They just invested $20 million in the future of fishing on Lake of the Woods, so there's nothing "chill" about this four-month ice season for business partners Joe Swanson and Pipasu Soni.
In a major behind-the-scenes deal finalized this year, the two Minnesotans bought out four owner-operated resorts in the Wheelers Point area. Sportsman's Lodge, Border View Lodge, Wheelers Point Resort and Rainy River Resort now provide fishing vacations under the same corporate umbrella while trying to maintain their distinct charms.
After flood waters this spring and summer submerged docks and ruined bookings, the new owners are expecting 70% of overall business in their maiden year to come from the four-month ice fishing season that normally starts — on average — Dec. 10.
"The whole ice fishing thing is such a big part of this,'' said Swanson, who grew up in Silver Bay as the youngest of four boys. He attended Lake Superior College in Duluth as well as Mankato State.
He and Soni have hired Minnesota-based Leisure Hotels and Resorts to operate the properties and the new general manager is Jeff Andersen of Warroad, a highly regarded fishing pro. Andersen will be on hand next weekend at the St. Paul Ice Fishing and Winter Sports Show at RiverCentre. He'll oversee two booths, each representing the four resorts.
"There's great history and tradition behind each of these places and we're heading into our first winter up here as a group,'' Andersen said. "It's a fun endeavor.''
As resort owners, Swanson and Soni are new to Lake of the Woods. They got to know each other — along with their wives, Zoe Swanson and Christi Soni — as neighbors in Plymouth. Joe Swanson is a business consultant and financial planner with expertise in real estate and retirement plans. For two years in college he was a student member on the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities Board of Trustees, including one year as board treasurer. Soni is chief financial officer of Winnipeg-based bus maker New Flyer Industries. Together, they also own a North Shore resort and a lakeside RV campground at Mille Lacs.
Swanson declined to say how much they paid for each resort on Lake of the Woods, but he ballparked the overall buyout price at about $20 million. It was unusual for all four properties to come up for sale, he said. The purchases were agreed to in October 2021, but the individual real estate closings happened in April through June.
He said his interest in Lake of the Woods fishing tourism dates to a memory from nearly 20 years ago when he and 60 work associates from the Twin Cities trekked to Ballard's Resort on Wheelers Point for fall walleye fishing on 11 charter boats.
"I remember how unique it was to look across from the resort and see the Canadian forest,'' Swanson said. "It's special and very amazing … wooded and rural but everything you need to live and work there.''
When he and Soni researched the zip codes of guests, they realized that Lake of the Woods ice fishing, in particular, is a bucket list item for anglers who live outside the Midwest. Tapping those desires to pull a walleye through the ice is part of the marketing plan — especially given that Delta Airlines flies twice daily to International Falls, 68 miles away from Baudette.
But mining new customers isn't a top priority while the resorts now owned by Swanson and Soni scramble to prepare for a long run of 18-hour days. The grueling schedule for employees is typical of the ice fishing season. Only this time, ice crews and resort workers will be trading expertise, sharing equipment and consolidating other back-office operations.
"You want to systemize the things the guests can't see,'' Swanson said. "But we have to keep the focus on the front of the house … the guest experience.''
That's Andersen's job. One immediate advantage will be the creation of a single ice road for the exclusive use of the combined operations. How many miles long? "Twenty or 25,'' Andersen said. "It depends on how far we have to go to find the fish.''
In the past, the main, multi-user ice road for the Wheelers Point area has been prone to traffic jams and delays moving anglers to their fishing shacks. "This way we'll avoid the chaos,'' Andersen said. Sportsman's Lodge, he added, will continue to off-road their guests onto the ice using "bombers'' that run on heavy-duty, continuous caterpillar tracks.
Another plus? Bombers, ice-road vehicles, snowplows, charter boats and other outdoor equipment will be housed this winter by the same team and cared for by a full-time mechanic. The work vehicles and propane gear will initially service 160 ice houses. Building an expanded garage already is in the offing.
Andersen said the four resorts now employ 140 people, ranking second in the area for jobs only to ANI Pharmaceuticals in Baudette. But it's a family vibe — not a corporate one — that the resorts will pursue for the sake of their customers.
"People really settle on their resorts. They return and take great pride in them,'' Andersen said. "As of right now we're not changing any of that.''
He said the first year of operations is for studying ways to consolidate where it makes sense. "We will analyze it and understand and adapt,'' Andersen said. "The challenge is how do we come together and grow as one.''
Swanson said he and Soni were impressed with the operational history of the resorts. In the long run, they'll seek to add amenities without losing sight of the main attraction, Swanson said.
"It's about fishing,'' he said. "It's coming up and making great memories on a really special lake.''
Upcoming ice show
St. Paul Ice Fishing and Winter Sports Show
When: Friday-Sunday, Dec. 2-4
Where: St. Paul RiverCentre
Hours: Friday 1 to 8 p.m.; Saturday 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sunday 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
What: More than 190 exhibits
Ticket prices: From $6 to $25 (VIP). Kids 5 and younger free.