Bringing Stars to Lake County
John Lindblom, Record-Bee staff
KONOCTI - Caleb Greenwood, a mountain man, discovered Clear Lake. Greg Bennett, a marketing man, is rediscovering it. Bennett's rediscovery began 15 years ago, when he came upon a rickety resort on the shore of Clear Lake that had all the appeal of a deserted warehouse. Which seems kind of mind-boggling, seeing the beehive of year-round activity and 'destination' Konocti Harbor and Spa is today. 'It's been a different direction over time,' the Konocti general manager and braintrust agrees. 'Back then, it was only open on a summertime basis and closed during the winter season. It had shows, but it was a worn-out, tired seasonal property.
'Since 1990, we have gone to 80 to 100 shows a year, turned a 300-seat venue into a 600-seat venue by ripping a roof off a building and extending the deck and turned an old, beat-up softball field that was never used into a fairly state-of-the-art, 5,000-seat amphitheater, where we hosted some of the biggest names in show business.'
But he says he doesn't want to overstate the importance of entertainment. 'Concerts are part of the profile,' he says, 'but in the big picture, the resort is what it's all about. We got to fill the rooms, pack the restaurant, fill the spa and rent lots of boats.'
For the future, Greg's ambitions are to double the number of accommodations (from 252 rooms) and expand the shore-hugging acreage.
Given Bennett's background in the hotel/resort business before he came to Konocti, it was an unlikely marriage. Starting as a resort GM at the age of 22 in McKinley Park, Alaska, he subsequently ran hotels in Santa Barbara, Ventura, Vail and Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
'Why here? I'm not quite sure,' says Bennett. 'It had a lot to do with the potential of the property. Being as worn-out, beat-up and tired as it was, it was still 125 acres sitting on the state's largest lake.'
A rediscoverer, first and foremost, must have vision. As Bennett obviously did. But he also has to have the energy to actualize the vision. Greg has done this so dynamically that Konocti has set a standard the rest of Lake County has not always found easy to measure up to.
The Lake County (previously the Konocti) Summerfest is a manifestation of the energy generated by Bennett in concert with KPX personality Mike Wilson.
'We are partners with Lake County,' says Bennett. 'We need to establish the area as a location and destination. For us to succeed, our clientele have to do more than fall in love with Konocti; they have to fall in love with the area. The more they do that, the more they're going to come back. 'In terms of accommodations and the uniqueness that the Lake Tahoes, and Calistogas and Napas bring, yes, Lake County has a ways to go,' he acknowledged. 'But you keep working toward that goal because this area - with the largest lake and wonderful weather - has so much potential.' Lake County could do a lot worse than follow the example set by Bennett, who chaired the area's advisory commission on tourism for five years.
During Bennett's 15-year tenure, the resort has:
- Developed a payroll of 700 employees.
- Staged its 80 to 100 shows a year to near-capacity audiences on a regular basis. 'We've proven we can pack the place in January on a rainy, blustery, flooding night,' says Bennett. Konocti once produced nine shows in 10 days.
- Signed 85,000 members to its Star Card program for show reservations.
- Developed a top-flight outreach program with the 'Quarterback Golf Shootout' and newly created Seabreeze Foundation, which is modeled along the lines of the Make-a-Wish program. The Shootout, says Bennett, got a leg up on being an annual success when Joe Montana committed to it in its first year.
'We have been huge supporters for the county since Day 1,' said Bennett. 'We have supported the sheriff's department for years with the Shootout and provided a lot of help to the athletic programs of the five schools in the county.'
Konocti maintains a low profile in much of the community support it provides. But the next time anyone buys a raffle ticket, and the time after that, they might want to take note that tickets to Konocti shows are among what's been donated. High schoolers with dreams of getting into media are invited to shoot videos of all of the resort's productions as part of their classroom work. 'They have an opportunity to learn a craft and a business and work with the artist, which is really cool for a kid,' says Bennett. It is not difficult to imagine Bennett as a star athlete back in the Eau Claire, Wisconsin area as a kid. As a natural extension of that, he views each concert the same as he would an athletic contest.
'You compete until you have enough tickets sold,' said Bennett. 'I've never booked a slam dunk and you're only as smart as your last show.' Country Western artist Tim McGraw and the rising Toby Keith count their appearances at Konocti as contributing to the early stages of their careers.
For the Summerfest, Konocti brings in 'Nickleback' and 'Puddle of Mud,' followed by the Farewell Tour of the multi-Grammy winning group 'Alabama.'
'There can be no more appropriate ending to this year,' says Bennett. 'After a week of activity, we'll be saying good-bye with a grand finale in which we'll do fireworks after the show and Alabama will saying farewell to summer and the Summerfest.'