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Sometimes it takes an outsider to ask the right questions to bring about massive change.

Podcast Description:

After decades of handling the Michigan winter months the same, John proposed an idea.  An idea he had no idea would work.  But the results transformed Frankenmuth's winter months from extremely slow to one of Michigan's Premiere Snow Festivals.  That would be Zehnder's SnowFest.

Links from the episode

Learn more about Zehnder's SnowFest here:

Dates:  January 25th through January 29th, 2023


John Shelton, Zehnder's of Frankenmuth: What's the most important thing to you with Snow Fest? And I always answered this way. It was strictly a business proposition, but it evolved into community pride. I feel good about that. 

Cliff Duvernois: Welcome back to Ordinary People, Extraordinary Things. I'm your host, cliff Duvernois. Sometimes it's so easy to just get used to what we see around us, and if somebody comes up and says, "Hey, why don't we do things differently?" "Well, because that's the way it's always been." How many times have you heard that?

Cliff Duvernois: Well, today's guest has faced that very question when he kind of played around with this idea to turn a seemingly abandoned winter season into one of Michigan's premier snow festivals, and I'm talking about Zehnder's Snow Fest of Frankenmuth. Today I'm talking with the vice President of Sales and Marketing for Zehnder's of Frankenmuth,  John Shelton.

Cliff Duvernois: John, how are you?

John Shelton, Zehnders of Frankenmuth: I'm fine, thank you. Cliff. Welcome.

Cliff Duvernois: Why don't you tell us a little bit about where you're from and where you grew up?

John Shelton, Zehnders of Frankenmuth: Well, I'm originally from Buffalo, New York, and uh, Family's still there. And uh, born and raised there. And I've been in Frankenmuth since 1988, but went to Valparaiso University in Indiana, played baseball there and that's where I met, met my wife, Martha Zehnder Shelton. We moved around a bit and I fell into the hospitality industry back in 1981 as she was getting another degree from UNLV in Las Vegas.

John Shelton, Zehnders of Frankenmuth: My first hotel job was at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas. I really kind of just liked the industry and fell in love with it. Went from there to Hyatt Hotels in the Bay Area and my wife and I, uh, were married in the Bay Area. Then I got promoted to Atlanta, Georgia, and from Atlanta, Georgia I was a director of sales at the Hyatt Regency here in Flint, Michigan, and that's how we came to Michigan.

John Shelton, Zehnders of Frankenmuth: My father-in-law got sick and my wife really wanted to come home and get back into the family business. So we were living here in Frankenmuth and I was commuting to Flint and my brother-in-law, Al Zehnder, was president and at the time he really had a vision of the company where he thought he saw it going and, but we didn't really have a marketing presence.

John Shelton, Zehnders of Frankenmuth: He was trying to do that and he said to me, Hey, I'm not a marketing guy. Would you be interested in it? I really didn't have any interest in working in the family business originally, but it was always very professional and he said let's sit down and talk. I remember sending in my resume, I had to make an appointment with his administrative assistant and we sat down, and had a long conversation.

John Shelton, Zehnders of Frankenmuth: He kind of outlined what his vision was and I asked for A, B, C, D, knowing he was gonna say no. He said yes, and I wasn't prepared for yes. And three months later, I started in, January of 1990.

Cliff Duvernois: So, Al paints this vision of his future, of where he sees Zender's of Frankenmuth going and he asks you to come in to do the sales and marketing for it. What would you say would be some of your biggest challenges?

John Shelton, Zehnders of Frankenmuth: First, let me just say I had an advantage because he gave me complete autonomy. Do what you think is right. Because I was starting new, I built it, if they didn't have it. So the biggest challenge was when I was making changes. And change is difficult for people. And I remember one of the employees goes, well, you seem to act like we're not successful. I go, oh, I'll never doubt you. I'm here to make you more successful. So it was things that I just took, basically from the Hyatt playbook from an image standpoint on how to professionalize ourselves a little bit more.

John Shelton, Zehnders of Frankenmuth: We did things from a sales standpoint for group sales. In the same light of how we treat our transit guests, you and I coming here for dinner for a family of four or five people is totally different than you and I coming here for a banquet for 200 people. How you administer that is two different ways.

