Big House Businesses
To live in Ann Arbor, especially near the University of Michigan, is to live with the coming and going of crowds. Depending on the time of the year and the attraction, they can number in the 100s, 1000s, tens of thousands, and on football Saturdays, hundreds of thousands.
Some locals may see the influx as something to avoid by staying home or leaving town for the day. Then there are those, the opportunistic, the entrepreneurial, who embrace the clogged streets and the fans who come with money in their pockets and fun on their minds.
These are the if-you-can't-beat-'em-join-'em types who figure they too can make an economic score come game days and big events, the same boon that comes to local restaurants, bars and souvenir shops, as well as homeowners-turned-parking lot operators and street vendors.
These are the stories of Ann Arborites who have come up with creative ways to make the most out of the flood of fans, especially when it comes to U-M football and the nearly 110,000 spectators - plus thousands of others who come without a ticket in search of the game atmosphere. Their businesses on Big House Saturdays are attracting visitors to a luxe tailgating spot, a reservation company that takes the hassle out of parking, a bakery's U-M themed treats and turning their homes into game weekend rentals, and in the process finding there's a market beyond athletics.
Bringing civility to parking
Jason Kapica is somewhat of an expert when it comes to parking in Ann Arbor - the parking attendants waving their signs, the long lines of cars waiting to get in, the frustrating gridlock that can happen when it's time to go. It's a commonplace scenario across the country, and Kapica wants to add some civility to the situation with his ParknParty. It lets visitors reserve parking spaces, tailgate spots - even buy bathroom passes - in advance of game day. He started ParknParty last year, and hopes to go nationwide, starting with Big 10 markets.
"Ann Arbor is a great market to cut our teeth on," he says. "You can't ask for a better test market. The size, the huge university football crowds, the art fair, the unique urban setting."
Kapica says campus visitors have wised up about parking, a precious commodity most anytime in downtown Ann Arbor but a scarce resource on game days.
"Now people are doing more research. They want to know where they're going to be," Kapica says. "You have families who all want to park together, but they don't want to get there at the crack of dawn. I had a father with two kids who needed a space that wasn't too far in case he needed to carry his young son."
ParknParty acts as the middleman between parking lot owners and parkers, and there is a roster of parking lot operators and repeat parkers.
"We got off the ground just before football season started last year," he says. "It's good for the parking lot owners because they know their spots are sold, it's more orderly. [At first] we weren't quite sure there would be the market for it, there's really nothing out there like it. But we had a very successful first year and learned things about the world of parking, especially on game day.
Only partway through the second year the business is expanding and developing partnerships. ParknParty was the official parking reservation company for the Ann Arbor Art Fair, and ParknParty just began working with Busch's and Zingerman's by referring ParknParty customers for tailgate catering.
"We're just about to roll out a brand new reservation system that will make things much easier" Kapica says. "It's going to allow us to expand. My big picture is anywhere there's a large event going on, where you have people parking in their yards, golf courses…anywhere there's going to be a big crowd who needs parking they'll need a parking reservation system . Five years from now I'd like to be across the nation."
Barely three months old, MGoPatio was started by Martin and Katie Vloet. The Vloets once counted themselves among the many many A2 residents who opened their driveways and lawns as game day parking lots. But the Vloets went from waving in cars to playing full-fledged party hosts after they finished an $80,000-plus renovation of their backyard and garage. The renovation turned a patch of lawn and a one-car garage into a gorgeously paved patio with an embedded Block M and two-story, finely-outfitted party space.
With a prime location - about 130 yards from the middle of their yard to the fence of the stadium - it wasn't long before friends, neighbors, even strangers were suggesting they rent the spot. And their idea was a good one. Before construction was even complete Sports Illustrated booked the the addition for the Michigan-Michigan State game. Others followed. Bosch, BP have hosted tailgates at MGoPatio and a wedding reception is on the calendar too.
"If you've got a good arm you can throw a rock from our house to the stadium. Not that I'm throwing rocks at the stadium mind you," Martin Vloet jokes.
The location was definitely an asset. And the upscale feel, including HDTV flat screens, ideal for corporate clients.
