Commerce: Timeless values meet 21st century expectations at Holiday Acres
“Up north” is a phrase that evokes treasured memories for untold numbers of vacationers, memories of feasting on toasted marshmallows, spending the whole day in a swimsuit, and making new friends while vacationing at a lakeside resort. Many family-owned resorts have disappeared from northern Wisconsin’s lake shores, but those that remain still symbolize the magic of a northern Wisconsin summer.
Perched on the shore of Lake Thompson just outside Rhinelander, Holiday Acres Resort has beckoned generations of vacationers since the 1940s. With its variety of accommodations and activities, wooded setting and renowned dining, Holiday Acres is still going strong. Owners Kim and Kari Zambon have managed to bring their classic Northwoods resort into the 21st century. Armed with a tradition of quality service, a willingness to adapt to change and a healthy dose of perseverance, it appears they’ve done it successfully.
The story of Holiday Acres began back in the 1920s, when Kim’s grandparents, George and Hazel Blaesing, opened Shorewood Vista Resort on Lake Thompson. The amenities at Shorewood Vista were pretty basic back then, consisting of linens, towels, a pitcher and washbowl, and a chamber pot in each cottage. Today, the resort experience is quite different in many ways. The Zambons, including their kids Jamie, Kate and Pete, and a staff of about 45 full- and part-time employees, work diligently to meet and exceed guests’ expectations.
The resort is a busy place, even when the summer vacation season has yet to kick into gear. In the Three Coins Restaurant on a spring morning, Kari and Kim Zambon alternate between interviewing a prospective employee and sitting down to be interviewed themselves about the resort that has been in their family for so long.
“So many resorts in the Northwoods grew out of couples’ desire to have a resort,” Kim says. “They would come out of the cities in the Forties and build a place with four or five cottages.”
These resorts might be fully occupied in the summers, but not during the long winters. Many of the resorts that cropped up in the Northwoods didn’t have a lot of lake frontage and their owners didn’t have the funds to purchase adjacent land. Over the years, private owners built cottages on either side of them. By the time these mom-and-pop operations had been established long enough to have some capital, their properties were already confined and couldn’t expand. In time, many of the traditional resorts were gone, replaced by private vacation homes.
In contrast, Holiday Acres consists of 1,000 acres and has nearly 6,000 feet of lake frontage, although not all of that frontage is for recreational use.
“Our business is just large enough to sustain itself,” Kim says. He attributes the resort’s success in part to its size. “My parents had a love of property and a love of land, and they bought a lot of property while they could.”
The generous acreage on which Holiday Acres is located allows the Zambons to offer their guests a variety of accommodations and activities. Visitors can stay in guest rooms at the resort’s lodge, in furnished cottages of various sizes or in vacation homes. They can also indulge in a host of activities at the resort, among them swimming in the indoor pool or in Lake Thompson, exploring nature trails, tennis, fishing, canoeing and more. Nearby, they can also enjoy horseback riding, golfing and other pastimes.
The Zambons’ willingness to offer an array of services to a wide range of customers has ensured that the resort is as attractive to locals as it is to vacationers. In the 1960s, Kim’s parents, Doris and Jim, added the picturesque Three Coins Restaurant. Over the years, meeting rooms with wireless Internet and audio-visual equipment have also been added, making Holiday Acres a prime choice among members of the business community for meetings, retreats, seminars and conferences. The Rhinelander Area Chamber of Commerce Annual Dinner Meeting, the Oneida County Economic Development Corporation Annual Luncheon and other community events have regularly been held at Holiday Acres.
In addition, many couples choose to have their weddings and receptions at Holiday Acres, and it’s also the site of parties, reunions and other celebrations. The resort even attracts shoppers with the Turn of the Century Gift Shop, housed in a log building more than a century old.
There are also the jazz events held at Holiday Acres annually. These events became a tradition starting in 1971 when Doris and Jim Zambon brought in jazz greats like Buddy Rich, the Count Basie Orchestra and others to play at the resort.