John Shelton, Zehnders of Frankenmuth: I remember when we first started, we never even asked for deposits. And I remember the first month we had a group that was supposed to come and they didn't show up. And I was like, well, when did we confirm this? Oh, we haven't talked to 'em since last year when they booked it.

John Shelton, Zehnders of Frankenmuth: There was a mindset was more of family dining. I brought in the experience of how to handle groups and conventions. It was a different way to do business. They just didn't know it. And then once we, once we got through that, it was kind of like, oh, okay. Yeah, this does work. Then I had the audacity to come up with something called Snow Fest.

Cliff Duvernois: Which is why we're talking. 

John Shelton, Zehnders of Frankenmuth: Exactly. And I think that kind of, I, I always like to say for some people, I went from just being a family member, Eddie's son-in-law, to like, oh, that guy knows what he's doing. And so I realized right away, when you create a business opportunity for everybody, people look at you differently.

Cliff Duvernois: speaking of business opportunities, back in the day I used to actually work in Frankenmuth and I would always dread New Year's Eve because the day after New Year's, Frankenmuth would essentially go dead but lo and behold, Snow Fest comes around and so a town, a city that was basically dead, all a sudden now has hundreds of thousands of people coming through during the entire month of January. What I would like to do is, I would like to explore with you where did the idea of Snow Fest come from?

John Shelton, Zehnders of Frankenmuth: Well, it was nothing that I created.

John Shelton, Zehnders of Frankenmuth: It was something that was happening, but it was happening on a very, very, small scale. And that was on in Saginaw's, Ojibwe Island. There are two gentlemen, one, Pete Rumsey ended up being very, very good friends, and he had a partner Bill Doring. Bill had just opened up the business in town and he had been running a snow sculpting event. No one really knew about it. It was just kinda like if you were into that type of art, you kind of, it was a very small group of people and they would go around and, and I think the year before I even started, we gave 'em a sponsorship of like $500 and said, okay, put our name out there.

John Shelton, Zehnders of Frankenmuth: But it was on the island in Saginaw and he would say people would drive around, but no one could really appreciate what he was doing. So he bought and opened up a business in town, and actually ended up being RS Holographics. He only lasted a year.  He wasn't a business person. He approached us and I had just started.

John Shelton, Zehnders of Frankenmuth: So, because I was naive to the fact that in January you tried to just hold down expenses, in I was like, well, why don't we try to grow revenue? Nice. So I wasn't indoctrinated in the sense of, well, you can't grow revenue because it's the wintertime. No, that never entered my mind. I was bringing, again, a skill set from eight years of Hyatt where it was always about what if.

John Shelton, Zehnders of Frankenmuth: What if, why not try this, be innovative, do different things? And so I looked at it, as why can't we generate revenue? Not knowing that there was this mindset obstacle of, well, we don't do that. It's January and February, and that doesn't happen. We can't do that until the summertime. So I was coming from a different viewpoint.

John Shelton, Zehnders of Frankenmuth: So when the guy Bill approached me and Pete says, Hey, we think we can do this, but they needed $30,000. And they promised they were saying, well, we think you can get about 90,000 people. 

John Shelton, Zehnders of Frankenmuth: In all transparency and honesty, we were hoping we got 10,000 people, cuz that was 9,990 more people than we normally would've had over a weekend. 

Cliff Duvernois: how could they make that guarantee that they would bring 90,000 people?

John Shelton, Zehnders of Frankenmuth: Well, they knew Frankenmuth was well known for tourism, but see unbeknown at the time to me Bill and Pete snow carved all over the world. So they had been to events where they were drawing thousands of people, so they saw where it had worked at other places. They saw where it wasn't working in Saginaw, Ojibwe Island because they're not marketing people and people weren't looking at Saginaw as a destination for tourism. because he opened up a business here in Frankenmuth, he knew Frankenmuth had a tourism reputation. So he in his mind, just thought, well, this should be easy.

