A is for Automobile
The automobile industry is more central to the health and well-being of Michigan than any single industry is to any other state. Detroit is the “Motor City” for a reason, as it’s home to the “Big Three” auto manufacturers: General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. Just a quick walk around the GM Renaissance Center, with its iconic blue hue and gigantic “GM” logo atop its central tower, is enough to make the point.
Of course, the state’s reliance on the industry has made for extreme highs and lows, with the incredible prosperity of the ’40s and ’50s giving way to the doom and gloom of the 2000s. “As the auto industry goes, so does Detroit,” says Bill Bohde, senior vice president of sales and marketing with the Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau. “It’s the engine that keeps us ticking, and everything we do is based around it,”
Emblematic of both the industry and city’s resurgence, the Renaissance Center, which features multiple upscale and fine dining options on the riverfront, is also home to the 1,298-room Detroit Marriott at the Renaissance Center, a formidable property with 100,000 sq. ft. of meeting space and amenities fit for a king. Similarly, in nearby Dearborn, Ford’s headquarters is near the University of Michigan’s Dearborn campus, Fairlane Town Center and The Henry, Autograph Collection, an opulent property voted the No. 1 hotel in Michigan for 2013 by U.S. News & World Report.
A reminder of the role the automobile plays in the life of Michigan residents and visitors occurs every January when the North American International Auto Show takes over the Cobo Center’s 2.4 million sq. ft. of space. More than 800,000 people descend on the city to see the hottest designs and newest trends from the world’s leading auto manufacturers, all the while celebrating Detroit’s legacy as the car capital of the world.
B is for Boxing
Many are quick to associate Philadelphia with boxing thanks to Sylvester Stallone’s Rockyseries, but Michigan has a rich boxing heritage second to none. Joe Louis, the heavyweight champion of the world who famously knocked out German boxer Max Schmeling, much to the chagrin of Adolf Hitler, was a resident of Detroit and even worked at the Ford River Rouge assembly plant for a time. The city honored Louis, known as the “Brown Bomber,” in 1986 with a massive bronze sculpture of his clenched fist, appropriately named The Fist.
Detroit is also home to one of the most famous boxing gyms in the country, Kronk, where legendary trainer Emanuel Steward coached champions such as Lenox Lewis, Thomas “The Hitman” Hearns and most recently, Wladimir Klitschko. Additionally, the first family of boxing, the Mayweathers—Roger, Floyd and Floyd Jr., the current pound-for-pound champion—are from Grand Rapids.
C is for Cherries
Michigan produces 70 to 75 percent of the tart cherries grown in the United States, and the epicenter of the industry is Traverse City. The Traverse City area began producing cherries in the mid-1800s when Peter Dougherty, a Presbyterian missionary, planted the first cherry trees on Old Mission Peninsula. “Just how good are they [cherries]? Certainly plenty good to eat—and eat a lot!” says Brad Van Dommelen, president and CEO of Traverse City Tourism.
In honor of the area’s cherry heritage, Traverse City has held a festival dedicated to the fragrant fruit every year since 1925, except for a brief pause during WWII, with its most current rendition being the National Cherry Festival. Running an entire week every July along the city’s waterfront, the festival includes a host of fun activities and events, including an air show, art contest, live music performances, parades and a cherry pie eating contest. Fun fact: The festival set a world record by baking the world’s largest cherry pie in 1987. The pie was just over 17 feet and weighed in at 28,350 pounds.
“The National Cherry Festival celebrates our cherry industry and draws approximately 500,000 people each year to enjoy dozens of festival activities, food and, of course, cherries,” Van Dommelen says.
D is for Dunes
Michigan might not be the first place you would imagine crystal-clear water and windswept sand dunes, but the state offers both in abundance, along with fabulous beachscapes reminiscent of California and Florida. In fact, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, located roughly 40 minutes west of Traverse City, was voted the most beautiful place in America by ABC’s Good Morning America in 2011. The area features 35 miles of pristine beaches, numerous hiking trails through green forests and past steep overlooks, and a maritime museum dedicated to the U.S. Coast Guard and shipping on the Great Lakes.
