Most people know Michigan is famous for its Great Lakes. Fewer, however, know it’s also renowned for its equally great food and drink. From eclectic eateries in Ann Arbor to Traverse City’s top-rated vintages and West Michigan’s best brews, there are many ways to savor the state.
The good news for meeting and event planners is that tour operators have done all the hard work. They say participants only need to show up hungry and thirsty. Read on for “satisfying” places to host your next event.
What’s Brewing Out West
West Michigan Beer Tours (WMBT) in Kalamazoo was, appropriately, started on a beer napkin. It was 2013, and General Manager and co-founder John Liberty was enjoying a pint one evening with co-founders Aric and Lisa Faber and discussing how they could get involved in the renaissance of the area’s craft beer industry.
“It was during this conversation that we started our initial business plan. The first tour was 10 months later,” he explains.
Tours connect beer lovers with a behindthe-scenes experience showing the process, the people and the pride behind Michigan beer, he says. WMBT specializes in corporate outings, from team-building, team sales rewards, post-conference entertainment, holiday party alternatives, quarterly bonus events or educational outings.
Five- to six-hour trips for 10-50 people are customized to group sizes and interests. “For the safety specialist and engineers, the brewery tour will be more focused on the equipment and processes of brewing beer,” he explains. “For a more agricultural or environmental audience, we’ll have the visits honed in on how locally sourced ingredients are utilized in beer, or visit a local hop farm. The times, dates and locations are all flexible and we work with our clients to determine what locations make the most sense for their needs.”
Most include three stops with pints or samples at each, introductions to owners or brewers, and pick-up and drop-off at the location of choice.
The company has planned specialty outings for many of West Michigan’s top firms. “We’ve provided a farm-and-beer designed trip for a nationwide association of herb enthusiasts. We created a private tour aimed at safety procedures and regulations within the production side of breweries, and how they vary based on size and resources. We arrange for special presenters at each brewery who can speak specifically to that audience. We also adjust our presentation to emphasize their industry,” Liberty says.
All participants are treated to WMBT’s infectious enthusiasm for their product. “We love to showcase the vast differences in facilities, recipes and equipment,” he continues.
“We also can work with groups whose members may not all like craft beer. We either help introduce them to new styles they’ve never tried, or work with breweries that offer an alternative to beer to assure everyone has an enjoyable time. It’s also a blast to introduce food/beer pairing options for our guests. It can elevate the experience another notch or two.”
Natalie Dean, an urban planner with Wightman & Associates in Kalamazoo, is among WMBT’s fans. “John is just the friendliest guy and most knowledgeable beer guru in West Michigan,” she claims. “There’s a reason why his tours are so popular “
“From an event organization standpoint, we remove all heavy lifting and take care of all the logistics,” Liberty says. “We work very closely with our brewery friends to create unique interactions and experiences that go behind just the liquid. Our clients get a chance to hear the brewery’s story in a relaxed and informative presentation. Also, West Michigan beer is among the best in the world. That helps a lot.”
Adventures in Ann Arbor
Forbes magazine recently rated Ann Arbor among the top five college football towns with incredible food scenes. If you’re looking to “Go Blue” and check out the city’s exciting and always-changing food scene, By The Sidewalk Food Tours, a new company founded in 2017, offers insider tours sure to please you and your palate.
Aniruddh Gala, owner, founder and “chief eating officer,” was inspired by a similar food tour he took in Montreal. “We believe food is the easiest way and definitely the most fun way to get a peek into a culture. And when you can have so many tastings on a three-hour tour along with educational insights, history, trivia and stories from someone who knows the place in and out and has everything planned for you, along with not waiting in lines, why would you choose otherwise? We love Ann Arbor and wanted to show all the lovely places it has to offer.”
Be sure to go with an open mind and an appetite, Gala adds, because he prefers not to share his always-changing details and locations ahead of time. That element of surprise is an important part of By The Sidewalk, which change often to reflect the city’s ever-evolving industry and experience. Stops include, but are not limited to, restaurants, markets, bars, tasting rooms, local artisans and vendors.
“Food is a global language,” he explains. “Tours are designed for guests to explore the area through the medium of food. Tastings have been meticulously paired with history, trivia and garnished with stories which will leave lingering memories.”
