Chautauqua Conversations: Lakeside Chautauqua’s President Sibbring discusses visitor count, finances

Chautauqua Lakeside’s waterfront pavilion, left, and the Lakeside Hotel, shown June 7, sit on the shores of Lake Erie. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Lakeside, Ohio — Chautauquans are familiar with the popular mix of religion and education that made the name “Chautauqua” familiar across this country and in many foreign lands. Fewer may be aware that there currently exists an organization called the Chautauqua Trail, consisting of 17 member “Chautauquas,” from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Boulder, Colorado, and from Defuniak Springs in the Florida Panhandle to Petoskey in the northwestern part of Michigan’s lower peninsula. Institution staff members generally participate in the organization’s meetings, which have sometimes been held on the grounds.

While the Institution is the mother ship, it is generally acknowledged that the “Chautauqua” in second place is Lakeside Chautauqua, located on the Marblehead Peninsula on Lake Erie in north central Ohio. As the crow flies, it’s not very far from Cedar Point, and you can sometimes see Kelleys Island from the Lakeside shoreline.

The Daily spoke recently with Kevin Sibbring, who has served as Lakeside Chautauqua’s president for 14 years. Chautauquans may recognize many familiar issues as they arose in our discussion. We talked in Sibbring’s office and in a small nearby pizza parlor.

Tell me about your path to the presidency of Lakeside Chautauqua.

I’m in my 14th year as president and CEO of Lakeside. I’ve been coming here for 35 years, introduced by my wife who is a lifelong Lakesider. Prior to this job, I was vice president of global marketing for a large software firm that was Dallas-based, part of Sterling Commerce Software. We were the largest provider of electronic data interchange services and a dominant player in the internet commerce business-to-business arena. I led a global marketing team that spanned 60 countries. We were based in Dublin, Ohio.

I honestly thought nothing could hold a candle to that job. We were in a hugely competitive part of the economy, were growing by 40 percent a year through mergers and acquisitions. We took the company public four years later and wound up selling it to AT&T for $4 billion. It was the largest acquisition in Columbus-area history. I remained at the company for a year; AT&T didn’t really know how to integrate their new company. Then I took a year off and we bought a house at Lakeside. I was 45 years old.

I got involved in some volunteer activity at Lakeside, fixed up our new house and got to know some people. After a while, I was encouraged to think about the presidency. I reflected on my life and began to think about substituting service to others for chasing the bottom line. My predecessor retired around this time, and since I had become fascinated with the Chautauqua Movement and Lakeside in particular, I thought, why not?

Talk about your senior staff and boards.

I had pretty good latitude to hire the people I could recruit whom I wanted around me. We had a focused, deliberate search for, especially, our program and development chiefs and our CFO/COO. The great thing about the people we brought in is they already had a heart connection to Lakeside.

Over the past seven to 10 years, we have grown our middle management. We have added a lot of needed energy in the process. When I took over, we were old school. We had a board of 45 members. At that time, the multibillion dollar operation known as The Ohio State University had just increased their board size from 12 to 15.

I used the opportunity to position myself as a change agent. We reduced our board size to 25 board members. We have also witnessed an evolution of the board. When I took over, it was the old guys’ club. It was almost a ceremonial thing. So when I took over, I concentrated on staff first, then board evolution. Our board can serve two three-year terms, and most do.

We have about 40 year-round staff, and hire about 200 more for the summer.

When I took over in 2005, I established the Lakeside Chautauqua Foundation. Prior to becoming president, I worked with our development team, and I found there was a lot of talk and little action. I thought my leadership could be stronger with a culture of philanthropy supporting the foundation board. We cannot match the Institution in terms of endowment, but during my tenure, we have moved from an endowment of $1.8 million to around $7 million now. I think we are on a great trajectory now. We’ve had around four million individual gifts in the past dozen or so years.

We have seven foundation board members, but I’m going to grow that to 10. The foundation is set up as a supporting organization, and there is a path from that board to the board of trustees if individuals wish to continue serving. We saw our boards in action with our recent capital campaign to build our outdoor pool, recreation and wellness center complex.

