HALIBURTON, ON — Frank Vismeg’s 30-plus year career has encompassed numerous hotels in Canada, Europe, and the Caribbean. And there’s a reason for the many moves. Vismeg is known among hoteliers as someone who can take a struggling hotel and fix it.
His latest project is the Pinestone Resort, Conference Centre and Golf Course in Haliburton, which was bought by Darko Vranich of Vrancor several years ago.
It’s a 120-key property with spacious grounds in the heart of Ontario cottage country, with a conference center and respected golf course. But it was also built in 1976, and when Vranich bought it, the property was showing its age.
When Vismeg arrived in July, 2010, he made some changes to the management team, keeping some of the existing staff and recruiting others from nearby and from among his contacts in the Greater Toronto Area.
New hires included his wife, Sonia Radunovic-Vismeg as director of operations, Peter Papatheodorou as manager of food and beverage, and James Jennings, formerly of nearby Wigamog Inn, as executive chef.
He also made some changes to the grounds and interior decor. He redid the outdoor pool and patio, replaced sinks and bathroom fixtures in many units, and added stucco to the front exterior of the building, making it look 35 years younger. He had trees cut down and bushes pruned.
Radunovic-Vismeg, who has a flair for design, added pictures and tasteful floral arrangements to bare walls and tables. And she took some burgundy armchairs out of storage, placing them artfully in the halls.
Marketing strategies changed. Partly due to a long, warm summer, partly to improvements to the pro shop and golf course, and partly to golf-related promos, the golf course had a 25 percent increase in bookings this year.
The Vismeg’s joined the Canadian Society of Association Executives to help boost conference business as well.
Weddings are Radunovic-Vismeg’s specialty, with her most recent position as operations manager at the Oakville Conference Centre.
Last summer, despite Pinestone’s impressive conference facilities, romantic ballroom and picturesque grounds, there were only six weddings all summer.
Next summer is almost totally booked for Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays during the key months from May to October.
Running a resort in cottage country can have its comic moments and its frustrations. One of the problems at the resort was Canada geese on the golf course. The Vismeg’s hired a local woman with trained dogs to chase the geese off the golf course. But these dogs were far too persistent. One poor goose couldn’t fly very well. It got caught in a pond, where the dogs would chase it around and around. Each time the dogs got too close, the goose would flap its wings enough to get away. But the dogs wouldn’t give up, and it took until after dark that night to get them to stop.
The dog experiment was not deemed a success.
Unlike many hoteliers, the Vismeg’s welcome hockey and other sports teams. They prepare in advance by setting up hockey nets on the tennis courts if they’re not in use, and changing the glassware in the rooms from glass to plastic. They plan pasta and Caesar salad for the kids, and more sophisticated fare in the dining room for the adults. They have a waiver all drawn up and ready for the adults to sign.
And then there’s the lecture. Frank gathers the adults and the kids together and states in no uncertain terms that there will be no running and no noise in the halls. “If there is noise,” he told them, “you have a choice. You can go outside and deal with The Bear. Or you can stay inside and deal with The Sonia.”
One little boy started running in the halls. Sonia, who is tall, blonde, and personable but can also be quite stern, marched him to his room. On the way, she heard him mutter, “I wish I could be with the bear.”
In the winter months, Pinestone is partnering with Sir Sam’s ski hill, which is not owned by the same people as Sir Sam’s Inn. Sir Sam’s GM Dave Webb notes that they are installing a covered people-mover to replace the old T-bar, one of the first lifts of its kind in North America.
Sir Sam’s markets itself as the “No. 1 beginner family ski lodge,” an approach that works well with packages featuring Pinestone along with Sir Sam’s skiing.
All these changes seem to be paying off. Occupancy at Pinestone was up 28 percent over last year.
“It took us six months, but now we are all on the same page,” Vismeg said.
His next project is the Sheraton Hamilton, and at press time he was dividing his time between the two properties.