The Grand Hotel — a summer experience
Mackinac Island — It’s the morning before the official opening day of the Grand Hotel, and the signature red geraniums have yet to be planted in boxes and pots along the length of the world-famous front porch.
A constant drizzle has kept some outside work, like the planting of those 1,400 geraniums, on hold. Workers also have not finished installing the red carpet at the main entrance to the 660-foot-long porch and the iconic hotel.
“We change the carpet every year. It’s typically the last thing we do,” says Dan Musser III, president of the Grand Hotel, seemingly unflustered by the hotel’s imminent opening. “We’ll be ready to go.”
Musser should know. His family has been running the iconic hotel for three generations. He is as familiar with its storied history as anyone — the Grand Hotel has never not opened on time in its 133-year history.
Opening the massive hotel each year is a huge undertaking, involving the hiring and training of hundreds of new workers, transporting supplies, construction materials and new furniture from the mainland, completing a multitude of renovation and maintenance projects (and sometimes new construction), creating new menus and restocking the hotel’s impressive wine cellar, typically emptied at the end of the season.
And then there’s the weather, always an iffy proposition in northern Michigan’s fragile spring.
About 800 guests were expected for opening weekend. The 332,500-square-foot hotel, which opened its doors for business in the summer of 1887 with 200 rooms, now has 397 rooms and suites. Its operations include an 18-hole golf course, tennis courts, gift shops, outdoor activities, bars, on- and off-premise restaurants and meeting space.
Preparing for the official opening in May begins weeks before and reaches a crescendo as the day approaches.
“It’s always a hive of busy activity,” Musser notes. “We have lots of returning staff members and new staff coming in every day. We have sales people of all types coming to talk about the food and supplies we buy. There’s a general excitement about getting ready to open for the season. It feels a bit like Christmas, and the biggest present of the year is when we open.”
The to-do list
As the hotel closes down for the season in late October, preparation for next spring begins. Sheets are draped over furniture in public areas, rooms targeted for painting and renovations are cleared, the furniture stored, and Musser and his team make a punch list of things that need to be completed before spring: painting, wallpapering, carpeting, and installing contemporary showers in a number of guest bathrooms, replacing outdated bathtub/showers.
The hotel, like much of the island, is shuttered for the winter. The heat and water are turned off, but about 60 workers frequent the Grand everyday, working on renovation projects, which, this year, included rebuilding an elevator and adding four suites.
Construction on the suites began immediately. The suites are the final phase of a multi-year project to transform the hotel’s fourth floor, formerly attic space and employee housing. The one- and two-bedroom suites were decorated by the hotel’s longtime interior designer, Carleton Varney of Dorothy Draper & Co. in New York.
With the now-finished Cupola Suites, the hotel’s original 1887 roofline has been restored with a row of dormers lining the entire the roof.
In a guest room across from a new suite, Tom Boburka spackles a small hole in the ceiling, created because of redirecting pipes for the new accommodations. Boburka figures he’s been logging 12 hours a day and is marking his 19th consecutive day of work, but he has no complaints.
“I love taking care of the old girl,” says Boburka, who has been working for the Grand Hotel for six years. “It’s an honor.”
Workers returned in the spring to find massive amounts of snow covering the roofs of resort buildings after one of the snowiest winters in recent memory. Crews spent about two weeks removing snow from roofs and hauling it down the hill, near the swimming pool. Snow piles are still visible.
“Winter made this year’s opening more stressful,” says Ken Hayward, executive vice president and managing director of the hotel. “We have a lot of flat roofs. We needed to get the weight load off the hotel. It really diverted the attention of our crew.”
Winter’s lingering grip is often a concern.
A few years ago, ice covered the Straits of Mackinac as opening day neared, preventing ferries from transporting employees and supplies from the mainland. The hotel was forced to fly employees and supplies to the island, an expensive endeavor. Typically, supplies arrive by ferry and are hauled by horse-drawn drays to the hotel.
Musser was on the phone to the governor every day, lobbying for the state to send a cutter to break the ice so ferry service could resume. One of his concerns was to make sure his paying guests had access to the island.
“Our guests are paying to come here, and some are just not comfortable flying,” Musser says, noting a cutter passed through the Straits just in time. “Every year it’s something different.
“That’s the challenge and the thrill of it.”
Return in April
By early April, veteran and new employees begin returning to the island, settle into employee housing and start training.
Among the newcomers this season is Mitchell Robinson, dressed in khaki pants, a blue blazer and a yellow tie and stationed by the new concierge desk. He is eager to assist the guests here during the hotel’s soft opening.
“There’s a lot of training to understand how things work and what everybody, from the front desk to the bellhops to the concierge does,” says Robinson, 23, admitting he’s made a few mistakes and learned from them.
“I love every bit of being here,” says Robinson, who just graduated from Ball State University and has been coming to Mackinac Island since he was a child. “I love this place.”
As the weekend approaches, workers touch up paint along stairways, in guest rooms and in the main dining room. Supervisors test new employees on their knowledge of the location of hotel amenities, while the cleaning staff make beds, vacuums and ensure guests rooms are properly stocked.
An employee-wide meeting is held before the official opening. The hotel has about 700 employees this season, many of them working at the Grand for the first time. They come from more than two dozen countries.
Musser and Hayward reiterate the importance of customer service.
“No one is expected to be perfect on day one,” Hayward says. “But they need to be friendly and welcoming. It’s a lot about attitude. Our philosophy is to treat guests like you’re welcoming them into your home.”
The final stage
By late morning on that final day before the official opening, a small team of workers is planting the famous geraniums along the front porch and another crew is wrapping up installation of the red carpet.
The anticipation about the new season is palpable everywhere in the building.
“I’m a little bit nervous but I think I’m prepared,” says Nehemiah “Neo” Brown, an 18-year-old from Grayling who was hired as a bellhop, his first job. “I’m excited. It’s definitely exciting to be here.”
Guests will arrive by ferries the next day, check in, enjoy high tea in the parlor, as always, and dine and drink at the hotel’s restaurants and bars. The front nine of the golf course will be open and two of the four tennis courts.
“We sell a summer experience here, not just room and board,” says Bob Tagatz, hotel historian. “But everything has to be in place and ready to go. It’s a little bit like putting on a play and the hotel is the stage. It’s not just a play but a Broadway production.”
Open through Oct. 27
286 Grand Ave.
Mackinac Island, MI 49757
1- or 2-bedroom suites with parlor
$1,495 and up
Reservations: (800) 334-7263