A ‘Grand’ Tradition: Iconic Mackinac Island Hotel Celebrates 125 Years

Dan Musser III gained several indelible memories while preparing to celebrate the 125th anniversary of his life’s work, the Grand Hotel.

There is the photograph recently restored of him, his eldest son and father walking along the hotel’s iconic porch, considered the world’s longest and one of the most memorable images of its home, Mackinac Island.

There were multiple gatherings of family, friends, longtime employees and dignitaries, including three former Michigan governors. Over its private-label champagne, guests toasted the majestic hotel and the generations who worked and played there since its opening in 1887.

The Grand Hotel rates among Travel + Leisure magazine’s “500 World’s Best Hotels for 2012.” All of its 385 rooms are uniquely decorated. Photo by Grandin Hood

And then there was the most emotional of them all. During the hotel’s anniversary weekend, Musser recalled how a crowd gathered on that massive, 660-foot porch to watch a fireworks display. At one point, Musser recalled, the audience spontaneously began singing along to “God Bless America,” synched to the fireworks exploding over the Straits of Mackinac in honor of the Grand’s quasquicentennial.

“It was a particularly moving moment -“ there was that patriotic melody and all those people singing on the front porch on a summer’s night,” said Musser, who marked his 28th season of full-time work at the Grand Hotel this summer.

Of Michigan’s many vacation destinations, few may have as many scenic vistas, well-appointed homes or impressive visitors as Mackinac Island. It could be argued that the Grand Hotel is the Island’s most well-known attribute -“ its huge white façade and stunning porch columns are the first things travelers coming over by ferry will recognize emerging from the Island’s steep, wooded hills and rocky shoreline.

“We’re ahead of the curve a little bit (in terms of retaining long-term guests) because of our longevity and our unique setting here,” Musser said. “The goal then is to keep the traditions strong and provide enhanced experiences going forward.”

Rich with family tradition
Few names are as ingrained in Mackinac lore as that of the Musser family. Pretty much every worker on the island from porters to cub reporters to fellow business owners know and respect the moniker. It is a respect borne of time, experience and hard work. A Musser has been a part of the Grand Hotel for nearly 80 years.

“Dan the Third,” as he is known among hotel employees, is a fitting nickname. Musser is the third generation of family to manage the sizable operation. (Longtime owner R.D. Musser Jr. worked at the hotel since 1951 until his retirement last year.)

As president, Musser is responsible for all day-to-day operations of the hotel, which include supervising the front desk, convention services, food and beverage, sales and marketing, housekeeping, maintenance and recreation.

This high-touch management style is no accident, Musser notes. He prefers to have a hand in all of the hotel’s operations for a variety of reasons. Mostly, it is because that is the way it has always been done. Both he and his father have held pretty much every job there is at the Grand. Musser himself jokes that his glasses came about when he helped computerize the hotel’s reservations systems years ago.

Dan Musser III, the Grand’s president, jokes that his glasses are the result of his work helping set up the computerized reservations system for the hotel. Photo by Rosh Sillars

Musser, like those before him, takes every aspect of the Grand’s tradition and future success seriously. He checks in daily with all of his department heads. He personally oversees new projects, including the new stables, off-site restaurants and suite renovations. It is a significant undertaking when you consider more than 130,000 overnight guests stay at the Grand each season, making the 385-bed hotel the largest summer resort in the world. It also has 12 bars and restaurants, including the main dining room staff of 100 that prepares and serves as many as 4,000 meals on a daily basis.

“We have always prided ourselves on contact, not just with staff members but with guests. Long ago, we came up with the system that we still employ today for our conventions, which is about half of our business, in that we assign one convention manager to every group. The more modern way is making the meeting planner talk to chef, rooms manager and other staff members for everything they need,” Musser said. “Our way is more costly for the hotel because we have more staff members and more management in place, but it enables the meeting planner to have one person to talk to.”

In fact, it’s not unusual to see Musser, his father, his sister or other top-level managers working around the parlor or greeting guests in the dining room.

“I think having us pick up trash in the parlor shows the staff that we care. I think it shows our guests that we care and are trying to run a good place. That kind of management style I learned from my father, of managing by walking around if you were. I think that’s served us well and continues to do so,” Musser said.

Yet those who know Musser intimately say his serious demeanor on the job is accompanied by a warm sense of humor and well-rounded sense of fun. Friends say Musser is a loyal soul who genuinely seems to enjoy his work and the responsibility of running such an impressive and, to an outsider’s view, overwhelmingly large operation.

Every spring, the Grand’s celebrated gardens are awash with color as the first of the 15,000 daffodils and 25,000 tulips start to bloom. Photo by Rosh Sillars

However, Musser can laugh at himself and the reverence the Grand evokes in local residents and travelers. For example, he describes himself as a “kind of a piker” compared to the Chambers family, owners of Mackinac Island Carriage Tours Inc. for five generations. The two recently worked together to build the Grand’s new stables. (As an aside, the Chambers men are said to be responsible for urging the Island to ban automobiles from its midst, a wise move that ensured their company would survive well into the future.)

