John Kiesendahl sits down with PTN's Chris Barrett to share his insider perspective on Woodloch!
So this whole story you're going to hear about Woodloch is all about fate.
CHRIS: John Kiesendahl, take us back to 1958. Harry and Mary Kiesendahl, an 11 year old John Kiesendahl. What happened in 1958?
JOHN: I was a happy boy living on Long Island in a neighborhood. Lots of houses around me and great class of friends, never thinking about moving anywhere. My dad had humble beginnings. He started when he graduated. He never graduated from high school, actually 17 years old. He left and went to the war. Soon as Pearl Harbor was bombed.
CHRIS: World War Two.
JOHN: World War Two. So he never graduated. He came out of the service. He was a good human man, ringing the bells in a milk man. He delivered milk all around. And my my dad was sitting in the living room on a Sunday and we because he was looking for something else to do. And my dad just gets a phone number from The New York Times says boarding house for sale on a lake in Pennsylvania called up as a Brooklyn phone number. And the gentleman said, well, it’s on Lake Teedysuskung in Pennsylvania my dad's his he was just rang and he calls up “Mary, Mary” my mother. Yes this is it's a lake to us on the same lake my grandmother had brought them to when they were he had just gone in the service and they want to get married during the war.
This is a true story. They put a stake in the ground at that time on that leak and they said all the things you say when you love in 16 years old. And when you call this number in The New York Times, it happened to be Lake Teedyuskung to where they'd put the stake in the ground. So we drove up to see Woodloch Pines in 1958. It was a small summer boarding house and this was March we went up.
CHRIS: So the boarding house was was titled Woodloch Pine. So there wasn't a Woodloch Place, but it was a boarding house.
JOHN: It was Woodloch Pines. You get up there, we had no neighbors five miles either side. We had no running drinking water. All the water would come up from a spring. And I'm thinking, “Oh, no, we're not going to move up here. It's the end of the world.” But we did move up.
CHRIS: And that was 1958.
JOHN: It was 1958. And then once we got opened and the full house was 40 people, it was only $6 a day to stay there. That included three meals. And I would get the water and I'd do the dishes and we got involved. But then we met new people every week and we treated them like company at our home. We found that they liked that feeling and I started to love that feeling. So I quickly adapted. We adapted and that's what we'd like started. And so we had a couple little cottages around. I think we had three cottages and we had six rooms in the main house. So we had a barn that was converted into 14 rooms with a single bathrooms at the end of the hall. It was it was very humble.
We are in the northern Poconos, which we called it the lake region. So it was just a beautiful area. You know, you're 90 miles from New York for us, 100 miles from Philadelphia. People all around and affluent people all around. So even though we started at six dollars a day with three meals, as we built the business, things started to change a little bit.
CHRIS: So in 1958, when you had 40 guests, your dad, mother, dad had a lot of vision. What was the first expansion? How did take us through the sixties to 70? How did that start to look?
JOHN: What happened is as guests went home happy, they started to tell their friends, they started to come back. And my dad realized we couldn't sustain ourselves in this little small boardinghouse. There's a girls camp right next to us, Camp Teedyuskung and we purchased that in 1961. That was the first big change. And we put in addition onto the main lodge 1961, the girls camp was actually was a sad day in my life because I was 14 at the time. But anyway, we had the girls camp was more than doubled our size. Then we we fixed up some of the cabins and the cottages over the winters and we started renting that as well. So that was a real key spot. But interesting thing about that is we couldn't get a mortgage and couldn't get a mortgage because it was too we were a small business. The camp cost $60,000, which at that time seemed like a lot of money. But they bought Woodloch for $40,000, when they bought Woodloch for $40,000, it was 12 acres in 200 feet on the lake and now here's another 200 feet on the lake and about to probably 25 acres. So we went to the bank and nobody would lend them any money. So he went to, I guess, who just for, you know, a lot of them a love would like. So he came back and he sold $500 bonds to guests in the gave them a discount when they came to would like. And we raised almost $60,000 and we bought the girls camp. It's a great story. An innovative dad who came up with this plan to raise money for my guests. They had confidence. They'd like my parents. You know, we were like family. We knew everybody.
CHRIS: That's a testament to how they had faith in you and your property.
JOHN: And based on that, the relationship, that sincerity and the trust. But it's really the part that works. And they knew they went to vacation there five or ten years in order to get their money back, and they did.
JOHN: So I just out of curiosity, do any of the original structure still exist?
JOHN: Oh, yes. Yeah. The main lodge is still there. In fact, my office on the top of the main lodge was an attic. When I was 11 years old, I slept there. And every day, every night I went to bed with a tennis racket because it was infested with bats. We built a closing up there and now it's my office laptop and where I used to sleep on the roof. The ceilings are a little higher.
CHRIS: So I read that Woodloch does not have executive offices. Why is that?
JOHN: Most of the time we're on the floor with people, with our staff. We work elbow to elbow with people. That's been our tradition all the way through. If I don’t say it now I’ll forget it. The most important asset we ever had it would like and always have been is a great staff. We are blessed with terrific people. The culture that has developed over the 65 years we've been there and the success we've had is all about our staff and that culture that we started back then of treating people like they were members of our family. That’s how we treated all of our staffs. We talk about the 1,300 people we have. We talk about the Woodloch family, the greater Woodloch family.
