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The Wet Dreams of Mr. Sybaris

Ken Knudson Knows What This Country Needs: A Great Place To Do It.

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Ken Knudson sits in his Downers Grove office and draws thick, black circles on maps, lassoing metropolises. On a nearby wall covered with maps of the midwest and the nation, stick-on flags adorn the communities where Knudson plans to open branches of Sybaris, the couples-only resort business he founded 16 years ago with a small motel and a few water beds, mirrors on the ceilings, and adult movies on closed-circuit TV.

"So many times I've hung this map, and so many times my heart's been broken," says Knudson, an unabashed optimist, in a rare moment of gloom. "I said I wanted to have 50 Sybarises within ten years."

He pauses. "That was in 1975."

Knudson has fallen behind schedule: he opened his third establishment--his first beyond the state line--earlier this year. In Mequon, a suburban Milwaukee community that the Milwaukee Journal calls "starched and proper," Knudson is catering to a more conservative version of romance. His new concept, the Victorian Whirlpool Suite--with a potbellied stove, four-poster bed, wicker rocking chair, ruffled curtains--suggests a prefab spin on a bed and breakfast. If, beyond another set of drapes, a hot tub gurgles, it's simply one more opulent amenity. Farther along the driveway at the Mequon site are the looming chalets, which enclose vast private swimming pools with slides and waterfalls and water beds and mirrors. "People in Wisconsin see all this and they think it's magical," Knudson says. "Not like in Chicago, where some people still think Sybaris is a sex hotel."

Not that Chicagoans have exactly avoided Sybaris. While few may display the bumper stickers that guests are given, 25,000 couples escaped from the conjugal Posturepedic to the Sybaris resorts in Downers Grove and Northbrook last year, at rates ranging from $70 to $495, bringing in $4.65 million in gross revenues, according to Knudson. Mention an interest in Sybaris, and someone you know will admit, blushing and eyes averted, to being a repeat customer. Many of my acquaintances have volunteered details of their visits, uniformly described as blissful, to Sybaris pool suites. People you never would have suspected of going there. People who--let's face it--are probably not good swimmers.

"Sure, it's cheesy," a woman whose children are in college told me. "But it's a great place to go do it." When you think about it, it's as pithy a slogan as any Knudson might conjure up.

Knudson, 47, a former tool-and-die worker, race-car driver, and karate instructor, delivers his sales pitch with an evangelist's verve. If he garbs himself in Sansabelt slacks and polyester ties, it may be because he has invested every dollar of his own (and a lot of cash from other people) in a business that is no less than a mission, he would have you believe, to save American matrimony. No weapon is left unfired. In an office at the Northbrook resort, he brandishes a copy of Reader's Digest and reads from it at length--an article by Dr. Joyce Brothers on the romantic malaise of married people. Then he springs from his chair and stalks the room, slapping walls, as he explains the origins of Sybaris, back in the era of discos and The Love Boat:

One day in the mid-70s, his first wife towed him to Woodfield mall to gawk at a bedroom set. He built a duplicate at home, and added such flourishes as glitter in the ceiling of the canopy and ivory lamps on the platform below the box spring. Sometimes he loitered around the boudoir while his wife gave her girlfriends a tour. As her pals gushed things like "Oh my God, is this beautiful! I wish I had something like this hidden from the kids and the in-laws," he heard his destiny calling. On such whims are business empires, fortunes--hell, nationwide dynasties founded. Or so he imagined. "I'm a natural entrepreneur to the bone, born that way," Knudson says now. "First thing I said was, 'Wow, this is great! We'll start a chain of them across the nation.'

"I immediately started to research the market for Sybaris. Who would be our customers? Married couples.

"Who needs to escape more than anyone?" He answers himself with a gleeful shout and upflung arms. "Marrrrrried couples!

"What's the largest body of people out there?" he asks. "Married couples!

"For as long as there's been recorded history, what has there been? . . . Mmmmmmarried couples!

"Kids!" he bellows, as if just struck by the thought. "Who has kids?" He pumps his fists in the air: "Married couples!

"And who has in-laws?" He drops to a crouch, grinning . . . and says nothing. I suddenly realize he is staring at me, waiting for a reply.

Um . . . married couples?