"We've been working on the back yard a couple of years…It was slow going with other home improvements and a two year old with a budget of her own," Vloet says. "Several people said, 'Would you be willing to rent the space? We had to think about it for awhile … We came to the realization that giving up the space 6 or 8 times year is not much of a sacrifice when it's going to help you pay off the renovation."
They decided to go the route of corporate rentals and the the clients bit even before the space was finished. The first booking to Sports Illustrated told them 'Holy cow this could work!'
The MGoPatio spread is, in total, 2,700 square feet more space than the Vloets' home. "Eleven hundred square feet of space was going to get really small so the plan was to have extra space for the family to move into," Vloet says of their initial reason for renovating. "As we started to do the work people picked up on it and said this is a nicer space than some spaces that are for rent out there.
"It's still home, but it's becoming more of a business for now. Everyone in the neighborhood sells parking on game day. This way we're concentrating on one event each week instead of 10 cars and scraping by," he explains, though it was a little sad to say goodbye to some of their regular parkers, people they had come to know and like.
Vloet says their business plan focuses on corporate and special event rentals. "Our pricing puts us out of the kegger crowd and into the corporate crowd," he says. "We're dealing with people who want to take care of the place and be responsible and maintain a reputation."
And he knows the rentals of MGoPatio, which one NPR's Marketplace Money's Piggybank Award for smart and creative use of finances, won't dry up when football season ends.
"There are many more events than just the stadium," he says, rattling them off: "lacrosse, hockey, the Big House Big Heart Run. Once we knew we were going to take this in a different direction we didn't nickel and dime anything. We made it a space that you really won't find anywhere else."
More than just hotdogs and beer
A funny thing happened on the way to game day.... Sweet Heather Anne bakery noticed that when U-M's football team was in the house, their staple business of weddings, showers, graduations and such dried up. Locals know better than to ask their guests to compete with game day crowds, she said.
"It's interesting because most of what we do is special event cakes. We book pretty far in advance. We started to notice we were really busy on days when Michigan was away," says general manager Rachel Brandell Mayers.
On game days the orders were few or none at all.
"There's all the extra traffic. Most Ann Arborites try to avoid downtown. We felt like it was a good opportunity to round out our calendar and go heavy on the game day treats," she says.
The timing worked out well because the bakery, which is owned by Heather Ann Leavitt, expanded from customer orders and catering into a Fridays and Saturdays retail space at 920 N. Main Street in March.
Once football season kicked in the bakery was stocked with Block M cookies, football-shaped cookies, Michigan football helmet cookies and maize and blue marzipops. There are also cakes, a signature Michigan fondant cake and a sculpted helmet cake are big sellers, especially for grooms' cakes
"We just started it this year. It's been a little bit of a soft launch to test the waters. We don't have a ton of orders. The intent is to build a reputation for it.
The bakery is already known for its university themed creations. Last week it turned out a cake designed to look like the Institute for Social Research building. And if the fans bite, their Michigan-themed delectables will be delighting fans pre and post game.
"We're excited about," Brandell Mayers says. "We think this is a big opportunity."
Home is where the game is
Michele Swanson is one Ann Arbor resident who not only embraces the crowds but opens her home to them. The infectious disease specialist at the University of Michigan rents her Burns Park home through Chicago-based Gameday Housing
. Other Ann Arbor homes can be found on Gameday's website alongside Swanson's.
About two summers ago Swanson got a flyer from the company detailing its college town home rental business. She thought it was a great idea.
"It's easy for me to be away," says Swanson, whose children are grown. "My first rental was the Nebraska game."
She's rented her home four times since, and two more bookings are lined up, and the guests aren't only sports fans. One weekend, a group of U-M alums rented her home for their golf weekend. Another rental was made by a family from out of town.
This Christmas another family will rent the home so they can be near Ann Arbor relatives for the holidays. Swanson also is discussing a rental with parents of gymnasts who will be in town for a competition.
"The people at Gameday Housing have been great, always accessible and helpful," she says. "For visitors it makes more sense economically to share a house with someone."
Swanson, a field hockey and softball player in high school and college, says she loves the crowds and the fans on game days.
"I'm a sports fan myself, a season ticket holder to football and basketball," she says. "I love that about Ann Arbor. I think that's what makes it great."
Kim North Shine is Metromode's Development News editor and a Grosse Pointe-based freelance writer.
All photos by Doug Coombe