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The Kalahari Desert covers nearly 350,000 square miles in southern Africa, and although it has vast dry areas and numerous saltpans, it is not a true desert because it gets enough annual rainfall to support numerous types of plants and animals. When the owners of Kalahari Resorts adopted the Kalahari and African culture as thematic features in its resorts, they wanted to focus on the continent’s rich offerings and distinctive wildlife to provide a fresh and exciting experience for guests.
“When we were planning our Wisconsin Dells site, everyone else in the industry was creating waterparks around rainforest themes or roaring rapids,” founder, President and CEO Todd Nelson explains. “But we decided on Africa, which is a fabulous theme. We spent some time there when we were planning the resort and made a conscious decision to be authentic. We import items from Africa frequently and I don’t even know the total worth of our art collection. This is just one part of the quality experience we provide.”
With locations in Wisconsin Dells, Wis., and Sandusky, Ohio, Kalahari Resorts aims to change the nature of vacations by delivering “under-one-roof” destinations for families, travelers and conventioneers. Each Kalahari Resort has indoor and outdoor waterparks, spas, extensive retail and shopping areas, multiple dining options and convention centers. The attractions are not only extensive, they also are innovative. Kalahari Resorts, Sandusky boasts the nation’s largest indoor waterpark and one of the world’s largest behemoth bowls. Kalahari Resorts, Wisconsin Dells is home to America’s longest indoor lazy river and the world’s first indoor Super Loop waterslides, which reach more than 250 feet and speeds of 25 miles per hour. Both locations feature the first-ever indoor surfing ride, the Flowrider.
“Our original goal was to provide the complete resort – a place where guests can enjoy breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as play, shop and visit the spa,” Nelson says. “People really like the under-one-roof concept; they never have to go outside, which is nice during our cold Wisconsin and Ohio winters. We are proud of the well-rounded package that we offer.”
Born with an entrepreneurial spirit and “homegrown in Wisconsin Dells,” Nelson took notice when the first indoor waterpark was created in his hometown in 1992. Until then, Wisconsin Dells was known for its seasonal business, but the indoor waterpark was busy year-round. Nelson was excited by what he saw and began working on his own park; in 1997, he opened an indoor waterpark at the Raintree Resort in Wisconsin Dells. At 12,000 square feet, his first park was the largest indoor waterpark in the country at the time, but now the Kalahari resorts hold that honor – the Sandusky resort spans 173,000 square feet and the current Wisconsin Dells location covers approximately 125,000 square feet.
“When we opened the first location in 1997, it was the largest park of its kind at the time, but the space was boxed in and we soon learned never to land-lock ourselves,” Nelson says. “This is a new industry that expands all the time, so we need to be able to add space. We established the first Kalahari location in Wisconsin Dells in December 2000, and we added many amenities, rides and waterslides you couldn’t find anywhere else. We went even further in 2004 when we opened a 100,000-square-foot convention center.
“No one believed that a convention center would work at a waterpark and the banks even cut our original funds for the project,” he continues. “However, kids are in school 60 percent of the year, and at that time there was no business when the kids were in school. We were right – the convention center brought in a lot of business, and it’s been a real game-changer for the industry.”
Kalahari Resorts has achieved many other industry firsts:
Nelson explains the company’s drive to constantly innovate and improve its properties is due to its hands-on management style and employees’ dedication to service.
“This is a family business – I started it with my wife and five kids, and we work to treat everyone as family,” he says. “We are very hands-on and very accessible to our staff. My son and I spend a lot of time on roams, which is when we roam around the resorts for hours and hours at a time so we get to see every aspect of the operation and talk to our guests and staff members. It is important that we are in the environment of the resorts all the time, experiencing what our guests are experiencing. We are based in Wisconsin Dells, but I live at the Ohio location for five days each month.
“When I’m roaming, what I always notice is our great staff,” he adds. “Our people are really committed and loyal. To succeed here, you have to work hard, be creative and like to see change, and our staff members do really well with all of that. We may be working really hard, but when you love what you do, the work is easy.”
To underscore its dedication to service, in early April Kalahari Resorts opened the University of Kalahari, which is its corporate training center. The company used to provide training from outside experts, but "it wasn't delving deep enough into our culture,” Nelson says. He is much more optimistic about the ability to provide training in “a dedicated space with dedicated manpower” at the University of Kalahari.
“The training acts as constant reinforcement of our values,” he says. “It will be consistent because our own experts will be onsite all the time, and it will be customized to our culture. Additionally, we can change it on a dime because our in-house marketing department will produce our own training materials. There are about 1,200 people working at each resort, and this training will benefit everyone.”
This is just one of Kalahari Resorts’ recent improvements. The company remained profitable during the recession, Nelson says, but it was hard to get funding to build new resorts. “We decided to remodel everything instead,” he notes. This includes all of the hotel rooms, hallway carpeting, all of the restaurants at the Wisconsin location, new lobby floors and the addition of coffee shops. When the company does start to build new resorts, its focus will be on expanding east.
“We have changed this industry for the better and we want to keep doing that,” Nelson stresses. “We travel a lot to see new things and get ideas, so our resorts will keep changing. Drive-to destinations are becoming much more popular than fly-to destinations – especially in the Midwest – and whatever people enjoy doing can be put into these resorts.
“The sky’s the limit – we really enjoy the thrill of the chase to change and improve,” he adds.