Brainerd lakes area resort owners are working hard to ensure their leisure industry survives coronavirus-related restrictions intended to slow the spread of the infectious disease.

“We’re still fighting here in the resort business. We are open at the resort right now,” said Eric Peterson, general manager of Cragun’s Resort on Gull Lake. “Right now we’re kind of in that kind of transition season if you will. We’re waiting for the ice to finish up and become safe to be able to go to the lake and then the snow to add to that to increase our winter activities.”

Some business owners around the state announced earlier this week they would open despite existing executive orders requiring they remain closed for public health reasons. Public health officials said the restrictions on restaurants and bars, gyms, theaters, sports and social gatherings helped flatten what had been a climbing curve of COVID-19 cases.

“Our amenities, our pool, our sports center — those types of amenities — when we don’t have those that hurts the leisure, social business,” Peterson said. “When it’s safe to travel in groups and gather, we’ll be ready for that, and I expect business to take off again.”

Cragun’s Resort on Gull Lake

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Cragun’s Resort on Gull Lake posted information on its website when the pandemic started about its enhanced cleaning processes and new procedures to provide a cleaner, safer environment for both its guests and team members.

“Overall, as we look back on 2020, our family business was actually as good or better than it’s ever been, once we got through the May shut down,” Peterson said. “Even our rounds of golf were setting new records for us over the summer period of time.”

The hospitality industry has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic with mass gatherings and travel discouraged by public health experts, and maybe no business operators are more aware of that than those that run resorts in the Brainerd lakes area.

“Almost all of our corporate business, we did lose through the fall here. And that looks like it’s going to continue at least through probably the first half of next year, so we’re going to end up going about five quarters of very little to no corporate business,” Peterson said.

Cragun’s restaurants and bar closed per Gov. Tim Walz’s executive order of Nov. 18, so like many other resorts it switched to providing room service or a to-go menu, which the resort never had before this year.

Reductions in certain areas of business also meant a reduction in associated staff.

“We’ve done with fewer staff throughout the year, not having our international students who usually come and spend three months with us ... and also providing some of our much needed help in the summertime … so we had to be very efficient as far as staffing wise,” Peterson said.

Gull Lake is visible from the deck of a Bayview Villas cabin at Cragun's. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch
Gull Lake is visible from the deck of a Bayview Villas cabin at Cragun's. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

Grand View Lodge

Takeout and delivery were the only options for dining at Grand View Lodge in Nisswa starting Nov. 21 due to the governor’s executive order, spa availability is limited based on government space restrictions, and its pools and recreation center are closed. But the resort remains open.

“We have so many cabins spread out everywhere that people can come up and social distance in their cabin, play outside, and go ice skating and all the other fun things we do in the winter,” said Frank Soukup, director of marketing for Cote Family Destinations, which owns the resort.

The resort is about 30% occupied this holiday season compared to having a 90% occupancy rate traditionally in past years for Christmas and New Year’s, according to Soukup.

“And with the current restrictions that keep coming up, we’re seeing more and more cancellations,” Soukup said. “The outdoor casual dining was a popular offering, you know, in the summer. It’s very difficult for us to do that of course in the winter.”

Grand View Lodge offers plastic igloos for rent with heaters and air purifiers, which are cleaned out and sanitized between each use.

“Those were very popular at the beginning of the season, so we look forward to kind of keeping that rolling through the winter as a new offering,” Soukup said.” And we’re just doing our best to try to keep some of our best employees employed with the lack of revenue.”

The lobby of the Madden Inn & Golf Club at Madden’s on Gull.  Kelly Humphrey, Brainerd Dispatch
The lobby of the Madden Inn & Golf Club at Madden’s on Gull. Kelly Humphrey, Brainerd Dispatch

Madden’s on Gull Lake

Walz announced Wednesday, Dec. 16, he would lift closures of gyms and fitness studios, youth and adult sports and outdoor entertainment venues, with restaurants, bars and breweries allowed to offer outdoor service.

Liz Rammer, president and CEO of Hospitality Minnesota, said the industry group was “gravely disappointed” to see the news of a continued closure of indoor restaurant and bar services after members urged the governor to allow business owners to reopen at 50% capacity.

However, Madden’s on Gull Lake remains unaffected by the recent developments.

“Every year — COVID or not — we close at the end of October and we reopen in April, and so right now we’re in our typical, off-season time,” said Abbey Pieper, chief sales and marketing officer at Madden’s on Gull Lake.

“We did see a strong, you know, responsive golf because that was one activity that, you know, was open and available for people to do. And I think people took advantage of that, and that was a really positive thing for us,” Pieper said of the resort’s offerings.

The Pavilion at Madden’s is the Brainerd lakes area’s newest lakeside event facility. The 10,000-square-foot event space sits on the shores of Gull Lake and can host wedding ceremonies and receptions, group cookouts, corporate events and more.

“At different dates and times, we had to be operating them under different restrictions,” she said of the resort’s amenities, such as its swimming pool, recreation center and restaurants. “But we were able to navigate that and we have the benefit of being spread out over 1,000 acres.”

Chris Ruttger at Ruttger's Resort.
Chris Ruttger at Ruttger's Resort.

Ruttger’s Bay Lake Lodge

The Ruttger family announced in September the sale of Ruttger’s Bay Lake Lodge, Minnesota’s oldest continually owned family resort, after owning the resort for more than 120 years.

The family sold it to 1898 Investments LLC, a Minnesota-based company with plans to renovate and expand the historic resort on Bay Lake, but the name of the resort remains the same.

Ruttger’s is in a similar situation to Madden’s.

“We’re normally closed in the winter, so we have a few rooms that are occupied here and there. But for the most part, we’ve always been open just in the spring, summer and fall,” said Chris Ruttger, who is on the board of directors and still involved in the resort’s operations.

Ruttger took over management in 1992. The Deerwood resort employs about 300 during the peak season and as few as 20 when the resort is closed for the winter.

“A lot of our business over the years has been group-related, whether that’s meetings, celebrations — things like that — and those kinds of things have been, of course, curtailed or not done at all,” Ruttger said. “This fall would normally have been pretty busy up until late October with meetings, events and things like that, and those were virtually all canceled.”

Whereas the hospitality industry struggled due to the coronavirus pandemic, drivable resort destinations like Ruttger’s have done well, Ruttger said.

People who have been coming for many years took a year off because of the pandemic and all their concerns, Ruttger said, but filling in were more kinds of customers coming up for a little shorter stay.

“The fun part of it was we got to meet a lot of new people, a lot of first-time guests who were thrilled and loved to come up and see this part of the world who hadn’t been here before,” Ruttger said. “On the other side, we missed a lot of longtime friends.”

The new owners — real estate investors who created a new company for the resort sale — plan to renovate existing spaces and expand the number and type of accommodations, dining options and activities.

FRANK LEE, county and features reporter, may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at frank.lee@brainerddispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchFL.