Known affectionately throughout the brand as “Mama Wolf,” Kim Schaefer has led the “pack” as CEO of Great Wolf Resorts since January 2009. While Schaefer recently transitioned to chief brand officer and will move to the board of directors next year, she knows Great Wolf inside out, having been with the company since its launch 18 years ago. “I’ve done every single job in our resorts, from moving furniture and making beds to helping out in the kitchens,” she says. “It’s so important to have a strong foundation in understanding your employees and the challenges they face every day when running an enterprise like Great Wolf.”
This foundation has proved essential as Great Wolf undertakes an ambitious expansion plan. In addition to the 12 existing resorts, there are 10 potential new properties in various stages of development, including a Southern California lodge due to open in 2016.
These days, Schaefer spends most of her time working on Great Wolf’s branding and development, especially now that the SoCal location officially makes the company a national brand. “I’m looking at research and trends, but mostly I’m checking in with our team to make sure our strategy is sound and if there are any areas that aren’t performing at the level they should,” she explains.
Schaefer’s approach as CEO was very team oriented, and one of her primary responsibilities was to make sure that team had the necessary tools to succeed. “We want to be sure that we’re making decisions that positively impact our pack members, which in turn will improve our guest experience,” she says. “That’s who we’re taking care of at the end of the day, and it doesn’t matter what industry you came from or what role you played in that industry. There are no egos, and even if you have a ‘C’ in front of your title, the guest is still your number one priority.”
Part of enhancing the Great Wolf brand involves creating new programs that draw in families and increase guest satisfaction.
When developing new initiatives, Great Wolf relies heavily on data collected via research companies, as well as guest feedback. “We host a million families per year, so we can actively collect their thoughts about what they want and how they spend their time at our resorts,” Schaefer says. All of Great Wolf’s new programs are meticulously researched and planned and go through a testing phase prior to launch. “The beauty of our lodges is that we can very easily pick a location, pilot test the program, tweak anything that isn’t working, get guest feedback, and basically know exactly how something is going to work before rolling it out company-wide.”
This approach has paid off in spades, and Great Wolf’s growth doesn’t seem like it will slow anytime soon. For Schaefer, the rewards of this growth are tied directly to the positive experiences had by the families that come through the doors each year. “Our brand gives families a backdrop on which they can create their own memories, and knowing that is just the best kind of motivation,” she says. “It’s so exciting to think that I’ve been a part of their lives in that way, and I’m so excited to keep growing so that Great Wolf pack members can bring the experience to even more families.”
Mama Wolf’s enthusiasm for the hotel business is palpable, and she says the people who have succeeded at Great Wolf all share the same passion. She makes this absolutely clear when she shares Great Wolf’s story and mission. “We absolutely love coming into work every day,” she says. “We love making a difference, and we truly enjoy each other and the job that we’re here to do.”