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WisBiz In-Depth: Wilderness Resort's Latest Expansion Symbolic of Dells Tourism Rise

By Gregg Hoffmann

WISCONSIN DELLS - O.P. Helland, the son of a Norwegian immigrant, started blazing tourism trails in this area when he founded the first sightseeing boat tours in the late 1800s.

Three generations later, his family is still doing promoting the Dells. Wilderness Hotel and Golf Resort has been a major catalyst in the thriving resort business. In fact, the resort celebrates its10th anniversary this year by announcing a couple of its biggest trail-blazing ventures yet.

It's all part of the explosion of Wisconsin Dells as a year-round tourist destination that increasingly draws families during the holidays. Instead of a late November or December trip to DisneyWorld, families may now opt for the "waterpark capital of the world.''

As a commercial might say, this isn't O.P. Helland's Dells anymore. The new Wilderness projects are part of overall expansion in the Dells area, which includes additions at the Great Wolf resort and others. Tourists now spend $870 million annually, compared to $275 million in 1994, Dells tourism officials say.

Cousins Tom Lucke and Peter Helland Jr., O.P.'s grandchildren, are part of a history of longtime Dells families re-creating the tourism business. They announced a $150 million expansion in October; it includes a new lodge and banquet center called Glacier Canyon, a Foil Tech roofed, enclosed waterpark where guests can tan year around, an entirely new 18-hole championship golf course (replacing a relatively new course fashioned from part of an older course) and expansion of the Field Brothers' themed restaurants concept.

All these projects are under development at the Dells site close to Interstate 90-94.

Resort owners from around the world are coming to Wilderness and other resorts to study how they have established this niche.

"Over the past 10 years, we have truly grown into one of the most popular family vacation destinations in the Midwest," said Joe Eck, sales and marketing director for Wilderness. "More recently we've captured national attention with appearances on `Good Morning America' and news coverage in USA Today."

Eck said several factors have worked to make the waterpark theme a success in the Dells. "The Midwest weather definitely is a factor," he said. "You can get 88 degrees in the middle of winter without traveling to another hemisphere."

Wilderness' peak seasons are July and August, and then March, when "cabin fever" hits many people in the Midwest. Illinois visitors are the most numerous in the two summer months, but that shifts to visitors from Wisconsin and Minnesota in March and other winter months.

Eck said the natural attractions of the Dells area also help Wilderness and all Dells resorts thrive. The dedication of the Lucke and Helland families to the region is yet another factor in the success, he said.

Wilderness includes 443 themed guest rooms for tourists, but also includes 40 villas, 76 condos, 19 deluxe cabins and 16 three-bedroom cabins, many of which are individually owned. Those owners use their vacation homes and then can work through Wilderness to rent them out to other tourists.

In 2003, the resort opened Wilderness on the Lake, an upscale 108-unit condo resort overlooking Lake Delton.

The resort has 135,000 square feet in two indoor waterparks. One is home to the Midwest's only interactive wave pool, in which kids can have water fights, shoot water cannons and explode water geysers. Wilderness also has two outdoor waterparks, totaling 135,000 square feet, and a new outdoor wave pool which opened in 2004. Wilderness sits on 310-acres of primarily woodlands.

"We have a great property here," Eck said. "We also have been quick to respond to national trends, such as adding more lodging options for extended families and groups as well as upscale options. Every family, no matter what their budget, wants their vacation to be memorable, and it's our job to make sure that we accomplish that at all levels."

Family is an important word at Wilderness and all over the Dells, Eck said. "Most of the resorts and other businesses in this area are family-owned," Eck said. "A lot of these people went to high school together and have known each other for years. They have gone out of their way to make sure the Dells remains a family destination."

The Luckes and Hellands can trace their family heritage back to O.P in the late 1800s in the Dells. Their grandfather founded Riverview Boat Line in 1921. Helland eventually developed retails shops, restaurants and taverns and Hotel Helland, which sat across from the local train station and became a popular place to stay.

His kids followed in his footsteps and now the grandkids are into it. Over the last 40 years, the family company has run Pirate's Cove Mini-Golf, Riverview Park and Waterworld, Goody Gum Drop Candy Shop and the Original Wisconsin Ducks, among other attractions.

Today, Tom Lucke serves as owner of Wilderness, Pete Helland Jr. as vice-president and owner, Tim Lucke as project manager and owner and Pat Helland as director of development and owner.

Wilderness, in many ways, served as the catalyst for this growth. Lucke and Helland opened Wilderness Hotel and Golf Resort in June of 1995, with 79 units, the Fort Wilderness Indoor Waterpark, two outdoor pools and a spa.

Three kiddie slides and 59 guest units were added a year later. Two years after that, 84 more guest units were added and ground was broken on Phase 1 of the vacation villa development.

The growth has just continued. "Even in years when we weren't growing, the owners were doing their research to plan for growth," Eck said. "It's rather remarkable that they had a vision of what this could become back as far as 10 years ago."

Seeing the market success of the indoor water parks, Great Wolf opened in 1997. Kalahari followed in 2000. Those two resorts also are undergoing rapid growth and expansion. See the sidebar for more.

Wilderness' recently announced expansion is in response to demand. "The demand for our current vacation villas, condos and cabins has been so great that it led to Glacier Canyon Lodge (which will add 224-units)," Eck said.

The Lodge will also include a 25,000 square foot banquet facility with indoor seating for 500 and an additional 200-person outdoor capacity, which will allow Wilderness to become a bigger player in the meeting, convention and wedding markets.

In the new indoor waterpark, the existing Great Wave outdoor wave pool will be enclosed in the Foil Tech cover. A first for waterparks in the Midwest, the cover allows plants to grow and lets guests tan year around. That waterpark is scheduled to open in March of 2006.