For a moment, in the office, there is silence. Knudson squeezes his eyes shut and tosses his head back and windmills his arms. In the next room, phones ring and are picked up, ring and are picked up. Then:

"Y-E-E-E-E-S! Married couples!"

"If" by Bread is quavering on the sound track as Knudson unlocks the first door on a tour of his Northbrook bungalows, which are tucked at the back of a five-and-a-half-acre property beside a forest preserve. There are no windows, and the lights are kept low. Once the eyes adapt, they register layers of thick shag on the floors, walls, and nightstands; mirrors set into the ceiling; Hallmark-inspired verse on the bureau; a fireplace that lights at the twist of a dial; a king-size, plush- topped water bed; and a seven-foot sunken whirlpool.

At $210 a weekend night, the Whirlpool Cottage is the smallest and least expensive suite. "It's really intimate," says Knudson. "You're always close together. You sit on the bed, you fill up the tub, you put on the heat lamps. We rake every single mark out of the carpeting, because you want to have the feeling that no one's ever been here before." The room has a knotty-pine, wood-beamed look. "As a kid, what was the neatest thing in the world?" he wonders aloud. He supplies the answer himself: "A cardboard box! I wanted to create the feeling of being in a fort."

With mirrors doubling and trebling every image from a half-dozen angles, Sybaris would be a handy place to try on a rental tuxedo. But what about those couples who feel bashful about confronting themselves at every glance? For them, Knudson has installed low-watt rose-tinted lamps, the kind used to flatter aging actresses, into the canopy above the bed. "My wife calls these lights Hamburger Helper," says Knudson, wiggling his fingers under the bulbs. "Because they cover all the imperfections."

He drops into a chair whirlpoolside, hoists his feet up, and feigns unwinding. "Now, right now, you just feel everything inside you going slack. Just imagine that tub filled with warm water . . . bubble bath. It's so-o-o-o peaceful. A lot of times people say, 'I don't feel right if I can't call the kids.' Wait until you get in the room. It's like, 'Fuck them kids.' You know?"

As he leads the way across the property the amenities multiply. He points out the evolution of Sybaris suites, from the smallest cottage to the newest and largest, through such embellishments as bigger Jacuzzis, vaster bedroom yardage, added swimming pools, and hand-painted sunsets, into longer and deeper pools, waterfalls, and so on. Going through the suites is like watching time-lapse photography of a basement renovation project that has gotten increasingly out of hand. It culminates in the three-story Chalet. For $495 a weekend night, customers get a two-car heated garage, 12-foot-high sunset mural, whirlpool, four-sided glass fireplace, hot tub, steam room, wet bar, and ten-foot slide that swerves from the bedroom loft into the 24-foot swimming pool. No windows. The Chalet was inspired, Knudson says, by the grotto inside the Playboy mansion, where he once taught karate to jazz drummer Buddy Rich: "I had the benefit and the joy of wandering around in this magnificent environment--aw, man, the swimming pool! Palm trees! Waterfall! Wild! I said, God, wouldn't that be the greatest feeling in the world to let the average guy experience this?"

Average guys and their better halves are Knudson's target customers. He installed bidets in the bathrooms simply because businessmen won't find them at the Marriott; and he placed beds at space-wasting angles just because no home owner would ever decorate that way.

"It's a misunderstood story, it's a Valentine's Day story, it's trendy, but it's so much more," he gushes. "Sybaris is so beautiful, it's so-o-o-o needed, it's not going away. Everyone from 19 to 90 wants to he held, loved, and romanced. You want to feel romance, and you want to be romancing. You want to give and you want to receive. That's what Sybaris is."

It all appears so wholesome--until one opens a closet and encounters the Taiwan basket, in a heap under the coat hangers, swaddled in a paper sanitary strip.

Imagine a leather harness for a 100-pound fern, with a canvas seat, a metal hoop, and ropes meant to suspend the contraption from a heavy-duty hook on the mirrored ceiling above the bed. An opening is cut in the canvas seat; the whole device can be twirled like a turntable. A woman familiar with the northwest-suburban bar scene reports that barroom rakes call petite women "spinners" because they have the perfect dimensions to make aerodynamic dervishes. One of Knudson's customers remembers hooking up the Taiwan basket and quickly returning it to the closet. "My girlfriend said, 'Hey, I'm not going to get in that thing. Who knows how many other bodies have been hanging in it?'"

