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Kalahari GM committed to helping others grow
March 15 2013

Brian Shanle, GM of Ohio’s Kalahari Resort, balances a hands-on owner, ever-increasing profit margins and frequent guest turnover.

  • Kalahari employs approximately 1,250 people yea r round; that number grows slightly in the summer when the outdoor park and adventure park open.
  • Kalahari owner Todd Nelson has dedicated capital for some sort of expansion every single year since the property opened, totaling $170 million in expansion funds.
  • GM Brian Shanle and his staff talk with Nelson regularly through video conference technology.
By Jason Q. Freed
HNN contributor

SANDUSKY, Ohio—Six years ago, Brian Shanle was working as a regional manager for a management company with a small portfolio of hotels when the portfolio went up for sale. Most of the GMs whom he worked with were displaced, as often happens in that case.

It was a traumatic experience for the managers and their families, Shanle said.

However, for Shanle, it was a blessing in disguise. The man who spent nearly three decades working his way up through Florida hotels and resorts landed on his feet in—of all places—Sandusky, Ohio.

Sandusky is a cold place—in all senses of the word. But the small city perched on Lake Erie halfway between Toledo, Ohio, and Cleveland has been rejuvenated by two world-class destinations—the Cedar Point amusement park and the Kalahari Resort and Convention Center.

Shanle was brought on board by Kalahari’s entrepreneurial owner and president, Todd Nelson, in 2008. Coming from Florida—Orlando, specifically—Shanle thought he knew a thing or two about themed resorts. It wasn’t until he walked the expansive property and met with the staff that he truly understood the depth of the operations at Kalahari, an authentic African-themed resort with 115,000 square feet of convention space, the largest indoor water park in the United States, an outdoor water park and a safari adventure park with ziplines and climbing walls.

Kalahari employs approximately 1,250 people year round; that number grows slightly in the summer when the outdoor park and adventure park open.

“Having known about Kalahari but never been to one, I didn’t know if they would just throw a couple pictures of lions and elephants on the wall and call it African themed,” Shanle told during a recent property visit. “But I got here and I realized the depth of the theming and the quality of it was just amazing.

“Of course, it’s all about having the right people,” Shanle continued. “How do you attract a great team of hospitality professionals in a place like Sandusky, Ohio? I was very impressed with the amount of quality leaders they had assembled. Many of them are still here, and we’ve been able to add more key members. It takes a commitment to develop.”

The commitment to develop the 884-room property comes from Nelson, who has dedicated capital for some sort of expansion every single year since the property opened, totaling $170 million in expansion funds.

And the commitment to develop the staff comes from Shanle, who fell in love with helping people during his first job as a front-desk clerk.

“I just enjoyed that one on one, being able to help someone,” he said. “Eventually as I moved up into supervisor and management positions I found out it’s even more satisfying to help someone who doesn’t understand they can do great things with their life through this business. That’s much more rewarding than helping the guest find directions or find a great restaurant or fix a flat tire.

“It’s much more rewarding to help someone see themselves at a higher goal and to be able to help their families and have a great career in this business.”

Much of Shanle’s job at Kalahari resembles a balancing act. Nelson, the owner, is hands-on and weighs in on nearly every decision. He visits the property from Kalahari’s headquarters in Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin, fairly often, walking the property and asking questions. He reads the daily financial report every morning around 5:30 a.m. and is heavily involved in rate meetings. He talks with Shanle and his management staff regularly through video conference technology.

“Clearly, he’s the visionary of the company,” Shanle said. “I have my experience and my set of ideas about how to drive the business forward. I get a vote on a lot of things, but he’s the owner. He doesn’t have to count my vote if he doesn’t want to.”

So Shanle helps pursue Nelson’s vision for the company. They place a heavy importance on food and beverage because Nelson’s first plunge into business ownership was a small bar he turned into a pizza shop. Kalahari’s seven chefs and 70 cooks push the envelope in its restaurants. And the results show; today, Kalahari brings in more F&B spend revenue per room alone than the average hotel does in rate, Shanle said.

Shanle also balances the range of guests who visit the resort, which serves many different markets. One day the convention center will host a financial investment company with thousands of attendees in suits; the next day it could host a cheerleading competition with 3,000 competitors.

“We have corporate team-building on our high ropes course. Sometimes the bankers or the judges might take a break from their meetings and do something fun like that,” Shanle said. “So it’s a very diverse property. In the summer, you can hand-feed a giraffe. That doesn’t happen at most hotels.”

Having 800 guests check in while 800 guests check out is a regular occurrence at Kalahari. There are times when 15 or 16 check-in stations are open. Shanle said his staff is used to dealing with a large amount of guests, and they embrace it and enjoy the challenge.

Shanle’s management style has adapted right along with the property. He’s not big on meetings, and he doesn’t spend a lot of time in his office. Instead, he walks the floor helping guests and helping his team do what it takes to ensure all guests are kept happy.

“Collectively, you get a lot of guest requests,” he said. “But there are two things we focus on: Nothing can be more important to the ownership than it is to us, and nothing can be more important to our guests than it is to us.”

3/18/2013 12:11:00 AM
Shanle's commitment to staff development leading them through a career path is very Commendable and is indeed a long term investment in human capital building for hospitality industry which in turn will enhance professionalism at the property level. This approach must be a constant with the entire hospitality industry.
3/17/2013 9:27:00 PM
Sandusky does seem like a cold place, even in the middle of summer. But it has a lot of seasonal hotels and is an important part of Ohio's tourism efforts. The Kalahari and a couple of other smaller waterparks provide some additional revenue during the winter. The Kalahari is massive. I can only imagine the capex budget for a place like that!
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