Last week I visited the stereotypical mid-west town of Grand Rapids! Smack bang in the middle of Chicago and Detroit the city was hosting a exhibition/conference specifically for water treatment.
For those that don’t know me so well, I sell a chemical that saves money off heating and cooling bills (EndoTherm/EndoCool if you want to check it out). One of the best parts of moving continents is a new, relatively untapped market to explore. My company and I wanted to begin educating the North American market on the product and maybe pick up a few partners along the way. We therefore decided to attend the Annual AWT (Association of Water Technologies) conference/exhibition in Grand Rapids with our partners PaceChem. I traveled with PaceChem president Wes (same Wes who we hung out with in Positano) and Sustainability Manager Will. I won’t go into much detail on the ‘boring’ aspects of work trips but here are a few quips and a few moments that really stood out for the trip.
Where is Grand Rapids?
Grand Rapids is the second largest city in the state of Michigan. Situated on the banks of Grand River it is about 15 miles from the enormous Lake Michigan. Chicago sites on the lakes west coast whilst Grand Rapids is to the east of the lake. The city is described as a typical ‘small-medium’ sized American city, The city has a nucleus of good restaurants, quaint shops and each lamp post has its own charging spots so even the homeless had their own ghetto blasters booming out tunes.
We stayed in the Amway Plaza. This hotel which comes from the Hilton family of hotels is MASSIVE. With over 600 rooms, 4 restaurants, 2 bars, shops and a great little fitness centre it really was impressive. These historical hotels are usually a little rough around the edges (thinking the Ritz in London) but everything was clean and working!.
Anyways, the centre (or is that center) along the river is beautiful
Getting to Grand Rapids is about 4hr 45 minutes total flight time but with no direct flights available. Travelling east also means you lose hours as you travel back time zones (Michigan is 3 hours behind) so a trip that takes 5 hours is equivalent to 8, you get the picture.
With a 6.30 departure I had to get a taxi at 4am, a time I usually only see on a night out I headed to Vancouver International freakishly early in case there were any issues with American Immigration. Despite my considerable English charm having zero effect on the grumpy border office I made it through and got on my first flight, Chicago O’Hare.
Chicago is literally the size of Manchester City Centre and with just as much options in terms of food, with plenty of time to spare we found a sport bar, ate ridiculously hot chicken strips and watch Man United vs Basel in the Champions League. I was lucky that the layover coincided with the first MUFC Champions League game for 3 years. We won 3-0.
From Chicago it was a short 30 minute hop over Lake Michigan to the Gerald Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids. Association of Water Technologies, Welcome.
After dropping our bags at the hotel we headed to a brewery that had been personally recommended to a friend of my ‘sister-in-law’ Char (Thanks Char). Grand Rapids is often known as Beer City, USA with 50+ microbreweries dotted around the city (much like Portland in Oregon). The most famous of these is Foundations brewery which distribute their beers across the continental America. Overwhelmed by choice, I decided to get a taster of 4 of the most popular beers including the All Day IPA (say 10 times fast) which became my staple for the week. This was washed down with a fresh caprese salad and a moreish pretzel which is something of a Foundations tradition. Tuesdays is open mic night and the combination of 14 hours (well 11 really) travel and a strangle cat on the mic mean’t we took it easy. In bed for 9 (3 movies later is was 2am but lets not think about that).
Wednesday morning was rather uneventful. We set up the stand for the show which looked great!
On Wednesday evening, my MD Ben arrived. He had used the trip to meet up with everyone again but also travel to Cleveland, Ohio to meet the people who will be bottling and shipping our EndoTherm stock. The president of the company, Colton was also travelling to the exhibition with his lead scientist (a Ukrainian called Sergey) and the 3 flew to Grand Rapids (a 90 min trip) on a small bi-plane. More on that later.
Colton is a stereotypical American. He loves to hunt, loves guns, loves planes and cars etc but one of the most genuine and positive people you would ever hope to meet. Sergey is as equally ‘Ukrainian-Russian’ as you are likely to find and their conflicting personalities but great friendship made for entertaining listening especially when talking about guns ‘Guns would not work, I would use Rockets’ Sergey quipped in the most Russian response ever.
Interesting Fact: you can technically fire a gun out of a plane if you are over 1km from anyone or anything and higher than 2000ft. It would be classed as a falling object due to the height. Bloody Crazy the Americans are at times.
To celebrate our new working relationship and Bens only night in Michigan we went out to a Cigar bar as the group had discovered a mutual love of cigars and wanted to toast the new venture the way I imagine Pablo Escobar would have done 40 years ago (with less deadly endings I hope). Colton was taking to Sergey when I mentioned I had never fired a gun. To an American in the mid-west this was shocking and I was invited to the range on Friday morning to loose my gun virginity. (Note: Colton and Sergey went on a bender which included 2am karaoke and was not fit for purpose on Friday morning so no shooting occurred. I am still pure. Colton made it up to me as you will see later!!
