Andrea “Mona” Picasso and Giulia Vallotto led very different lives before moving to Costa Rica. Born in Argentina, Mona studied and worked in architecture while Giulia went from her hometown in northern Italy to the United States, where she worked in fashion. The duo’s deep passion for the ocean and a yearning for a more laid-back, sun-kissed lifestyle brought them to the little coastal town of Santa Teresa.
“Here, I set myself free,” says Mona. “The ocean became my natural temple and my daily playground.”
Not only are they living out their dreams, but they found and nurtured a community of women from all walks of life that share a similar outlook – both at home in Santa Teresa and online through Instagram.
“We weren’t selling anything at first. We were just sharing this incredible, magical lifestyle with people, which organically grew into this community,” says Giulia.
Years after moving to Costa Rica, Mona and Giulia launched A Week Awake (AWA) with the support of their community, where they host radical surfing experiences for women and share their love for this paradise they call home.
The response has been amazing, with enquiries pouring in from around the world and their first retreats selling out.
We spoke to Mona and Giulia about the importance of community in launching AWA and what’s ahead for their retreats.
The community of “seasters”
Mona and Giulia’s local tribe in Santa Teresa is full of badass women – from chefs and nutritionists like Glenda Saborio Marin to surfers and yogis like Nancy Goodfellow. Community building was never a business strategy for Mona and Giulia. Meeting people, forming connections and sharing passions is simply their way of life.
“We live in this tiny little town, so we do a lot of things for free. We always sign up for things and help out other businesses,” says Mona. “We’re always collaborating with other people.”
Giulia adds, “We started using Instagram to get our ideas out there and show what life is like here, because we love creating content like photoshoots, videos, aesthetics, branding. It’s natural to us.”
Mona and Giulia’s passion propelled their Instagram following, expanding their tribe beyond Santa Teresa to women around the world. Noticing a strong appetite from their followers to experience the Costa Rican lifestyle, Mona and Giulia launched AWA.
“It happened very organically. It wasn’t like a ‘strategy’. And it’s incredible because we’re just two women here in the jungle. The next thing I know, we have our first virtual retreat. 40 women from all over the world joined just through our Instagram platform,” says Giulia.
“We only had 3,000 followers. It wasn’t some huge platform. But just through that we’re like, wow – we’re talking to women in a tiny little apartment in South Africa. It’s powerful what you can do.”
Creating A Week Awake
The idea for AWA wasn’t just sparked by their community, it also came from a deep desire to show the “old school” Santa Teresa.
“Over the course of seven years, I’ve been hired as a surf coach many times by random companies that would host experiences here in Costa Rica. And I always felt like something was off,” explains Mona. “I think it’s the way that the business is set up. It was always fun – I met so many people from all over the world. But when they left, I felt like they didn’t really get to live this. They didn’t really get to know this town. You could have done this in the Bahamas or in Tahiti.”
Giulia continues, “This is why we call it surfing ‘experiences’, because it’s not just a package. You really experience what it’s like to live here for a week.”
Some of these experiences include a "Surf & Sound" retreat, featuring surf legend Kassia Meador, nourishing local flavours prepared by chef Glenda Marin Saborio, daily yoga, massage treatments and more They also have a "Surf & Skate" retreat coming up, co-hosted by Lucy Osinski of GRLSWIRL.
AWA’s approach to community and sisterhood is the same for creating experiences – everything is done with genuine love, passion and energy.
“For us, every retreat feels like giving birth,” says Mona, “I’m just going to give all of my soul, my heart and Giulia is going to give all of her soul and her heart.”
Growing the sisterhood
Looking back at their journey, AWA has learned a lot of lessons in building and growing a community, especially as a small team in a small town.
Focus on audience and branding
For starters, their shared interest in branding and content was a key ingredient in drawing women into their tribe.
“You really need to pick your audience and the people you want to attract,” says Mona. “We do this with a strong branding,” adds Giulia, “AWA isn’t a retreat for everybody and I think it’s obvious from the beginning.”
Much of their branding and content also comes down to just being true to themselves. “I get the most engagement when it’s just Mona and I going surfing in the morning and then sharing funny stories,” says Giulia.
Collaborations within the community
Collaboration is also a major component of AWA’s approach to growing their community and reach. For example, some of their upcoming retreats feature Kassia Meador, and photographer Heidi Zumbrun will document their experiences.
“It’s really difficult to grow something when it’s just you,” says Mona. “But when you have support behind you, in our case, this community of women that do different things, it helps a lot.”
To boost the visibility of their collaborations and retreats, AWA also did giveaway campaigns with their partners.“Giveaways were always great for us. We did giveaways for a first spot in our retreats, with SurfGirl magazine and with Kassia as well,” says Giulia.
Sharing didn’t stop at giveaways. In 2020, Mona and Giulia organised AWA Gives Raffle, which helped raise money for the local community and feed hundreds of families during the pandemic.
“We had zero expectations of the world. Nothing was guaranteed. But we were so committed that we wanted to do this without thinking,” says Mona. “After the borders opened back up, our retreats filled up real quick. And we feel like we were gifted big time because we had given so much without expecting anything in return. Now it’s a big part of our values.”
Launching with Easol
Before Easol, AWA’s website ran on Wix with Instagram as the main channel for driving traffic.
“We had a website but people couldn’t book or anything like that – it was just inspirational videos and information,” says Giulia, “We would get an inquiry on Instagram and then we had to manually make an invoice and send it to them. Sometimes we would be working late at night and accidentally send the wrong email to a customer. It was crazy.”
Migrating to Easol has resolved many of these operational issues – and, crucially, improved the booking experience for customers and elevated the brand.
“Launching our website on Easol really changed things for us because, first of all, we look and act more professional now. No more PayPal links, taking bookings via Instagram and stuff like that,” says Giulia. “Plus it’s much easier to create experiences and update our website. It’s perfect – we’re stoked!”
With their new website live and multiple retreats in their pipeline, Mona and Giulia are excited for what’s to come for AWA and their growing community.