Renovation vacation: Plan a trip, and a kitchen remodel

Larry Olmsted
Special to USA TODAY
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KOHLER, Wis. — For five seasons, loyal viewers hung on every detail of the home renovations undertaken by Chip and Joanna Gaines, the hosts of HGTV’s Fixer Upper. The charismatic couple parlayed their home improvement popularity into a lifestyle platform that includes a magazine, retail stores, two Waco, Texas, bed-and-breakfasts and, most recently, a restaurant.

But the Gaineses were not the first to merge the hot trend of home renovation with travel, food and lodging. Destination Kohler, one of the USA’s most eclectic and amenity-filled resorts, has been offering inspiration and expertise to those undertaking kitchen, bathroom and home building projects for years, and with a wide range of homeowner-focused offerings, is riding the current wave of “renovation vacations.”

Interest in home renovations is growing fast, fueled by both the economy and the proliferation of popular television shows on the subject, and last year 120,000 visitors came to get kitchen and bath ideas and assistance from the massive Kohler Design Center.

“I see a lot more people now who come in and say, ‘I saw this on TV,’ and the shows definitely inspire people,” said Ericka Sprangers, an interior designer on staff at Kohler. Michael Smith, the Design Center’s manager, agrees: “People are a lot more interested in staying in their homes and remodeling rather than trading up in the past few years, and I do think the shows are part of that.”

In this vein, 23 complete display bathrooms and kitchens intended to inspire ideas ring the upper level of the three-story, 36,000-square-foot facility, and one of the newer ones was designed by Alison Victoria, host of HGTV’s Kitchen Crashers. The ground floor and mezzanine display just about every fixture, jetted tub, sink and toilet the plumbing giant makes, and many of the fixtures are functional and connected to water, making it possible to see all the different products in action. “We feel the best way to envision these things for your home is to see, touch and feel them,” said Smith.

Also displayed are products from other home product companies Kohler owns, such as Ann Sacks tile, Robern cabinets, luxury fixture maker Kallista and the budget-oriented Sterling plumbing products. What they don’t have is anything you can buy on site, which minimizes sales pressure. But the most unique and surprising element of the Kohler Design Center is its staff of trained interior designers available to help visitors plan detailed renovation projects — for free.

Kohler is arguably the world’s best-known plumbing brand, and since 1900 this namesake company town located an hour’s drive from Milwaukee has been its global headquarters. Company founder Walter J. Kohler, Sr., envisioned it as a Utopian workers community, and built employee dormitories with food service, affordable homes for his workers to purchase, provided citizenship classes for immigrant factory workers, and had the park-like, pedestrian-friendly village designed by Frederick Law Olmsted’s famous landscape architecture firm.

In 1981, then-CEO Herbert Kohler, Jr., decided to expand into the hospitality industry, and in 1981 converted the original workers’ dorm into the American Club, a Forbes Five-Star luxury hotel with over-the-top bathrooms showcasing the company’s whirlpool baths, rain showers, and every imaginable spa-like feature. In the 37 years since, he developed a major resort with multiple components integrated into the town in a manner that co-exists with the still functional factories and foundries. A free factory tour is offered daily, letting visitors see exactly how a range of products from toilets to cast-iron tubs are made.

Known collectively as Destination Kohler, the resort today includes two full-service hotels, the luxury American Club and the more affordable but still bathroom-focused Inn at Woodlake. The company’s third hotel is the recently opened Lodge Kohler, a modern upscale property in nearby Green Bay, about 45 minutes away and immediately adjacent to Lambeau Field. The Kohler Waters Spa is the only Forbes Five-Star spa in the Midwest, and another display of the company’s products.

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There are more than a dozen bars, restaurants and cafes, from fine dining to a Midwestern-themed pub serving regional specialties such as bratwurst, fried cheese curds and walleye. The resort may be best known for its four world-class golf courses, including 2020 Ryder Cup venue Whistling Straits, a Scottish-style links course with towering sand dunes along the banks of Lake Michigan which has twice hosted the PGA Championship. It is ranked among the five best courses in the nation you can play by both Golf Digest and Golf Magazine, and both publications also rank Kohler’s Blackwolf Run in the Top 20.

Other outdoor activities include target shooting, fishing, horseback riding and stand-up paddleboarding. The resort operates an immense health club, along with freestanding yoga and indoor cycling studios. All facilities spotlight Kohler products.

“You can combine a great vacation with all their resources for a home renovation,” said Tom Connor, an admitted fan of home improvement TV shows who lives in Wisconsin and visited Kohler with his wife to plan a renovation they just completed. “We went to the Design Center, which is all set up with these mock kitchens and bathrooms and lots of things to look at … They did rough layouts of three different options, then we picked one and they fine-tuned it, not just a bird’s eye floorplan but a detailed 3D rendering that really helped us envision the final outcome.”