Tell me about that.

In 2015, we were doing a community assessment. We were very intentional about engaging the community on the question of ‘What does the future of Lakeside look like?’ 2015 was also when Lake Erie had a record algal bloom. Lakeside had talked about a pool for decades. In fact, when I took over I found a 1954 fundraising brochure to support a pool then. Lakesiders had said, ‘Why build a pool? Our front door is a pool.’ And we do have a lot of water-based recreation. But that algal bloom — you may recall it closed the Toledo water intake for several days and the story made The New York Times — scared a lot of people.

Things here had moved glacially for most of Lakeside’s history. But this particular case was a community-driven process. From the start of raising $4 million to completion of the process, it took us 15 months. This project dovetailed nicely into our Lakeside Chautauqua Master Plan, which we’ll talk about later.

So when we did our community assessment, what topped the list was a swimming pool. But Lakesiders went further: They said if we are going to have a pool, let’s have a program around it. Enhanced wellness programming was most often mentioned. I see wellness as central to the historical Chautauqua tenets of mind, body, spirit. Our wellness center will be a year-round operation, helping to draw in outside community members.

As I understand that President Michael Hill is doing at the Institution, we are moving to open our campus more to the local community outside our gates. There are so many myths about us outside our property. People think you have to be a Methodist to enter, for example. (The large Methodist synods of Ohio do hold their annual conclaves before the Lakeside season begins. This brings 12,000 and 10,000 visitors, respectively, to the Lakeside grounds.) Someone from the local Marblehead Peninsula told me recently that he thought all our programming was just for the homeowners.

We have done some analysis and found that we generate about $80 million annually for the local economy. This supports the equivalent of 668 full-time jobs, including maintenance and repair of our 1,000-plus homes and 60 buildings owned by Lakeside. We will play that narrative back to local and state political leaders.

Lakeside is the second Chautauqua, after the Institution?

There’s no question about it. I’ve been to them all, and we’re clearly next after Chautauqua Institution.

How about after Lakeside?

I’d say probably Bay View Chautauqua near Petoskey, Michigan, but they are owned by the Methodist Church and claim their tax exemption through that church. Next is probably Chautauqua Colorado, located on city-owned land in the city of Boulder. They have about 100 cottages, but they outsource their program planning

What is your year-round profile?

We have groups in here every month. We are definitely a year-round operation, though obviously our summer season leads the way. September and October are the best weather months here, and we host numerous events then, including conclaves under the Methodist and Lutheran banners.

There is nearly a century’s worth of tradition with some of these events.

While Lakeside remains staunchly and openly ecumenical, we do retain ties to the Methodist Church. There are always some Methodist ministers or lay persons on our board of trustees, for example.

We do have an 11-week season this year, but some of the weeks are fairly spare in terms of programming.

What is your summer visitor count?

Again, bearing in mind that our season is 10-12 weeks long depending on how the calendar breaks in a particular year, we get upwards of 125,000 visitors. I would say that the vast majority of those visitors spend at least one night on our grounds.

How does your accommodations base hold up?

We’re actually slipping a bit here. Last year, only eight new homes were built in Lakeside. We have relatively few remaining building lots. As for existing homes, we are seeing a trend toward new homeowners paying well above regional prices and then pouring some serious money into the property. Last year, we had 58 projects that required review by our historical preservation and design review board. Most construction projects require what we call a certificate of appropriateness. We will have a few more than that this year.

This means we are losing beds. When people make that kind of investment, the effect is usually to take those properties off the rental market. We have not expanded our hotel base. We have not expanded our group housing. We have a campground here on the grounds with about 90 sites. We have not expanded that. As part of our new master plan process, we created an ad hoc group to concentrate solely on housing.

Unlike the Institution, we don’t have hotel accommodations reasonably close to our gates. No one wants to spend a week in a hotel in Port Clinton and commute over here every day. When visitors get on the grounds, they really don’t want to leave for the duration of their stay. There is a grocery store just outside the gates.