Similarly, Holland State Park, just 40 minutes west of Grand Rapids, features an expansive, sandy beach perfect for sunbathing, picnics and bonfires. The park also boasts a marina and scenic walkway with excellent views of Lake Macatawa and the Holland Harbor Light House, aka “Big Red.”
E is for Elvis
While Elvis Presley may have performed his last show in the late ’70s, his legacy lives on every July during the Michigan Elvisfest in the city of Ypsilanti, just 15 minutes southeast of Ann Arbor. Every year, thousands of Elvis enthusiasts gather in spacious Riverside Park, on the banks of the Huron River, to shake, rattle and roll in tribute to “the King.” The festival is a huge draw, with hordes of impersonators, tribute bands and local food on display, making it a great way to introduce groups to the area. Just make sure to have attendees grow their mutton chops early.
F is for Fudge
Mudrick's Fudge shop, Mackinac Island
You’ve heard of a foodie, but how about a “fudgie”? The term refers to a connoisseur of fudge, the signature product of Michigan’s most famous isle, Mackinac Island. Located at the northern tip of the state’s Lower Peninsula, Mackinac offers a glimpse of the past in its grand Victorian-era hotels, horse-drawn carriages and, of course, its fudge. The delectable creamy substance has been a central part of the Mackinac experience for more than 100 years, when Harry Murdick started making it in 1887. Today, there are 17 fudge shops on the island, each producing its own mouthwatering rendition, with flavors such as s’mores, blueberry cheesecake, coconut bon-bon, Butterfinger and caramel apple pie, just to name a few.
In honor of its commitment to fudge, every August the island holds the Mackinac Island Fudge Festival, where locals and tourists come together to eat fudge, drink beer and be merry. The year’s highlights include fudge-making demonstrations and tastings; fudge spa treatments; the Great Turtle Slow Ride bike race, where participants go as slow as possible without setting a foot on the ground; and a special performance by Audra Kubat, who was recently named Best Folk Artist at the Detroit Music Awards. After the event, groups can congregate in the historic Grand Hotel’s 24,000 sq. ft. of meeting space or just relax on its massive porch, the longest in the world.
G is for Greektown
Greektown dates to the 1880s when immigrants from southern Greece began to settle in Detroit. As a result, grocery stores, bakeries, restaurants and coffeehouses opened with a distinctly Greek flair, and Monroe Street became the epicenter of Greektown. Parts of the street feature famous Greek architectural elements, including the Parthenon in Athens, and Greek music is played throughout the day. The area is a major nightlife destination, capped by the Greektown Casino-Hotel. In addition to 24/7 gaming, the property offers 400 guest rooms, 10,000 sq. ft. of event space and regular live entertainment. “Greektown is a compact neighborhood with a great theme,” Bohde says. “It’s high energy and part of the nightlife scene that everyone comes to enjoy.”
H is for Henry Ford
In addition to being an inventor and entrepreneur, Henry Ford was a forward thinker. Fascinated by science and history, he used the vast amounts of wealth generated by Ford Motor Company to collect important pieces of American history. In 1929, Ford helped open the Edison Institute, a complex that included the Henry Ford Museum, where he displayed the artifacts he had collected to that point, as well as Greenfield Village, a living-history museum dedicated to various periods of the country’s history. The complex continued to grow over the years and eventually became known simply as The Henry Ford.
Today, The Henry Ford Museum houses nine acres of priceless American artifacts, such as the car President Kennedy was shot in and the bus Rosa Parks refused to move from, and Greenfield Village, comprised of 83 historic structures populated by period actors, including a replica of Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory, the Wright brothers’ bicycle shop and home, and Ford’s birthplace, furnished exactly as it was when he was born. The complex also features an IMAX theater; the Benson Ford Research Center, which houses the Ford Motor Company’s archives; and tours of Ford’s new Rouge Complex factory. Each part of the facility is available for rent, so the options are limitless.
