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Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island Continues a Grand Tradition: Dan Musser III
 Determined to Help Hotel Thrive in its 124th Season

By Ellen Creager, Detroit Free PressMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

April 30, 2010 --As a child, he donned his Sunday best to walk its halls. As a teen, he worked at the tennis courts, front desk, bellhop stand, kitchen, in reservations, housekeeping and the bar. As a young man, he became its president.

To him, the Grand Hotel is not just part of history. It's his history.

And Dan Musser III is not about to let it slip away.

The grand dame of Michigan hotels is not oblivious to the dire economy. It just chooses not to participate in the panic.

It has a new plane. It's cool with Wi-Fi and bigger televisions. It's added a casual restaurant. It's started offering bed-and-breakfast packages.

Musser has pulled every trick out of the bag to make sure his family hotel stays healthy without cheapening it.

Business was down "single digits" last year, and he considers that a victory.

This year? Musser is happy to be at the helm again -- even if business may not improve until 2011: "I feel like we're not the owners, we're the caretakers."

All for the love of the Grand

All in all, it's pretty interesting being Musser.

He's been president of the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island since he was just 26. But that's not all.

When the Grand Hotel is closed, he lets his four children, ages 4 to 11, run in the halls.

In February, he helped a dog ring the opening bell on the New York Stock Exchange. (The dog, Sadie, had just won the Westminster Dog Show and was owned by his parents.)

He once sold a painting right off the wall of the Grand Hotel to visiting first lady Hillary Clinton, who hung it in the White House. The painter? Musser's wife, artist Marlee Brown -- and they later got to go to the White House to see it.

His wife is an avid Democrat. He is, what? "An innkeeper."

This week, the bespectacled Musser, 46, is to preside over the 124th season opening of the Grand Hotel, which has been in his family for three generations. It opens Wednesday.

"He calls the Grand Hotel 'her,' " hotel historian and concierge Bob Tagatz said of Musser. "He takes care of the guest, and he takes care of the hotel. He truly lives the owner lifestyle."

Every day, Dan Musser feels the duty of the family business. His father, Dan Musser II, is 76, and everyone calls him Mr. Musser. His son, Dan Musser IV, is 10, and everyone calls him Quattro. Dan Musser III? Just call him Dan.

'His door is open'

Right before the Grand Hotel opens for the season, the Mussers assemble the entire staff, all in dress uniforms, in the dining room. There, they give a welcome talk, lay down the rules and let the staff explore the hotel before assuming their posts, whether it's in the kitchen or at the president's desk.

"Mr. Musser speaks, and Dan speaks. And Dan always says his door is open," says Tagatz.

Musser lives with his wife and four children in Petoskey in the winter, but they spend the rest of the year on Mackinac, in a house just north of the hotel.

In 46 years, he's only missed a summer on Mackinac once. He dreamed of working at the Chicago Board of Trade, but after a summer's college internship there changed his mind.

Now, he knows every inch of the hotel. His favorite spot is the kitchen. He knows way more than necessary about the hotel's boilers, ductwork, roof and every plank in the floor.

His father says he made his son president at 26 because that's about the same age he became president himself. He's never been sorry.

"He's pretty much running the joint. I go in and bug him every day," he says. "I think Dan has become a very astute businessman. He cares about the hotel business. I couldn't be going to a dog show or the Caribbean in the winter without him."

Musser's sister, Mimi Cunningham, is vice president of the hotel and in charge of the shops, galleries, wedding venues and other planning; she also lives on the island. His other sister, Robin Agnew, isn't in the business but owns a bookstore in Ann Arbor. She has too soft a heart to run a hotel, Musser says: "She would cry if someone had a bad experience."

Love from the start

He loved the work right from the beginning. He started out working in all the departments -- the golf course, the bar, reservations, the kitchen, housekeeping. When he was 16 and working in the kitchen, he spent the summer of 1979 gazing at actress Jane Seymour, who was at the hotel filming the movie "Somewhere in Time."

"I pretty much knew where Jane Seymour was every day," he says.

Working in the kitchen was a revelation.

"The first day, I cleaned 5,000 chickens. I didn't want to eat a chicken for a year," he says. "I learned to love steak tartare from our butcher. We'd clean everything. We've got a big band saw and a bunch of cool knives. I love that part."

