Born Of A Mountain Tragedy, A Vision For Wellness And Community Takes Hold By The Sea At Charleston’s Social Club The Wonderer
Charleston’s social and wellness club The Wonderer, founded by Beau Burns, evolved from years of work, travel, reflection, and one life-affirming tragedy.
In December 2014, Beau Burns walked away from his finance job and bought an around-the-world plane ticket. Tired of the daily grind, he wanted to clear his head and contemplate career moves. Three months into his travels, about to depart the Philippines for Nepal to join a climb to Mt. Everest Base Camp, he got a call from a friend in China. “I’m coming south into Tibet, and we can do the ascent together if you can push your date back by 2 weeks” he told Burns. Burns jumped on the phone with the trip coordinator and in a rare stroke of luck for this popular excursion, they had slots open for the new date. Burns changed his flight and stayed in Cebu another week.
On April 25, 2015, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal on the boundary between the Indian and Eurasian plates. The epicenter sat just 37 miles north-west from the capital Kathmandu. The earthquake devastated the city, killed nearly 9,000 people, and triggered an avalanche on Mt. Everest. All 15 climbers on the trip Burns had cancelled died on the mountain.
Burns was born and raised in Kentucky, graduated from the University of Georgia and Terry Business school with finance degrees, and joined the workforce soon after. Ten years punching a clock for money alone proved enough. Of course, like many millennials, Burns had a side hustle that illuminated his life in ways a desk job could not. Focused mainly on live music event production, he enjoyed the challenge of large-scale logistics coordination as well as connecting with others. “I liked showing people a good time, bringing them back to a closer version of themselves” he said during a recent interview with Forbes at The Wonderer.
He threw New Year’s Eve parties on the USS Yorktown, a WWII aircraft carrier turned museum permanently posted at Charleston’s Patriot’s Point. In 2012, he organized from scratch a music festival on a private island in the Bahamas. “Like the Fyre Festival but it actually happened” he said.
As co-owner and operator of Brightsound Entertainment, Burns worked on myriad events and concerts during his time in finance. One sticking point about the business model he found frustrating was the challenge of creating events at venues owned by other people. “There was this seed in my mind – I wanted my own place one day” he said.
The morning of the earthquake, Burns had been swimming with whale sharks. “I got back to my hostel, I’m on this big high, and my friend calls and asks if I’m watching the news” he said. I told him he saved my life.
“I don’t believe in coincidences; I don’t believe in luck. Surely this is all happening for a reason,” said Burns about his thoughts that day.
The moment would prove a catalyst. “I realized I should start figuring out how to make sure what I do when I get home will be based on gratitude” he said. With another three weeks left on his ticket, Burns changed his flight again and re-routed to India.
He chose Kashmir, a mountain destination without cell reception, Wi-Fi, and at the time, English speakers. He effectively signed up for a silent retreat. “I didn’t see any Westerners and had no way to communicate with anyone for almost 22 days” he said. He almost hit the proverbial eject button after a few days, but he had books to read and journals to fill up. “That’s when I came up with the idea for The Wonderer” he said.
Burns did a quick mental SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats).
“I knew I wanted to do something that would create impact, meaning, and positive change. I thought: What are my strengths?” He counted finance, events, and music among them. The exercise helped him evolve his idea.
“Instead of events, I thought, maybe I could create a second home for folks where they can combine exercise, wellness, work, and social events in one place. Help them get time back in their life, the most valuable commodity that we’ll never have again,” said Burns.
He looked to shared economy projects and success stories like WeWork and Soho House as proof of concept.
Burns set the The Wonderer in motion in 2017. The private social and wellness club on Meeting Street in the Upper Peninsula of downtown Charleston finally opened its campus four years later in July 2021. Burns, as the founder, developer, and principal, breathed a sigh of relief when the gates finally swung open.
Such a sigh is understandable, especially upon first glance at the physical manifestation of his years-long vision. Entering through a sun-shaped door, members pass down a breezy corridor of swaying palms and tropical plants. Perhaps the most striking aspect of The Wonderer is the Olympic-size pool. Behind it, a music stage hosts live entertainment and a jumbo movie screen loops saturated video of dreamy far-flung places, while members lounge on chairs and cabanas. It’s a picture of vacation bliss—without flying off to Mexico.
In fact, the entire campus channels the rustic-chic wood-and-macramé mood of Tulum, one of the places on Burns’s travel circuit that imprinted on his memory.
Other amenities include a fitness area known as ‘the garden” where a teepee imported from Norway offers shelter for yoga, HIIT classes, and sound bathing sessions, among other spiritual, physical, and meditative practices.
Most of the structure is open-air to capitalize on Charleston’s warm weather and encourage people to spend more time outside, a feature that played in the club’s favor during the pandemic. Upstairs hosts a rooftop bar, lounge area and high-top seating, plus a deck that both members and non-members can rent for private events. Below, one of the club’s few enclosed spaces, the café serves members cold brews by day and wine, cocktails, and beers by night. Or day. As a member wishes.
The restaurant menus continue to evolve but feature global-inspired dishes with a healthy bent, like the salmon poke bowl or Baja fish tacos at Bhava, the club’s all-day menu. Upstairs, Krida mixes local seafood with heartier dinner portions from hanger steak with piquant chimichurri to udon noodle bowls with glazed tofu. All of the food is excellent, thanks to the club’s talented full-time chef Tom Smith.
In the back behind a third bar tropical-inspired bar with its insta-ready rope swings, sits the co-working space. Soundproof booths for private calls, high-speed Wi-Fi, printers, and scanners are some of the features that keep members productive so they can pivot to relaxing once hitting send on that last email.
A new biophilic gym debuts imminently, solving some of the problems of working out at The Wonderer during inclement weather.
While day-to-day amenities keep members active, it’s the club’s social calendar that draws them together, from movie nights at the pool, wine tastings, trivia, and a guest speaker series focusing on business development. The Wonderer also rents out the garden, rooftop or offers full club buyouts for private events from corporate wellness retreats to weddings.
For Beau, The Wonderer appeals to locals looking for ways to better their lives and stay open to new perspectives. The pandemic drove this point home. “The goal was to bring people together so that when they go through something difficult, they have a community. The challenges we experience in life are less difficult when we have a strong support base” he said.
Contact the club for membership inquiries and rates.