Knudson, who patented the apparatus, admits that it is not every couple's fantasy. Once he removed them all from the rooms, he says, but patrons groused until he returned them. "It's part of the exciting thing of coming here," he says. "You can't get it anywhere else."

Uh-huh. As another otherwise-satisfied customer points out, "Knudson always insists that Sybaris is not a sex hotel, yet this Taiwan basket is in the closet. I've never seen one of those at the Holiday Inn."

As Knudson would reply: Exactly.

Like most entrepreneurs, Knudson easily convinced himself that any brilliant inkling could be converted into a profitable business--after all, he'd been doing it for years. When he was growing up in Chicago, near Division and Central, he salvaged a box of promotional piggy banks he found in an alley and sold them on the street. As a kid he once leaned on a neighbor, a Kool-Aid exec, for samples of the root-beer mix that would not be marketed for another year, and set up a stand on the corner.

When he turned 18, he began a seven-year apprenticeship for a tool-and-die job at International Harvester, only to quit when he finished the program. On weekends, he raced nitro-fuel dragsters at the Great Lakes Dragaway in Union Grove, Wisconsin; at night, he raced hot rods for money on suburban boulevards. Once when he tried to collect his cash and a scuffle ensued, he realized how dicey the sport was, so he began to study karate to solve any problems with accounts receivable. Within a week of his first lesson, he'd chucked his driving gloves.

"I said, this is me. I loved karate--I lived it, I breathed it, I taught it, I ate it, I slept it." He opened a chain of ten Olympic Karate Studios in the 1960s and 70s and began marketing home training kits, manuals, logbooks, and karate uniforms; eventually, he says, he took in more than $1 million a year. He became a fourth-degree black belt, and made the cover of Black Belt magazine twice, in 1970 and 1976: "Ken Knudson, Midwest Karate Story," reads one cover line; the other is "Bursting Attack Power of Chicago's Knudson."

By the middle of the 1970s, the martial-arts fad had waned, and Knudson sold his schools and groped for a new business. Inspired by the reactions of his wife's friends to his bedroom set, he purchased a mom-and-pop motel on Ogden Avenue in Downers Grove and started his first spa in 1975. When the phone failed to ring, he went door-to-door, pushing Polaroids of his hideaway at receptionists and sales clerks. The basics of Sybaris were established from the beginning: a water bed, a fireplace, mirrors, soft music, hard-core movies. He opened the Northbrook branch in 1982, though it would take another five years for him to finance and complete all the construction. From the start, he had trouble convincing loan officers that he wasn't running an illicit business aimed at sleazy trysts. One bank refused to process his credit-card deposits from customers. Communities rallied to keep him out. "We went through a series of rumors," he volunteers. "They thought the place was an X-rated motel, then a massage parlor, then they thought it was owned by the Mafia--which is the funniest thing, because if the Mafia owned it, I wouldn't need financing."

The financial picture was never peachy. For a decade he operated at a loss; he's had to build his business one cabin at a time.

He says he ended up selling everything he owned. On the first round, he unloaded more loot than most people acquire over a lifetime. He says he waved goodbye to a house in Hawaii, a twin-engine oceangoing boat, an airplane, and a garment factory. By the time of his second clearance sale, he was left with only a few clothes. He even sold the inspirational bedroom set, which went with the house in Schaumburg. He slept in the office, waking himself every hour with a timer so he could change the movie reels.

When banks turned down his loan applications, he turned to Sybaris customers and other acquaintances for small investments, at an 18 percent annual return. (He still solicits investments from customers on his mailing list, offering a 14 percent annual return and a free visit.) A stock options trader at the Chicago Board of Trade who spent the night at Sybaris a few years ago called Knudson the next morning and invested $30,000. "All of the payments have been there as promised," says the trader, Ben Gambino. "He's willing to put his name on the debenture notes, which a lot of people aren't willing to do."

