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‘It’s About Them’

By Todd R. Berger

MACVB Annual Educational Conference finally reaches the shores of Mackinac Island.

As I rode in the carriage from the Shepler’s Ferry terminal to the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, my mind wandered to a scene from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” In said scene, King Arthur and his sidekick, Patsy, approach a castle while galloping and banging coconuts together. After a few moments passed and my mind wandered back to the tree-lined streets of the island, I realized it was the clippety-clop of the draft horses pulling our carriage that brought on my thoughts of Python.

In addition to the memory-inducing horse clamor, Mackinac Island offered a spectacular backdrop for the Michigan Association of Convention and Visitors Bureaus (MACVB) Annual Educational Conference, which was held at the Grand Hotel, Sept. 25-27. Michigan Meetings + Events magazine was a Gold sponsor of the conference.

“Mackinac Island is always very special, and the Grand [Hotel] is a beautiful venue,” says Susan Estler, president and CEO of Travel Marquette. 

Jennifer Sistrunk, executive director of the South Haven Van Buren County Convention and Visitors Bureau, adds, “It felt like we were in a museum. There are lots of conference facilities with technology that is very useful, but there is something about being in a historic place that … didn’t feel like an office setting. It felt like we were more a part of something than just sitting in a conference room doing work. It didn’t feel as much like work when you are in a beautiful theater.”

In fact, this conference was a bit of a do-over. MACVB planned to hold the 2020 conference on Mackinac Island, but that conference went virtual in a year of COVID-19-related conference pivots. Tim Hygh, CEO of the Mackinac Island Tourism Bureau, and a couple of volunteers, were the only people on-site at the Grand Hotel that year, with the rest of MACVB’s membership and all the speakers participating via Zoom.

What a difference two years can make. “We had about 90% of our members there [this year],” says Larisa Draves, executive director of MACVB. Draves says the keys to a successful conference for her are education of the members and engagement during the conference—and meeting in person greatly encouraged the latter.

“[The members] value the in-person experience. They value an educational conference that is by the destination marketing organizations (DMOs) [and] for the DMOs,” Draves continues. “It is very specific to their day-to-day jobs. They greatly value having a conference that addresses [their concerns]: It doesn’t address peripheral things; it’s about them.” 

Speakers at the Grand Hotel included keynoter Joe Veneto of Boston-based Veneto Collaboratory, who spoke about creating experiences at destinations in a way that allow visitors to emotionally connect. The conference also featured a panel on crisis management with Paul Beachnau of the Gaylord Tourism Bureau speaking about the Gaylord tornado that struck the area in May 2022, Annette Rummel of the Great Lakes Bay Region Convention and Visitors Bureau discussing the 2018 collapse of the Edenville Dam and the downstream Sanford Dam that flooded the city of Midland, Janet Korn of Experience Grand Rapids recalling the 2013 flood in her city, and Alaina Wiens of Explore Flint & Genesee about the ongoing Flint water crisis, which began in 2014.

Jaime Kamps-Duac of Air DNA of Denver, Colorado, also presented detailed data on Airbnb short-term rentals in Michigan. Additionally, a panel discussion ensued, focused on responsible recreation initiatives such as Leave No Trace.

And after two days of engaging and informative sessions, two 12-oyster lunches, at least two attempts to eat piles of blueberries the size of grapes, inhaling the “horsey” smell (kind of a combination of wet fur and hay) on the streets, and quite a bit of time watching the cruise ships, ferries, and supply boats go by while sipping more than one Bell’s Big Porch Ale on the hotel’s porch, no less—I returned to the ferry terminal, and I was back in Minneapolis by noon.