David Sanderson joined Blue Harbor Resort, Sheboygan, in spring 2011, not long after the property was sold for $4.2 million by Great Wolf Resorts Inc. to independent owners Claremont New Frontier Resort LLC. Insight Co-Publisher and Executive Editor Margaret LeBrun sat down with Sanderson before the New North Summit was to be held at the resort to talk about how he helped make the business profitable.
Some of the best things in life are things that just happen.
I was in western Maryland when I got a call from a recruiter in March 2011. They said, “We’ve got this partnership that is acquiring a resort.” I knew Blue Harbor was in Wisconsin, but that’s all I knew. I flew to Milwaukee, drove to Sheboygan and looked at the property. I thought, “Wow this is just a spectacular setting!”
For the last decade I have managed independent properties versus a branded facility like a Renaissance or a Hyatt. Maybe people recognized that I was too much of a maverick to succumb to routine brand standards. I always like to think of myself as entrepreneurial. In an independent property, that’s what you have to be. You have to build a team and you have to create your brand.
My charge was to put together a team and make this a profitable business. They say the property has great bones. It’s certainly striking upon arrival. The views are stunning with the sunrise and moonrise on the lake … I lived in the resort for two months and every morning got up and watched the sunrise with a cup of coffee — and never got tired of it.
I tell people we’re not in the resort business, we’re not in the restaurant business, we’re not in the water park business, we’re not in the conference business — we’re in the experience business. Our mission statement says we will exceed the expectations of every guest, every day, by creating one smile at a time. Every guest who comes here for a conference is a potential return guest for a leisure visit, and many leisure guests have the potential to return corporate business to us.
When I came on board, the two owners and I independently came up with very similar conclusions: That we had to broaden the appeal of the resort. I coined the phrase, “We needed to ‘de-mermaid it.’” The interior aspects were totally children-oriented. There were mermaids in the carpet and very whimsical, overly-themed elements to rooms and public spaces.
Blue Harbor is the largest resort on Lake Michigan. We have 246 rooms, counting the main resort and the villas that are part of it. On an average day in the summer, we’ll have 1,100 guests on the property, increasing the population of Sheboygan by 2 percent.
The key benchmark statistic in any hotel is revenue per available room. Since 2012, that’s up about 40 percent. Total revenues have come close to doubling. I attribute it to the people that work there and the owners that invested in the property.
In a waterpark property, the slowest months are April and May, and September and October. But they are the best months for conferences. In the last two years our conference business has more than doubled; that comes from going out and fighting for the business. The first big push was to broaden the appeal of the interior. We totally gutted the central core of the building, including the lobby, restaurants, retail and all the public areas and all that was finished in mid-March 2012. Since then, there has been more guest room work and work on the villas.
By next May we will double the size of the outdoor pool deck and put in a big fire pit and a big hot tub. We’re installing a surfing simulator in the water park called a flow rider; it’s a $1.6 million project and will open mid-December. Sheboygan is known as the Malibu of the Midwest and the surfing capital of the Midwest, so there’s a natural tie-in there.
Sheboygan is also one of five U.S. Sailing Centers in the nation. It’s a very enjoyable experience to sit on the lobby patio with a nice glass of wine and watch these sailboats out on the lake.
The future for Blue Harbor and Sheboygan is very bright. So many people come and say, “I had no idea this was here!”