The Key to Longevity

John Kiesendahl of Woodloch Pines, Inc. discusses … ▶ operating a resort ▶ keeping guests coming back ▶ running a family business ▶ staying relevant in the changing hospitality industry ▶ workaholic tendencies

With country charm to spare, Woodloch Pines may be more than 50 years old but the resort and its owner John Kiesendahl are anything but antiquated.

In 1958, the Kiesendahl family purchased a small, summer boarding house, which they named Woodloch Pines. This initial setup accommodated 30 guests, at a cost of six dollars a day. In 1981, John Kiesendahl—the eldest of the three Kiesendahl siblings—bought the business from his parents. Kiesendahl expanded the resort so that by 1986, there was room for 600 guests and amenities including an indoor pool and nightclubs. Though constantly reinventing itself to keep up with the changing wants of its guests, the prosperous resort remains a family operation with Kiesendahl ’s siblings and his children overseeing a staff of 1,100.

To what do you attribute your longevity as a resort? 
Our beautiful location [in Pennsylvania]. We’re two hours from New York, two and a half hours from Philadelphia, and four hours from Baltimore. Our dedicated staff is also key, and has stayed very motivated, with many of them staying with us for over 40 years. We’ve kept up with trends, reinvested, have no shareholders, and my brother and children work with me. We’re hands-on with plenty of ownership involvement. And we operate from the top down: we start with the guest. What’s going to make them happy? What’s going to bring them back?

Nestled against iconic backdrops such as the championship course at Woodloch Springs (pictured above) tucked in the Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains Lake region, Kiesendahl takes pride in his resort's ability to deliver fun activities and services with spectacular views.

Any bumps along the road? 
While using outside contractors to build our on-site homes, we decided to create our own construction company. I operated naively when I first got into the construction and real-estate business; I didn’t have the experience and learned the hard way. When we opened the spa in 2006—the first destination spa to open in America in 10 years—we had a business partner who did a great job designing the spa: John and Ginny Lopis. But our management styles were different so Woodloch became the managing partner of the spa. Since 9/11, the economy has drastically changed and, in turn, we had to significantly adjust our marketing and business strategy.

How did you overcome these issues? 
I’m a self-acclaimed workaholic, and I’ve grown up here, so it’s more than a business—it’s a passion. I’m probably sometimes a little overconfident in what I think we can accomplish. But, we’re still standing!

What does a typical day look like for you?
I come to work every day at seven and get caught up on e-mails. I’m on the floor at [8:30 a.m.] in the guest areas, greeting guests at breakfast. I travel from one property to the next, touching base, and listening, going to meetings. I try to walk the property in good weather. The guests and staff like to see the owner around. I’m on a million committees—I’m a director of a bank, on the school board—so that takes up some of my day, and I usually work three or four nights, through dinner. That’s hospitality—if you’ve ever worked in the industry you know that’s the way it works.

Have the priorities for how a resort operates changed in 50 years?
The part that hasn’t changed is that you always have to focus on the guest. It’s always changing as what the guest wants is always changing. The core elements have to be there: the clean rooms, the good food. But even food is changing—everyone is eating healthier. When we opened our business, people just wanted to get out into country to breathe clear air and have a good meal. Now they have to be entertained at night, plus activities all day, tournaments, exercise, nature trails. It’s changed dramatically, night and day. The reinvestment is unbelievable, you can never stop putting back in. The resort’s offering must stay fresh, that’s what keeps them coming back—it’s a little different each year.

How do you see the resort changing over the next five years?
We’re building a bowling alley this year, adding new rooms—we’re upgrading the resort over the next five years. Replacing the old rooms with newer rooms. We’re building more homes, a new lobby area with meeting and dining facilities, and more meeting space for our corporate guests. We’re also planning to shift a state road that runs through our property, and wrap it around so you don’t have to walk across it. It’s not a highway, it’s a rural road, but it’s something we want to do, so that everything in the resort is connected. We’re keeping busy.