You have some undeveloped property inside your gates. Does this feature in your master plan?

Yes, absolutely. We want to look at each parcel of what we call ‘opportunity spaces.’ Should it be developed for group housing? For cluster housing? We have identified around 15 spaces where we can expand housing. These spaces are not on the commercial real estate market. They are for institutional development, if we feel that is the way to go.

We tend to be very rigid here in Lakeside on demolition. It is a very last resort. We are direct with our property owners from the start. They should not come here and expect to tear down what they have just purchased. At the moment, we have fewer than a dozen lots where individuals could come in and build a home.

You have a campground and trailer park inside the gates.

We are going to keep them. They are a significant profit center for us, and we think they diversify our housing options by offering the broadest range of accommodations. We have some cabins, which we may take down, but we will replace them with updated similar substitutes. We actually get a lot of volunteers from the campground. They view themselves as a neighborhood and refer to themselves as Lakeside Heights.

How about vehicles on the grounds?

Every property owner here is required to have two parking spots on their lot. For new construction, no more than 55 percent of the lot can be covered. If you are adding on to an existing structure, it’s a little tighter. A parking pass is required. Lakesiders are very concerned about the number of vehicles inside the gates. We have pedestrians, automobiles, golf carts, bicycles, power chairs and buses on our streets.

We in the administration are getting a lot of feedback from property owners on the subject of reducing vehicular traffic on our grounds. We’re in active partnership with our neighboring Danbury school system to partner with them on use of their newly expanded parking lot in conjunction with a planned enhancement of our own bus shuttle system. Property owners will still have their two asses, but beyond that, we want to get as many vehicles as is feasible off the grounds.

We do allow property owners to license and operate electric golf carts on the grounds. They must pass a safety inspection by our maintenance staff, including checks of horn, headlights, turn signal, tail lights, brakes, seatbelts and proof of insurance. A season license costs $175.

We have had one accident involving a vehicle (it was a bicycle) in my tenure as president. The incident involved an older lady with a hearing problem and a nine-year-old boy with his new bicycle. We imposed some restrictions we thought were appropriate after that.

I’ll tell you one thing we are going to try that should alleviate some traffic issues. We receive deliveries from outside regularly. Some arrive on 18-wheel rigs. Most of these involve food and retail supplies. We are looking at setting up a staging warehouse just outside the gates where the big trucks could unload and smaller vehicles could complete the deliveries on the grounds.

You mentioned issues with the health of Lake Erie.

It’s vitally important to our well-being. The Lake Erie Foundation is headquartered here in Lakeside. Our congress member, Marcy Kaptur, is on its board with me. We have gotten great support on lake health issues generally from U.S. Sens. Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman. The current governor (John Kasich) doesn’t seem engaged with Lake Erie. We have brought him up here to discuss lake issues, but he hasn’t been helpful. We do lobbying in Columbus and in Washington, D.C., some of it related to lake issues. We are watching things like hog farming in Indiana and automobile plants in southern Detroit suburbs and big agriculture in western Ohio because all of it affects the health of western Lake Erie. We take our drinking water out of Lake Erie. Overall, we do aspire to be a model of green development and sustenance.

Where do your property owners and visitors come from?

They come from all over the map, but with a concentration in the Midwest states. There are many from Cleveland, especially the western suburbs, but also from the east side; from Toledo and southern Michigan; from Columbus and central Ohio; Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Lexington and Louisville. I’d say that our largest base of homeowners is from Columbus, now Ohio’s largest city. It’s also certainly the most significant in terms of guests.

We are finding that our seven-day pass, long established as our leading product, is being supplanted by three- and four-day passes. We tend to have a lot of capacity in the middle of the week, and there is a real concentration on the weekends.

How many homes do you have on the grounds at Lakeside? Are you expanding?

We have about 1,000 homes here. Our footprint is basically one square mile.

We are expanding. You’ve seen Chautauqua Park? This was a 15-acre collection of parcels outside the gates. We had a chance to acquire that and moved quickly to do so. Also, we have had a wooded area since the 1950s that was rarely if ever used by our homeowners. Together, these two areas comprised a substantial green buffer for us.