Wilderness also has purchased 200 acres to the east of the current golf course and has already started work on a new course, which should open in the summer of 2007.

Hurdzan/Fry is designing the course. The firm has designed such courses as Erin Hills in Wisconsin (site of the 2008 U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links Championship). Desert Willow in Palm Desert, California, Calusa Pines in Florida and Devil's Painbrush neat Toronto.

"The new course is guaranteed to be one of the top five courses in the state when completed," predicted Mike Hurdzan of the design firm. "It will not only fulfill the challenging and strategic expectations of the individual golfer, but also blend in with the natural assets of the land, which was once a quarry, to create a truly memorable experience."

Meanwhile, in November, the Wilderness ownership announced plans for a hotel and golf resort under the same name which will be connected to the Sevierville Events Center in Sevierville, Tenn., the latest out-of-state expansion for a Dells-based operation. Sevierville's venture will be the first out-of-state development for the Wilderness owners. Plans, which recently were approved by the Sevierville Planning Commission, include a 264-room, six-story hotel, which will be connected to the events center, indoor and outdoor waterparks and a business center.

"My family is excited about the possibility of expanding our successful resort business in Sevierville," said Peter Helland. "The community and its friendly residents remind us of Wisconsin Dells. We welcome the opportunity to help Sevierville increase its tourism presence in the South."

The out-of-state venture does not mean that the Wilderness developers will start to forget about Wisconsin. "What has happened here is a great Wisconsin story," Eck said. "The owners are devoted to this state and this region. Their family has been here and done business for over a century. We feel what has happened in the Dells can serve as a model throughout the state and country."
Sidebar: Dells experiences overall growth

WISCONSIN DELLS - Wilderness Hotel and Golf Resort's most recent expansion is just one example of the explosion in tourism experienced by the Dells area in the recent years.

Two big factors appear to be at play: the indoor waterpark phenomenon and casino gambling at the nearby Ho Chunk resort.

The Great Wolf Lodge is in the process of adding 38,000 square feet to its indoor waterpark. By March 2006, Great Wolf will have 80,000 square feet of waterpark area.

A condo complex also recently was added to the resort. Great Wolf owns and operates, or is in the process of completing, more than a dozen facilities around the country. The company went public in December 2004 and has facilities in seven states and one Canadian province. It's facing a shareholders' lawsuit charging the company misled investors in its initial public offering, but the company plans to fight it, saying the suit "has no merit." Ultimately, the company hopes to open 25 resorts at a rate of two per year, reports say.

Kalahari Resort, within site of millions of interstate travelers, sold out its new condo complex even before breaking ground. Kalahari also has added rooms and waterpark facilities in recent years. It has been a leader in business meetings and conferences with 125,000 square feet of indoor meeting space and banquet room that can seat up to 3,000.

Chula Vista, in its third generation of the Kaminski family ownership, is developing a $100 million condo complex and remaking an older resort on the banks of the upper Wisconsin River. It offers 40,000 square feet of meeting space and has outdoor and indoor waterparks. The waterpark area will be expanded as part of the condo complex.

Ho Chunk Casino also provides a big attraction to the Dells and Baraboo area. In addition to gambling and dining, it too includes a luxury hotel and has experienced growth over the years.

The expansion of these major resorts also has led to more business and development of shops, restaurants and tourism attractions in the Dells, according to Steve Shattuck, marketing director of the Wisconsin Dells Visitor and Convention Bureau.

"It's been exponential growth," Shattuck said. "It's almost too much to keep up with when people contact us and ask 'what's new at the Dells?'"

Some summary numbers tell the story. In 1994, about $1.6 million of the Wisconsin Dells Visitor and Convention Bureau annual budget was generated from room tax revenue. Today, the bureau's annual room tax revenue is around $5.8 million.

The number of tourists staying at hotels, motels and resorts in the Dells has increased from 1 million in 1994 to more than 1.8 million in 2003. The region has moved from a seasonal to year-around destination, with tourists spending more than $870 million annually, compared to $275 million in 1994.

About 22,000 jobs are generated by the tourism industry. Wilderness employs about 1,400 in the peak seasons, and around 800 in the slower seasons.

Shattuck said friendly competition among the large resort owners has benefited the entire region. "I'd call it somewhat 'plucky' competition to create the Gold Standard in waterpark theme resorts, convention business, and other areas," he said. "These are family-run businesses, but families that are very entrepreneurial in their approaches."

The resort/indoor waterpark blend, which originated with the Polynesian Resort in the Dells in 1994 has worked in part because of the climate in the Midwest, but that would not be enough alone, Shattuck believes.

"I think when you combine that with the fact Wisconsin Dells already had a brand name for recreation and tourism, the natural attractions of the area and location near the freeway system and close to some major urban areas, you had what it takes for success," Shattuck said.

The Dells area was helped after 9/11, because people who might have flown to a warmer climate decided to stay closer to home. Once they visited the Dells, they decided to come back.

Shortened vacation times also have helped the resorts in the Dells. "The average family takes 3-4 day trips now," Shattuck said. "It's harder for them to take the two-week vacations of the past. This is a natural location for those trips."

Business and tourism travel also work together. "With what has happened at many of these resorts allows one member of a family to come here for a convention or meeting while the other adult member bring the kids to a waterpark," Shattuck said.

Of course, some skeptics wonder if the bubble will eventually burst, but Shattuck and resort officials emphasize that expansion has been in response to existing demands. They cite the fact that condos have sold out, in some cases before they were completed, and that reservations continue to increase annually.

"I think the expansion in the Dells has been very measured and in response to the marketplace," said Joe Eck, sales and marketing director for Wilderness. "People have had vision here, but that vision also has been developed in response to the demand."

-- By Gregg Hoffmann


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