Diverse resort models: Lake Lawn, Pitlik’s

We were sipping coffee as the father and daughter placed an order to go. It was for sugar-coated doughnuts, still warm from the fryer, five for $1.50. The customers had flown in for breakfast, a 12-minute flight from Waukegan, Ill.

Their destination was the airstrip at Lake Lawn Resort, just outside of Delavan and eight miles west of Lake Geneva. The resort’s Frontier Restaurant serves those wonderful little doughnuts daily.

The next night, I sat down to dinner 275 miles farther north, crossing paths with a priest and around 20 religion teachers who were finishing supper. It was sunset, and I was the last customer of the day in a rustic lodge with down-home cooking.

The setting? Pitlik’s Sand Beach Resort, nine miles southeast of Eagle River, and I was glad to find this peaceful setting before dark. It is a part of Wisconsin where roads have no centerline markings, streetlights don’t exist and signage is easy to miss.

Each of these two places has a rich history, plus a desire for local control over their future. Both also exist because of tourists. Other than that, you’d be hard pressed to find two more opposite business approaches, in two distinctly different parts of Wisconsin.

Pitlik’s feels like the only property development on remote Sand Lake. Summer rates are $750-$1,500 per week, depending upon cabin size, and it’s a Saturday-to-Saturday rental. Up to eight can stay in the largest cabin, which is three bedrooms, plus a sleeper sofa.

The family owned resort, the last on the Sugar Camp chain of five lakes, has been around since 1928 and is on its fourth generation (not counting the kids, who help out as needed). There are 100-plus acres.

“Creating family traditions has become our family tradition” – that is the business slogan. Bring your own soap, hair dryer and grounds for the coffeemaker. Pack a good book and deck of cards if rain is expected; the lodge has a game arcade and cozy lodge with fireplace, but few other diversions.

Lake Lawn overlooks glistening Lake Delavan, which is swarming with other cottage, condo and lake home developments. Rates go from $89 to more than $400 per night, depending upon unit size and day of stay, with a two-night minimum for most weekends (three nights during holiday weekends). Some of the larger units will sleep six.

This resort is almost three times the size of Pitlik’s, in terms of acreage, and already can accommodate dozens more tourists. Make that hundreds more, especially after a $400 million redevelopment is completed. The majority of investors are local business people, who have owned Lake Lawn since 2004, but the resort has existed since 1879.

“Your place on the lake” is the business slogan. There are swimming pools, a golf course, gift and beauty shops, flat-screen TVs and in-room Nintendo games. Enclosed and windowed walkways connect one building to the next, turning the property into an unusual weatherproof maze. In the works is an indoor waterpark, spa and retail complex.

Among Lake Lawn’s lakeside competition is the all-suite Delavan Lake Resort. Both properties have “ownership opportunities,” which means you can buy a unit and hope it can be rented when you’re not occupying it. This is an investment that involves risks as well as profits.

Pitlik’s also used to have peer competition. At its peak, 18 family owned resorts operated on the Sugar Camp lakes. Some have gotten “condo-ed off,” a term Marsha Pitlik uses to explain vacation home agreements that are not unlike Lake Lawn’s but – at this point – with fewer bells and whistles.

Her son, Gary, is blunt about his reaction to the property transitions. “The condos? I’m against them,” he says. “Some families had great pride in their resorts. Then the kids got greedy and sold a piece of their heritage.”

“We’ve gotten great offers, too” but he has no interest in selling the Pitlik property. The 40-year-old, who also has a construction business, hopes his children eventually will take over the resort. But he also realizes the need to make changes, to keep up with tourist expectations.

“I’ve seen our place go from central shower houses, outhouses and no hot water” in cabins to the addition of microwaves and small TVs as well as bathrooms with showers. About 85 percent of the bookings are repeat business. The year-round resort books family reunions, fishermen and snowmobilers in its dozen cabins.

This is a business that began after Gary’s great-grandparents, Joe and Rena Pitlik, were offered a good price on the property – as a wedding gift. The acreage was owned by the Comiskey family (Chicago White Sox owners), and the Pitliks had been caretakers for the nearby Comiskey estate.

In southern Wisconsin, the Lake Lawn overhaul is a massive attempt to compete for another kind of clientale, and developers hope to earn four-star ratings for their efforts. The property is about two hours from Chicago.

More than 100 of the Lake Lawn condo units were sold May 20, the first day of sales, representing more than $28 million in real estate. More than 200 units are a part of the first phase of renovation, and up to 1,000 more will subsequently be added.

For more: www.lakelawnresort.com, 800-338-5253; www.pitliksresort.com, 715-479-4340.

Note: A Society of American Travel Writers photo contest award covered the cost of staying at Lake Lawn Resort. The stay at Pitlik’s was provided at a press rate.