Traveling the Badger State

Lodging, airline and luggage options abound for travelers to, from or around Wisconsin.

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Urban Boutique Hotels

Wisconsin travelers have myriad lodging options, from hotels to resorts to cabins, from urban destinations to the Northwoods. The Dahlmann Campus Inn on Langdon Street in Madison is just steps away from the UW. “You don’t need a car if you’re coming downtown,” says Bill Wellman, general manager. “We do have complimentary parking, but also complimentary taxi transportation to and from the airport.”

Some people think you can only stay at the hotel if you’re involved with the UW. “It’s not so,” assures Wellman. “Our name refers to our location, which is a huge advantage for our guests.”

About half of those guests are coming to Madison businesses for conferences or meetings, or to campus for academic reasons, conferences or adult learning. The other half is leisure travelers. 

“Often people don’t know what to expect from us, but we give them something to write home about,” Wellman says. “We’re a beautifully appointed facility with mahogany, marble, original artwork and first-class furnishings in our rooms. People experience it and want to come back.”

The guests-only Chancellor’s Club offers complimentary hot breakfast and serves as a lounge with an extensive wine list and top-shelf liquor. It can host small meetings, as can the Inn’s suites. One overlooks the UW, Lake Mendota and the Capitol. “People use it for very creative brainstorming sessions or as a hospitality suite,” says Wellman. “We partner with larger facilities that hold larger meetings for groups of guests.

“Travelers like this style of independent, upscale hotel,” he adds.  “We provide a little more personal attention, such as a staffed business center.”

HotelRED, across from UW–Madison’s Camp Randall Stadium, has been open less than a year. So far it’s seeing roughly 60 percent business travelers and 40 percent leisure travelers. “We’ve been ranked No. 1 on TripAdvisor, where people search for lodging, for about five months now,” enthuses Heather Stetzer, director of sales. “For a new hotel, that’s pretty awesome.”

Madison’s business travel market is competitive, she indicates, but HotelRED is unique. “We have a total of 2,200 square feet of meeting space, with three rooms, two of which can open into one. One can open into our lobby and lounge area—with its natural lighting—for receptions or networking. It’s very popular. Our Capital Room has floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Camp Randall. It’s the perfect size for a board meeting of 15–20 people.

“Seasoned travelers see a lot of properties and appreciate our independent, boutique hotel,” Stetzer adds. “Companies that want to showcase Madison book their top VIPs with us.”

The hotel hires staff who know Madison well and can inform guests, notes Jason Ilstrup, general manager. “When guests make the decision to stay somewhere unique, our personal service supports their choice. We try to buy local in every area we can—furniture, bar fixtures, food and beverages, flowers … we really support our local area and want to be ‘the Madison Hotel.’”

On weekends, many of the hotel’s leisure guests come to visit their children at the UW, or to enjoy Madison and the lakes, or to events like a Badger game or the Madison Marathon. “There’s also the ‘staycation’ concept, where people stay nearer their homes for vacation,” Ilstrup says. 

“People come from Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis or Madison itself. Even if you live in Nakoma you can come for a great stay downtown,” he adds. “We really want to be part of the neighborhood and buy from local merchants as much as possible so guests from far and near can have that Madison experience.”

He’s worked in other hotels and finds all travelers are being more frugal. “They want good value, and that’s why we offer free WiFi, complimentary shuttle service, chocolates in the rooms and a complimentary cocktail on weekends.”

Closest to the Kohl Center

Tom Ziarnek, general manager of the DoubleTree Hilton on West Johnson Street, has seen corporate travel—strong until a 2009 decreas —pick up recently. “Now it’s better than ever,” he says. “The only issue is that people book later. Before, they might book two weeks or a month ahead; now it’s more like five days. It’s been a real learning curve for us with staffing.”

In his 19 years at the hotel, the biggest change Ziarnek has seen is its conversion seven years ago from a Howard Johnson. “It was a huge undertaking with fantastic results,” he recalls. “We had a $4 million renovation and eight months of training staff to new standards, policies and computer systems. All staff had to pass a test before we could open.”

Now the hotel sees about 70 percent business travelers, roughly 3 percent, of which is convention business, and about 30 percent leisure travelers. “We’re the closest hotel to the Kohl Center, so we get a lot of business from Badger sports,” reports Ziarnek.

 “But we’re known mostly for our service. We have the Hilton Honors frequent traveler program, which ties into the services we provide hotel guests,” he says. “It makes us a leader. We’re ranked No. 3 out of 280 DoubleTrees, and we’ve been in the top five since we converted, based on guest rankings.”

People rate their treatment by staff very highly. “We’re not the largest hotel, but we treat everyone sincerely and empower staff to make decisions,” Ziarnek says. “If a guest requests something, employees don’t have to find a manager.”

Employees from the restaurant to the bell staff and in between know all regular guests by their first names. “We work hard to train employees to do that,” says Ziarnek. “It’s the little things that set us apart.” 

The Dells

As travelers look for more value, Ho Chunk Gaming Wisconsin Dells is also doing little things to set itself apart. These include a mother’s room for nursing and a complimentary charging station for electronic devices.

“If you forget you charger, you can just drop your phone at the coat-check counter and pick it up later,” says Nehoma Thundercloud, public relations senior manager. “We’re adding small amenities that really mean something for guests. We’ve always found space for nursing mothers, but we wanted to have a nicer, more relaxing environment.”

Ho Chunk allows smoking on its main gaming floor and has expanded the nonsmoking gaming floor. “It’s on other side of casino from the hotel and convention center, and we have shuttles to take people to the nonsmoking entrance and back, so they don’t have to walk through the smoking area,” Thundercloud says. “We’re always looking for ways to make things more convenient.”

The resort has also undergone major changes like the recent hotel renovation, which upgraded and enlarged rooms, added luxury and premier ones, and created hospitality and honeymoon suites, along with a VIP wing and private lounge. And its deluxe RV park opened last fall. 

Business and convention travel is strong and getting stronger, and more people are bringing their families and combining business and leisure trips. “We have something for everyone—children can have fun at Kids Quest while those over 18 play bingo and the adults enjoy full-service gaming,” says Thundercloud.

“We have a new leisure pool area with a huge hot tub lagoon, four restaurants from casual to fine dining, concerts and live entertainment, and our location in the center of the state is a real advantage,” she adds. “You drive an hour or two and you’re here; it’s a nice day trip. For example, we recently hosted a one-day American Red Cross volunteer celebration.”

The grand ballroom, seating 1,200, is the showpiece of Ho Chunk’s meeting and convention space. There’s also a more intimate ballroom and boardrooms for breakout sessions. The exhibit space can accommodate up to 100 tradeshow booths.

“Businesses appreciate the variety of food and beverages we offer for breakfasts and breakouts, and our responsive staff. “They resolve any issues promptly and make sure all needs are taken care of,” Thundercloud notes. “We have complimentary valet service and concierges—nice amenities you don’t get at most venues.”

Weddings, from the elaborate and large to the simple and intimate, are frequent at Ho Chunk. “People tell us they get a great turnout when guests find out the wedding is here,” laughs Thundercloud. “Our banquet staff does a great job with the kids’ table menus as well as the adult menus.”

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