Patricia Banks, a retired ABC-TV employee, invested $5,000 after her financial consultant at Shearson Lehman introduced her to Knudson and opted to invest his own money in the operation. Banks says, "I think Kenny is very honest. I couldn't mistrust him . . . he had his wife right there." She says Sybaris's image didn't deter her: "The way it was put to us, he was promoting love in the family--and not a whorehouse, shall we say." She, in turn, recommended investing in Sybaris to a retired couple in Florida, who also bankrolled Knudson. Knudson claims he convinced a real estate developer to invest more than $2 million in his venture. In truth, says the developer, who requested anonymity, he purchased Knudson's Northbrook property and leases it back to him.

"We went through ten years of terror," Knudson says. "There was one solid year, 1982 to 1983, when our best bank position was when we were overdrawn $10,000. That was the best--the worst was $30,000. That's how bad it was."

Which explains his inability to pay all of his creditors promptly. According to Cook County Circuit Court records, he has been sued 20 times since 1981 by investors and contractors, though that may represent only a fraction of the debts he's amassed. In one court document in 1983, Knudson listed 49 contractors and subcontractors to whom he owed a total of $1.25 million for the construction of the Northbrook cottages, all of which was past due. And some of those creditors are still waiting to close the books on the work they contributed to Sybaris construction.

Still, he does something to motivate people--perhaps it's his combination of earnestness, ebullience, and hard-sell tenacity. One former manager remembers fielding phone calls from contractors who refused to show up for another hour's work until they were paid, only to have Knudson snatch the phone and cajole and bully the contractors into sending their trucks. Afterward, the former manager says, Knudson would grin and admonish him, "That's how it's done."

"He didn't like to hear the word no," says the former manager. "He sees something finished in his mind, and wants it done. He was at times kind of intimidating--I can say very intimidating, because he was so driven by the concept and his unwillingness to fail. There were a lot of times when money was thin and there were a lot of humps to get over. One moment he would be yelling about something not getting done, and in the next he'd be showing the property to a customer or an investor and he'd be a nice guy, a real showman."

Others who have worked beside him insist that Knudson is obsessed with his business, putting in martyr's hours, posting positive-mental-attitude reminders on employee bulletin boards, dismissing staffers who lack his commitment. One witness remembers the time a maintenance crew informed Knudson that a broken awning on the Northbrook property would not budge, despite their use of sledgehammers. Knudson stomped across the grounds and, with his employees watching, kicked and punched the awning until it yielded. That's how it's done.

If Sybaris has not been an overnight success, at least it's pulled off the feat of staying open, and growing slowly. Knudson says that the company has been generating a positive cash flow for five years, and that its average bank balance is half a million dollars. He's still in debt, but he says that banks are now lending him money. Last year his occupancy rate for the 14 rooms in Downers Grove was 70 percent; for Northbrook's 38 rooms, 71 percent--both numbers above the hotel industry average.

Knudson sees the expansion into Mequon as the beginning of an empire, spreading to cities across the nation, to foreign markets, to Sybaris cruise ships. Back in his map-strewn office in Downers Grove, he collates an arsenal of enticing documents for investors: projected revenues, charts, diagrams, blueprints of quadplexes, architectural drawings of posh structures, maps of property in Orland Hills, Detroit, Cleveland, Saint Louis, Kansas City, Indianapolis--anywhere, as he might say, within driving distance of married couples. At the office of his architect, Bruce Johnston & Associates, he showed me sketches for a six-story, 48-room Sybaris with underground parking that he envisions for the near north side, plus plans for a structure that would join three styles of suites under one roof and could be plopped down onto a vacant lot anywhere--near an airport, for instance. In his own office are pitches to owners of small motels who might be interested in franchising. And he's gotten nibbles from motel owners in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, and Rockford, Illinois.

Franchising might actually work. It would seem a perfect fit with small-town motel owners who are hoping for some high-end trade. The obstacle, of course, is the name: "Sybaris" still connotes a water-bed motel instead of a swimming-pool spa. Even if an innkeeper can wangle the financing and the zoning approvals to graft a Sybaris onto his establishment, small-town denizens may have more qualms than Chicagoans about renting a room that their neighbors know is windowless, phoneless, and mirrored. In Mequon, Knudson's solution is to market the ten Victorian Whirlpool Suites, which offer respectability, along with the six swimming-pool suites. Once customers enter the private drive, only other Sybaris patrons know which style of room they've booked.