John Shelton, Zehnders of Frankenmuth: We've got a tourism community. Business people, and residents who understand tourism. I know the snow sculpting part of it. I've seen where it works. This should be a good marriage, but it takes resources to do it. And that's why he approaches vendors. I've never done that, that's the $30,000 magic question. Why he came to us versus let's say the Bavarian Inn or someone else?

John Shelton, Zehnders of Frankenmuth: I don't know that maybe he did, but he came to us and again, AI was really new to being president of the company for a couple of years. And we were just saying, well, we just kind of thought about it and he asked me, what do you think? I go, I think I can make this work. And he goes, all right, let's do it!

John Shelton, Zehnders of Frankenmuth: So we made a commitment to him and I went around and asked a few people that I had gotten to know if they would help support this. And some said, yes. It was Gary McClellan and McClenan Properties, fudge Kitchen, and so forth, and Bronners.

Cliff Duvernois: And with that, we're going to take a quick break to thank our sponsors. When we come back, John is going to share with us how the Frankenmuth community responded to his crazy idea, some of the behind-the-scenes drama that he had to deal with, and the shocking results of that first snow fest. You won't wanna miss it.

Cliff Duvernois: See you after the break.

Cliff Duvernois: hello everyone and welcome back I'm, talking with John Shelton, from the Zehnder's of Frankenmuth and we were discussing Snow Fest. 

Cliff Duvernois: We were 

Cliff Duvernois: now, before we took the break, we were talking about the mechanics, the decision. Bringing snow fast to essentially a time in Frankenmuth where it was dead. And I know that you and Al said, maybe we can make this work. What made you think that you could make it a success?

John Shelton, Zehnders of Frankenmuth: Well, I just had confidence in the ability. Zehnder's and Frankenmuth have tourism. That was easy. Okay, I didn't know what Bill and Pete were talking about cause I knew nothing about snow carving and what that really meant. And I had never seen what they did on Ojibway Island. I wasn't here at that time. But what it really boiled down to is; what do we have to lose? 

John Shelton, Zehnders of Frankenmuth: If we don't try anything, we already know what the results are gonna be. Because we had over 80 years of history telling us, if we do absolutely nothing, we know what's going to happen.

John Shelton, Zehnders of Frankenmuth: Nothing. And if it fails, we consider ourselves. We tried and we also knew just we're gonna just be back at square one. So we just looked at it from the upside too.

John Shelton, Zehnders of Frankenmuth: And so we kept, bill and Pete on to help and they said here's what we need to do. They basically said we'll bring you to sculptors, and you do the promotion.

John Shelton, Zehnders of Frankenmuth: Well, we are very comfortable with that, and in my mind, Cliff, in all honesty, I, I was thinking if the sculpting is a bust, the worst thing that's gonna happen is they get to at least get a Zehnder's chicken dinner. And that's not all that bad. So we just knew people would have at least something to say, well, that was okay. Wouldn't do it again, but at least we got to go to Zehnder's again. So we just thought that was gonna be workable, but we had no idea how to set it up. They taught us, I mean, it took us two weeks, I think the first year we had like nine or 10 snow blocks. Then John Zehnder, our food and beverage director, and was involved in the American Culinary and Federation Flint, Saginaw chapter. He got some of his chef buddies to do like nine ice carvings, kinda like the ice carvings you see on like a wedding buffet or something like that. And we had nine. On the grass at the time on the front lawn of Zehnder's.

John Shelton, Zehnders of Frankenmuth: Lo and behold,  I knew I could promote it, but I didn't really know what the results of what I was promoting, cuz I hadn't seen it.

John Shelton, Zehnders of Frankenmuth: So I was trusting them to gimme a good show. But once we got everything set up, it took us two weeks. Now it takes us less than four days to set up about 60 blocks. But we just didn't know. Bill and Pete did what they said they would and reached out to their snow-carving friends to come to Frankenmuth.

John Shelton, Zehnders of Frankenmuth: And so they did. And it blew everybody away because of what they created, no one had ever seen it before. It wasn't like your front yard snowman. These guys were good.

Cliff Duvernois: So let me ask you a question. Cause we were talking before about how they said we could get you 90,000 people and you're saying to yourself, you know what, if we get 10,000, we'll be lucky.

Cliff Duvernois: Yeah. We'll be happy. We'll be happy. So how many do you have to make?

