Lakeland Life

Alone At Last

Being in business means taking chances from time to time.

From running a Kool-Aid stand when he was eight-years-old to becoming the founder and Chief Executive Officer for 14 separate companies, Lake Zurich businessman Ken Knudson has certainly taken his share of them.

But it was in 1974 that Knudson, a 29-year old, took perhaps his biggest chance.

There were several factors involved but all leaned towards one common goal – Knudson, now 57, wanted to create a place where committed couples could retreat and get away from it all without leaving their immediate area.

“Back then (in the 60’s and 70’s), everyone pretty much got married right out of college,” said Knudson. “I saw an obvious need for it (a place for couples to escape to).”

Knudson’s wife played a huge role in her husband’s new venture.

“My wife (Charlene) was a second generation furniture builder and involved in unique interiors,” says Knudson. “She was in Woodfield Mall one day and saw a romantic bedroom set. We both fell in love with it and had it installed in our home.”

Soon after, one of his wife’s girlfriends came over to the house for a visit. She saw her friends’ new addition and wished she had a similar set-up, one where she and her husband could ‘hide’ from the in-laws and kids without leaving the comforts of their home.

This further motivated Knudson and his new idea. The result-the berth of the Sybaris Clubs. Knudson adopted the name Sybaris from the ancient Grecian city Sybaris, located in southern Italy. The people of Sybaris were known not only for their wealth, but more for their devotion to luxury and sensuous pleasure. Sybaris Clubs, which now have five locations throughout the Midwest, has seen gross revenues exceed more than 9 million dollars now in almost 30 years of operation.

The first Sybaris doors opened in Downers Grove in 1974.

Picture it -no phones, no windows, elegant music playing, island settings – just a few of the numerous trademark features offered in the first Sybaris.

“Basically, it was a magical place where couples could shed the stress of daily life and become re-acquainted with love,” said Knudson. “It wasn’t too profitable in the beginning. It took a while for the idea to catch on. But in 1977, a guy from the Chicago Tribune went to check out Downers Grove. He loved it. As a result, he wrote a new story on Sybaris and that’s when things really took off. We were on radio talk shows that were picked up all over the world. The response to it became overwhelming.”

So overwhelming that Knudson did what any good businessman would. In 1981, he opened a second location in Northbrook.

“At that point, I liquidated all of my small businesses,” said Knudson. “Sybaris became my brain child. I burnt my bridges and became completely committed to it.”

The Northbrook location is set on 5.5 acres of land and includes 38 cottages. It is currently the largest in the chain.

With the growth in popularity came the obvious upgrades with the goal of continually pleasing the guests.

Upgrades in the coming years included steam rooms, fireplaces, waterfalls, and swimming pools. The year 1987 marked the unveiling of the ‘Chalet’ Suite, a 3-story min-mansion equipped with, in addition to the aforementioned features, a bedroom overlooking your own personal swimming pool.

In 1992, the idea spread into Wisconsin to the suburb of Mequon, located about 20 miles north of the Milwaukee proper. That’s where Knudson purchased the land that used to house a 150-year old farmhouse and 35-year old motel.

The original motel rooms were converted into Country Whirlpool Suites. The Sybaris in Mequon presently has four quad-room buildings and two Chalets making up a total of over 30 suites.

Staying at the Sybaris location in Northbrook certainly had its impact on Judy Keifer. Formerly a front office supervisor for the Hilton Hotel, Keifer became the general manager of the Mequon Sybaris on September of this year.

“I happened to be looking for a new job and after staying in the (Northbrook) Sybaris, it intrigued me,” said Keifer, who oversees a staff of approximately 25 in Mequon. “There are so many unique features. The main thing I think though is the privacy issue and the luxury features Sybaris has to offer.”

The Mequon location also features Brew City Bar-B-Q restaurant, which rented the property from Knudson and Sybaris. A gazebo fireplace is also available for guests’ enjoyment.

In 1993, Sybaris opened ifs fourth location in downstate Frankfort. The latest Sybaris suite to hit the scene was the opening of one in Indianapolis in 1998.

Overall, the five locations consist of over 115 total suites. According to Knudson, more than 50,000 couples visit any one of the locations during the year.

All of the Sybaris Suites feature various mementos and apparel, from terry cloth bathrobes, polo style shirts, romantic picnic baskets and colored roses.

Speaking for roses, upon your request and for a little extra cost, Roy Houff Professional Florists Choice for Quality based out of Chicago will display rose petals in your suite, most times, on the bed. Makes for quite a surprise when you blindfold your significant other and walk them into the room.

As far as costs for staying at any one of the Sybaris Clubs, it varies, depending on what kind of package you want. Generally, couples can come for an afternoon ‘getaway’ or they can stay for the evening.

Annual and VIP memberships are available. Perks that accompany a membership include various discounts throughout the year as well as the option of being able to stay at any one of the Sybaris locations.

Knudson said he plans on opening more Sybaris locations in the future.

But for now, “We just want to be congruent and continue perfecting the existing features at all of the locations,” he said. “We are entertaining offers from people in other states.”

Sybaris doors are open to people 21-and-older, and must have valid identification.

For more information on Sybaris, check out the web site at

Looking for that romantic getaway at a very affordable cost and very little travel, it’s worth looking into.

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