Landscaping helps make resort a popular destination

Grand Geneva Resort has made landscaping one of the attractions that brings guests to the luxury destination in Wisconsin.

Many high-end resorts use landscaping as a way to help enhance the experience of guests. At Grand Geneva Resort, a four-diamond luxury resort in Lake Geneva, Wis., landscaping is viewed as a way to attract guests.

Jim Crothers, director of grounds maintenance at the resort, completed his internship on the landscaping staff at what was then dubbed the Playboy Club in 1981. He was hired on full time when he graduated, and by then the facility had become Americana Resort. “I thought I’d come back for a summer and see where it led, and I’ve been here ever since. I get up every morning excited to come to work. It’s an absolutely beautiful piece of property.”

Despite the name change in the early 1980s, a bigger change came in 1993, when the property was purchased by The Marcus Corporation, which changed the name to Grand Geneva Resort, but, more importantly, set about to completely remake the facility. “There was a decision made to really put a focus on becoming a destination in part because of our landscaping, and we have achieved that. Our landscaping is top-notch, and people come here just to drive around and look at the landscaping. We’re very proud of it.”

The improvement plan began more than 15 years ago by expanding the scope and scale of the landscaping. “They really wanted to wow guests from the moment they entered the property,” says Crothers. “We brought in a group of landscape designers and they helped us create a master landscaping plan, and then we stuck to it.”

Every year since, additional gardens, beds and landscaping have been added. “We’re always constantly tweaking,” says Crothers. “We’re really known for our perennial gardens, and you can always do something with a perennial garden.” In fact, you often need to do something with a perennial garden, and he laughs at the notion of the common perception that perennials are a low-maintenance alternative to annuals. “Just the weeding alone is very time-consuming,” Crothers stresses. Annuals, as well, are an important part of the landscaping at Grand Geneva Resort. “We probably put in about 150,000 annuals each year,” he says.

Crothers oversees the landscaping throughout the 1,300-acre property, including maintenance of the two 18-hole golf courses at Grand Geneva Resort. A grounds crew is devoted to each course and a separate crew handles the rest of the property, each crew overseen by a superintendent. “The superintendents are tremendous. They understand what our objectives are and they and their crews just do a great job,” says Crothers. The golf course and landscape crews all operate out of a central maintenance facility, which is located near the on-property air strip.

Guests at Grand Geneva Resort frequently stroll the grounds to admire the landscaping and often ask questions to the staff regarding various plant species and planting advice.

The landscaping staff numbers 17, and that group does a lot. “Spring tends to be our busiest time,” says Crothers. “We have to do a lot of our hiring for the season [the landscaping and golf staffs jump from 11 in the winter to 62 during the summer]. We’ve got all of our tulips popping, we’re getting the beds ready for annual planting, we’re applying fertility applications to the turfgrass and, once May begins, the resort starts to get even busier.”

By Memorial Day, when the danger of late frost has hopefully passed, the staff has the tulips pulled out and annuals installed. Once the lawns begin to grow, mowing is typically done weekly, usually as close to the weekend as possible in order to have things looking their best for the largest number of guests. “It’s a full week project to mow from one end of the property to the other, so we usually begin on the outlying areas on Monday and work toward The Lodge (where guest rooms are located),” says Crothers.

There are a number of functions that take place on the lawns at the resort, and those areas can sustain some wear and tear from foot traffic. Crothers says the wear has proven manageable through a program of aerating and, when necessary, resodding. “Especially if we have to turn around to hold another reception in a short period of time, we’ve found it’s better to just resod,” he explains.

The landscaping staff is broken down into a mowing crew, a weeding crew and a watering crew. An automated Toro irrigation system keeps the majority of the landscaping moist throughout the resort, but there are 71 containers that require hand-watering and beds that require special treatment. Throughout the season, the grounds crews begin work at 6:30 a.m., but avoid working around The Lodge until later in the day to avoid creating a disturbance. “We rarely get a complaint,” says Crothers. “That’s also due to our very comprehensive employee orientation program.”

The Marcus Corporation conducts a training program for new hires on the history of the company, as well as the expectations and objectives; Crothers oversees a separate safety and protocol training session that pertains specifically to the grounds and landscaping staff. “I read the comment cards from guests every day, so I know it’s working,” he says.

Tours of the landscaping can be arranged for interested guests; more common is for guests with a gardening background to catch up with grounds staff to ask questions about specific plants. “We get many, many questions about what plants work in what settings. It’s fun; I love it when the guests are interested in the landscape. That’s what it’s all about,” says Crothers.

When fall comes around, it’s time once again to transition the beds from annuals back to tulips. Some 40,000 to 50,000 tulips are installed in various designs. “Some of the guests are very savvy, they’ll remember a particular design from the year before, so we try to alter our tulip designs to keep things fresh. It takes some planning, and you need to know what your tulips are going to look like,” says Crothers.

Each year, some 40,000 to 50,000 tulips are installed in different designs to add impressive spring color to the grounds.

When the snow begins to fly, the 11 employees that remain on staff are responsible for plowing/shoveling/sanding, etc. “We have about 5 miles of roadways, as well as parking lots, sidewalks and so on,” says Crothers. “We try to get everything cleaned up the minute the snow starts falling.” The crew relies on four plow vehicles, including a 1-ton truck and a dump truck equipped with sanders. Those employees who prove to be the best workers during the summer who are not kept on for snow removal are offered employment during the winter at Grand Geneva Resort’s own ski hill.

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has covered every aspect of the green industry in the past 13 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vt., and is always on the lookout for unusual stories.