What Todd Nelson built in the Wisconsin Dells is something out of Africa — literally. “We go twice a year [to Africa]… everything is completely authentic, from ostrich skin art to wood carvings to stone carvings, all authentic tables – everything is authentic,” says Nelson, owner and president of Kalahari Resorts. For Nelson, nothing can be faked when it comes to running Kalahari, including his commitment to customer service. Besides making executive decisions and picking out art, he’s just as likely to be found bussing tables and picking up trash.
“If I’m willing to do it, everyone else should be — down the pecking order,” 46-year-old Nelson says. “Nothing is beneath me.”
That’s his philosophy and work ethic as an operator, owner and CEO of one of the country’s most popular waterpark destinations. This philosophy came from his years of running restaurants and clubs before he opened the Raintree Resort in 1997 in the Wisconsin Dells. Back then, he says, 12,000 square feet was considered huge.
Today, he oversees two locations: the 125,000-square-foot indoor waterpark in the Dells; and 80,000-square-foot indoor and 77,000-square feet outdoor parks in Sandusky. The Sandusky location even has a convention center attached. Both offer spas, condos, fine-dining restaurants and amenities.
Nelson is looking to open more of his resorts around the country, focusing on the East coast because of its concentrated populations in short-drive destinations. The indoor waterpark industry has nowhere else to go but up, he says. And as construction costs continue to rise, it’s becoming more difficult for people to enter the market, which he says gives way to more serious operators. But to be a player in this market means continually reinventing yourself every two years, he explains.
“People are going to get more creative,” Nelson says. “A lot of people are building the same thing and packaging it differently… [but] they’ve got to come up with new and creative things out there.”