Behind the Scenes of Grand Hotel’s Opening Day (It’s Amazing)

It’s a broadway hit production that happens every spring at the venerable legend on Mackinac Island, honoring months of behind the scenes work and ensuring every person and item is in place on opening day at Grand Hotel … right down to the flowers.

Grand Hotel is delaying the start of its 134th season due to COVID-19, moving its opening day from May 1 to June 21, 2020.

Grand Hotel will open this spring under new ownership. KSL Capital Partners, LLC, a Colorado-based private equity firm that invests in travel and leisure businesses, purchased the hotel last fall from the Musser family, whose legacy with the Grand dates back more than 85 years. Dan Musser III, hotel president and the third generation of his family to run the Grand, will remain as chairman for three years, providing leadership and guidance to ensure a seamless transition and continuing to guard the hotel’s legacy. His great uncle bought the hotel in 1933; Musser’s father purchased the Grand in 1979. No changes have been announced, and the new owners have pledged to maintain the level of service and care that the Musser family has provided over the years. This article celebrates what was the Grand’s last opening day under the Musser family’s ownership in May 2019.

Two days before the official spring opening of Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island in 2019, the signature red geraniums have yet to be planted in the flower boxes and pots along the length of the world’s largest front porch, and the traditional red carpet, changed every year, is not fully installed at the main entrance.

It may be spring, but the May sky is delivering winter temperatures, as well as a constant drizzle and a blustery wind—unwelcoming elements that have stalled the completion of those famous porch accents. The white rocking chairs are in place, but the porch looks barren against the dreary landscape.

Inside, it’s a different story.

Every floor of the 332,500-square-foot hotel is a flurry of activity. Workers touch up paint along stairways, in guest rooms and the main dining room. Supervisors test new employees on their knowledge of hotel amenities, while the cleaning staff makes beds, vacuums and ensures guests’ rooms are properly stocked.

Some 150,000 overnight guests will stay at the iconic hotel this season, its 133rd summer. Opening the massive hotel each year is a huge undertaking, involving the hiring and training of hundreds of workers, transporting supplies, construction materials and furniture by ferry from the mainland, completing a multitude of renovation and maintenance projects (and sometimes new construction), creating menus and restocking the hotel’s impressive wine cellar, typically emptied at the end of every season.

About 800 guests are expected for the opening weekend i. The hotel, which originally housed 200 guest rooms on two floors and employees on the third, now boasts 397 rooms and suites on four floors. Its ever-expanding operations include an 18-hole golf course, tennis courts, gift shops, outdoor activities, bars, an ice cream shop, on- and off-premise restaurants and meeting spaces.

Preparing for the official opening in May begins months before and reaches a crescendo as the day approaches. “It’s always a hive of busy activity,” explains Dan Musser III, president of Grand Hotel, whose family has been running the hotel for three generations. “We have lots of returning staff members and new staff coming in every day. We have salespeople 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.”

Winter’s Work

As soon as the hotel closes down for the season in late October, preparation for the next spring begins. The hotel, like much of the island, is shuttered for the winter: The heat and water are turned off and sheets are draped over furniture in public areas. But then, a new season of work begins. Musser and his team operate off a punch list of things that need to be completed before next spring: painting, wallpapering, carpeting, installing contemporary showers in a number of guest bathrooms and replacing outdated bathtubs/showers. Rooms targeted for painting and renovations are cleared and the furniture stored. About 60 workers frequent the Grand every day, working on these projects, which this winter, included a new elevator and four new suites.

Construction on the suites began immediately after the hotel closed last fall. 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, called Cupola Suites, were decorated by the hotel’s famous longtime interior designer, Carleton Varney of Dorothy Draper & Co. in New York. “They were a dream of mine and my dad’s for years,” Musser says proudly. “They make a wonderful addition to the hotel.”

Read Next: Meet Carleton Varney, the Iconic Decorator Behind Grand Hotel

With the now-finished Cupola Suites, the hotel’s original 1887 roofline has been restored with a row of dormers lining the entire length of the roof. Another in a long line of expansions over the years is completed.

