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Wisconsin Dells Now Has 8,000 Hotel Rooms,
Attracting the More Affluent

By Doris Hajewski, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

June 27, 2004 - WISCONSIN DELLS, Wis. -- On a rainy weekend, the hair-weaving concession at the Kalahari Resort indoor water park is a busy place.

Nine-year-old Brittany Engstrom is sitting motionless on a stool while Sue Bretl entwines blue satin ribbon and tiny beads with a lock of her hair. At two bucks an inch, the trendy decoration will set her dad back about $20, but that's not a problem.

After all, you can't stay in the water all day.

Used to be that the Dells was purely a blue-collar, sticky-sidewalk destination where the shops sold T-shirts with slogans you wouldn't wear in front of grandma.

It still is. But now that's not all it is.

Since the late 1990s, a steady stream of upgrades at resorts, the opening of new destinations and amenities, and, yes, even a classier riverwalk in the ticky-tacky downtown, is expanding the appeal of the Dells to middle class families. And in a marketing full circle, one of the latest pitches is none other than the area's scenery.

Dells tourism officials and property owners even envision a future with activities in which adults can indulge without kids, such as spas and shopping.

As the free-spenders pour in, the old destinations and the new must sort out ways to differentiate themselves without splintering the image of the Dells.

At the Kalahari, where the Engstroms recently stayed, one night in a suite can cost as much as $570 in season. But in four visits to the Dells, the Engstrom family has yet to ride the famous Ducks. The glitter of the downtown shops has worn off.

"You probably don't want to print what I think," Craig Engstrom said of the downtown. He and wife Denise are teachers in Fort Atkinson.

"As with any product, when the pool expands on such a variety of levels, there are challenges," said Romy Snyder, executive director of the Wisconsin Dells Visitor & Convention Bureau.

About 2.5 million people visit the Dells a year, three-fifths of them in the summer. Last year the Dells had 8,000 hotel rooms, up from 5,500 in 1993.

The upscale push at the Dells is being repeated at similarly situated vacation venues around the country, said Rod Caborn, vice president of public relations at Yesawich, Pepperdine & Brown, an Orlando advertising agency that specializes in tourism.

Panama City, Fla., for example, used to be known as the "redneck Riviera," with lots of cheap rooms for visitors from Mississippi, Alabama and south Georgia, Caborn said. "Now they're knocking them all down and building condos."

Same with Pigeon Forge, Tenn., at the entrance to the Smoky Mountains.

"They had every dog wrestle and porpoise tank you could imagine," he said. Now Pigeon Forge is seeing more upscale development, Caborn said.

Mick La Lopa, professor of hospitality and tourism management at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., said demand for less expensive rooms certainly will remain, even as the Dells sees more upscale development.

"Unless you put a fence around the Dells," La Lopa said, you'll still have campgrounds and low-end hotels. But the competition from the higher-price places puts the onus on the smaller ones to be sure they produce a basic level of service that's clean and friendly, he said.

Attitudes such as Engstrom's don't surprise longtime Dells tourism operators.

"The blue-collar worker within a three-hour driving distance from the Dells made the Dells what it is," said Tom Diehl, owner of the Tommy Bartlett Water Show. "The white-collar people kind of snubbed their noses at it. It was too honky-tonk."

Ticket sales to the show have sprung a leak since the advent of the indoor water park construction spree. Diehl said revenue has declined 10 percent to 15 percent.

Part of the answer is to make sure that the older venues are promoted along with the new, Diehl said.

Managers of the Kalahari want to keep their guests and their wallets on the property, but they also want to play nice with the other Dells property owners.

The Kalahari property includes a spa, gift shops, restaurants, a 125,000-square-foot convention center and a 125,000-square-foot indoor water park, the largest of its kind in the United States. A 360-room addition opened to a capacity crowd in June.

At busy tourist times, the Kalahari also invites independent vendors onto the site to offer diversions such as a pottery class, air brush tattoos, and baby lions and tigers from a nearby animal farm.

"My goal is to keep them here," general manager Daylene Stroebe said of her guests.

