Kim Schaefer ‘91

Experiential Leadership: Building a Two Bit Circus

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Kim Schaefer headshot“We spend a lot of time doing the same thing over and over again to find our excellence,” Kim Schaefer ‘91 said. “But it is those experiences that are made up through the years that have the true impact to be able to do that.”

Schaefer, former CEO of Great Wolf Resorts and current President of Two Bit Circus, has decades of experience behind her and has found her excellence in the entertainment industry.

Going from North America’s largest chain of indoor waterpark resorts to a virtual reality-powered circus in Los Angeles may not appear to be the most natural transition, but an ordinary career path has never been Schaefer’s style.

Working a full-time job during her college years, Schaefer transferred into Edgewood College’s nights and weekends program to pursue a Bachelor of Science in Accounting.

“I went to the campus, took a look around, and never looked back,” Schaefer said. She says a bit of luck contributed to her moving from accounting to brand building, but a natural knack and willingness to learn played a major role.

Accounting for a hotel turned into accounting and operations for Great Wolf. “I started spending more time in operations, and realized we needed marketing and we needed branding. I took some classes and some seminars and hired really smart people and just continued to evolve the leadership team,” Schaefer said.

Starting with Great Wolf from the very beginning, she played a key role in evolving a business from hospitality, to an indoor waterpark, to family entertainment. In her 18-year tenure, 13 hotels were built.

“I knew nothing about the entertainment side of things. So, a theme in my career is definitely hiring very smart people. You never want to be the smartest person in an area you know nothing about,” Schaefer said. “That’s how you grow and you learn, by building yourself a really strong team.”

When Brent Bushnell and Eric Gradman, co-founders of Two Bit Circus, were building a team for their business’ micro-amusement park expansion, it was Schaefer’s skillset that they knew they needed.

Their partnership began with Schaefer helping her friend Nolan Bushnell, Brent’s father and the person who established Atari, Inc. And the Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre chain. She had met Brent years ago, and had he and Gradman do an escape room project for her at a Great Wolf Lodge in Seattle.

“We always talked about how fun it would be to work together and take our collaborative spirit and creativity and put that together,” Schaefer said. The timing just so happened to be right that when she was leaving Great Wolf, Brent and Gradman were looking to bring their virtual reality entertainment into a stand-alone park.

“I just came to help them on a consulting and temporary basis. Then one thing leads to another and I never want to miss out on the fun. Next thing I know, I’m living in LA,” Schaefer said. “They knew creativity, they knew how to build a product to go into a facility, they just didn’t know how to build the facility.”

Schaefer knew leadership, structure, and how to develop and construct a facility. For the last year, that’s exactly what she’s been doing with Two Bit Circus while learning about the gaming industry and merging her talents within it.

“I think that’s where knowing people and being able to have that awareness of your strengths helps,” Schaefer said. Whereas Great Wolf was focused on families, Two Bit Circus is focused on young adults. Even with the different audiences, Schaefer sees an overlap. “At the end of the day, you still need an incredible, unique, differentiating product. Then it’s all about the people and making sure we set up an environment where our employees can thrive and give great service to every guest that comes through the door.”

Four people playing a game

Throughout Schaefer’s career, she has made sure to make decisions with the right positioning and the right intention.

“When we did things for families at Great Wolf, we did them with purpose. Now, we’re doing things for young adults that is all about play, and it’s resonating well because we’re taking all the principles at heart and in mind while forging a new path,” Schaefer said.

Not being afraid to take risks with an open-minded outlook is how Schaefer hopes the future brand builders and entrepreneurs of her alma mater approach their professions as well.

“Whether it’s clubs, different electives, the jobs you take. Everything has an opportunity to be engrained in your life later. Step out of your comfort zone as much as you possibly can as often as you can. Ten years from now, when you look back on that class, or that professor, or that club, you can really see a lot of meaning and that’s impactful,” Schaefer said.