Detroit Chamber bumps Mackinac Conference ahead by 10 weeks to August

March 25, 2020, 9:21 AM by  Alan Stamm

Detroit Regional Chamber leaders say Wednesday morning that their biggest annual event will be postponed from May 26-29 until Aug. 10-13.

“Michigan will need the Mackinac Policy Conference more than ever after this pandemic to help chart its future,” said event chairman Ryan Maibach, president and CEO of Barton Malow. “The August dates provide a great opportunity to reemerge and have robust discussions about rebuilding a stronger Michigan.”

He's quoted in an announcement at the chamber's site. Sandy Baruah, the chamber's chief executive, and chief operating officer Tammy Carnike answered media questions via conference call. "We realized early on we'd have to look at this year's conference differently," Baruah said. "We've been playing three-dimensional chess."

He added: "We are planning a full agenda, not a truncated conference. ... We feel that this conference will be more important than ever."

Cancelling the conference wasn't discussed, the CEO replied, and there is no Plan C -- yet. 

The annual gathering at Mackinac Island's Grand Hotel typically draws about 1,600 politicians, corporate executives, nonprofit leaders and journalists. It's a prestigious showcase for the chamber, as well as a money-maker, and is the latest large event disrupted by the coronavirus outbreak that has killed at least 24 Michiganians.

An island tourism representative's reaction to the rescheduling is quoted in the announcement.

"This decision to postpone the conference as opposed to canceling is critical to Mackinac Island tourism and all local businesses, which depend so heavily on this event,” said Tim Hygh, executive director of Mackinac Island Convention and Visitors Bureau. "For that, we are truly thankful."

Original article, Tuesday morning:

The Detroit Regional Chamber is optimistic about an all-clear in the next two months or scrambling behind the scenes to salvage its biggest event of the year.

Outsiders can't tell because the business group hasn't dropped or delayed the Mackinac Policy Conference and won't say how soon it'll decide. The Grand Hotel gathering on Mackinac Island -- typically drawing up to 1,700 political, business, civic, nonprofit and media participants -- is scheduled to start nine weeks from today. Registration costs $2,400 for chamber members and $3,300 for others.

As part of its pandemic precautions, the Detroit business organization has postponed five local events through April 29 and cancelled a luncheon this Friday where Gov. Gretchen Whitmer planned to speak. It also scratched a Leadership Detroit breakfast April 2 at PNC Bank downtown. 

"Planning for the 2020 Mackinac Policy Conference continues according to schedule," says a March 11 statement, the most recent on that topic at the chamber's site. "We will update our audiences as the conference gets closer." 

That contrasts with Summer Olympics plug-pulling Tuesday. The July games in Tokyo are off for a year. 

In response to Deadline Detroit's request for an update, Detroit Regional Chamber communications director Kelly Sweeny sent four similarly vague sentences. "We have a team of staff at the Chamber working with the many partners across the state and nation, examining options regarding the Mackinac Policy Conference," she emailed Monday. "Once we have reached a decision for 2020, we will share it."

After a follow-up asking about choices besides postponement or cancellation, she added: "The options being considered are complex and require many conversations that need to stay private. We will update you when we have more to share."

While some business events migrate to video conferences, a key part of the Mackinac Island event involves networking before, during and after daily workshops, panel discussions and larger gatherings. Relationships are built or strengthened on the hotel's iconic porch, at receptions and meals, and at crowded bars. Broadcasters and podcasters do live interviews by the dozens.


A virtual gathering via screens wouldn't be a Mackinac Policy Conference as participants know it. Nor would regional events with limited attendance once the governor's "stay home" order is lifted.

The host group says the island conference, theoretically scheduled May 26-29, "convenes Michigan’s most influential audience to engage in collaborative dialogue on the state's economic future." 

Since 1981, the Conference has provided a unique-in-the-nation experience for Michigan’s top business, government, civic, philanthropic and entrepreneurial leaders. As Michigan’s premier policy event, the Conference attracts more than 1,700 attendees annually to discuss key issues facing the state.

This year's chair is chamber board member Ryan Maibach, president and CEO of the Barton Malow construction firm.

The Grand Hotel also seems to be in denial, by the way.  "We're looking forward to seeing everyone again soon," says a "happy first day of sping" post on Facebook last Thursday with a video of tulips. 

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