Mackinac Island is mostly a summer destination with a tourism season from May-October. And after a hard 6 months of work, many businesses will close, but that doesn’t mean the work is done. Yes, the winter is a time for rest and rejuvenation but it’s also a time for strategic planning and plans to make the next year even better than the one before.
Just like each Mackinac Island shop, Mackinac Island place to stay, and Mackinac Island restaurant is unique, so is the closing process. We talked with Jack Armstrong from Smokey Jose’s, a Mexican BBQ restaurant on Mackinac Island, Chris Shepler from Shepler’s Mackinac Island Ferry, and Dominick Miller with Mackinac State Historic Parks to see what the end of the season looks like for them.
WHAT DOES CLOSING FOR THE SEASON ON MACKINAC ISLAND LOOK LIKE FOR YOU?
SMOKEY JOSE’S: This time of the year we are breaking down equipment, sanitizing and scrubbing everything down, and making sure it’s clean and ready to go for next year.
SHEPLER’S MACKINAC ISLAND FERRY: This year is much different than we’ve ever had because we would usually start to shut things down right now but we haven’t had a chance because we’ve been so busy. Usually, toward the end of a season, we begin to lay off staff but this hasn’t been the case this year. We’ve had less staff than before and we remain busy so we haven’t gone through that process.
When we begin to prepare for the close of our season, we have the equipment to haul our boats out of the water where they sit by the Marine Service Building for the winter season. Each boat accumulates a list of things that need to be done to it. Some are large projects and some are small.
On shore, we have tents at both of our Mackinaw City and St. Ignace locations. We wash those and will take them down and store them beginning November 1st. We also work on winterizing the Mackinac Island dock. Our maintenance crew will make a few trips to Mackinac Island to make sure all the water is out of the pipes and get everything ready to shut the entire place down.
FORT MACKINAC: We start transitioning into “closing” mode the first week in October. By this point most years we’re down to a pretty limited crew, and a lot of staff is covering several areas of the operation.
In sales and marketing, we’re starting to do an inventory of our stores while preparing to close the Visitor’s Center, South Sally Port Entrance, Mackinac Art Museum, and Biddle House sales locations.
For park operations, closing is far more involved, as they are physically getting the sites ready for winter and beginning on major projects. For 2021, this included replacing the porch at the governor’s summer residence, removing the period setting of the Post Schoolhouse as a new exhibit will be going in for 2022, and winterizing buildings for the off-season such as the Scout Barracks, Commanding Officers Quarters, and Officer’s Quarters. Interior building painting has also begun.
Staff is also beginning to get winter items ready, such as snowmobile signs and barriers. They’ll also begin closing public restrooms in the coming weeks. On the interpretation side, the workday stays pretty much the same until we close the site. MSHP administration typically moves off Mackinac Island during the first full week of October to transition into winter mode. Offices are packed, and all our equipment is brought back to the mainland on our LCM (landing craft mechanized, a Korean War-era ship that serves as our freight hauler).
HOW DO YOU PLAN FOR THE NEXT SEASON ON MACKINAC ISLAND IN YOUR OFF-SEASON?
SHEPLER’S MACKINAC ISLAND FERRY: The month of November consists of a lot of meetings and getting lists organized. We have meetings and exit interviews with our leadership team, from maintenance to tickets to marine services and dock leads, to find out their needs. Then we figure out how we are going to handle all of the requests and if we can afford them. This year we don’t have any big projects that will take a lot of energy, time, or effort.
One of the biggest things we’re going to focus on is from our Human Resources lead and figuring out how we can recruit more cast members. We want to recruit an additional 30-40 cast members to get back to normal.
FORT MACKINAC: We work off of a three-year strategic plan and typically stay true to it as we move forward. Knowing this, and having our budget approved by our commission, we hit the ground running as soon as the calendar flips to October.
Major Mackinac Island projects for 2022 include: new exhibits in the Post Schoolhouse and American Fur Company Store & Dr. Beaumont Museum, exterior painting of the Mission House, sewer repairs for Fort Mackinac and Mackinac Island State Park, upgrade to our ticketing system to allow for increased flexibility with third-party tickets being sold, branding and marketing plans for the American Fur Company Store & Dr. Beaumont Museum, getting special events finalized for the 2022 season, beginning the hiring process for the 2022 season, and updating uniforms and finalizing daily events schedule for the historic sites.
On the marketing side, we will also finalize marketing plans for the season, work on new brochures and site maps, and finalize updates for the Mackinac Island Visitor’s Guide. The offseason means we will also begin our education outreach program, where we take interpreters to classrooms (or meet virtually) to present the history of Michigan through the lens of Mackinac Island. We also regularly have committee meetings to look at all aspects of our operation and for ways to improve. The 2021-22 season will also find us working on a new strategic plan.
SMOKEY JOSE’S: Our U.S. staff is set for next year but we’ll be recruiting H2B and J1 workers. We work on the menu and see if there is anything exciting that we can do and are also looking at an expansion of Mexican Bowls.
WHAT IS SOMETHING YOU LEARNED OR THAT SURPRISED YOU MOST DURING THE 2021 SEASON ON MACKINAC ISLAND?
FORT MACKINAC: For myself, I learned how our organization, which is steeped in 125-plus years of tradition, can remain flexible and adapt to new challenges and flourish. I was also incredibly proud of how our staff, especially the seasonal staff, maintained their professionalism and energy throughout a very difficult season. We went into the season with far fewer staff than normal, but our guests didn’t know it based on how our team handled the season.
SHEPLER’S MACKINAC ISLAND FERRY: What we learned this season was how to handle a large volume of people with high character, quality staff. We were down 20% in staffing from 2019 but this crew was the best we’ve seen. They never complained, they just put their head down and got the job done day after day.
I was also reminded how important safety and efficiency are, especially after seeing record numbers of guests and fewer cast members. We have developed a culture and process that allows cast members to have the tools they need to perform the way we expect. I ask myself how and what we can do better and it’s to continue servicing guests like we’ve always done in the past. Also, my staff encouraged and surprised me this year. They kept pushing me to be better and worked so hard, day after day.