There’s something to be said for being in the thick of it – being able to shake hands, bump fists, exchange business cards.
Here’s the No. 1 lesson to be learned at the Mackinac Policy Conference: If you want to chat someone up about a business, an organization or your own personal projects, you need to be here. You need to have access. You need to meet (gasp!) in person.
The first 24 hours of this huge, raucous and impressive event have taught me that people shockingly have their guards down here. Their ears are open. They invite strangers to chat them up and talk shop. Everyone from Matt Cullen (head of Rock Ventures, top dog on the M-1 project and friend of Dan Gilbert) to Dan Musser (his family members are the owners of the Grand Hotel) to the lowly newspaper intern is here and feeling talkative.
So far, I have talked to people about their kids, their hometowns and their favorite spots on the Island. We have hit on topics as varied as Detroit’s bankruptcy, school reform, venture capital, state policy and much more. These have been rare opportunities to hear people’s honest opinions, their visions and their hopes.
It’s even more important when you look at the crop of Emerging Leaders and Millennials that are on site here. They represent small-business interests, especially those in Detroit. Many of them are here for the first time, and they have a cautious approach to this whole crazy thing. It won’t take long for them to jump in, meet people and move into the center of the conversation. It’s hard to resist the face time and the connections being made.
Being front and center to the action is thrilling, but having those in-person conversations are even better. I’m honestly an over-enthusiastic person in general. I’m a cheerleader and not afraid to show it. I love hearing the secrets of the powerful, and having them actually share some of the behind-the-scenes wrangling that led to the Grand Bargain has pretty much made this experience worth it and then some. You can see why people return year after year — it’s like a retreat of sorts, a reminder that there is something that unites us as a state.
Sometimes, we forget how important the conversation and the connection being made is if we’re only talking over the phone or, even worse, via email. There is no eye contact. There is no warmth as you exchange the ages of your children or stories of your dog’s latest antics. Having this space – this weird Island where everyone pretends there are no vehicles and we all live in Victorian houses – seems to be magical. Ties are off. Pretenses are gone. It’s a safe space.
Now, I’m not that naïve. I know that not everyone is up front and as giddy as I am. But I appreciate the importance of hanging out casually more than ever after the first 24 hours. It reminds me as a writer and a reporter that there are nuances to this dance, and that you have to show up, talk people up and get your hands dirty to be effective.
SIDE NOTE: I ran into a friend who lives on the Island, and he noted that our friend Rachel Lutz actually broke an Island law by passing out her literature at the docks. It seems that there is a longstanding rule that competing businesses cannot hand out any documents that highlight their company or service there. It keeps rivalries on hold, and it makes sense from a crowd control standpoint. Not sure if Lutz is going to be dragged off by horse and housed at the Island jail, but it would be a great anecdote to this conference if she did.
SIDE NOTE: I think one of the best parts of the Conference has been the relaxed dress code – something this fits nicely into the Grand Hotel’s more accommodating policies. So far I’ve only seen a handful of ties, and one has been on Musser himself. On the negative side, some gentlemen are taking it too far and are walking around in baseball caps, which I could do without. But a nice oxford with a blazer seems to be the dress code du jour. The women are giving up because of the cold weather and wearing sweaters and flats.
SIDE NOTE: If you want to follow the meaner side of the conference, there may be no better website right now than the Mackinac Selfie Conference. There is no end of things to make fun of here, and this crowd is ripe for the picking. It will be interesting to see how this develops and who all gets zinged.
SIDE NOTE: Let me know if you have any questions, concerns or insights you want to add to our Mackinac Policy Conference coverage. As a first-year participant, I’m just trying to keep up with the big dogs. And there is quite a pack here. I want to find out any answers you as our readers might want. So hit me up on Twitter (@kdybis) or on Facebook.