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Lakes area resorts banking on summer vacationers

The coronavirus pandemic proved to be challenging for Brainerd lakes area resorts. But vaccinations, a decrease in COVID-19 cases and the end of a statewide mask mandate have resort managers hopeful for better times ahead.

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Abbey Pieper, Chief Sales and Marketing Officer, talks about the upcoming summer season Thursday, May 27, 2021, at Madden's on Gull Lake. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch
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Memorial Day marks the unofficial start of summer. And for many Brainerd lakes area resort owners, the holiday can’t come soon enough.

Resorts had to contend with a dropoff in tourism during the winter months in addition to restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic.

“People are very eager to take advantage of summer. And the bookings are looking great,” said Abbey Pieper, chief sales and marketing officer at Madden’s on Gull Lake.

Vaccinations, a decrease in COVID-19 cases and the recent lifting of a statewide mask mandate are some of the reasons for the increase in call volume the resort has seen, according to Pieper.

“We’re full, so that's always a nice way to kick things off for the summer,” Pieper said days before the holiday. “The mask mandate, I think, was a good signal, you know, to build consumer confidence to encourage people that they can travel and travel safely.”

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Madden’s on Gull Lake

The Pavilion at Madden’s is one of the Brainerd lakes area’s newest lakeside event facilities. 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.

COVID-19 put a damper on wedding plans last year, but it’s starting to rebound this year, Pieper said.

“There’s a very high demand for weddings and family reunions. And I think that is maybe coming off of latent demand from ‘20,” Pieper said. “People were going to get married in ‘20, they couldn’t get married in ‘20, so they pushed their wedding to ‘21. Well, people still got engaged in ‘20, too. And they’re planning to get married in ‘21. We’re seeing record call volumes.”

Madden’s traditionally opens in late April and closes in late October, with associations, corporate meetings and events at the resort from April to the beginning of June, and family gatherings until September, when golf outings at the resort and meetings resume.

Madden's Gallery

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Cragun’s Resort on Gull Lake

The hospitality industry was hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, with mass gatherings and travel initially discouraged by public health experts.

“Overall, the resort business hung in there,” said Eric Peterson, general manager of Cragun’s Resort on Gull Lake. “When it comes to getting away and spending time with family and friends, people are ready to do that now.”

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Still, there were a lot of changes in 2020.

Like many other resorts, Cragun’s switched to providing room service or a to-go menu last year, which the resort never had before 2020. But reductions in certain areas of business also meant a reduction in associated staff.

“Families still came up … and people who were driving to their vacation stayed pretty strong,” Peterson said.

This year, it would appear business is heading back to normal.

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Nearly all cabins and hotel rooms at Cragun's Resort have a view of Gull Lake. Submitted photo

“Our demand is up. We’re pacing well ahead of 2019, which is probably a more applicable year to compare to, so we’re looking very strong for June, July and August.”

Peterson said bookings at the resort related to weddings and group business are also making a comeback.

“Even through the pandemic, you had people who were willing to travel. But again, the numbers have gone up dramatically with that — the comfort level of traveling — so I think pent-up demand has the most to do with it,” Peterson said.

From Thursday, May 27, through Monday, May 31, more than 37 million people are expected to travel 50 miles or more from home, an increase of 60% from last year when only 23 million traveled, the lowest on record since AAA began recording in 2000.

“We’re open year-round, so we certainly have some business in the offseason, in the winter season,” Peterson said. “But I would say June, July and August … well over half of our annual revenue is in those three months.”

Grand View Lodge

AAA Travel expects a significant rebound in the number of Americans planning to travel this Memorial Day holiday weekend.

One of those destinations will be to the Brainerd lakes area.

“They feel a little more safer up north — just being outdoors. Plus, with our area, there are many things to do, so it makes sense it’s kind of a mecca for vacation travel,” said Frank Soukup, director of marketing for Cote Family Destinations, which owns Grand View Lodge.

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Behind the historic exterior of Grand View Lodge in Nisswa is a web of high technology that helps the visitor plan their visit and communicate with the resort while staying at Grand View. Steve Kohls / Forum News Service

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

“The largest portion of our revenue comes over summer. And then we try not to spend as much over the other nine months of the season to kind of get back to the next summer,” Soukup said.

The resort went through major construction in 2019, a $55 million addition to Grand View Lodge’s property, which increased the occupancy, according to Soukup. That investment helped bring in a number of new visitors.

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The Garden Cottages real estate development is part of $55 million expansion project at Grand View Lodge. Pete Mohs / Brainerd Dispatch

“We saw a lot of our year-round guests … decide they were going to take last summer off … so then we added a whole flurry of new guests last summer,” Soukup said. “This year, as things started opening up, we had these new guests from last year and the return guests from 2019 all competing for the same time period.”

Breezy Point Resort

Breezy Point Resort features four restaurants offering casual dining, a conference center that can seat up to 450 people, and three golf courses.

Like other resorts in the area, Breezy Point Resort took a hit in 2020.

The entrance to Breezy Point Resort. (Kelly Humphrey, Brainerd Dispatch)
The entrance to Breezy Point Resort. (Kelly Humphrey, Brainerd Dispatch)

“The convention and meeting business was way down, our weddings were off,” Dave Gravdahl, general manager of the resort, said of last year’s revenue. “Our restaurant business, of course, was closed for April, May and part of June — just carry-out.”

The outdoor — and socially distanced — golfing at the resort was the one saving grace for Breezy Point during the fall, according to Gravdahl.

Breezy Point Resort offers golfers three different 18-hole courses to play at, Deacon’s Lodge, Whitebirch Course and Traditional Course. (Kelly Humphrey, Brainerd Dispatch)
Breezy Point Resort offers golfers three different 18-hole courses to play at, Deacon’s Lodge, Whitebirch Course and Traditional Course. (Kelly Humphrey, Brainerd Dispatch)

“Once our golf season got started, our golf groups were up. Golfing, overall, was just great for us,” Gravdahl said.

The resort on the shore of Pelican Lake is celebrating its 100th anniversary and hopes to have many more anniversaries. It offers entertainment seven nights a week and live bands six nights a week, which are popular.

“I think people are more comfortable now with traveling now that more Minnesotans have been vaccinated,” Gravdahl said.

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 .

I cover arts and entertainment, and write feature stories, for the Brainerd Dispatch newspaper. As a professional journalist with years of experience, I have won awards for my fact-based reporting. And my articles have also appeared in other publications, including USA Today. 📰
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