Metro Times goes to Mackinac
A first-timer’s perspective of the Detroit Regional Chamber’s annual confab.
Published: June 3, 2014
We’re cruising northbound on I-75 toward northern Michigan for what I’ve been told is the greatest networking opportunity in the state. It’s late May, time for the Detroit Regional Chamber’s annual confab, the Mackinac Policy Conference. The picturesque Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island plays host to virtually every mover and shaker from across the state for a weeklong shindig that, ostensibly, is about public policy.
It’s somewhere around Gaylord when an unusual billboard for Westland Mayor Bill Wild catches my eye: Got Vision?
Wild is one of several candidates vying to unseat Wayne County Executive Bob Ficano this year — some 250 miles away from our current location.
Immediate thought: Huh?
The idea of the conference is sound — bring together politicians, business executives, and civic leaders under one roof to consider ideas for Michigan’s future, essentially forcing everyone to talk to one another. But in an election year, it’s clearly a place candidates feel is essential to tug the heartstrings of those who hold serious influence and fat pocketbooks. Wild’s camp, it seems, regards billboards as a resolute ploy to tap that political keg.
It’s a little after 1 p.m. and we’re bound for Mackinaw City, a photographer and I, to ditch the automobile for the week and catch a 16-minute ferry ride to the island to experience the conference firsthand. Being that we’re first-time attendees and clueless as to where anything’s located, we decide to tow a set of bicycles along to get around. Automobiles are banned on the island in favor of horses. (The lingering aroma of their manure, we’d later find, is ubiquitous. You simply can’t escape it.)
The idea behind this trip was to dispatch a guinea pig correspondent in an unusual capacity: to camp in Mackinaw City and wake at dawn each day to hop an early-bird ferry to the island. Funny, no?
That idea quickly unraveled — and with good reason: The last ferry leaves Mackinac Island at 8 p.m. daily. And, as some explained, it’s necessary to stay on the island to soak up the entire experience of the business-centric conference. (Plus, we’d miss the nighttime activities! Things happen until 2 a.m., as one veteran put it.) The $2,000 to $2,500 registration fees are palatable to only a select group, but journalists are accommodated with free food, coffee, spirits, and the opportunity to bumrush nearly every kingpin in the state for an off-the-cuff comment. To some, the conference carries a reputation as a meeting of minds drenched in booze, an event where not much at all is accomplished. So Metro Times saw fit to send someone along with an open mind, one who’s never visited the island before, to get a feel for the conference.
The chamber sets an agenda for the week, with numerous keynote speakers and panel discussions to cover — this year’s focus mainly being STEM (science, technology, education, math) education and the future of Detroit.
We’ve also been told to anticipate an exceptional level of service.
After boarding a boat, a pre-recorded audio message on Shepler’s Ferry offers riders a glimpse of what’s to come: For those who aren’t staying at the Grand Hotel, the message says, you can still enjoy its famous “Grand Boo-fay,” apparently island-speak for what mainlanders know as a “buffet.”
Each year, it’s estimated more than 1 million people cross Lake Huron to visit Mackinac Island. As we’d soon find out, that ferry ride entails batting away an initial blast of bugs pelting you in the face. Imagine sitting in a movie theater and, just before the film begins, a cage of flies large enough to irritate the entire audience is dropped from above. That’s the scene here.
Though it’s an ideal spring day, the ride is freezing, thanks to the cool temps of the lake and a light breeze. Someone on the deck of the boat, clearly headed for the Grand, punches away at a MacBook while simultaneously scrolling through his smartphone. For those who follow Michigan politics but have never attended the conference, this jaunt to the island seems like a who’s-who event for wonks. On this ride, Nolan Finley of The Detroit News is within earshot of Craig Fahle of WDET. Exciting stuff.
Soon enough, we’re approaching land and the Grand Hotel is off in the distance. The ferry slows, and the swarm of gnats returns. Welcome to Mackinac Island.
GAWKERS AND FOOD
There were some issues in planning for suitable lodging on the island. That’s because the conference is well-attended, and we’d made reservations only a week earlier. An estimated 1,700 people registered this year alone. Lucky for us, we managed to find not just one room, but three! (What better way to see the island than having to relocate every morning due to almost-zero vacancies?)
We drop our bags off at Room No. 1 and head toward the festivities.
For the record, the average island-goer not registered at the Grand has to pay a $10 entry fee just to enter the hotel. There’s a sign out front noting this.
Through a set of doors next to a recent addition to the hotel, Sadie’s Ice Cream Parlor, chamber employees check us in and give us our nametags, an all-access I.D. that grants entry into the Grand, the media room, the porch, and the food.
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