end, however, I believe that over the years I have gone to great lengths to keep potential conflicts at bay, and moreover we try to surround ourselves with people and team members who share the same commitment to operating in a manner that is worthy of the reputation for propriety I believe our brand has earned.
One thing I think is very important is to be conscious that we make the events we play a part in as inclusive as possible, especially to people or service providers who might be seen as competitive with our other businesses, so that the playing field is level.
During the demo panel at OVC this weekend, which featured producers Cliff Zellman, Uncle Roy, Mary Lynn Wissner, and Joe Loesch, I made a point of asking each of them to name one or two demo producers who were not present that were nevertheless equally capable and worthy of consideration as the panelists, and we name-checked Chuck Duran, Eric Romanowski, Dan Friedman, Marc Graue and Anne Ganguzza, among others.
That said, there is nothing inherently wrong or suspect about a business having multiple revenue streams that work in synchronicity with one another. That’s what good businesses do, and absent specific indications of impropriety it should be something we teach our colleagues is a good business practice, not a suspect one.
To the person who says, “I think Michael is a great guy, but he shouldn’t have a hand in so many events his business benefits from. One minute he is chairing a panel or giving a talk, and the next he is selling his services handing out free champagne,” I say, why not?
And why wouldn’t YOU want to run your business the same way? Leveraging platforms to build a business is Business 101. And we’ve never had a complaint about free champagne.
The question that person should be asking is whether there are any exclusionary or anti-competitive business practices taking place. These are not things I or any of my businesses engage in, and I will always be vigilant to ensure that we do not do so in the future.
Ultimately, the thing that makes this industry so different than so many other parts of the entertainment business is that both as voice actors and service providers, those who have been here for any length of time know that there is plenty of work for everyone.
We come from a place of abundance, and I know I speak for Anna and the whole JMC team when I say that we are always committed to approaching this industry in a manner that not just shares, but hopefully spreads the wealth.”
Kevin Kilpatrick attended the JMC Euro Retreat in Normandy, France in 2018. He told me:
“It was an invaluable experience. Beyond the camaraderie with my fellow voice actors, I had breakthroughs in performance working with Dave Walsh, Dave Fennoy and Joe Cipriano – some of the BEST people in the industry. Joe and I still have a ping-pong “grudge match” to settle at some point. Training with Cliff Zellman, Melissa Disney, AJ McKay, and JMC generated game-changing skills and knowledge as well.
When you combine all the hours of training along with the demos you receive, and a first-class, FUN, luxury event, it’s totally worth it in my eyes. After the magical experience I had in Normandy, I knew I’d attend again. I’m excited to see my growth after Switzerland, where the last retreat of 2022 takes place.”
If, after reading this, you feel the urge to join JMC and his team in the Netherlands, you are out of luck. The retreat sold out in a day.
We know the venue. We know the coaching team. Only one question remains unanswered….
Who will be the mystery guest in the Netherlands?