Summers lived on car-free Mackinac Island are part hard work, part glamour and part island fever.

He's a runner, so most mornings he runs 5 miles around the island in the quiet. But, yes, he usually walks up that last really steep hill to the front porch of the hotel.

When he needs a change of scenery, the family boards its 1955 Chris-Craft classic wood yacht and head out into Lake Huron. He likes to vacation at his cabin on Mt. Hood, Ore., where they ski. He also likes visiting his wife's family's compound in the Le Cheneaux Islands in the Upper Peninsula. That's where he and his wife were married 16 years ago.

'It hit a nerve'

The Grand Hotel is a pleasure for Musser, not a burden, but he has to admit that the economic downturn has been the worst time for the hotel since the Depression.

"Economically, last year was a challenge," Musser says. "The fun industry I know and love was missing last year."

One of only 12 large wood-frame hotels left in the U.S., the Greek-revival-style sweeping white structure needs to have 80% occupancy to make money in its short season. It employs 600 people.

A few weeks ago, the Grand Hotel offered a onetime deal to cash-strapped Michigan residents: $75 for the night of May 23-24. The phone rang off the hook, and it sold out in hours. Normal room rates start at $240 per night, per person.

That tells Musser a lot.

"It hit a nerve. A lot of them are first-time guests, people who always wanted to stay there but felt it was out of their reach," he says.

At the same time, the Grand Hotel just bought a plane to help get its high-end guests to the resort in a hurry. It's a Piston Twin Turbo Twin Seat 7 that can fly in guests who would rather come directly than at the whim of airline schedules or traffic. Last year for the first time, the majority of guests booking regular hotel packages were from out of state, not Michigan.

In tough times, the Grand Hotel has to walk a fine line, Musser says. Change too much, and you alienate guests who love you. Don't change at all, and you petrify and fall by the wayside. There once were 1,200 large wood-frame resort hotels in the country. Now, nearly all are gone.

Nina Smiley, marketing manager for the Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, N.Y., has known Dan Musser for years. Her family is fourth-generation owners of the Mohonk.

Not all family businesses are lucky enough to have the next generation step up, she says. The Grand Hotel was.

Running a hotel "weaves its way throughout your life with everything you do," she says. "It's fun, and its challenging, and it's family and business. And you have to have the guts to do it."

Speaking of change

The Grand Hotel has incrementally changed. The past years have seen a larger convention space, air conditioning and Wi-Fi in rooms, nine new holes of golf, a new wing and the addition of a casual restaurant.

"The '90s were very successful business-wise, and we plowed $50 million back into the business," he says.

Last year, it began offering bed-and-breakfast packages -- lodging and breakfast but without the famous Grand Hotel dinner. This year, guests can sign up for e-specials. But that doesn't mean the Grand Hotel is going to change into a budget destination.

"I think there is a niche for what we do," Musser says. "We won't be changing that formality. My dad always said it doesn't cost us much to ask that a guest put on a coat and tie, but it changes the whole experience dramatically. You walk into our dining room and see 800 people nicely dressed, it's a happening. It's something special. ...

"We want live music. We want fresh flowers. We want dancing in the dining room. We want a served meal. We want all those things expected of an old carriage trade hotel like us."

The Grand Hotel, with its curved edges and classic lines, does not disturb easily. Summer will come. The hotel will buzz. Guests will be served. And Musser has faith it will survive.

"The more Disney-esque the world becomes, the more we become viable," Musser says. "We're learning we need to work in different ways to find the customers who appreciate us. But our crooked floors and uniqueness have a place."

Contact ELLEN CREAGER: 313-222-6498 or ecreager@freepress.com

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The Grand Hotel has played host to many well-known names over the years. Here are some of them:

--John Jacob Astor III

--Jack Benny

--President George Bush

--President Bill Clinton

--Rosemary Clooney

--Jimmy Durante

--President Gerald R. Ford

--Al Gore

--Herbie Hancock

--The Rev. Jesse Jackson

--Lady Byrd Johnson

--President John F. Kennedy

--Madonna

--Marie Osmond

--Arnold Palmer

--Gen. Colin Powell

--Christopher Reeve

--Willard Scott

--Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens

--Mel Torme

--President Harry S Truman

--Mark Twain

--Barbara Walters

--Esther Williams

Source: Grand Hotel

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Copyright (c) 2010, Detroit Free Press

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