That, he adds, “makes food tours interesting for team-building activities, employee-appreciation day events, after-meeting activities and other corporate events. Places we go to are all unique and local to the area. Our aim is to design a very diverse and local experience.”
A current tour is called Classic Ann Arbor, but tours can be customized according to interests, he explains. “We have worked with and planned business and corporate events in the past. This is where our private food tour offerings come into play. Companies can block off a day or time per their requirements and have a food tour particularly for themselves. They can also customize their tours if there are particular stops they want to make.”
The surprise element is one of the things past participants rave about, Gala says. “The planning part of the entire event/activity is arranged by us. Attendees are completely unaware of how things are going to pan out. And food is only part of the tour. It’s the overall experience which our attendees have enjoyed in the past. Another a-ha moment is when owners and staff at these places come out and talk to the groups. This makes for a special experience.”
Laura Herman, pastry chef with the Women’s Athletic Club of Chicago, took a recent tour with a group of about 20 chefs from Windy City-area clubs. “We went to places we would have never thought to go otherwise,” she explains. “He taught us about the history of Ann Arbor as well as the food scene in one afternoon. It made us want to go back for more.”
Future plans include adding a new libation tour in 2019. Whatever the subject and tour stops, the company specializes in “creating moments of unexpected discoveries,” he adds. “On so many occasions people have discovered something new about a place or city even though they have been here all their lives.”
Great Lakes, Great Wines
Located in the middle of Northern Michigan’s enviable wine country, it’s not surprising that Traverse City-based The Magic Shuttle Bus’ custom vineyard tours are among their most popular for groups or business outings, according to owner Sean Mackey.
“Choose Old Mission Peninsula to experience a unique variety of award-winning wines paired with bay-to-bay views, or the Leelanau Peninsula for some of the most iconic vineyards and sights the Traverse City area has to offer,” he recommends.
Mackey founded The Magic Shuttle Bus in 2012 (yes, the name is a riff on the popular children’s series “The Magic School Bus,” he says) when he was just 20. “I decided to buy a bus to haul me and my friends around,” he explains. “We took it out a lot and word started getting out. I started getting random calls asking about the bus,” he explains
A business was soon born. Since then, he’s expanded with one new bus every year into a 10-bus fleet, most with “blue” in their name. There’s even “Naughty Blue” with a pole in the back “for the really fun and ambitious groups,” he says.
The Traverse City-based business specializes in private and corporate outings and serves all of Northern Michigan. Buses accommodate 12-40 passengers, most with a school-bus style exterior and a renovated interior equipped with perimeter seating, LED lighting, integrated coolers, wood or checkerboard flooring, air conditioning, tinted windows, and a full Bluetooth audio system, says Mackey, “so our groups are able to jam out to the music of their choosing.”
“We offer pre-planned tours for those who are unfamiliar with Traverse City, as well as customized tours to fit the needs of any group,” he says. Options include wine tours, brewery tours, distillery tours, scenic or color tours, “as well as customized tours to fit your every desire,” Mackey says. “All you have to do is tell us what kind of tour fits your group and leave the rest to us.”
Groups can choose a particular location, enjoy premium tastings and tours and enjoy behind-the-scenes tours. The Magic Shuttle Bus sets up an itinerary and calls sites ahead of time to eliminate wait times and lines, a service that “makes for a much more efficient and pleasant experience,” Mackey says.
Wine tours are among the most requested. “Traverse City is home to more than 30 wineries which are based on two beautiful peninsulas. There is a reason Traverse City is the cornerstone to all of the ‘Pure Michigan’ ads you see on television.”
Like both wine and beer? Consider the “Best of Benzie,” he says, which features one winery, one brewery and one distillery. “Learn how the beer is crafted at Lake Ann Brewing Co., how the wine and mead are made at St. Ambrose Cellars, then to Iron Fish Distillery to learn how liquor is distilled,” adding that “all are hidden gems in Benzie County.”
Most of the corporate or business tours start and end at the Grand Traverse Resort, but the company offers pick-up and drop-off at hotels and residences as well. “Our clients appreciate the ease of booking with The Magic Shuttle Bus,” he adds. “We try to keep it very simple and easy.”
Stef Johnson, a graphic designer with Image 360 in Traverse City, is among those who have enjoyed the ride. “We used The Magic Shuttle Bus for our company holiday party,” she says, adding that it was “a great experience that I’ll recommend to anyone planning a group event.”