John Emery is a family man. “The water is the universal family thing to do,” he says. “It represents clean fun.” As a father of three, he would know. The 42-year-old CEO of Great Wolf Resorts Inc., who’s served in his role since 2004, spends his time bringing families together at any of the eight Great Wolf Lodges in the U.S. and now Canada. As head of the industry’s lone publicly traded waterpark resort (NASDAQ: WOLF), Emery has helped changed the face of holiday resorts, waterparks, and the family vacation.
“We are taking a concept that is great for families and putting it closer to families, so the convenience factor would help build year-round demand,” he says. “We could drive demand on a year-round basis.”
So far, that formula seems to be working. The company just broke ground on its 10th Northwoods-themed lodge in Washington, with several more in the pipeline. Projects are even in the works overseas.
Emery, who spent 11 years working in hotels and resorts and was formerly president of Interstate Hotels, is always thinking about the ideal family formula. But regardless of the variables, the big draw of the overall resort remains the same: waterparks.
“[Kids] love spending time with their dad or going in the wave pool with their mom and brother and sister, which they don’t get to do at home,” he says. His business model uses waterparks as the resort’s core and expands to other activities that further the vacation experience. The waterpark brings the families in, but the quality time is what makes them return.
Recognizing that, Emery emphasizes superior customer service and experience to separate his resorts from others. He also avoids changing the waterpark too much, adding rides only when adding more hotel rooms. “Aquatics are used to theme park mentality and we look at it more from a hospitality perspective than a ride one,” he says. And as the market continues to grow, he’s noticing a separation of “the good and bad projects. It’s not as automatic as it looks,” he says of the work put into building a successful waterpark resort.
The secret behind the success that so many other hotels strive to mimic is the different programming and activities for kids. Shows, story time, crafts and educational programs can easily fill up the day along with their aquatic play. “It’s almost like doing a mini-cruise ship on land,” Emery says. “We really focus on what we think families want to do together, not individually over two to three days.”
His biggest challenge, meanwhile, is to remain a leader. He has to make sure he hires experienced, quality people to help the company grow. Currently, he’s building a team to manage the international portfolio of aquatics-based resorts. He believes the success in North America can be replicated overseas.
“The nice thing about hospitality is you can control your destiny,” he says. “We control the guest experience. Do a great job, they treat us great. Direct and immediate feedback keeps you honest, and if you do it well, you’re well-rewarded.”