John Shelton, Zehnders of Frankenmuth:  What showed up was about 90,000. We were so under! We got our butts kicked, but it was a good butt-kicking because we're like, whoa!

Cliff Duvernois: Now what I wanna do is I want to ask this quick question here, cuz you're doing something brand new, right? Everybody will follow your success, but to be the person out on front sometimes can be a little bit, you know, a little bit rough, you know? What was the reaction from like the city? I know you said some of the businesses here decided to go with it.

John Shelton, Zehnders of Frankenmuth: Oh, they absolutely loved. They absolutely loved it. 

John Shelton, Zehnders of Frankenmuth: Beautiful. 

John Shelton, Zehnders of Frankenmuth: Because everybody was overwhelmed. Never seen it before. It was, well before you did the snow Fest?

John Shelton, Zehnders of Frankenmuth: Well, again, I wasn't here. 

John Shelton, Zehnders of Frankenmuth: Okay. 

John Shelton, Zehnders of Frankenmuth: Yeah. Before, so I mean, I had been here at the first snow fest. I had just finished a year. So that first year, I'm just trying to figure out internally, how to get better at what we're doing. I'm putting my own team together. I'm just making things happen like, Hey, we've gotta get better at servicing our current customers. I'm trying to teach our staff the difference between transient guests, groups, a banquet, and just somebody sitting down. So it's a lot of fundamental things that were going through like, hey, we need to skirt the tables.

John Shelton, Zehnders of Frankenmuth: We need to skirt. Our AV equipment and they're like, well, why do we have to do that? Because trust me, if you do it, and then they go, oh, it does look better. I just, I took my Hyatt playbook and Hyatt is world-renowned professional. I just took that playbook and then tweaked it to make it work for Zehnder's, but they didn't have a marketing playbook because we didn't have a marketing department.

So I spent the first year creating the department and putting my team together. Now it's Snow Fest. It's basically my second winter. And we were approached with this idea, okay, let's make this work 

John Shelton, Zehnders of Frankenmuth: as we got to it that weekend. And it was just basically a. Friday, Saturday, Sunday, they came in.

John Shelton, Zehnders of Frankenmuth: Bill and Pete put the rules together. It was their people because they knew 'em, because they carved with them throughout the United States, throughout the world. So they just kind of put a, they took what they did on Ojibwe Island, brought it to Frankenmuth. I took the tourism size and the Zehnder name in the marketing, and we had this marriage and it worked.

But we were so understaffed because we were thinking, Hey, well, you know, if we get 10,000 over the weekend, so we prepare for that. We had lines every, but no one complained because people liked what they saw and it was different. And they're like, we've never really been to Frankenmuth in January, so it was such an exciting time that people didn't let the long lines, or the weight bother 'em. We created this slide over by the chamber, but I remember walking at the time, my kids were like three and two, and I'm walking around and we're just so excited. Everybody's congratulating one another and my kids are complaining They're getting on my nerves. 

John Shelton, Zehnders of Frankenmuth: But then a light bulb went off. I'm sure I'm not the only parent dealing with kids who are kind of just not happy. And for whatever reason, Cliff, I said at that moment, if I can make the kids happy, I'm gonna make parents happy.

John Shelton, Zehnders of Frankenmuth: Then we decided to get a petting zoo. I start thinking of ideas. How do I make little kids happy? I have kids and my kids like a petting zoo. We had a slide, we had amusement rides, and that's what brought all of that together. And then the next year, because everybody's outside, and you can only stay out there so long, we say, let's put a tent up.

John Shelton, Zehnders of Frankenmuth: That sounds like a good idea. And they can go into the tent, but it was still cold in the tent. I think it's the third year that we heated it.

John Shelton, Zehnders of Frankenmuth: So it just kind of just, no pun intended, I guess, or pun intended, it. And it just got better and we just came up with more ideas.

Cliff Duvernois: Let's talk about, let's go back to that first Okay. 

Cliff Duvernois: Season that you had the first Snow Fest that came through. When it was all said and done, and right. What was some of the feedback? 

