What Are They Doing Here?

Traverse City was a fur-trading post, then a logging town until they cut down the trees and moved on. Then a farmer planted a fruit orchard, launching this northern Michigan city's title as cherry capital of the world. It's changed into a vacation spot, nestled along a Lake Michigan bay, tempting tourists with cherry pies and such. But for one week in August for years now, Traverse City has been the

Traverse City was a fur-trading post, then a logging town until they cut down the trees and moved on.

Then a farmer planted a fruit orchard, launching this northern Michigan city's title as “cherry capital of the world.”

It's changed into a vacation spot, nestled along a Lake Michigan bay, tempting tourists with cherry pies and such.

But for one week in August for years now, Traverse City has been the site of an automotive conference called the Management Briefing Seminars. It sounds ponderous, yet offers a vivid look at where the industry is going.

Sometimes, it is not a pretty picture. This year's conference was entitled “The Road Ahead: Discontinuous Change.” One participant says he didn't quite know what that meant, but it didn't sound good. It basically means the industry should get ready for some lurching, rocky off-roading.

Although Traverse City is nearly 300 miles from Detroit, most of the 1,200 participants are auto folks up from the Motor City. Their long journey says something about the importance of the event (and, in some cases, about the attraction of local golf courses).

Much of the draw is an A-list of speakers, this year including Ford CEO Alan Mulally and General Motors Vice Chairman Bob Lutz.

Mulally stirs things up by suggesting a gasoline-tax increase might be in order as a way to get people to drive more fuel-efficient vehicles.

He backs off supporting a specific proposal after journalists pepper him with points of clarification.

“Did you see those reporters pounce on Alan Mulally?” asks conference chairman David Cole, seemingly not displeased with such excitement at his brainchild of an event.

Lutz humorously feigns indignation, saying Cole had asked him to refrain from delivering a GM commercial during his conference address.

“I thought, ‘Do you think I'd do something as blatant as delivering a GM pitch?’” Lutz tells the gathering, as three jumbo video screens behind him flash “Buy GM.”

He says it is beneath him to proclaim GM superiority. And the screens flash “GM = Best.”

And he says he'd never show photo after photo of GM vehicles, as the screens do just that.

Lutz then gets serious and details joint plans with a supplier for developing a new lithium-ion battery that would spur GM's alternative-fuel efforts. The road ahead looks more fascinating all the time.

The conference shows that, no matter how hard the trek, the auto industry can regroup and carry on, as it has so many times before.

Back in 1964, as a 14-year-old kid traveling alone for the first time, I had sort of a “discontinuous” journey involving Traverse City.

I was to fly from Detroit to Traverse — something rarely done in those days — then take a bus to the nearby town of Frankfort, named by an immigrant who said it reminded him of Frankfurt, Germany back home. (I've been to both places and wonder what the heck he was thinking.)

In Frankfort, I would hook up with my sister and her husband, who were driving from their home in Minnesota and taking a car ferry across Lake Michigan. It was scheduled to dock at Frankfort at about the same time as I arrived.

That was the plan anyway. But the ferry was way late. I was stranded in Frankfort for five hours, walking up and down Main Street, lugging a suitcase (this was before roller luggage) and taking mindless inventory of sidewalk cracks.

Today, air travel to Traverse City is common, bus service between northern Michigan towns non-existent and the Frankfort car ferry long gone.

Everything changes, and we change with it. Humans are pretty good at that, even though it's not something we always like to do.

Steve Finlay is at [email protected].

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