Tough times and the path back
Musser also has worries about the hotel and its future, despite its impressive past. He will admit there are times, especially in the depth of a cold Michigan winter, when he has his doubts about the whole thing. Still, every spring as the first of the 15,000 daffodils and 25,000 tulips start to bloom, Musser watches with a continued sense of amazement that it all comes together for the enjoyment of leisure travelers and convention goers.

“When you’re coming over for the first time, there’s always that moment when I’ll go through the dining room and think, ‘How are we going to do this? How are we going to keep qualified people? How will we get guests to come?'” Musser mused. “But there’s always that turning point in the spring when you realize there’s something special about this island, this hotel and what we try to do.”

Dan Musser III says the hotel’s lobby, dining rooms and larger meeting spaces are formal to create “happenings” around the Grand. Photo by Rosh Sillars

He recalls the struggle the hotel and many others within the hospitality industry experienced following the 2008 recession. Everyone at the Grand felt the financial burden -“ the Musser family and top managers took pay cuts. Employees that September were quickly released when guest reservations plunged practically overnight. Musser, who has never been a fan of the hotel’s seasonal nature, said he was happy to finish the year that October.

“I’ve never been overly happy that we’re seasonal or that we have to shut our doors. Except for that year. We couldn’t shut them fast enough. It was a like a light switch. Everybody left. We couldn’t get staff off payroll fast enough,” Musser said. “What was touching and I’ll never forget is the number of staff members who volunteered more and sacrificed an even greater amount than we even asked for. Those individuals make the hotel work. I’ll never forget that.”

The Grand Hotel’s experience wasn’t unique. The hospitality industry as a whole has gone from single-digit declines to slow and steady improvements, experts say. “The industry is recovering from the lows reached over the recession in 2008-2009,” added Melinda Crump, a spokeswoman for financial information company Sageworks Inc.

Key Stats:

The Grand Hotel, which is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year, is an icon of Mackinac Island, a small resort town and state park in the Straits of Mackinac.

  • Opened: 1887
  • Area: 10 acres
  • Rooms: 385
  • Architectural style: Queen Anne
  • Architects: Alphonse Howe, Charles Caskey
  • Interior designer: Carleton Varney
  • Front porch: 660 feet, world’s longest

Fun Facts:

  • It takes 500,000 gallons of water to fill Grand Hotel’s swimming pool, which was named for actress Esther Williams who starred in the 1947 movie “This Time for Keeps,” shot at the Grand Hotel.
  • The 1980 film “Somewhere in Time,” starring Christopher Reeve, Jane Seymour and Christopher Plummer, was filmed on location at the Grand Hotel. The movie now has a huge following, with a fan club that meets at Grand Hotel each October.
  • Five U.S. presidents -” Clinton, Bush, Ford, Kennedy, and Truman -” have visited the Grand Hotel.
  • Each season, more than 83,000 pounds of prime rib, 23,500 pounds of ham, 83,500 pounds of potatoes, 23,000 pounds of carrots, 14,000 pounds of strawberries, and 6,500 pounds of pecans are served to the Grand Hotel’s dining guests.

The slow and steady march back to pre-recession levels has been largely good for the Grand, Musser says in hindsight. The hotel shut down that winter to “roll up its sleeves” and rethink how it does business, he says. The management put many new policies into place that created new efficiencies across the board. The Musser family also was able to purchase new properties on the Island and reclaim leased spaces for their own, giving sibling Mimi greater control over the kind of merchandising the Grand offers.

“We’re getting back to our pre-’08 occupancy levels,” Musser said, noting that the hotel had one of its strongest Julys on record. “What we’re seeing is the room rate coming back, which for us goes straight to margin. That leisure guest that helped us get through the recession is starting to spend more when they get to us.”

The convention part of the business never dipped as severely, Musser said. So while corporate travel waned, trade associations remained fairly steady.

“What we’re seeing now is the groups are starting to come back,” Musser said. “Even last year was a little bit of a hangover on the group side if you will. Two years prior, we still were not sure if we were going to get out of this mess. Groups just weren’t signing contracts. These days, they’re starting to sign contracts again. -¦ At least now we’re booking rooms again and not just treading water.”

The Musser family also had to come to grips with a changing clientele over these past four years. Gone were the days when honeymooning couples or retired executives strolled the halls in tuxedos and evening gowns. Rather, new, more casual groups were coming to the Grand -“ and they were bringing tots in strollers. Creating more programming for families and adapting to more relaxed dress codes in larger areas of the hotel have boosted reservations without cutting too deeply into the hotel’s room rates -“ something the hotel did not want to affect during its recessionary recovery.

