‘Hotel Impossible’ tries boosting Telemark Resort beyond Birkie

What makes an event or place legendary? Longevity counts. So do excellence, uniqueness and a fondness that grows into deep loyalty with the passage of time.

Soon thousands head to Northwoods Wisconsin for the annual American Birkebeiner, cross-country ski racing between Cable and Hayward. The Feb. 21-23 event, a tribute to Norwegian history that began 40 years ago, lures average to elite skiers from almost all states and many foreign countries.

The lodge at Telemark Resort was 80 percent booked by the time the 2012 Birkie ended, says Robin Bucholz, the resort’s newly appointed chief operating officer. There’s been no room at the inn for race weekend since autumn.

Robin’s ongoing challenge is to boost demand for Telemark during other times of year, and resort owners recently were willing to air the property’s dirty laundry to help make that happen. Warts and virtues of the rural Cable resort, during an episode of “Hotel Impossible,” were paraded for all to see before hotel fixer Anthony Melchiorri arranged changes.

By the time the hour-long TV show ended, the number of Telemark fans on Facebook had increased from 700 to 2,000. Also posted were dozens of sentimental to scathing comments about the property, including these:

“Fond memories of a sleigh ride at midnight New Year’s Eve while it was snowing.”

“My husband and I took our vows 13 years ago in front of the fireplace. Now I work the front desk and get to enjoy the beauty and the memories daily.”

“I wish it would get back to the way it was when I was growing up in the early ’90s – the movie room, candy store, toy store and endless skiing, tubing and snowboarding. It was my family’s favorite place to go, but all of those things are gone now.”

“We stayed last April and were the only guests … were given a key to the loading dock to enter after dark, a la ‘The Shining.’ ”

“I’ve been associated with Telemark since the 1970s and have seen many changes. It’s a shame such a beautiful place struggles so.”

“Our family loves Telemark lodge and has visited various seasons throughout the past 23 years. Our children look forward to our stay every winter.”

“If everyone there would get on the same page as the staff perhaps someone would be able to make Telemark the world-class destination that it used to be. Bet Tony (Wise) would have never let the hot tub be out of order for over a month.”

“I can and will volunteer to help this legend continue.”

“The beauty of that place is that it is in the middle of nowhere. The problem of that place is that it is in the middle of nowhere.”

On the TV show, Anthony described the long-troubled resort as schizophrenic. He praised the caring nature of lodge staff but admonished old-fashioned recordkeeping techniques. “It’s like a car without an engine,” he declared, before computerizing operations and ditching hand-kept housekeeping reports.

He expressed surprise that a breathtaking lobby would be next to a lackluster room of tables and chairs, then arranged for its transition to a pleasant hospitality area.

He seemed satisfied with guest rooms but tore into “hall carpets that smell like my brother’s underwear from when I was 12” and a lack of exterior building upkeep. He explored outdoor surroundings, at the height of autumn, and declared the color so beautiful that it looked fake.

He sensed a lack of trust between management and staff, a lack of insight about how “an Olympic-caliber track can attract more than cross-country skiers” and a lack of priority to sell “a spirit, a passion” for the outdoors.

The Birkie is the continent’s largest cross-country ski race. It happens because of the work of the late Tony Wise. He also established the Telemark ski area in 1947 and in 1972 opened the 200-room Telemark Resort, whose 1,100 acres meet Chequamegon National Forest.

The lodge’s stunning architecture includes a 50-foot-tall, fieldstone fireplace in the lobby and a wall of windows in the restaurant. The design was the work of a Frank Lloyd Wright student and in the 1970s nationally known celebrities (Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr.) were performing at the wintry playground.

That heyday has been replaced by a series of financial struggles – bankruptcies in 1984 and 1998, a shuttering in 2010 and subsequent foreclosure.

Robin says a new, Minnesota-based owners group takes over in a month or two. Horseback riding stables will be brought back, starting Memorial Day weekend. Work is under way to secure a sizable disc golfing tournament.

“We’ve been able to sustain ourselves – cash in, cash out – and the new owners group has stepped up” to be helpful, he says. As for the drama and unfolding of “Hotel Impossible,” Robin says, “It’s a reality show, so it was a little nervy. We didn’t know what the makeover was going to be, or how we would be depicted.”

He remains optimistic about the resort’s future and says the TV exposure helped in numerous ways: “Some people didn’t even realize this place is open.”

For more about Telemark Resort, 42225 Telemark Rd., Cable: telemark-resort.com, 715-798-3400. Room rates start at $79.

Bookings are separate from the time-share units at nearby Telemark Condos, whose winter rates start at $99. telemarkcondos.com, 715-798-3999

Both properties stand to benefit from the debut of a major event June 1: the Mt. Borah Epic, mountain bike racing on 30 miles of trails developed by the Chequamegon Area Mountain Bike Association.

Participation will be capped at 300 racers. For more: mtborahepic.com. The event coincides with the Festival of Trails; more at cambatrails.org, 715-798-3599.

The American Birkebeiner, which began in 1973 with 35 racers on a 50-kilometer trail, in 2012 drew at least 9,500 classic and skate skiers from 21 foreign countries and 48 U.S. states. Courses cover 23 to 54 kilometers. For more: birkie.com, 715-634-5025.

To see video clips of the “Hotel Impossible” episode about the Telemark Resort, go to travelchannel.com/tv-shows/hotel-impossible.

How likely is that visit to help the resort in the long run? A 2012 New York Times article about a similar series, “Restaurant Impossible,” reminds us there are no long-term guarantees.

“A mini-burst of publicity and lines out the door ensue when word spreads that ‘Restaurant: Impossible’ has come to town and is on the verge of a big reveal,” David Segal writes. “The real drama starts soon after. Will the newcomers become regulars? Will the regulars stick around?”

Sometimes yes, and sometimes no. The writer finds successful transformations and businesses that closed shortly after reality TV intervention.