That willingness to serve a broad range of customers, along with a spectacular Northwoods setting and the Zambons’ dedication to providing exemplary service, keeps guests returning.
“Our guests tell us over and over that we mean a lot to them,” Kim says.
That, Pete adds, is because his parents are willing to put in the work. “The rewards become greater and greater the more work you do,” he says. “It bothers all of us if somebody isn’t happy. It matters to us.”
Although much of the resort’s success is due to generations of loyal customers returning to Holiday Acres, they also recognize the importance of attracting new visitors.
“That’s how you survive,” says Pete, who enjoys getting to know the resort’s guests.
Keeping regular customers and attracting new ones requires meeting their expectations. Some time ago, that meant installing televisions in the cabins and rooms. (Not everyone wanted them. “When we first put TVs in the cottages,” Kim recalls, “People used to ask us to take them out.”) Later on, access to cell phone service was in demand among guests.
Now, vacationers enter their cabins expecting the Internet connectivity they get at home. To meet the demand, Wi-Fi is being implemented throughout the resort incrementally. It’s a costly proposition and sometimes, Pete notes, the Zambons must choose between investing in improved technology such as Wi-Fi – upgrades that guests don’t “see” – and upgrading the cabins in ways that people do see, like adding new appliances. Indeed, technology, the Zambons agree, has become the greatest challenge in running Holiday Acres.
The advent of the Internet and smart phones has revolutionized the hospitality industry overall and has dramatically changed how resorts and hotels do business. Now, family-owned operations like Holiday Acres have a global presence online. With that heightened profile comes a series of new challenges.
Among those challenges is “Keeping up with the technological part of how people find us,” Kari says. Utilizing technology has become crucial for attracting guests to the resort and for keeping their loyalty. Guests no longer rely solely on word-of-mouth reviews from friends or relatives who have visited a resort. Now, thanks to social media and review sites such as Trip Advisor, a guest’s comments about a stay at a resort or hotel can be seen by millions of people around the world. This necessitates that resorts and hotels maintain a presence on these sites, and Kari spends a lot of time responding to online comments about the resort.
Instead of calling a resort or hotel for reservations, many guests now expect to reserve accommodations with a few mouse clicks. The Holiday Acres website was redesigned in the last year, and Pete notes that the Zambons are always working on ways to keep the resort visible to prospective guests searching for vacation sites.
Online travel agents (OTAs) are another aspect of the technological wave that has swept through the hospitality industry. “Right now, we aren’t involved with any OTAs,” Pete says. A few examples of OTAs are Orbitz.com, Expedia.com, Priceline.com and so on. They’re convenient for travelers, who can quickly arrange travel and accommodations with just a few mouse clicks. OTAs can certainly drive business to a resort or hotel, but the catch is that they collect a sizable percentage of each sale. So even if a resort or hotel has increased occupancy, it can still suffer financially because of these fees.
“That’s an area where independents have an extra challenge,” Kari says.
Online reservations are available on the Holiday Acres website, though, which itself involves paying for the services of a central reservation system. Many of these providers also charge a commission on every booking, which is why many resorts and hotels prefer that guests call them directly to reserve accommodations.
Even with 21st century technology revolutionizing the hospitality industry, however, the Zambons rely on traditional values of customer service. Community involvement is also an important part of doing business, Kari says – not just at the local level, but also in promoting the region and the state. “When you participate, you help your community,” she says, “but you also learn a lot you can bring back to your business.”
Traditional lakeside resorts may be a disappearing breed, but Holiday Acres has solid strengths, among them, Kari says, “Our location, our property, the beauty here. We have a family here that cares about the business.”
Many people in cities, she adds, don’t have access to natural areas and some don’t even see the stars at night. But at Holiday Acres, “They can come here and see things they’ve never seen before.”
“It has a lot of value to people, and people need it,” Kim says. “We all need to get away and get a break from our daily lives. That’s what the hospitality business offers.”
For more information, log on to holidayacres.com.