Cliff Duvernois: What was 

John Shelton, Zehnders of Frankenmuth: There were some of challenges, but when It was all said and done, the sales that we had, the sales, that other businesses had were so good! I remember getting letters, or people calling me saying, I can pay my bills for the next three months because of this. So it, it caught on right away because people were very successful. when that happened, The challenge we had internally was that customers never saw Bill again, I didn't know the carvers Bill had made promises to the carvers. I didn't know we were gonna pay the carvers. I didn't know they were coming here for a fee. Because now we have people coming up like, oh yeah, I was supposed to get a thousand dollars for what? Well, Bill said, you know, because if we came. So I told him, and at the time his, his partner Pete Rumsey, about three days after Pete goes, Hey, can I talk to you?

John Shelton, Zehnders of Frankenmuth: So Pete goes, I can get you more carvers. I can get you the best of the best. So we started doing the international division. We had teams from Italy, Hong Kong, Russia, England, and Germany for about the first eight or nine years. I mean, it was really international. Obviously Mexico, and Canada. So each year, as we mentioned, after that, first it just got, I got, I dunno if I got smarter, I was just more willing to look and listen.

John Shelton, Zehnders of Frankenmuth: How do we change it? So then people go, oh, you wanna be the biggest in the back. I go, I've never wanted to be the biggest, but we always said we wanted to have the highest quality. We wanted to have the best sculptors at our event. So then we started saying how do we get more sculptors? And people started asking me, well, how do I get a snow block in front of my place?

John Shelton, Zehnders of Frankenmuth: And I remember at the time, Plymouth. Was kind of known for its ice show. Yes, so John and I went one year to Plymouth and I noticed that there were ice carvings in front of the businesses in downtown. I remember walking to a drug store going if you don't mind me asking, did, did you have to pay for that ice carving? Yeah, it cost him. I think he told me a hundred bucks. Looked under the skirting and they had all these cement blocks and on plywood, and I thought we can do that. So that's where I got the idea from Plymouth. Okay. You want a bus, you wanna ice carving it in front of your business. We can make that happen. And no one, no one complained because it's like, Hey, this works the people are coming! 

John Shelton, Zehnders of Frankenmuth: So then I think proud me for the proudest moment of Snow Fest, I think was 1996. Cliff, when Willard Scott was here from the Today Show came now.

John Shelton, Zehnders of Frankenmuth: Again, right place, right time. The reason that happened had nothing to do with Zehnder's and Snow Fest, but it had everything to do with Zehnder's because it created a venue to make something happen. At the time, WNEM was NBC, and WEYI was CBS. They flip-flopped affiliations, so WEYI was becoming NBC and they wanted a way to kick the new affiliation off, and the general manager calls and says, Hey, we're gonna be NBC affiliates starting January. Really want to have a big splash in the marketplace to do that. And we were hoping, is it possible that we can have Willard Scott come to Snow Fest? And I was like, well, can you let me put you on hold one second here,  sure we can make that happen and that's how he came. And he did four segments live right here by the bakery. Then we started reaching out to our vendors and Pepsi, as you can see here, when Pepsi says, well, hey, let's put the snow Fest on our cans and we'll send a million cans out statewide.

John Shelton, Zehnders of Frankenmuth: So when I would go, really, my main job has been to try to get major sponsors and from, and we have many, many major sponsors, not just here locally and nationally.

John Shelton, Zehnders of Frankenmuth: It gave credibility. Hey, yeah, we saw you guys on the Today Show. I saw your logo on a Pepsi can. So it made it a little bit easier to reach out to businesses and say, can you support this? Here's what your benefits are gonna be. We're gonna have about 150,000 people over the next five days. It became a much easier sell. Again, compared to the summer. I wasn't competing against anybody.

Cliff Duvernois: no, you weren't.

 John Shelton, Zehnders of Frankenmuth: So when you look at the summer there's somewhere you can go every week. Plus its summertime. So you wanna do your vacation, you wanna go to the beach. There are not a lot of opportunities in the wintertime. Either you're gonna ski, snowmobile, stay home, or look for another thing to do. This was one of the few festivals that was happening in Michigan. You know, there's the Plymouth Ice Show, Snow Fest, and Tip Uptown around Houghton Lake. 