Drawing on its roots
Yet the Musser clan -“ a close-knit, private group -“ continues to hold tight to the region’s more traditional roots. For example, Musser said there have been intense family debates over whether there should be televisions in the hotel’s bedrooms. Mostly, he admits, that is a done deal and the Grand regularly upgrades the TV sets to larger and more advanced models. What once was a petite 7-inch screen now hovers around a substantially larger size of 20 inches or bigger. Some rooms even have DVD players in them so guests can watch “Somewhere in Time,” the beloved movie filmed at the hotel in 1980.

That movie remains one of the most important marketing pieces the hotel has.

“It was a complete flop in the box office but it has done incredibly well in the romance section if you will,” Musser said. “We know when it’s playing on a cable system anywhere in this country because the phones start ringing from that area. There probably is not a night that we’re open that there isn’t someone in the hotel because of that movie. It’s a combination of the romantic, the pretty, all of those things put together that are part of a stay here today whether it’s back in time or now that touches a nerve.”

That romantic feeling is one of the reasons the Grand maintains the strict dress code within its infamous parlor and dining room. That means jacket and ties for the men and dresses for the women after 6 p.m. These days, those dresses are a bit shorter and the jackets may be a bit more rumpled given the more casual lifestyle most people choose to live. But Musser said the family firmly believes there should be some formality to these areas, and that longtime code will stand as long as they are associated with the Grand.

“As my father always says, ‘It doesn’t cost us a dime to ask gentlemen to put on a coat and tie.’ It changes the atmosphere of those big rooms,” Musser said. “It doesn’t make it a formal or stuffy setting. It’s a happening. It’s not an intimate room, it’s big, there’s noise there’s live music, there’s young families, there’s all types. But making everyone dress up makes everyone act a little better and it creates a special environment that perhaps isn’t present otherwise. That’s not going to change.”

While many parts of the Grand Hotel have gone casual, the Musser family still insists that certain areas follow a dress code for men and women.. Photo by Rosh Sillars

However, Musser is firmly committed to his long-term plans for the hotel, which include regular upgrades and additions. He believes in buying and hiring locally whenever possible. And he never forgets the people who have helped to build the Grand into what it is today -“ the guests, workers and vendors who come back year after year.

Families in particular have become a significant factor in the hotel’s survival and current success. Musser, himself a father of four, has made a point of encouraging parents to bring their young kids to the hotel. There are free snow cones every day at the pool and s’mores every night at the Jockey Club. And Musser personally has made sure to test both for quality.

“About a decade ago, I made the conscious effort to dramatically increase our children’s programming and what we offer to families traveling as far as value, whether that’s allowing up to four children in the guest room or no charge for meals,” Musser said. “Certain times, we have what we call family value-added days with ice cream socials, a carnival in the Tea Garden and other activities. Creating events geared toward the family guest has paid big dividends. We’re seeing now those kids that were here 10 years ago getting married here and starting their families with us again. The goal is working, I think.”

From Michigan and the world
Hiring the Grand’s huge staff is a major portion of the year-around work the hotel has. Its human-resource department flies around the world and logs endless hours on the computer to bring in enough people to keep the Grand running, Musser said.

Housing these employees is an even larger operation. In fact, the hotel has more employee rooms than guest rooms -“ 575 for workers compared with 385 for its overnight visitors.

“We have a unique situation because of our isolated location and the property values being such on Mackinac Island that we house 99 percent of our staff members,” Musser said. “When I first took over we had at that point a lot more shared baths and rooms. I realized pretty quickly that if we wanted to improve the staff that we had, housing had to be on the forefront. So we started about 20 years ago building what’s known as Woodville, which has primarily single bedrooms that share a bath with one other person, private entrance and a private sink. Those have been very helpful in recruiting and retaining staff members.”

The Grand is known for the wide array of nationalities present on its staff. Musser said about half of its staff is American; the other half is foreign nationals. The Grand works with several types of Visa programs, bringing workers from Europe, Jamaica and Mexico to the small Island. Mostly, the HR department wants hospitality students, working with other resorts to draw these employees here. The hotel also seeks “unskilled workers,” a term that Musser finds ironic considering these dining-room staffers and housekeepers tend to be among the best he employs.

“We try to hire from Michigan. And quite frankly, I grew up in Mackinac and Emmet counties all my life and I’d like to have all Mackinac and Emmet county employees. But there’s just not enough willing and able to do the work for six months,” Musser said. “So by going to Jamaica, Mexico and Europe, we find those whose culture believes it’s an honorable thing to be a waiter or a housekeeper. It shows in their work. That goes a long way toward guest satisfaction and a return guest, and a guest that feels they got good value from their stay.