J is for Jeff Daniels
Michigan has recently made a play to host more Hollywood films, and much of the effort was spearheaded by Michigan native Jeff Daniels. The actor, who is originally from Chelsea, a small town outside of Ann Arbor, has also brought his craft to his hometown in the form of Purple Rose Theater. Founded in 1991, the 168-seat theater serves as both a venue and school, offering four shows a year and yearlong apprenticeships for young artists in training. The theater is currently running a piece called Redwood Curtain, which focuses on a young woman’s interactions with a homeless veteran while searching for her birth father.
L is for Lighthouses
Michigan has 3,126 miles of shoreline, much of it lined with rough shoals and rocky points. In order to help sailors navigate the treacherous waters, the state constructed more than 115 lighthouses over the course of 200 years. Some of the most famous examples are: Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse, built in 1889; Mission Point Lighthouse in Traverse City, which started operating in 1870; and Michigan’s most photographed lighthouse, Big Red, in Holland, just outside of Grand Rapids.
M is for Motown
In 1959, a young upstart named Berry Gordy started a small recording studio in northern Detroit with an $800 loan and big dreams. Motown Records Corporation, as it came to be known, went on to change the face of music, producing stars such as Diana Ross and the Supremes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Stevie Wonder, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye and Michael Jackson, just to name a few.
“The Motown era produced some great music and sounds that have become an iconic brand for the city of Detroit,” Bohde says. “The more people learn about it and listen to it, the more they find out about our city.”
Groups eager to incorporate the city’s music history into their meetings can check out the Motown Museum, which sits on the site of Gordy’s original studio. The museum features many artifacts, photographs and other memorabilia, and can be used for small functions.
N is for Nautical
Michigan is bordered by four of the five Great Lakes, so it’s only natural that the state would have a rich maritime culture and history. Many of the state’s major coastal cities developed as shipping hubs, and the industry now accounts for roughly $34 billion in annual revenue. In Detroit, visitors can admire the state’s knack for all things nautical at Dossin Great Lakes Museum in Belle Isle Park. In addition to multiple exhibits and a cool model ship display, the museum features the pilot house from an iron-ore freighter.
An hour south of Grand Rapids in South Haven sits the Michigan Maritime Museum. The facility has two vintage boats that can be chartered for private events, research and display buildings, and exhibits on the region’s maritime history. In nearby, Saugatuck, groups can take a cruise on Royal Manors’ luxurious yacht after meeting in a one of its historic mansions, including The Enchanting Manor, built in 1860.
O is for Orchestra
In 1887, a group of local musicians and high-minded residents of Detroit came together to create the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO)—127 years later, it is one of the longest-lasting and most progressive orchestras in the country. The DSO made history in 1922, when it became the first orchestra in the world to present a radio broadcast, and it continues the tradition today with its free Live from Orchestra Hall webcast series. Not just pigeonholed to classical music, the DSO schedule includes pop, jazz, youth and neighborhood concerts, and collaborations with famous Michigan musicians such as Smokey Robinson and Kid Rock.
Orchestra Hall in Detroit’s Midtown, which opened in 1919 as the DSO’s first home, still hosts the symphony as part of the Max M. Fisher Music Center. The Renaissance-styled theater also serves as an event space, with seating for 2,000, while the complex has five other event spaces, including a hall that can hold 1,500 for a reception. Other nearby music venues that offer event space include the historic Majestic Theatre, Fox Theatre, The Fillmore Detroit and Detroit Opera House.
P is for Petoskey
Michigan and skiing aren’t commonly associated with one another; however, the state offers a number of adequate options. Less than 1½ hours north of Traverse City and an hour south of Mackinac Island sits the town of Petoskey and its three major ski resorts. Just north of Petoskey, Boyne Highlands Resort provides 435 skiable acres, including 55 trails, 410 guest rooms and 31,500 sq. ft. of event space. Nearby Nubs Nob adds an additional 53 trails spread among three peaks. Boyne Mountain Resort, which sits south of the city, boasts 60 trails on 415 acres; multiple lodging options, including an alpine village; and conference space for up to 800. All three resorts offer an equally exciting array of summer activities, including ziplining, golf and a gigantic indoor water park.
