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Innovative Thinking for a Historic Hotel

Grand Hotel is often referred to as “America’s Summer Place.” Located on Northern Michigan’s Mackinac Island, the historic hotel is truly one-of-a-kind, and not because it has received the AAA Four Diamond Rating for 26 consecutive years. What sets Grand Hotel apart is the quaintness that comes with being located on an island that is dormant for half the year, where the only means of transportation are carriages and bicycles, and where dressing for nightly dinner and dancing is expected.

These charms that attract guests from around the world present unique challenges to the design team tasked with keeping the 134-year-old destination in pristine operations. SSR has had the privilege to provide Grand Hotel with electrical engineering services for the past three off seasons, and I’ve been honored to work on the property for nearly three decades.

A client such as Grand Hotel is a true gift for engineers. An abundance of problem-solving skills are needed to design, plan, and execute even the smallest renovation or improvement project. There are some key limitations to know about working at Grand Hotel and on Mackinac Island:

  • Grand Hotel is open for guests annually May to October. All work must be conducted in the off season.
  • Winter months in northern Michigan are not like winter months in Tennessee or Texas. There is often heavy snow and temperatures are below zero. Invest in an appropriate wardrobe.
  • Access to the island is limited to ferry or small plane. All construction equipment and supplies need to be delivered before the Straits of Mackinac freeze. After then, the only access is limited to small planes (that only fly when visibility permits) and snowmobiling across the frozen straights. Word of advice — get all your supplies on the island before the water freezes.

Once you grasp the unique elements to working on the island, and understand the importance of planning early and thoroughly, the real fun begins!

In the 2020-2021 off season, SSR was engaged by Grand Hotel to provide electrical and technology design services and construction administration for the extensive renovation to the Esther Williams Swimming Pool. The renovation of the 50-year-old pool to create a Vegas-like experience included the upgrade of the electrical service, powering all the pool equipment, providing lighting and power around the pool deck; bonding of the pool and surrounding area; the addition of Wi-Fi and broadband services to the pool deck, pool bar, and cabana areas; an upgraded point of sale system; and improved sound system. We also demolished the old pool building and replaced it with a new facility. Everything was accomplished in six months, November to May. The temperature made it hard to visualize the finished space and it was surreal overseeing these improvements while it was freezing cold outside with snow on the ground. With some unique and innovative solutions, the project was completed, and guests have really enjoyed the upgraded amenities.

One of the keys to success for working at Grand Hotel is that the entire project team understands the unique conditions and requirements of the property. Utilities on the island are limited to electricity but some of the older equipment was oil powered. To run the boilers, the hotel used to ship oil to the island in tanks which were dragged up the hill to the hotel by horses twice a day before lowered into the ground to feed oil into the building and provide power. A few years ago, when the hotel renovated the Millennium Wing, it also included the boiler room. I did a lot of research and some creative problem solving to understand what options existed to replace the boilers and make the process more efficient. We ended up finding three 2000kW electric boilers that are made typically for nuclear submarines. They are each served by their own electrical feed. That’s the type of dedication that is required for a client like Grand Hotel, you must be willing to think outside the box and find innovative applications from other markets or industries to have a successful outcome.