Kjell Mitchell - Forty Years in Hot Water

Keeping Glenwood Hot Springs in Hospitality’s Major League

Kjell Mitchell doesn’t look like an executive. For a conversation with this magazine, he arrived Colorado-casual, bundled in a softly worn coat, a jaunty scarf about his neck, his cheeks rosy from the winter walk over. Sporting spectacles and blonde stubble, tall and lean, he lacks the paunch often typifying success. Affable and self-effacing, Mitchell seems more ready for a ball game than the boardroom.

As CEO and President of the Glenwood Hot Springs (GHS), he’s playing a game he enjoys.

Glenwood’s hot springs are legendary. Their mineral-rich waters have been healing humans for millennia. First developed by Walter Devereaux in 1888, GHS now operates the world’s largest hot springs pool. The place is not only historic, it’s a contemporary hit: Trip Advisor readers have written 2,043 rave reviews. The Hot Springs has earned the travel site’s coveted Certificate of Excellence.

Mitchell doesn’t play the Hot Springs’ big-league hospitality game alone. GHS’s board of directors includes many true friends; some he grew up with; most all were born and raised in Glenwood Springs or Garfield County. They’re as invested as he is. “I was born here, I grew up here,” he says. “This is the place that I love and wanted to make my home.”

In Mitchell’s family, work was a given. Chuckling, he points over his shoulder. “I started to work for my dad at the Glenwood Creamery, which is just around the corner here, 718 Cooper. That’s where I grew up. I started washing milk cans when I was 10 years old, probably making 25 cents an hour.”

Mitchell admires his father deeply, claiming, “I pale in comparison to him.”

Mitchell’s father “was the mayor of this town. He was on the school board; he was secretary of the fire department, he was on the fire department 35, 40 years. He was treasurer of the church. He was on planning and zoning. There wasn’t anything he didn’t do. Plus he was a Kiwanian. So as a kid, I used to hang out with all the community leaders, because they were all Kiwanians. I grew up with those families and those people.”

Between college semesters, Mitchell returned, working in the original hot springs hotel, which predated the current 107-room modern lodge, as a bellhop during his 24th summer. “When I started, the old stone building was the primary hotel.” In his unpinnable, somewhat antiquated accent, Mitchell paints the story of another era. “The old building was made up of nicer suites, what I would classify as European pensiones. It was just a double bed, with a night stand and three hooks. A telephone and radiator heat, and a transom up above. You had to go out of your room, go down the hall and take a shower and go to the bathroom.” He pauses and then bursts out lawughing, “Six dollars for one person, $9 for two!”

Arms pulling at cables in the air, Mitchell continues, “We still had the switchboard with the plug-in things. And when I first started running the hotel, and even as a bellhop, that’s how you answered the phone. If you wanted to make a reservation back then, you had a three-ring notebook with each room number on a page.”

As Mitchell matured in business, he embraced civic duty, like his father. “You start to become more engaged in the community and you foster relationships, rubbing elbows with the other community leaders, which I find is helpful. You bounce ideas, even from a business standpoint: How do you do things? How do you manage people?”

Mitchell was deliberate in choosing his own path. “I got involved in Rotary after I became the manager of the Glenwood Hot Springs Lodge,” a hotel he helped to open in 1986. “One of the biggest things for me was when I became president of Rotary in ’95. I had to stand up in front of a rowdy group and try to manage them!” For Mitchell, public speaking shows that “you can easily stand up in front of your own people—and anybody else—and feel like you’re not stumbling.”

Forty years ago, Mitchell couldn’t have predicted his run. “What 24-year old could?” he asks. He simply moved through the years working hard, being the best Kjell Mitchell he could be. He attributes much of his career success to curiosity, self-motivation, and on-the-job training.

“One of the things that I wanted to do, being the hotel manager of the Glenwood Hot Springs Lodge, was to be more involved in the hotel industry at the state level.” He began attending Colorado Hotel and Lodging Association (CHLA) meetings. He was soon appointed to the board. The five-year commitment contingent to the CHLA’s executive committee was eye-opening, giving him a view outside the local ballpark.

This wider perspective helps Mitchell keep GHS in the big league. In addition to opening the lodge, Mitchell led GHS through significant renovations in 1993. In 1995, he represented the United States at the International Cultural Exchange on Hot Springs in Beppu, Japan. The Spa of the Rockies opened in 2008. It’s clear Mitchell’s team is playing the long game.

The Grand Avenue Bridge construction project has kept GHS agile. Mitchell has been involved in the community meetings with the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) and the City of Glenwood from the beginning. “They’ve been great to work with!”

In advocating for downtown Glenwood, participants like Mitchell and the City of Glenwood Springs have pushed for a roundabout closer to I-70. This has made room for a pedestrian-centric 6th Avenue unlike any other part of downtown Glenwood. Vibrant new streetscapes, a pocket park with a bandstand, and a brand new pedestrian bridge (friendly to cyclists too!) link the downtown as never before. He’s excited for the future of Glenwood.

It’s important to Mitchell, personally, to maintain integrity and authenticity leading GHS into the future. “One of the things that’s still nice about Glenwood Springs is that it has a family-oriented nature. It’s not pretentious; it resonates with people. Even though they want the best for their vacation, I don’t think they’re expecting to be valeted to the pool.”

Pondering his 40th anniversary with GHS in November 2016, Mitchell reflected, “From my early days to the present, the most fulfilling aspect of my job is seeing how people’s lives are enriched by Glenwood Hot Springs. It’s rewarding to regularly see all our locals, our many repeat guests, and watch employees take their first job and grow up here like I did,” said Mitchell.

Clearly over discussing himself, Mitchell directed attention toward the train depot across the street. A stooped, elderly man, cane in hand, spidered gingerly along the sidewalk. “You want to tell a good story,” Mitchell murmurs, “That’s the man you want to meet. He comes to the hot springs every day…” Mitchell speaks to the elder’s steadfast kindness and generosity, to his service and engagement with others.

Mitchell cares about Glenwood. He cares about the good people that live here, that Mitchell himself lives in service to. Is it possible to package world class and down-to-earth in the same experience? With Mitchell at bat, it’s a sure bet.