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Four Wisconsin Resorts, Lake Lawn, Interlaken, the Abbey
 and Grand Geneva, Spending Millions to Establish Market Share

By Mike Heine, The Janesville Gazette, Wis.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News 

Sep. 12, 2005 -- Fontana's Jerry Pawlak, a longtime resort maitre d' and expert in fine dining, still likes to look his finest when he goes out on the town. But with a casual look becoming more and more acceptable at classy establishments, it's been a struggle to find places to go. 

"I'm still from that old school where I still like to dress up to go out," said Pawlak, who in his tuxedo would cater to the stars at the old Playboy Club in Lake Geneva in the late 1960s through early '80s. 

"Who does that nowadays but a few people?" 

From the looks of things, Pawlak's options have been continually improving. A revitalization of some of Walworth County's premier resorts with their high-class restaurants and amenities has made the area a bit plusher. That's good news for people with Pawlak-like tastes who don't mind looking good and spending a few extra dollars. 

Starting in the early 1990s with Marcus Corp. buying what's now known as Grand Geneva Resort and Spa, Walworth County is in the midst of a renewed vigor in the high-class hospitality world. 

The Abbey Resort and Fontana Spa is putting the finishing touches on a $40 million renovation that refurbished its restaurants with new looks and new menus. The Abbey updated all 334 guest rooms and conference areas. 

Grand Geneva Resort continues to spend millions updating its facilities. In the past few years, the resort has focused on its entrances, restaurants and lounges, said Dave Griffin, director of sales and marketing. 

"Not only do we want to keep up with our competitors, but we want to have our guests return again and again," Griffin said. 

Lake Lawn Resort in Delavan has new owners who want to spend $390 million and expand the facility by 1,000 rooms with new hotel-condominium units, restaurants and a six-story indoor water park. 

"I'm anxious about what they're going to do," Pawlak said of Lake Lawn. "With the money they're sticking into that place, oh gosh." 

"At this property, it's going to be setting the pace for what the market wants," Dan Hintz, a part owner of Lake Lawn Resort, said of the planned hotel and condominium development. 

"We're going to be the biggest of its kind in the state." 

Interlaken Resort, which is owned by Anvan Corp., will soon undergo renovations and become known as The Lodge at Geneva Ridge. It, too, wants to add combination condominium/hotel rooms and an indoor water park. 

"We've seen the (concept) pictures and it looks wonderful," Mary Van Lue, town of Geneva planning commission secretary, said of the plans for Interlaken. 

All four resorts-Lake Lawn, Interlaken, the Abbey and Grand Geneva-are staying current with the competition and trying to establish market share. 

"If you think about each of the facilities, they have to keep up with the times and the market demands of the people that are using the facilities in this age," said attorney John Maier, who is representing Anvan with its Interlaken project. "You have to keep up with the standards in the industry. If you're going to keep up, you have to offer comparable quality and amenities." 

Joan Schenk, executive director of the Walworth County Visitors Bureau, called that the domino effect. 

She's noticed the new additions and renovations at Grand Geneva and the Abbey and has seen the impact on the county tourism industry. 

"I've seen it grow tremendously in just the last two years," Schenk said. "We're getting more and more (tourism) traffic in the area, and we're getting more and more reasons to stay in the area for more than just one day." 

By refurbishing the area resorts and adding new restaurants and attractions, Walworth County communities have all improved, Schenk said. New jobs are added, and there are more places to go and more things to see, do and experience. 

"Now, (these resorts) have leveled the playing field," Schenk said. "It's taking off, but it's got potential to go even farther now." 

Walworth County ranks sixth among Wisconsin's 72 counties in tourism dollars spent annually. Last year, Walworth County edged Door County for its current position with an estimated $406.5 million spent annually by visitors, according to the Wisconsin Department of Tourism. 

Counties ahead of Walworth include Milwaukee, Dane, Sauk-with its resort-laden Wisconsin Dells-Waukesha and Brown. 

Rock County is 10th on the list. 

Tourism revenues in Walworth County increased 1 percent from 2003 through 2004 and continue to climb. 

Every business and attraction in Walworth County is vital to tourism, Schenk said, but it's the resorts that give people places to stay while seeing the sites. 

The county's tourism viability "depends on the resorts just as much as it depends on the attractions," Schenk said. "The more we can offer people, the more they're going to want to come back." 

From what's been done to what's being planned, it seems the county is going in the right direction, Schenk and Pawlak agreed. 

"I'm glad there is money being put into these places," Schenk said of the county's resorts. "These resorts have such a rich history and you don't want to see that go away. They have historical value and they have value to the people coming here." 

Pawlak knows first hand as he saw the value of the Playboy Club disappear when the Americana hotel chain purchased the property in the early 1980s. Eventually, the resort fell into disrepair until Marcus Corp. bought it and sank $30 million into renovations. 

Since then, a new hotel and indoor water park, called Timber Ridge Lodge, were added. The renovations were the precursor to what the Abbey did and what Lake Lawn and Interlaken have planned. 

"About 10 years ago, (Marcus) made just a tremendous change," Pawlak said of his old place of employment. "In my own personal opinion, (Americana) took the money instead of putting it back into the operation by fixing it and making repairs. It started to show." 

Pawlak said those renovations have renewed and invigorated the overall resort atmosphere in Walworth County. 

"It's all coming back again, and (the resorts) are trying to make this big comeback," Pawlak said. "What they're doing right now, I think is making the right moves. I'm glad to see it." 

Maybe he'll once again have a chance to wear his black coat and tie when he goes out in Walworth County. 


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Copyright (c) 2005, The Janesville Gazette, Wis.

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