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Grand View innovates with technology, focuses on guest experience

NISSWA - Grand View Lodge in Nisswa is embracing technology as a way to enhance the guest experience and to help the work force behind the scenes. Grand View's use of technology, community involvement and service, commitment to both the resort an...

The stately historic Grand View Lodge in Nisswa hosted the 2014 Minnesota Governor’s Fishing Opener this spring. The venue is laced with high tech infrastructure to ensure guests have a comfortable stay. Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls
The stately historic Grand View Lodge in Nisswa hosted the 2014 Minnesota Governor’s Fishing Opener this spring. The venue is laced with high tech infrastructure to ensure guests have a comfortable stay. Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls

NISSWA - Grand View Lodge in Nisswa is embracing technology as a way to enhance the guest experience and to help the work force behind the scenes.

Grand View's use of technology, community involvement and service, commitment to both the resort and its employees were all part of being chosen as a finalist for the Brainerd Lakes Chamber's Business Excellence Award.

"The Governor's Fishing Opener, of course, was a huge component because we earned $2.6 million in media coverage over that event for the whole Brainerd lakes area, which is one of the largest that they've done," said Frank Soukup III, Grand View's director of marketing.

Community involvement ranges from being a sponsor of the annual Brainerd Jaycees Ice Fishing Extravaganza to Habitat for Humanity, Bridges of Hope and Kinship Partners, among others.

"We try to stay connected to the community," said Mark Ronnei, Grand View general manager. Ronnei founded the Enhanced Reading Foundation funding books and literacy programs for Nisswa Elementary School classrooms. The Cote Family resort fully funds the Enhanced Reading Foundation assisted by donations and grants, selling discounted golf passes and providing gift certificates for nonprofit fundraisers and in return asking for a donation to the foundation. As much as $35,000 has been raised annually for the foundation, which has purchased thousands of library books. The Cote Family owns Grand View Lodge and the Cote Foundation largely funded the $750,000 Julia Thorpe Cote Nisswa Children's Library, which is attached to the Nisswa Elementary School.

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"All in all we try to stay busy and try to stay connected to the community," Ronnei said.

Investing in technology, a new selfie

On the technology side, Grand View's investment is both readily visible and interactive and behind the scenes with the work force. Grand View has more than 300 devices using its internal network and employs four full-time people in its information technology department.

"We invest heavily in technology every year," Ronnei said.

The resort launched a digital concierge service in 2013.

"You can book everything from a dinner reservation to a spa appointment to an inner-tubing time to horseback riding. You can do it all online before you arrive," Ronnei said. "Huge hit. Thousands and thousands of guest transactions and no one else does that that we know of in Minnesota."

Soukup said the online technology allows Grand View to connect with its guests in new ways. They can see earlier what programs are filling up with guests and add more sessions or are able to notify guests of an opening.

A kiosk in Grand View's historic lodge is an example of changing times. Before guests asked others or staff members to snap a photo of them in front of the stone fireplace. Now the automated kiosk will take the "selfie." Guests tap the touch screen and have a few seconds to step into place and a photo is snapped they can send or upload to Facebook.

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On the staff side, Grand View put technology in the hands of employees as a way to be more efficient. Housekeepers use tablets to see what units are available to be cleaned next, if there are special requests, to see where other housekeeping teams are and email photos of items needing repair directly to the maintenance department. They are able to use the tablets to place digital work orders.

"I think that is pretty cutting-edge for our business and I was nervous because I was thinking our housekeeping and our maintenance staff are not going to want to bother to learn this," Ronnei said. "I couldn't have been more wrong. They have embraced it. You couldn't get it away from them for love nor money. They love it. We have a great team. This year was the best staff we could have. I've been here 38 years and this is the best team we've ever had."

Ronnei credits the teamwork atmosphere, retaining employees longer and having people who enjoy coming to work. He said the resort has done a better job of articulating its core values of cooperation and its mission to make a lifetime of memories for guests.

"Every decision we make is based around our guest interaction," Ronnei said. "If we are true to that it's a lot more fun to work here."

Rewarding employees

When employees go above and beyond, a rewards program gives the employee the chance to experience the resort as a guest along with other prizes. Three years ago, Scott Stiler, Cote Families Companies CEO, started an employee recognition plan to reward dedicated workers who support each other. At year's end, between six and 10 employees are recognized during a breakfast with a large cash chairman's award.

"We've been able to accomplish a lot of internal mobility where people can have a career path here," Ronnei said.