Thursday – The Duck Race
This is easily the funniest part of the trip. Let me set the scene! Every year the AWT select a charity of their choice and raise money for said charity. In the UK we call them raffles, in the US/Canada they are known as 50/50s (dunno why because with one winner you don’t have a 50% chance of winning). To be abit different and with the river on our doorstep the organisers decided to do something different for the draw which took place during the annual AWT members dinner (I am not a member and thus we went for food at the hotel restaurant which overlooked the river instead).
For a minimum donation you were given a big yellow rubber duck which you could decorate as you see fit. The ducks are then raced down the river and first past the post wins. Easy right?
Everything was going off like clockwork until the ducks escaped the rope that was stopping them from escaping off downstream (and eventually Lake Michigan). As it’s late summer the river is barely above knee height but the vision of 5 or 6 people trying to remove 300+ ducks from the fast flowing river was brilliant. The irony of water treaters polluting the river could also not be ignored. Luckily the ducks passed over a small weir and the back current this created trapped the ducks from escaping further afield (bar a few lucky ducks who managed to break away to freedom). My vocabulary may let me down here but it was bloody brilliant.
The ducks before their dash for freedom
For the last evening we took new potential clients out to dinner. John and Michael come from Chicago (no shortage on volunteers to run the training) and Michael is the president of a 35 employee company aged 28…. guess I have a year to step up my game. We went to (summit Rossa) a nice ‘quiet’ Italian restaurant which was buzzing on a Friday night namely due to the AWT organisers being sat on the next table! After months of hard work they were clearly letting their hair down. Anyways, the lads invited me out for drinks after and we headed across the road from Amway to Mojo’s a live music bar with a dance floor upstairs.
We were joined by a few other companies and as the only English man I was soon taken under the wing of a few of the lads and everytime my beer was 1/4 full it magically refilled. A big thank-you to Aaron from Oklahoma who had been set free with the company credit-card.
The live music was hosted by 4 gentlemen who took it in turn to sing songs on 2 grand pianos and accompanying drums. They took requests (with tips… this is America guys) just as long as it isn’t Despactio. I love a good sing song and wasn’t disappointed! Someone even requested Oasis – Wonderwall but it was only myself and one table who knew the words. Other classics including Uncle Kracker (Follow Me), Kid Rock (summer of 69) and Jason Mraz (I’m yours) also made the list.
Colton and Sergei joined us and Colton who was feeling guilty for letting me down about the shooting range asked me if I wanted to join him and some of his Chinese customers and fly around the city in his small plane the next day. I quickly accepted which in essence ended the drinking as I didn’t want to throw up in his plane from being too hungover.
Smooth Sailing Saturdays
The next morning I packed, checked out and decided to enjoy as much of the September sunshine as I could and walked the 2 mile journey to Colton and Sergeys AirBnb in the suburbs. We were joined by the Chinese guests, Gary and Paul and headed to the airport.
Note: I am guessing that Gary and Paul are not their actual names, I appreciate many Asian people assume Western names to allow easier communication but why Gary? Who in their right mind would chose bloody Gary. Gary actually went to uni in Leeds for 2 years about 15 years ago so maybe he was a big Gary Neville/Speed/Macalister fan? Anyways moving on.
The plane was a 6 seater Cessna which Colton loaned from his flight club in Cleveland, Ohio. As Sergey was staying on the ground to conserve fuel (less weight) I was charged as co-pilot being the only native English speaker. Usually this sounds fun, sitting in the front, better views but it also meant I had the pressure of going through all the pre-flight checks and reminders with pilot Colton.
Colton has been flying for about 4 years and he was exceptional, the landing was easy, the landing absolutely perfect and despite scaring me shitless with a sharp banking turn my initial trepidation of flying in a small plane was soon put to rest. The only issue came when the co-pilot forgot to remind the pilot to raise the landing gear. Thankfully that was after take-off and not before landing.
Once up in the air you were able to sense the pure scale of the cities urban sprawl which dwarfed the downtown area.
Heading back smoothly to terra firma we said our goodbyes to Colton and Sergey and headed back to the hotel where I met up with Wes.
Wes and I had plenty of time to kill before our early evening flight so we spent the afternoon eating Sushi (Vancouver you have converted me in 2 weeks), watching college football (I think I prefer it to NFL as it’s more high scoring etc) before heading back to the airport and heading home (again through Chicago).
With a hour transfer at Chicago O’Hare I decided to finish the trip the only way someone who loves Pizza can in the city, with a deep dish Chicago pizza. Granted it won’t compare to the famous pizzeria’s downtown but it was mighty yummy.
A great 5 days in Mid-West, USA. If this is what my business trips are going to be like moving forward I am going to be one happy camper!