Built in just 93 days, the Grand opened for two months that first year, renting rooms for $3 and $5 a night. The hotel cost $250,000 to build and $300,000 to furnish. The interior was elegant but simple, furnished with modest Shaker furniture, void of the bright colors that are the hotel’s trademark today.

Now the winter’s work is almost done as opening day approaches. In a guest room across from one of the new suites, 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 for the past two weeks, but he has no complaints. “I love taking care of the old girl,” says Boburka, who has been working for Grand Hotel for six years. “It’s an honor.”

More workers began returning in March only to find massive amounts of snow covering the roofs of resort buildings after one of the snowiest winters in recent memory. Workers spent about two weeks removing snow from roofs and hauling it down the hill, near the swimming pool. Two days before the official opening, snow piles were still visible.

Grand Hotel overflows with flowers in its halls and gardens. Create your own timeless Mackinac Island garden with these tips.

“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. Typically, supplies arrive by ferry and are hauled by horse-drawn drays to the hotel. That year, the hotel was forced to fly employees and supplies to the island, an expensive endeavor. Musser was on the phone with the governor every day that year, 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, settling into employee housing and starting to train.

The Grand Hotel chef has a mostly new kitchen crew; they’ve been busy preparing sauces and staples like mushroom ravioli, freezing them in advance of the hundreds of guests who will enjoy five-course dinners and other meals in the picturesque dining room overlooking the front porch. As the season unfolds, the culinary staff will number as many as 100 workers, preparing up to 4,000 meals a day. Much of the prep work and baking will occur overnight, with the kitchen running 24 hours a day.

Master Sommelier and wine director Elizabeth Schweitzer has returned from wintering in California, and her global travels to restock the wine cellar and create a new wine list, with some 500 wines from around the world, including Michigan.

Read Next: Meet Elizabeth Schweitzer, the 8th Woman in the World to Achieve the Rank of Master Sommelier

Among the newcomers at the hotel this season is Mitchell Robinson, dressed in khaki pants, a blue blazer and a yellow tie, and stationed by the concierge desk. He is eager to assist guests during the hotel’s soft opening, which begins the Monday before the official Friday 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,” he says, admitting he’s made a few mistakes and learned from them. “I love every bit of being here,” Robinson says. “I love this place.”

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.

The dining staff gathers in the main dining room to hear Musser’s launch of the 2019 season. Take a look back at the inaugural dinner held at Grand Hotel more than a century ago.

Musser and Hayward reiterate the importance of customer service. “No one is expceted 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, 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, who has been hired as a bellhop for the 2019 season: It’s his first job. “It’s definitely exciting to be here.”

Guests will arrive by ferry the next day, check-in, enjoy high tea in the parlor, as always, and dine and drink at the hotel’s restaurants and bars. With the weather expecting to clear and warm up by the weekend, the front nine of the golf course will be open as well as the four tennis courts.

“We sell a summer experience here, not just room and board,” says Bob Tagatz, the hotel’s long-time 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.”

A production nearly ready to go, waiting for the last props to be put in place, namely the 1,375 geraniums along the 600-foot-long front porch and the red carpet at the main entrance.

“We’ve never not opened,” says a confident Musser about the 2019 season. He began his career here in high school by raking sand traps on the golf course and later advancing to become a bellhop, bartender and front desk clerk before assuming managerial roles.

“We change the carpet every year. It’s typically the last thing we do,” he adds. “We’ll be ready to go.”

Grand Hotel by the Numbers

  • It takes 500,000 gallons of water to fill the hotel’s swimming pool.
  • The signature red geraniums on the front porch are housed in 147 planting boxes that require 12 yards of potting soil.
  • Grand Hotel plants 24,120 bulbs in the fall, including 18,000 tulips.
  • More than 125,000 bedding plants (annuals) make up the hotel’s many gardens.
  • The original front porch was 440 feet long, about one-third longer than the length of a football field.
  • Guests consume more than 60,000 Grand Pecan Balls, the hotel’s most popular dessert, each season.
  • Mackinac Island is home to more than 500 horses.
  • Five U.S. presidents have visited Grand Hotel: Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, Gerald R. Ford, John F. Kennedy and Harry S. Truman.
  • The 5 millionth guest checked in on June 26, 2006.
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