At the height of the summer, Grand View employs 550 to 570 people. In the fall, the work force drops to about 270 to 300 and by winter the number will be closer to 150 to 160. When Ronnei started at Grand View 38 years ago there were seven year-round employees and 70 employees on the summer staff. Now the has 135 full-time year-round employees plus the large contingent of seasonal part-time workers.

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In 1978, the resort had 175 guests on a busy day. Now it has 950.

100th anniversary and growth areas

In two years, the resort will have its 100th anniversary. Events are planned throughout the year. The Cote family has owned Grand View since 1937. Ronnei said they plan to own it for another 75 years. Looking at just the last three years and plans for 2015, the Cote family investment in Grand View will be more than $5 million.

"They are continuing to make it better and grow the place. It's important to them it's a good place to work. It's very important to them we are a good community member," Ronnei said. "If we can do anything to make our community better, it's better for all of us."

There is room to grow. Five years ago, winter weekend occupancy was at 25 percent. Now the resort is at a 75 percent occupancy on weekends. Last winter, even with the brutal cold, was one of the best shoulder seasons ever, Grand View reported.

"We think we can get close to 100 percent occupancy on weekends in the winter," Ronnei said. "That's our biggest push. We are developing programs and facilities to make this even more of a year-round destination."

Part of that is both investing in spa and dining facilities but also creating culinary events, everything from pairing beer with meals to cooking with it. Also, Ronnei said, the resort has strengthened its appeal for couples with yoga, spa and the culinary events.

"That's a big growth for us without a doubt - our culinary programs," Soukup said.

Guests are looking for experiences, Ronnei said, noting that's where they can be attracted to community attractions from the Destiny Cruises' North Star yacht, Mount Ski Gull or perhaps checking out Gull Dam Brewing to traditional turtle races in Nisswa. In dining, the trend is for a casual dining experience with the pub and beach front dining growing significantly. Soukup said guests are also looking for ways to learn from pairing wine with meals to wakeboard schools or instructional cruises. One of the resort's most popular is pontoon fishing, a bit of a change from the days when guests wanted a fishing boat and a 10-horse Johnson motor. But the goal of building memories on Minnesota waters remains the same.

"You've got to keep the best of what you do and roll out something new," Ronnei said.

Dean Gutzke, LETG regional sales director, and Greg Hannah, LETG client relations manager, had their laptops out during a working lunch of walleye chowder in Grand View's pub. As a business person who has spent time in a lot of resorts, Gutzke said they can look tired.

"One thing about this place, it's always fresh," Gutzke said. "Everything is clean and it's nice - out to the flowers. It's all the little things. You can tell it's been around for a long time, but it doesn't look like it."

Hannah considered Grand View a destination with a mix of history and updated modern convenience.

"It has so much charm and character. It's much more inviting. It's warm," Hannah said. "Coming here we can still get our work done, everything we need to do, but you don't have to do it in an environment that doesn't look like you are sitting in a sterile office somewhere."

The stories that stick with employees are the people. The family reunions to reconnect people, couple's retreat, international families experiencing winter for the first time - Grand View stresses to employees that what they do is important for all those reasons. It's taking Costa Rican employees of a Fortune 500 company out ice fishing and seeing their faces after its explained they are not surrounded by a snow-covered meadow but standing on a frozen lake, with 3 feet of ice the only thing separating them from the 40 feet of water below.

"I've seen it over and over again the first experience of winter," Ronnei said.

Or the family from Hong Kong who wanted their children to experience winter, even taking in a high school hockey game. Or the Colombian family who spent a winter week at Grand View and their children must have taken 30 dogsled rides. Or maybe the couple from Norway who came to see the Scandinavian roots here and see the Mall of America. Or maybe the couple from Utah who wanted to return in winter to see what it was like but asked if staff could explain wind chill. It's something they'll have to experience to fully understand.

"That's all we sell is memories," Ronnei said.

RENEE RICHARDSON, senior reporter, may be reached at 855-5852 or renee.richardson@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Dispatchbizbuzz .

Related Topics: TOURISMNISSWA
Renee Richardson is managing editor at the Brainerd Dispatch. She joined the Brainerd Dispatch in 1996 after earning her bachelor's degree in mass communications at St. Cloud State University.
Renee Richardson can be reached at renee.richardson@brainerddispatch.com or by calling 218-855-5852 or follow her on Twitter @dispatchbizbuzz or Facebook.
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