So we have offices. We just don't spend a lot of time with them. And that's how we run our business, very hands on. And we grew and we were, you know, we grew not tremendously fast, but for a little place, it went pretty fast. We bought another camp on the lake. Camp Electra was a Christian scientist camp. We bought a little small boarding house was on the lake. So by the time 1981 rolled around, when I purchased the business Woodloch would handle them to about 250 guests. And I loved I loved business. I mean, that was in my soul, you know. And once they get through that 11 year old stretch, I loved it.
CHRIS: So how many are you now? The whole.
JOHN: We have 1300, over 1300 acres now. We either own or control we went from 12 acres to 1300 acres in that 65 year span. In fact, we just bought another 60 acres on the lake. We went into a six year growth span. So we built a lot. We built the nightclub. We built our big inn, we built all of our suites, 80 rooms. We added in a five year span a lot to it. So that's how Woodloch started to go. Then along the way, by the time we got to 1986, the resort proper was about the size it is today and we were just, okay, what next? Well, what came next is people over to the golf course. Our clientele had become more affluent as we went on, and we know we need a golf course to be a great resort. So we were able to put together another 500 acres. We bought some land right next to us two miles away, and we built a beautiful golf course. It was the centerpiece of a community we built. So we started a construction company and real estate company. At that point in 1988, we started those Woodloch Pines primarily as a family resort. So, you know, lots of kids, lots of families that came back year after year. And we have other pieces now, but that's what it was. So we built a spa and I'm jumping ahead a little bit. So we did a golf course and we figured, okay, that's it, we thought a perfect resort. But everybody, you know, by the time we get to the nineties, everybody wanted to have a spa. So we got into purchasing some more land and a little lake and we, it's right at the end of the lake and the Lodge at Woodloch began.
CHRIS: The spa has always been consistently ranked as one of the top ten, not only not in Pennsylvania, United States, but in the world by Conde Nast.
JOHN: Yes, right.
CHRIS: Consistently for the last since you've owned it probably.
JOHN: Yeah. Well we brought a spa person in as our partner, so we had partners in this. We bought the land that had our name on it. So and it opened up in 2006 and the place was beautiful, but the partner was managing. He was a little more elitist in how we approach things and the hospitality wasn't the same. It didn't match up with our name. So we ended up in 2010 buying partners out.
CHRIS: What is your hospitality heart? What is the Woodloch hospitality, heart. If somebody asked you that?
JOHN: I said, we have a deep passion for making people happy. But in each different resort, it's doing something different because at Woodloch Pines we reconnect family and we can see what happens. They come in the door and they're sitting with their family meals. They're recreating together, they're having a ball, and they go home happy and the spirit is high. And at the Lodge it's a whole different rejuvenation and, you know, finding some peace and peacefulness. And I tell my kids all the time, we're doing God's work. You know, we bring people together, we bring some peace in the world. And it's very, very rewarding to work to myself into a family as just as it was for my parents.
CHRIS: It seems that the thread of that first 40 guests in 1958 is still with us today and just in different forms.
JOHN: The mission statement has never changed. We don't even know what's the mission statement, 1958. But as we went on, we said, you know what? Our mission would be to treat every single guest who comes through our doors or does business with us in any way as if they're company in our own home. We treat them like friends, so it'll be a very personalized hospitality. It's not just, you know, you say what you're supposed to say. It comes from your heart. When we hire people, we don't look for a whole bunch of experience. We look for is attitude, enthusiasm, and try and see the heart like they tell them all the time. You can learn service from a book. You have to learn hospitality has to come from your heart. And that's what we talk about all the time and obviously passionate about it. I mean, I'm very passionate about it. And my children, thank goodness, understand what we know, how that all works and they're in it.
CHRIS: It was amazing being guests there, got on the shuttle and the driver knew you spoke very highly of you in the family and the answer and he had said, he didn't know who I was. He said, “I feel like I'm part of their family.” And you don't see that today, really the relationship of a team member to an employer, which is I think the heart of that too.
JOHN: We have a crisis fund. When people get in trouble, they have a significant issue in their home. We help them out financially. We do a lot of different things that may and we have lots of gatherings together. It's all part of building that, that heart in the center of hospitality. So we are blessed and I know my dad didn't know this, but the Pocono Mountains, the Pocono Mountains are the place to go.
CHRIS: And that's I wanted to ask, don't you have that perspective because you've been there. So. From your time first here with your family to now what would it evolution of you think because you came at the peak of the honeymoon?
JOHN: Yes, part of it.
CHRIS: So where do you think we are now? Where do you think the Pocono Mountains is going?
JOHN: I think it's been absolutely amazing what has happened. The Pocono Mountains, we have so much nature. We have, you know, rivers and streams and, you know, beautiful woods. And we're only 90 miles away from New York. And in Philadelphia, we should be the mecca of people vacationing. There's so much diversity here that can happen. So we changed our mission to from honeymoons to nature and family. And we still have great honeymoon places. But, you know, that's not all we have skiing in the winter time, snow tubing and all the water parks. There's just so much here now that we are the place to go.