After some study, we decided to use a part of this new territory to support the four pillars. We have set up a memorial garden on part of this land. It’s called Chautauqua Park. Around 50 of our families have loved ones laid to rest there. Strategically, that represents what will likely be a connection to Lakeside for many generations. In terms of space management, the process is cremains (cremated remains) to earth. Any container must be biodegradable.

There are limited other possibilities for expansion. I mentioned the parking collaboration with our local school. And we have a lot of boaters here. In fact, Ottawa County, where we are located, has more boat slips than San Diego County, California. Anyway, we are exploring a partnership with a nearby marina, and we will see where that leads us.

The Institution has been gradually liberalizing its alcohol policies on the grounds. How about Lakeside?

We are the only Chautauqua that does not allow any alcohol in public spaces on our grounds. The major pushback so far is inquiries about when can we enjoy wine with our meal at the Lakeside Hotel.

But this policy also clearly hurts our wedding business. We do a lot of weddings here at Lakeside, but rarely get the reception. There are some pretty well-established folks here who are resistant to change in this area. In connection with our surveying Lakesiders about a major renovation of the Lakeside Hotel into a four-season property, the alcohol question arose. We’ll doubtless return to this issue.

By the way, the Lakeside Hotel has 78 rooms, and the nearby and more modern Fountain Inn has 48 rooms.

I’m sure you are feeling revenue pressure.

All the time. We need to be creative but intentional in our evolution so we respect our traditions as we evolve and grow, especially outside our summer season. We need to take Lakeside to the next level, to make it a world-class center. Our Lakeside Master Plan will hopefully help guide us there.

Are you comfortable with the financial basis at Lakeside?

Yes. We have a growing endowment, very little debt. We’ve only drawn on a line of credit once in my years as president, and we paid that back very quickly. The annual fund is continuing to grow.

Where does your revenue come from?

We get about 39 percent from gate revenue. Philanthropy accounts for 22 percent, and food and lodging around 17 percent. Services and real estate fees make up most of the rest.

You’ve had a long run at the helm here. Do you still feel the fire in your belly?

Absolutely. I have what I call a heart connection to this place. I think it transforms lives. It is a quiet place of healing for many people. There’s a passion for me here that I frankly didn’t feel in the private sector, despite the material advantages. But — and I think this is important — skills that I picked up in the private sector are applicable also here.

Most of my predecessors were clergy. While they bring certain strengths, fundraising was rarely one of them. And there was little recognition that Lakeside is involved in multiple businesses. We are in the property management business. We are in the business of religion. We are in the business of the other three pillars. We have a downtown business district.

No matter what part of our operation you look at, there are best practices that can be applied.

You have a dual role. You’re the CEO of Lakeside while also serving essentially as the mayor of a village. Is there any conflict between these roles?

We have a de facto resident historian here who has known eight of my predecessors. He told me the typical pattern is for the person in my position to be the mayor in the first year, out and about, shaking hands. In the second year, maybe there is a little less visibility. By the third year, the person is hiding in this office. I was determined to change that pattern. I have had an open-door policy from day one. I do feel good about that.

I will say this, though. My family quit walking with me on the grounds because I am stopped every 10 feet or so with a question or a comment.

What are you proudest of?

It has a lot to do with the Chautauqua name. When I took over, this place was called Lakeside by almost everyone. You didn’t really hear the name Chautauqua that much. Now it is everywhere, as are references to the four pillars of Chautauqua.

Tags : Bay View ChautauquaChautauquaChautauqua Coloradochautauqua institutionChautauqua LakesideChautauqua TrailJohn FordKevin Sibbring

The author John Ford

John Ford is in his ninth year with the Daily. He reports on general news, does feature reporting and writes the weekly Chautauqua Conversations column. A wire service reporter for United Press International prior to embarking on a career as a foreign service officer with the Department of State, he currently writes a regular column on American politics and foreign relations for one of the two principal daily newspapers in Nassau, Bahamas.