The Connors hired an outside architect and had the work done by a contractor, but the renovation vacation experience at Kohler also caters to do-it-yourselfers on a budget. Some resort guests have no renovation plans at all until they visit, like Pat Gallagher, a financial executive who came from New Jersey for the golf.

 “It’s one of the few Major venues in the country that is public, and you get to play these incredible courses you’ve seen on TV,” said Gallagher. But the facilities drew him to the design studio: “Once you get into those showers, you want a rain head of your own at home.” Gallagher’s visit also inspired him to add a wet bar to a basement rec room project.  

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Gary Younger and Kate Mulcahy used the resources at Kohler for a recent bathroom remodel they did themselves, the latest in a long line of DIY renovations they’ve done to their older home. They were inspired by the PBS series This Old House. “It was the first do-it-yourself programming we’d ever seen,” recalled Mulcahy. “We learned so much from Norm Abram and Bob Vila, and fascinated with knowing-how and the ability to do-it-ourselves, we searched for an old house.” Mulcahy says they’re now frequent viewers of Property Brothers, Fixer Upper and Love It or List It, and “the newer shows re-ignited a desire to remodel the bathroom layout.” So they took a road trip to Wisconsin.

“They guided us to what would work best in our home, piecing together all the various items to meet our needs.” She described the process as easy and stress-free, taking less time than the couple anticipated. “All the decisions regarding fixtures and tile were made in one day, and basically once everything was ordered for the bathroom, we found time to visit the shops, the Kohler museum and relax with a delightful lunch.”

They also did well on their budget. While the Design Center doesn’t sell anything, the Ann Sacks tile showroom does, and visitors (in person only) ordering tile can also order all the other products in the sister families, with significant discounts from retail that vary by product. For the couple, these packaged prices ended up being cheaper than any other they could find through other retailers.

Initial consultations with staff designers are typically about two hours and done by appointment, with guests encouraged to do as much in advance as possible, including a phone conversation with the designer and sending any detailed information such as dimensions or floor plans, original blueprints if you have them, pictures of existing bathrooms and kitchens, and new elements you like from home design websites like Houzz.

“We work from everything from blueprints to sketches on the back of napkins, and assist about 600 projects a year, from one room to entire houses, renovations and new construction,” said Smith. After discussing the overall plan, staff designers walk guests around the center and explain all the differences in products, features and options, helping them pick what best suits their needs, style and budget. From a sit-down with the staff designer to receiving finished detailed floor plans, 3D CAD renderings with elevation, and detailed product ordering lists to take to retailers or give a contractor typically takes two to four days after the meeting.

Visitors can also go home with sample swatches of chosen vanity and countertop colors to help them match paint, tile or other accessories. Many take the information and head over to the Ann Sacks showroom to pick tile, and because of the sheer breadth of the products on display, it’s possible to source every component needed for a bathroom beyond sheetrock and paint.

Product lines range from Japanese-style automated toilets with heat and water jets to parts for digitally controlled custom steam showers and home spas with chroma-therapy, as well as budget one-piece shower enclosures and synthetic tile alternatives. Some visitors prefer to explore the center on their own, even visiting multiple times, trying things out and identifying products they like before meeting a staffer.

For the fourth quarter of 2017, the National Association of Home Builders’ (NAHB) Remodeling Market Index (RMI) tied its highest quarterly mark of the 21st century, capping 19 straight quarters — almost five years — in which more remodelers reported higher activity than in the prior quarter.” A booming stock market and low unemployment continue to fuel consumers’ investment in their homes,” said NAHB in a press release.

According to the National Kitchen and Bath Association, the average cost to renovate an existing bathroom is around $10,000, with deluxe remodels running over $20,000. For kitchens, the NKBA estimates around $25,000 for a medium size room, and $45,000 for a major remodel. With so much money involved, the cost of a research field trip can be seen as a relatively small investment. And with possible savings on materials and design advice, in some cases the trip could pay for itself.

“The Design Center is visually fantastic, but more than that you get real help, they know their stuff, building codes, practical issues of construction,” said Tom Connor. “The renovation process can be overwhelming, so to have someone’s time who is an expert, to go over what you have in mind and get advice, to have someone holding your hand, it’s just a great place to start.”


Getting there: Kohler is an hour’s drive from the Milwaukee Airport and two from Chicago O’Hare.

Lodging: The least expensive option is the Inn at Woodlake, and the priciest is the luxury American Club. All guests have access to the full breadth of resort facilities, including on-demand shuttle vans all around town. In between is the new Lodge Kohler, 45 minutes away in Green Bay. You do not have to stay overnight at Kohler to use the Design Center services.

Renovation information: All three hotels, spas and even restaurant bathrooms and golf clubhouses are designed to showcase a wide variety of plumbing options and design styles. Free daily factory tours are offered of the Kohler plants, departing from the Design Center. The Design Center itself is open to the public and you can simply walk in and explore, but for free consultations with interior design staff, advance reservations are required.

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