To boost the Sybaris image in Illinois, Knudson has redesigned the logo, which appears on the signs at each location and on billboards he's put up on toll roads. The old logo showed a female silhouette embraced by a male form against the backdrop of a heart; the new one features the word "Sybaris" in pink floral script and the slogan "Sybaris Pool Suites--"Individually Yours."'

"To this day, people still have a hard time comprehending that it's not for quickies with secretaries," Knudson laments. "But cheaters don't want to be on a mailing list, and we send out special offers for a couple's anniversary and their birthdays. And cheaters do not want to spend a lot of money. Cheaters are usually a regular weekly thing with a certain chick, and the whole point is the sex. It's like, a-g-g-h-h-h-h, the lust."

But one married man who has spent several nights at Sybaris without provoking his wife's suspicion says adulterers can easily duck incriminating reminders. "On the registration card it says 'Mailing list?' and I just check 'No' every time."

Even with their own spouses, Knudson says, some guests are so inhibited that they bring swimsuits to wear in the private pools. And some men who receive Sybaris gift certificates from their wives refuse to redeem them. "I'm not a racehorse," they confide to Knudson. "As soon as that door closes--ding!--I'm expected to perform." Others, he says, book rooms without telling their closest friends or family; one out-of-town couple leave their children at home, bamboozling them into believing that they're driving to Chicago to shop. Yet each time they return the following morning without a single purchase.

The metamorphosis from karate kingpin to Sybaris CEO seems to be complete. Recently Knudson packed up all of his karate trophies and carted them out of his Downers Grove office because he'd heard on one of the many motivational tapes he listens to that yesterday's triumphs do not win today's battles. Now he keeps a single statuette on the floor, against a wall, sitting almost apologetically behind a guest chair. It's the prize for his victory two years ago, at the age of 45, in the executive division of the Prairie States Karate Championships. He competes every five years now, though he's not sure he'll be up for it when he's 50. He is more content to fly airplanes or to water-ski near his home in Lake Zurich, where he lives with his second wife, Charlene, who programs Sybaris's computers.

On the top shelf of the trophy case in his office, where he once displayed the spoils of his karate tournament wins, is a single object: a red baseball cap with a slogan printed over the bill. From a distance only the first word, "Happiness," is distinguishable; the remaining letters might spell out any one of Knudson's mantras. Happiness, they might say, is romancing and being romanced; happiness, they might say, is wanting to give and wanting to receive; or they might simply say that happiness is a warm swimming pool.

But on closer inspection the cap yields this slogan: "Happiness is a positive cash flow."

On I-294, cruising between his spas in Downers Grove and Northbrook, Knudson swats the dash in his Lincoln Continental and bellows, once again, about his near-bankruptcy. The rush-hour commuters are heading home to their suburban ranches, and the Lincoln, with its "SYBARIS" vanity tags, slaloms around the traffic. Knudson flips through his dashboard phone directory with his left hand, punches up numbers on his cellular speaker phone with his right, flogs the dash with a fist, and . . . and it's suddenly apparent that neither hand is steering. The car is veering toward an exit ramp, though this may not be intentional; I notice now, as we swerve across two lanes of traffic, that Knudson is guiding the wheel with nudges of his knee, though that could be just a manic twitch. The digital speedometer reads 78, 79, and ticks upward as he accelerates.

"You tell yourself, 'I want to own 50 Sybarises, I want to be the big shot,'" he is saying. "Better think twice, because maybe you're going to get so scared that you're on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Maybe you drive yourself to the point where you don't know how you're going to do it, but you're on the ropes, you're punch-drunk, you can't hardly figure out night from day. Do you really want that? Do you want the terror, the fear, the anticipation?

"Do you want to be rejected, do you want to be sitting there with your third shift uncovered and you've got to cover it? It's not a pretty thing, but you know something? It's my baby, it's my brainchild, and I'll pay that price for it. I'll--"

And suddenly, in midspiel, he pivots on the upholstery and points over his shoulder at the dimming horizon over the left rear fender. "Turn around and look at that sunset--that is priceless." He lingers, his shoe pushing the accelerator, as the roadside office complexes gleam in the twilight. He lets his earlier point hang unfinished while he speeds blindly to his business, distracted by the sunset. "Isn't that gorgeous? God," he whispers, "it's great to be alive."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/John Sundlof.

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