City Brilliance: Detroit

This year, Detroit, Michigan landed on Travel & Leisure’s “Best Places to Travel” list at #27. Since 2011, I’ve been traveling to Detroit regularly and was surprised, though pleased, to find it on the list. Ask anyone who lives and works in Detroit how they’re feeling about things and you’ll get spirited optimism mixed with pragmatic caution. There’s still a lot to do.

I began taking clients to Detroit to get them away from the saturated markets of New York and San Francisco, for meetings, retreats, “expeditions” and other [insert business jargon here]. It’s not easy to convince overworked executives that they should take their teams offsite to ruminate on innovation in a place that’s not a resort, doesn’t have a beach, or beds with 400-count Frette linens. But, that’s the point. Because it’s nearly impossible to understand markets, customers, or employees while sitting in a temperature-controlled ballroom with endless “refreshment breaks” and Powerpoint presentations, everyone dreaming of when they can hit the golf course. You need to hit the streets.

As a practice, we visit places we consider to be gritty and complex when working on a project - Oakland, Brooklyn, Houston, New Orleans, the underbelly of Los Angeles, to name a few - because we’re searching for the drivers of innovation, change, and creative thinking. We walk through neighborhoods, talk to locals and industry experts, dine in backroom kitchens, visit cultural institutions, and often wander off track. But we always know where we’re going (even the off-track is on track) and more importantly, where we want to end up when we wrap. The trick is finding the people and places who, somehow, show you the way to the future.

I've written about Detroit before, and though cities change all the time, the contrasts in the motor city continue to be striking.

Here's what I found on my recent trip.

Trumbull & Porter, a new boutique hotel in Corktown. It has a very colorful past, as a Holiday Inn where drug dealers and prostitutes used to gather...

Trumbull & Porter, a new boutique hotel in Corktown. It has a very colorful past, as a Holiday Inn where drug dealers and prostitutes used to gather...

Lobby lounge at Trumbull &Porter. The building re-design, furniture, materials, food & drink are all local to Detroit and the state of Michigan.

Lobby lounge at Trumbull &Porter. The building re-design, furniture, materials, food & drink are all local to Detroit and the state of Michigan.

Renovated room at Trumbull & Porter. The first two floors are creepy on first approach because they're not renovated yet - cold, dark empty hallways of a former Holiday Inn. But the (upper floor) renovation is fantastic, the staff is wonderful, and by the time I left, realized how cool it was to experience the hotel transforming before my eyes... like the city itself.

Renovated room at Trumbull & Porter. The first two floors are creepy on first approach because they're not renovated yet - cold, dark empty hallways of a former Holiday Inn. But the (upper floor) renovation is fantastic, the staff is wonderful, and by the time I left, realized how cool it was to experience the hotel transforming before my eyes... like the city itself.

MOCAD, the Museum of Contemporary Art, is a multi-use venue that often has terrific exhibits and performances, plus local food, craft beer and spirits. A good spot to take the pulse of city creatives.

MOCAD, the Museum of Contemporary Art, is a multi-use venue that often has terrific exhibits and performances, plus local food, craft beer and spirits. A good spot to take the pulse of city creatives.

Our Detroit craft vodka distillery, near Corktown and Trumbull & Porter. Because, local distillery.

Our Detroit craft vodka distillery, near Corktown and Trumbull & Porter. Because, local distillery.

The 1,037-room Masonic Temple - it's the world's largest. I have never seen anything like it. Three theaters, ballrooms, a cathedral, a bowling alley, barber shop, swimming pool, gymnasium, pool hall... it goes on forever. Now mostly empty, available for private functions and live performances. I asked my contact if she'd been in all the rooms... she had not. Probably because it's possible to get lost in there forever. I'd take a Sleep No More approach to an event here: drop off, get lost, found, discuss.

The 1,037-room Masonic Temple - it's the world's largest. I have never seen anything like it. Three theaters, ballrooms, a cathedral, a bowling alley, barber shop, swimming pool, gymnasium, pool hall... it goes on forever. Now mostly empty, available for private functions and live performances. I asked my contact if she'd been in all the rooms... she had not. Probably because it's possible to get lost in there forever. I'd take a Sleep No More approach to an event here: drop off, get lost, found, discuss.