Costa Women is celebrating its tenth anniversary this autumn. While planned celebrations have not gone ahead due to the current restrictions, the founder of the now Spain-wide women's group, Ali Meehan, talks to SUR in English about how it all started back in 2010.
Ali, 58, explains that she started the online group on her kitchen table while working in Thailand, and about to return to the Costa del Sol permanently in summer 2010. She explains, "I wanted a way to make friends when I got back to Spain. It was as simple as that."
The entrepreneur says that the first ever article published in SUR in English about Costa Women in 2010 "really helped to get the word out". Ali recalls that then editor, Liz Parry, spotted an advertisement linked to a book club, which mentioned a new women's group. Liz asked then reporter George Prior to investigate and that led to the article.
"Initially I thought it would be an online platform but from very early on ladies were wanting to meet up. It's grown organically from there," Ali says, adding that someone from Barcelona contacted her to see if she could join and the group rapidly became not just the Costa del Sol, but Spain-wide.
"I originally thought it was going to be the Costa del Sol," Ali admits, adding that the success of Costa Women has "definitely exceeded expectations". The group now boasts 9,300 members in 38 groups across the country.
The website is a portal for women to "connect, inspire, enable and support, which are the four premises of Costa Women", Ali explains. She is also keen to mention that while the community does use English as its main language, Costa Women is for everyone.
"A lot of people think it's just for British women but it's for everyone." Members currently represent 138 different nationalities.
One of the aspects of Costa Women that Ali is particularly proud of is the support it has given to charities and the local community. Members have raised funds for organisations including Bancosol, Cudeca, Knitted Knockers and Acompalia over the years.
The most recent example was the online pop-up shop where shopkeepers were asked to donate a percentage of their profits to Bancosol and buyers were also encouraged to make a contribution.
Other achievements Ali is keen to highlight include the three 'Spain and Me' ebooks, written using members' stories; the online course for people thinking about moving to Spain, which involves experts providing advice and information on different aspects of life in this country; and the Costa Women TV YouTube channel.
Ali also adds that a big business community has evolved, which wasn't part of the original idea.
"I thought it would just be a social group," Ali says. However, just as lockdown started, Costa Women hosted its seventh International Women's Day business event.
"We had to put the whole thing online 24 hours before it was due to go ahead," Ali points out, adding, "It was a bit stressful, but we did it."
The founder recognises that Costa Women is a transient group and has seen a number of women come and go because of Brexit and Covid, which she says "have also made people question whether they should be living in another country".
She adds, "On the other hand, we have also seen a huge amount of British women moving here before the 31 December Brexit deadline. There's also been a shift in nationalities moving here, especially Scandinavians, South Africans, Americans and Canadians."
Support during a crisis
Coronavirus, she says, has changed the nature of Costa Women in many aspects. "This year we have organised more than 250 online events. Before Covid it was around 20 per month. We're just trying to keep the community together in whatever way we can."
In the 2010 article, Ali said that the average age of a Costa Women member was 60 plus. Ten years on she says that there are now a lot of younger members and ages range from mid 20s to 90s.
"I would say the average age is now about 50. The rise in opportunities to work online has really been promoted through Covid. You don't need to go to an office so it's easier to work from Spain."
As for the next 10 years, Ali says, "I think Covid has changed a lot of things. People are now used to doing things online, including older people and we will continue to embrace technology."
She thinks that Costa Women may be on the verge of establishing its first group outside Spain. "A few women have recently moved to Portugal, so they are looking to start a Portuguese group."
Ali has confirmed that next year's International Women's Day conference will be online again. "The joy of being online has meant that women have joined from across Spain, whereas normally it would be mainly women from the Costa del Sol. I don't think people realise how big it is. We have done so much in 10 years I forget everything!"