R is for Riesling
Riesling is a grape varietal noted for producing aromatic white wines, and Michigan is one of the best places to grow it. Riesling wines from Michigan won the top prize at the International Eastern Wine Competition held in Sonoma, Calif., last year, with CAB Cellars/Laurentide Winery 2011 Riesling winning the Riesling Challenge and Best of Show White Wine.
Michigan’s wine, grapes and grape juice products, and related industries produce nearly $790 million of total economic value annually to the state and account for more than 5,000 jobs. The area around Traverse City, which includes the Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas, account for the lion’s share of wine production, while the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, south of Grand Rapids, makes up the rest.
“Our wine scene has truly come of age,” Van Dommelen says. “We have been recognized by many national media outlets, including Trip Advisor, which listed Traverse City on their list of America’s Top 10 Wine Destinations. With nearly 40 wineries in the Traverse City region, wine tourism has become one of our region’s largest tourism draws.”
Notable group-friendly wineries include the award-winning Laurentide Winery, 30 minutes north of Traverse City, which can accommodate groups of up to 100 for a reception; Blustone Vineyards, which offers a large tasting room for events; and Chateau Chantal, with its 2,000-square-foot Hospitality Room. (For more on the Michigan wine scene, see our Wine Country story, March 2014.)
S is for Sculpture
The Spirit of Detroit statue, courtesy of Vito Palmisano
While Detroit might have experienced greater highs and lows than any other city in the country, its resolute spirit is embodied by a bronze statue created by Marshall Fredericks in the mid-1950s. Sitting on the corner of Jefferson and Woodward avenues near the riverfront, The Spirit of Detroit depicts a 26-foot man sitting cross-legged with an orb representing God in one hand, and a family in the other. The sculpture portrays a man who lifts up his city through his relationships, and by extension, a city that lifted up a country in its time of greatest need during World War II.
The Spirit of Detroitis just one of many pieces of public and private art found within a state rich in artistic creations. Across the street, attendees can gaze upon the sculpture of Joe Louis’ giant fist. A 2,000-pound copy of Rodin’s The Thinker is in front of the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), home to many priceless pieces of art by masters such as Vincent van Gogh, Rembrandt van Rijn, Pablo Picasso and Diego Rivera. The DIA can host private events among its masterpieces, as well as in numerous event spaces, including a 1,000-seat theater.
The Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids offers another sculpture-heavy location in which to meet. Groups can enjoy 132 acres of thought-provoking sculpture from the Modern tradition and botanical gardens featuring some of nature’s finest creations. The facility has several meeting venues, capped by its Grand Room and Atrium, both of which can handle 750 people for a reception.
T is for Tulip
In parts of Michigan, especially in Holland, just 30 minutes southeast of Grand Rapids, clogs and tulips might be more popular than loafers and roses. Thanks to the region’s sizeable Dutch community, the city features Dutch windmills, a Dutch lighthouse (Big Red) and, of course, acres upon acres of tulips—enough to produce roughly 6 million bulbs per year. Since 1929, the residents of Holland have celebrated the pretty perennials in a festival called Tulip Time every May. The event, which is the largest in the country and was recently named Best Small Town Festival in the United States by Readers Digest, features three large parades, organized Dutch dances, food exhibitions and live music acts that have included Christina Aguilera, Frankie Avalon and Starship.
U is for Uniroyal Giant Tire
Once groups touch down at Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport (DTW) ahead of a Detroit-based meeting, they will begin the 20-minute drive to reach the downtown area. On the way, however, they might be surprised to encounter an oddity of massive proportions that one would only expect to find in the Detroit Metro area—a giant 80-foot tire. Originally built for the 1964-65 World’s Fair in New York City as a Ferris wheel, the tire was moved to the Uniroyal sales office in Allen Park, just off the I-94 freeway, where it has sat ever since. The massive mountain of rubber is another proud reminder of how important the automobile industry was, and continues to be, to the region.
