Dillman’s resort: proof that bigger’s not better

On my desk is a Wall Street Journal story about six-star hotels. Think personal butlers, private swimming pools and four-digit nightly rates for suites that are likely larger than your childhood home.

On my mind is John Hildebrand’s “A Northern Front,” a new book about the tension between people and their environment. We gravitate to the wilderness because of its purity but leave scars when we claim it as our own for a weekend, a summer or a lifetime.

On my bulletin board is an “Escape to Wisconsin” bumper sticker, a remnant from the state’s most effective tourism campaign. I’d say “successful,” but sometimes I wonder about how that word should be defined in the long run.

This world, country and state contain much to pamper us without adding in all the conveniences of modern living. The clarity of a spring-fed lake, the fire of a campsite after sunset, the stunning brilliance of wildflowers on roadsides – each becomes a bigger and rarer gem as life at home grows more crowded, commercial and complicated.

Within the haven that is Wisconsin are multi-million dollar expansions at several resorts that will make them more state-of-the-art, more competitive in the tourism marketplace, more seductive to the overstressed people who seek a place to relax.

Lake Lawn Lodge, near Lake Geneva, has begun a gutting and expansion that will exceed $100 million. Newly completed is a $40 million overhaul of the nearby Abbey Resort in Fontana.

Now comes word that Chula Vista Resort will pursue an almost $200 million expansion, called the largest in the history of Wisconsin Dells. The magnitude dwarfs all kinds of projects by competitors, in a city long known for its lust for outdoing itself.

These are economic strategies that will measure success in dollars and cents – not just for one business, but multiple communities. That is how Denny and Sue Robertson need to measure progress, too, but it has taken creative thinking as well to preserve what has lured travelers here for four generations.

Their Dillman’s Bay Resort is on the shores of White Sand Lake, on the Lac du Flambeau Indian Reservation. In the 1950s, Sue says it was one of 210 resorts in the area. “Today, if there are 10, I’d be surprised.”

Like any other business – grocers to diners to farms – it is tougher for the little guy to survive. Travelers may say they don’t come to the North Woods because of a hair dryer, cable TV or central air – yet their expectations in lodging don’t necessarily change because of the scenery.

Can you get a feel for rustic living without roughing it? Sure. Does that mean you’ll appreciate it? Perhaps.

“The resort has always been about more than the beds and check-ins,” says Sue, whose parents and grandparents also owned the resort. “The draw for me has been the water, getting red eyes from all that swimming, meeting people from Chicago who would come for one or two weeks at a time.”

Her grandfather, Gust Peterson, set a world record when he caught a 55-pound and 55-inch musky on White Sand Lake in 1936. Three years later, the mounted fish was destroyed in a fire that also took the resort’s main lodge. After another fire in 1992, the Robertsons spent $800,000 to rebuild.

It was not an automatic decision, but another generation wanted to get involved and the couple figured their creative arts program, now in its 27th year, had a solid reputation.

But they didn’t stop there. “We were afraid our niche was becoming our identity,” Denny said. “We felt a need to diversify” to avoid being pigeonholed. “If you are just one thing, you run the risk of having interest wane.”

So now there are specialty packages – for fishermen, golfers, wedding weekends, women’s getaways, Elderhostel classes. The resort is dog-friendly. Use of bicycles and a canoe are a part of the room rate, which can be as little as $100 in summer.

There are units big enough to house family reunions. Some have gas fireplaces and Jacuzzis. Others have twin beds and soap but no shampoo, a coffeemaker but no coffee.

Although the Robertsons own one-half of the resort, 15 other parties own the rest. So the investment and risk are shared.

The place is not small. It can handle 225 guests comfortably, but in spring and fall may have as little as 20. Being open during winter is not routine.

Factor in a change in travel habits: Fewer people want to stay put for a full week, or rent the same cabin year after year. They are fickle about food: “At first people wanted three meals here, then two. Now some want to just eat in their unit or go to a restaurant” in nearby Minocqua.

So the resort owners – in partnership with daughter Stephanie and her husband, Todd Skotterud – call in a caterer when more than 15 sign up for a meal.

Sue notes that her parents first operated the place as a camp for boys in 1935. That lasted one year because they grossed only $500 and realized it would be more conducive to woo fishermen.

“It’s about listening to what customers want,” she concludes, “and then trying to adapt.”

For more about the resort, go to www.dillmans.com or call (715) 588-3143.

The last word goes to author Hildebrand, an English professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

“During the summer,” he writes in “A Northern Front,” “rich and poor live in the kind of proximity one associates with Central American republics but with less animosity.

“Locals understand that summer people prop up an otherwise shaky economy, while the well-heeled cottager is apt to view the fellow in the trailer down the road as a less ambitious version of himself, even though the local may be holding down two jobs just to keep his head above water.”