GTPulse: The Face Behind the National Cherry Festival Faces

Written by guest columnist Christal Frost

It doesn’t surprise me that Susan Wilcox Olson is reluctant to talk about herself. Susaniceman

“I’ve just been really lucky to have so many wonderful mentors,” she says as she thinks of the people who have helped her grow her public and media relations firm, Grand Bay Promotions.

Susan is the face behind the faces: carefully designing opportunity and publicity for some of Northern Michigan’s biggest businesses and events. She represents businesses in tourism, golf, skiing, retail, restaurants and wineries, education, transportation and events. Susan has an almost effortless ability to connect businesses, building collaborations and partnerships that benefit all aspects of a business.

Susan began her career in marketing for the once bustling Sugar Loaf Resort before being hired to manage sponsorships and media for the National Cherry Festival.

“Jack Smith, Dudley Smith, Jay Hooper, Ross Biederman, Kevin Dunaway, Peter Good, Chuck O’Connor…”

Susan continues listing many of the people she credits with helping her throughout her career. There are so many names, in fact, it’s difficult for me to keep up. Susan seems to notice that I’m struggling to jot down each name and says, “Really, there were so many people, I’m just so lucky.”

Luck may be a part of her success, but it is hardly the only ingredient. Her work ethic is admirable. Her ability to connect both people and industries is remarkable.  And, her passion and persistence are nothing short of inspiring. But, Susan insists her success is simple. “It’s story telling. And, I love these stories. We find the heart of our clients’ stories, and we share those stories with our friends in the media. As for the Festival, the cherries are the power—cherries are just the happiest fruit. And, pitching happy fruit to producers, from our place as the Cherry Capital of the world, gives us instant credibility to tell the tale from farm, to fruit, to festival.”

There is no denying the success Susan has had pitching cherry stories to the media.  Features on the Today Show and Good Morning America are among her most exciting moments, and national broadcasts from the open space have no doubt helped attract visitors from around the country and even the world to the Festival. But, Susan looks at every media encounter as a gift. She especially appreciates her local media connections.

“We started with local. That’s our community. Our neighbors and our volunteers. If we don’t have our community, we don’t have the backing we need, and we won’t have a successful festival.”

That point has become undoubtedly clear after the difficult decision to cancel this year’s festival. Susannws

“I just got in my car and drove straight to our family cottage in Northport and I cried all the way.”

As local press began reaching out to set up interviews about the canceled festival, Susan’s mission was to be sure that the story of cherries wasn’t completely lost in the pandemic.

“The virtual festival was really born from the community. And, I knew we just had to do something. I knew our community would support us, because that’s always what our community does. We show up and we support each other.”

The virtual festival will include surprise guest appearances on Facebook live, a cherry pie baking tutorial, porch parade, and more.

Although news of the festival’s cancellation was among the sad stories Susan has had to share, there is one that will always stand out in her mind.

“It was July 3, 1998. I was eating lunch on a patio with a media group, watching the air show practice. I saw the Albatross above us, and I looked down at my watch. I knew the schedule front and back, and I remember thinking, ‘they’re right on time.’”

The Albatross Susan is remembering is the two seat Aero L-39 Albatross, a Czechoslovakian jet piloted by Don Schaller, with Don Rodriguez, a flight instructor at Northwestern Michigan College, riding along.

“Then, at around 7 p.m. I got the call. The jet was lost, and all of the sudden the eyes of the nation were on us. We went to the Coast Guard which was command central at that point and I started drafting a press release with the Admiral of the Coast Guard and the FAA. And, I was prepping our staff to deliver the news. It was just devastating.”

Susan reflects, “The next morning was the Air Show. It was Fourth of July, and I will never forget the bravery from the civilian and military pilots who continued knowing their colleagues were missing. All of our hearts were just hurting. It was terrible, but they all continued. It’s been 22 years and those colleagues are still missing. I think of that every 4th of July. I think of them. I think I will miss the air show most this year because of the bravery and the patriotism, the celebration of America and a reminder of what is at stake, and what has been sacrificed to keep us free.”

Even with the ongoing excitement that comes with the festival each year, there is one particular story that is Susan’s favorite to tell.

“Three and a half years ago when the Festival Foundation Board selected Kat Paye as Executive Director…” Susan smiles. “That just melted my heart. Kat had been the mascot for the festival when she was 12 years old. Literally, she would put on the cherry suit and I would take her along to these TV interviews. I saw her go from a volunteer in a cherry suit to the volunteer manager and the director of operations and now I’m taking her around the country with me, not in a mascot suit, but as the Director of the festival. It’s really the best story.”

That story, like so many of Susan’s stories, is the embodiment of what it means to be passionate about the tradition of the National Cherry Festival. And, it truly is a tradition that has become a part of Northern Michigan culture over decades.

Susan recalls going to the Very Cherry Fashion Show every year with her Mom and her Grandma. Susan And Charlie

“It was our thing. Every summer we would do that together.”

Despite living in the background of our local stories, Susan Wilcox Olson might be Traverse City’s best cheerleader. And, she’s not planning to hang up the pom-poms any time soon. However, she is planning to slow down just a bit, “My son Charlie is now a part of the firm, so I am learning to let go a bit.”

Prior to Charlie being on the team, Susan hadn’t had a real day off in 30 years.

“It’s just the nature of the business, you have to be on call all the time. And, honestly, I didn’t mind it. When you love your job, it’s hard to tell the difference between work and fun.”

Categories: GTPulse, National Cherry Festival