John Shelton, Zehnders of Frankenmuth: And they're all different weekends, so we, no one was, no one had to worry. Marketshare was a hundred percent. If you were providing something you thought people would enjoy, then jump way ahead. In 2005, when we opened up Splash Village it was exciting because now we can say, hey, you can go indoors, you can go to our waterpark.

John Shelton, Zehnders of Frankenmuth: So it's kind of like, kind of really ironic that we have guests that are in snowsuits and they go, oh, let's get over to the water park cause we gotta go to Snow Fest. Yeah. Or vice versa. Let's go look at the snow sculptures and bundle up. Now you can go ice skating at the new ice rink.

John Shelton, Zehnders of Frankenmuth: So there are all these different things that people can we offer. We always say there's always a reason, whatever the season. Always a reason to come to Frankenmuth. Well, Snow Fest. Has three different varieties within it. You can go ice skating, you can watch ice carving, you can watch snow carving, and you can go to a water park and put on your bathing suit where it's always 84 degrees and sunny.

Cliff Duvernois: How many people do you think are coming out and how many are you projecting for this year? 

John Shelton, Zehnders of Frankenmuth: Oh, it's always about a hundred thousand.

Cliff Duvernois: Yeah?

John Shelton, Zehnders of Frankenmuth: Yeah. And it's been as high as we think, 160,000. You know, it's hard to believe, but yeah, we already know. Everybody knows after 31 years you're gonna be fully staffed. Think of this as Cliff that. If we are 4th of July weekend or any like this, this is the busiest time of the year for us. We're busy every weekend now and just, and we're very blessed to have such a successful business going for us here at Zehnder's.

John Shelton, Zehnders of Frankenmuth: And it's just another busy weekend. We know where the sales are now. What I can't control, and I don't lose sleep over it; I can't control the weather. That's the only thing. We've been very blessed that we never lost a Saturday. We've lost days. The worst day of Snow Fest was on a Sunday when it rained. It was like you could have shot of cannon through here and it wouldn't hit anybody. So that showed me the worst thing that can happen is rain. It just eats that snow and ice away. 

John Shelton, Zehnder's of Frankenmuth: We've had storms, high winds. People have kind of like, we can make this work, but rain, they're not coming out in the rain. That's, I learned that lesson alongside ago. That's the one element of weather that they are not going to come to for Snow Fest. So I'm happy, and I'm proud of what we've done, but it's just not me. It's just not just Zehnder's.

John Shelton, Zehnder's of Frankenmuth: I get a lot of interviews, Cliff, and people go, what's the most important thing to you with Snow Fest? And I always answered this way. It was strictly a business proposition, but it has evolved into community pride. And I feel good about that.

Cliff Duvernois:  John. For anyone who wants to learn more about Snow Fast and what's going on, they want to connect with you online. What would be the best way for them to do that?

John Shelton, Zehnder's of Frankenmuth: The best way is online, and obviously you know the dates of Snow Fest 2023, January 25th - the 29th, but just go to It has an entertainment schedule, what's happening on each day, uh, when events start, fireworks, warming tent hours, and all of the necessary information. You can also call us at (800) 863-7999, our call center will be able to provide you with all the information, not only at Snow Fest but any related questions to Zehnder's itself during that time frame.

John Shelton, Zehnder's of Frankenmuth: But again, the best way is to go to it highlights the dates, highlights all your times, and that should be the most informative way to find out exactly what's going on for Snow Fest 2023.

Cliff Duvernois: And for our podcast listeners, we will have all those links in the show notes down below. John, it's been great talking with you today and learning more about, Snow Fest and its history. 

Cliff Duvernois: So thank you for taking the time to talk with me.

John Shelton, Zehnder's of Frankenmuth: Well, thank you. I appreciate you taking the time to listen to me and, and getting me involved and, uh, I appreciate, uh, your listeners and I appreciate your willingness to take your time outta your schedule to hear our story.

Cliff Duvernois: and for our audience, you can get all the show notes and links for today's episode. Just go to, click on John's interview and you'll be able to find all the information there. Once again,, and we'll catch you next time with another inspiring story.

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