“Ultimately, it is the staff members that make us who we are. If you start adding it up, we had ironically 125 individuals who have been with us for 10 years or more,” Musser said. “Those 125 individuals exemplify the type of consistent service and, I think, true love of the place. And that is conveyed to our guests.

“I think that is impressive for any type of business but particularly a seasonal one that is closed for more than half the year than it is open and one that is located far away from any major metropolitan area,” Musser added. “The fact that these individuals make a choice to come back here every summer says a lot about the island, the hotel and what we try to do.”

The Grand’s one-of-a-kind look is the work of longtime decorator Carleton Varney, whose signature style includes bright colors, bold contrasts and large floral patterns.

Using high-quality, Michigan-based suppliers is important to making the Grand unique and supportive of its home state, Musser said. Within the dining room there are always offerings of locally caught white fish and lake trout. Michigan cattle are made into the hotel’s signature hamburgers. A group of women out of Boblo Island provide the hotel with all of its chanterelle mushrooms.

Longtime relationships also matter to Musser. There’s L. Mawby Vineyards of Suttons Bay, which provides much of the wine served at the hotel, including the champagne that toasted its 125th anniversary. Bell’s Brewery Inc. of Galesburg produces its only private-label beer, Big Porch Ale, for the hotel and its outlets. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan is a partner as well, helping develop the hotel’s “Live Healthy Live Grand” menu program of lower fat and lower calorie menu selections.

“Wherever we can, we think it makes sense to buy locally and it’s fresher. It’s more convenient and we’re helping out with the general well being of the state that makes our business viable,” Musser said.

Another personal favorite is the new Grand Hotel Touch of Softness beds created by Capitol Bedding in Lansing, Musser said.

“Fortunately, through the recession the building was in good shape. And so we focused on the things that guests would most noticeably touch, feel and experience. So we designed a new Grand Hotel bed with a company we’ve been doing business with for 30 years. I like the softer bed but not all of our rooms are huge so the beds are used partly as a seat in some cases. With some of the softer beds, you sit on the edge and you kind of roll off. So what we did was create a kind of ridge that’s firmer on the edge and softer in the middle,” Musser said.

Remaining a viable business is top of mind for Musser and his fellow Island business owners, especially over the past four years. The 2008 recession struck the Island just as hard as the rest of the nation, perhaps more so because of its deep roots in convention and corporate business. Leisure travel took a hit, Musser said, but corporate travelers largely disappeared.

“We’re trying to appeal to couples celebrating their 25th anniversary without kids as well as a family of four enjoying the pool. They might go to the dining room maybe one night and dress up. They’re trying our casual options on the other nights,” Musser said. “Having more options as far as food and beverages go speaks to value. We’re not inexpensive to come here so I think anything we can do to enhance (a value-driven image) is appropriate and makes sense particularly during these last couple of years of economic downturn.”

Timeline – The Grand Story of 125 Years on Mackinac Island

1887 – Grand Hotel opens, billed as a summer retreat for vacationers who arrive by lake steamer from Chicago, Erie, Detroit, Montreal, and by rail from across the continent. Rates are $3 to $5 a night.
1897 – The West Wing is added to the hotel.
1933 – W. Stewart Woodfill, hired as a desk clerk in 1919, purchases and becomes sole owner of Grand Hotel.
1947 – “This Time For Keeps” starring Jimmy Durante and Esther Williams is filmed on the island and at the Grand Hotel.
1957 – Michigan Historical Association selects Grand Hotel as a State Historical Building.
1960 – Grand Hotel owner W. Stewart Woodfill appoints R.D. Musser Jr. (his nephew) president.
1979 – The Mussers purchase the Grand Hotel.
1980 – “Somewhere In Time,” filmed at Grand Hotel and starring Christopher Reeve, Jane Seymour, and Christopher Plummer, is released.
1989 – Dan Musser III is named president of Grand Hotel.
1989 – The East Wing is added to the hotel.
1989 – The U.S. Department of Interior designates Grand Hotel a National Historic Landmark.
2001 – The Millennium Wing opens on the east end of the hotel.
2012 – Grand Hotel celebrates its 125th Anniversary. The historic year is commemorated with a weekend filled with memorable events: Saturday night dinner with former Michigan governors in attendance, presentation by Grand Hotel interior decorator Carleton Varney, Friday night fireworks, live performance by John Pizzarelli and more. A special edition 125th anniversary coffee table book is published.

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Karen Dybis
Karen is an editor and writer for Corp! Magazine. She graduated from the University of Michigan and has worked at The Mackinac Island Town Crier, The Kalamazoo Gazette, The (Adrian) Daily Telegram and The Oakland Press. Karen was a Detroit News business writer with stints in retail, workplace issues and personal finance. Dybis also was a blogger on Time magazine's "Assignment: Detroit" project. She is author of four Michigan history books, including "Secret Detroit" and "The Witch of Delray."