Even so, Stroebe offers Kalahari guests the convenience of buying Dells Boat Tours tickets in the lobby and a shuttle bus to the dock.

Dells Boat Tours manager Dan Gavinski said the indoor water parks have helped his business, allowing him to extend the season from the traditional Memorial Day-Labor Day schedule to open in March and run through late October. Since 1999, when he extended his calendar, gross sales are up nearly 10 percent, Gavinski said.

Last month, Mike Kaminski, owner of the Chula Vista Theme Resort north of the city along the river, announced a $100 million expansion to start this fall, adding 200 condo units, a 60,000-square-foot indoor water park and a 100,000-square-foot expo and convention center that will include a sports complex. He hopes the sports facility will draw youth club tournaments for sports such as soccer.

A family-owned resort for decades, Chula Vista had some lean years in the 1980s but then started adding indoor amenities -- a pool, a small water park -- and a larger outdoor park. Now it has 300 rooms and a 40,000-square-foot meeting facility that generates about half the resort's business. During peak times in the summer, Chula Vista fills 85 percent to 95 percent of its rooms.

"Chula is one of the very few that made the transition from one of the 30-room mom-and-pops," Kaminski said.

But even with all that, Chula needs to keep growing to compete with big resorts such as Kalahari and Great Wolf Lodge, one of the first big water park hotels. Kaminski was one of the original owners of Great Wolf.

And despite all the efforts of the big resorts to keep their guests on site, they can benefit when guests leave to take in a downtown attraction, Snyder said, because the extra activity can translate into an extra night spent at the resort.

Or they might actually tour the original attraction: the scenic bluffs along the Wisconsin River that attracted people to the area long before the notion of a water park was splashing in anybody's imagination.

With funding from a downtown business improvement district, the city has spent $500,000 to build a walkway along the river. Extensions that will link the walk to the Dells boat dock and to a Department of Natural Resources trail are planned, said Ben Borcher, mayor of Wisconsin Dells and a third-generation business owner in the city.

The Dells 2004 ad campaign aims to address the variety of offerings by superimposing water park images on idyllic nature scenes. The decision to re-emphasize the natural attributes that first drew tourists to the area more than 50 years ago was based on focus groups of people who don't vacation in the Dells, said Andy Larsen, vice president at Boelter & Lincoln, the Milwaukee ad agency that serves the Dells convention bureau.

Snyder said, "By showcasing the natural beauty that made the Dells popular in the first place, we feel we can challenge perceptions that we only offer man-made, kids-oriented attractions and reach a broader spectrum of people."

The water park market appears to be far from saturated, but already a new wave of Dells destinations is welling up to appeal to the mature, or the waterlogged.

Tanger Factory Outlet Centers Inc. of Greensboro, N.C., last month announced plans to build a 300,000-square-foot mall next to Great Wolf, near the Highway 12 exit from I-94. Tanger is in the leasing stage of development, aiming for 65 to 75 stores, said Carrie Warren, senior vice president.

Plans for the mall have not yet been submitted for local government approval, but Tanger hopes to complete it in time for the 2005 holiday season, Warren said.

Sundara Inn & Spa, an upscale, adults-only hotel that opened last year, is attracting guests who arrive in private planes from Milwaukee, Illinois and Minnesota, said Borcher, part owner of the spa with his wife, Kelli Trumble.

Sundara, set in the woods away from the noise of the water parks and roller coasters, offers rooms and suites with fireplaces, private balconies and Kohler baths. Off-season rates drop to $189, with peak rates for suites at $649 a night.

Kaminski and a few others -- many Dells properties are owned by overlapping partnerships -- formed a partnership in spring to purchase the Cold Water Canyon golf course across the road from Chula. They hope to hire a big-name golf course designer to remake the course, with surrounding condo development.

Traditionally the Dells has been a drive-to destination, but some Web sites are offering bargain airfares through the Madison airport.

"The Wisconsin Dells has always been a very family-oriented area," Borcher said. "Now we're catering to a new element, more affluent. It doesn't happen overnight."

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