V is for Vernors
If there is one thing that all Michiganders can agree on, it’s that Vernors ginger soda is the best soft drink in the world—period. The spicy, bubbly drink, which is the oldest ginger ale in the country, was invented by a Detroit pharmacist named James Vernor, reportedly in 1862, before he went off to serve in the Civil War. He returned and began to sell the concoction sometime around 1880 and the rest is history. Today, Michiganders drink Vernors with and for just about everything, curing hangovers and stomach aches and complementing another Michigan favorite, the world-famous Coney Dog (spiced ground beef, chopped onions and mustard on a beef frank).
It makes you wonder: Does Vernors cure the inevitable stomach ache caused by the dog?
W is for Wolverines
Crisler Center at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, courtesy of VisitAnnArbor
Although a wolverine had not been seen in Michigan for 200 years prior to 2004, the state, and especially the city of Ann Arbor, are overrun with wolverines thanks to the University of Michigan (U-M). For most of the university’s history (the first known mention occurred in 1861), students have referred to themselves as wolverines, and used the tenacious little creature as their mascot.
Based in Ann Arbor, U-M is one of a small number of public institutions that consistently ranks among the nation’s most prestigious universities, and it regularly cracks the list of the country’s top three public institutions. It is also an athletics powerhouse, with 11 NCAA national championships in football, two in baseball, one in men’s basketball and nine in men’s ice hockey. All three of the school’s campuses offer prime meeting venues, including 12,707-seat Crisler Center, home to the school’s basketball team.
The state’s other large school, Michigan State University (MSU), sits about an hour northwest of U-M in the state capital, Lansing. Founded in 1855, MSU is one of the top research universities in the world and one of the greenest campuses in the nation. Dubbed the Spartans, MSU is no athletic pushover either, with six NCAA national championships in football, two in men’s basketball and three in men’s ice hockey. MSU also offers many meeting venues, including the Broad Art Museum for groups of up to 750 and Wharton Center for Performing Arts for up to 1,000.
X is for Malcolm X
Malcolm Little, who would later gain fame as the outspoken civil rights activist Malcolm X, grew up in a small house in Lansing, just 4 miles from the city center. During his time in Lansing, Little’s house was burned by white supremacists, his father was killed in a streetcar accident, although some suspected murder, and his mother was committed to a mental institution. Despite these tragedies and a seven-year prison stint that followed, Little persevered, found direction in Islam and first began to preach about injustice and equality at the Nation of Islam’s Temple Number One in Detroit.
Groups looking to incorporate Michigan’s turbulent but rich civil rights history can visit the site of Little’s home today, where an honorary plaque hangs telling his inspirational story.
Y is for Yooper
When traveling to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, as well as northern areas of the Lower Peninsula, attendees might encounter the unfamiliar sounds of the Yooper dialect. Due to the regions’ high concentration of Finnish, Scandinavian and German immigrants, the pronunciation of some English words and phrases have taken on a certain flair. For instance, locals might remove the words “to the,” and say something such as, “Going Shop-ko,” meaning “I’m going to the store.” Other quirky tendencies include substituting “ja” or “ya” for yes and the use of “eh” to end most sentences. It begs the question, “How’s your Yooper?”
Z is for Zeeland
Ten minutes east of Holland sits the town of Zeeland, an enclave of Dutch culture in America. A stroll down the main street is like a trip back in time to the Netherlands, with mom and pop shops, authentic Dutch eateries and an assortment of quirky festivals celebrating just about everything. Nearby Hope College offers a number of excellent meeting venues, and attendees can battle one another in a tug-of-war just like the school’s underclassmen do every September.
Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, Grand Rapids
- Ann Arbor Area Convention & Visitors Bureau: visitannarbor.org
- Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau: visitdetroit.com
- Experience Grand Rapids: experiencegr.com
- Greater Lansing Convention and Visitors Bureau: lansing.org
- Mackinac Island Tourism Bureau: mackinacisland.org
- Travel Michigan: michigan.org
- Traverse City Tourism: traversecity.com
Devos Place, Grand Rapids