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Thursday, 16 January 2014 16:20

New chamber president takes the reins in Lake Geneva

Written by  Ian Gronau
Darien Schaefer is the new president of the Geneva Lake Area Chamber of Commerce. Schaefer wants to encourage local residents to embrace the tourism industry here and share their enthusiasm for Lake Geneva with others. Darien Schaefer is the new president of the Geneva Lake Area Chamber of Commerce. Schaefer wants to encourage local residents to embrace the tourism industry here and share their enthusiasm for Lake Geneva with others. Terry Mayer

 WALWORTH COUNTY SUNDAY — It took about six months and dozens of candidates, but now there’s a new president in charge of the Geneva Lake Area Chamber of Commerce.

Since the May retirement of George Hennerley, who headed up the chamber for more than 30 years, the chamber search committee had been digging for a candidate who fit the bill. After an arduous search, they came up with Darien Schaefer.

“We went through SearchWide, which is an executive recruitment firm, and they actually had close to 70 applicants originally,” said Tammie Carstensen, general manager of Harbor Shores and a member of the search committee. “They recommended 15 specific candidates and we tried to finalize it down to about six people. Then the committee interviewed all six over a period of two days and that brought it down to the final two.

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“We actually brought them here to spend a few days and let them look around Lake Geneva and the Geneva lakes area. We wanted them to bring their families in and see what they thought about our community. After a lot of thought and some final interviewing, we chose Darien.”

Before coming to Lake Geneva, Schaefer had been the executive director of the Wausau/Central Wisconsin Convention & Visitors Bureau since 2000.

Over the course of 13 years Schaefer has marshaled a distinguished career. During his tenure, Marathon County climbed from 17th to ninth out of 72 counties in Wisconsin in terms of tourism expenditures. According to Carstensen, Schaefer also created the Wausau Sports Authority and was instrumental in acquiring and managing the popular Badger State Games in Wausau.

“He’s a good listener and he’s very energetic and seems like he hits the ground running,” said Kevin Fleming, president of the Lake Geneva Downtown Business Association, which helped the committee during the final selection. “He sits down, listens to people and then puts things into action immediately. On top of that, he has great ideas. He is great for the chamber and brings a lot of energy with him. We are all very excited about him.”

Schaefer’s track record as executive director in Wausau won him favor with the committee, and they are hoping he can bring similar results to the Geneva Lakes area.

“He came to us very highly recommended and his resume and personality just really fit with our community,” Carstensen said. “I think he’s going to help us grow and help with tourism and group sales. I feel like he’s going to be an absolutely great leader for us.”

Big plans

Although Schaefer gives a nod to his predecessor and wants to respect the chamber’s existing practices, he said he’s excited to bring in some fresh perspective and new ideas.

“I admire the commitment that George Hennerley has shown to this community and I hope to honor his legacy by building upon what has been accomplished to date,” Schaefer said. “I’m honored to take the reins. Change is good and change is necessary. While it can be uncomfortable at times, this community and the entire Geneva Lakes area needs to change, to evolve, to grow.”

Schaefer says he hopes to help residents and businesses in embracing and celebrating the fact that Lake Geneva is a premier tourist destination. Although he is sensitive to the idea that there are certain inconveniences that accompany a large tourism industry, Schaefer feels that without it the region might not have the same dining, shopping and recreational opportunities.

“We wouldn’t have the jobs, quality of life, home values or the access to amenities and services (for) a community this size” without tourism, Schaefer said. “Evolution and growth happen when residents participate in the change and embrace the opportunities to strengthen those special attributes that have made Lake Geneva ‘the place’ for so many years.”

Schaefer feels that the strong tourism draw of the region offers a chance for added growth, and that the people who work and live in the area can draw an even greater benefit from it than they might be currently.

“The lakes have drawn people to the area forever and our water will continue to be a unique selling point for us,” Schaefer said. “But you can’t do the same thing year after year and expect to see growth. In addition to tourism, we need to work on bringing in additional businesses that can provide some diversification to our economy.

“In regards to marketing the area, there seems to be a fair amount of overlap or duplication and there is an opportunity here to coordinate and, in some cases, combine these efforts to be more effective.”

Settling in

The upcoming 19th annual Winterfest slated for Jan. 29 through Feb. 8 will be a perfect opportunity for Schaefer to get his bearings and settle in to the community. The community staple event has been expanded this year to include another full week and is just the sort of function Schaefer worked at taking full advantage of in his previous appointment in Wausau.

As for whether or not he and his wife, Karen, will find themselves at home here in Lake Geneva, look no further than his hobbies. 

“I enjoy outdoor recreation like skiing, biking, hiking and being out on the water. I’m a sports fan. I enjoy reading, live music, and learning (and) experiencing new things,” Schaefer said. “One of my goals is to showcase the community pride of the people that live, work and play here, and then share that energy with others to encourage them to experience it for themselves.”

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