The only thing that could ever possibly rival Bernie Karl’s larger-than-life personality might be his ability to dream big.
Karl, for those who don’t know, is the owner and operator of the Chena Hot Springs Resort. Never earning a college degree, he is a self-made man and his tenacity and big ideas have helped him find success through a number of his endeavors.
For as many big ideas Karl has seen succeed, there have also been big failures. And when those ideas have failed, it’s only pushed him to try it again, and learn why it failed in the first place. The most notable example of this may have materialized back in 2004 when Forbes Magazine hailed him the owner of the “Dumbest Business Idea of the Year,” the Aurora Ice Hotel. Karl had paid a team of ice carvers to construct the hotel – made totally of ice – only to watch the very expensive building melt before his eyes the following summer. Karl will be the first to admit the idea may not have been fully formed, but it didn’t stop him from trying again. Forbes’ dubious title had only motivated Karl more.
“Forbes can kiss me on the thing Jesus rode into Nazareth on,” he’ll tell just about anyone in ear shot. “I took a frozen asset and turned it into a liquid asset.”
Karl went from owning the dubious moniker of owner of the dumbest idea of the year in 2004 to the 2010 University of Alaska Fairbanks Business Leader of the Year. Following the literal meltdown his hotel experienced, Karl began selling vials of the liquefied hotel along with postcards celebrating his dumb idea. He sold them at $4.95 a piece and he sold them by the thousands.
As he opened the doors to the very much functioning (and frozen) Aurora Ice Hotel, complete with rooms, a bar and dance floor, it became clear Karl thrives on the naysayers. That negativity helps power him like the geothermal energy his resort is famous for creating.
Karl talks big, because the success of his ideas backs it up. He’s an example of what can be accomplished through a little recipe that includes “H-A-R-D-W-O-R-K,” he said.
Karl estimated more than 150,000 people came to swim in his hot springs in 2013, and about 20 percent of his clientele are repeat customers.
Karl’s tenacity and inability to concede isn’t an act put on for media types, either.
Kali Gavora, 24, is manages the resort’s dog kennel, another of Karl’s many business endeavors, and the resort’s horse stables. She came to know Karl when she was just five-years-old when she and her mother came to the resort. Her mother, Jena, has worked with Karl for 19 years and is considered his right-hand woman.
“He doesn’t believe in the word ‘can’t,’’ Gavora said.
From the little town outside of Fairbanks, Two Rivers, Gavora can’t imagine working for anyone other than Karl. Maybe that will change one day. Like Karl, Gavora has made a successful life for herself through her own hard work, and Karl doesn’t take that for granted. The mentality Karl presents to Gavora and the others who work at the resort is infectious.
Karl’s resort is home to a number of attractions, like horseback riding, ATV riding, hiking, fishing and more. However, Karl is also responsible for piloting initiatives in geothermal energy through the hot springs. That energy has earned him recognition in Popular Mechanics Magazine as a model for clean energy. The magazine called Karl a visionary and an ingenious engineer for tapping into one of the most overlooked energy resources – not fossil fuels – to produce electricity, heat and now hydrogen.
That energy has helped him cultivate a greenhouse full of various vegetables, flower and herbs, all of which are used at the resort’s kitchen.
Just being in Karl’s presence is enough to remind one of his infectious personality and his will to make things happen. Any idea seems possible.
“I hope if I only get through to one or two people, I’ve made it, but I think I get through to a lot,” Karl said. “If I can sway just a few of them to use their imaginations, really use their imaginations, then I’ve done my job, haven’t I?”