Nelson grew up on a farm in Wisconsin Dells and began working a plethora of jobs at the age of 15 – from an auctioneer, to a railroad company, to driving a beer truck, nothing was out of the question to help support his family.
A year out of high school, he married his wife, Shari, and purchased a bar with his brother-in-law at the age of 20. Two years later, he bought the building across the parking lot – turning it into Pizza Pub – a still- popular Wisconsin Dells restaurant.
In the mid-1990s, Nelson visited Africa for the first time – the native culture, spirit, craft and artistry struck a chord in the young entrepreneur and inspired him to recreate the experience, capturing the magic and heritage of local African communities, in the United States. As the Wisconsin Dells began to develop into today’s “Waterpark Capital of the World,” Nelson built the first Kalahari Resort in 2000 and the rest is history.
Success of the first resort, lent itself to opening a second location in Sandusky, Ohio in 2005. With even more amenities and an expansive footprint, the Nelsons were able to navigate the tough economic landscape of the mid-2000s – in fact, since 2007, annual revenue has steadily increased averaging about nine percent a year. It’s estimated by the end of 2015, the annual revenue of all three resort locations will exceed by ten-fold the amount of the revenue generated during the Wisconsin Dells resort’s inception year in 2000.
“We’ve been fortunate enough to have some really great community bank partners that have helped us navigate the challenging-at-times terrain,” said Nelson, “An overwhelming majority of our financial backers are still community banks – we have a deep sense of our roots and there’s no one else we’d rather do business with.”
Currently, Nelson and his family recently opened their new property in the Pocono Mountains, Pennsylvania in July 2015. The massive $350 million resort sprawls 150 acres and, upon the opening of phase II in March 2017, will host nearly 1,000 guest rooms and suites, America’s Largest Indoor Waterpark (a true 225,000 sq. feet), nine unique dining options, an outdoor waterpark, an outdoor ropes course and more.
The company also recently announced plans for its fourth resort in Round Rock, Texas. With an open date aiming for 2020, the location will be the company’s first in the Southwest.
To prepare for Kalahari’s continued expansion – the Nelson family has been making frequent trips to Africa to soak in the majesty of the continent and develop a refreshed inspiration for sharing unique and amazing experiences with families in the US. The family’s 23-day 2014 “One World Tour” trip was captured on film and shown on Discovery Family channel. Most recently, the clan returned in October 2016 for a 30-day trip that included the climbing of Mt. Kilimanjaro.
“Africa truly is the cradle of life and we feel it’s important to go home before we move forward,” said Nelson, “what started as a name [Kalahari] has transformed into a deep passion for all things Africa. It’s the foundation for every decision we make throughout our business.”
“Ultimately, we just want to share our family experience with others,” said Nelson, “the greatest accomplishment in my life is being able to work with my family, I couldn’t be prouder of my kids – seeing them grow and learn, not only as people but as leaders has been truly exciting. That includes our extended family of awesome management leaders and associates that helped build this dream and will be crucial to any future success.”