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The Casino Era

The Final Countdown

Alex Dixon stands just outside the entrance to the hotel at MGM Springfield

Alex Dixon stands just outside the entrance to the hotel at MGM Springfield, which is nearly ready for prime time and the Aug. 24 opening.

The almost decade-long process of opening the state’s first resort casino is entering its final days. There is a beehive of activity in Springfield’s South End, and that represents only what people can actually see. The process of not only opening the facility on schedule, but “making this place special,” as General Manager Alex Dixon described it, is humbling and exhilarating at the same time.

12,704.

That’s how many “discrete tasks” Alex Dixon said he and the ever-growing team at MGM Springfield must complete before the $950 million facility can open its doors to the public at 11 a.m. on Aug. 24.

12,704!

Not ‘more than 12,000.’ Not ‘12,700 or so.’

12,704. And you thought you had a lot of lines on your ‘to-do’ list.

“And those are just the things we thought about as we put together our critical paths,” said Dixon, general manager of MGM Springfield, who managed to find a few moments to speak with BusinessWest late last month (and he had to work hard at it). He couldn’t say how many of those tasks he and his team had drawn a proverbial line through, but he hinted strongly that, while considerable progress has been made, there were still quite a few (thousand) to go.

The giant MGM Springfield sign above the massive parking garage

The giant MGM Springfield sign above the massive parking garage is the latest addition to the Springfield skyline.

But he also spoke with the utmost confidence about getting it all done, primarily because of the team that’s been put in place.

“When you think about the breakdown of those numbers, it’s a lot,” he said, putting heavy emphasis on that last word, not that he really needed to. “But we’ve got a great project-management process, we’ve done this before in other jurisdictions, we have a lot of people who are seasoned and know what they’re doing, and we have a very experienced and highly trained management team.”

As for those discrete tasks, they cover 45 different “work streams,” as Dixon called them, and 431 key milestones, many, if not most of them, already met. And they come in every size and shape, from having permits in place for each of the restaurants to meeting the required numbers for each of dozens of categories within the MGM Springfield workforce; from the thousands of items on the construction checklist to making sure the warehouse in Chicopee is stocked with everything it needs to be stocked with.

Overall, Dixon described the process of opening MGM on time — meaning with those 12,704 tasks completed and all licenses and permits and employees in place — as humbling, but also exciting and exhilarating. But he kept stressing that opening the doors on schedule is just one part of the story — and one part of the challenge.

Indeed, he said he’s not losing sleep worrying about getting everything done by Aug. 24. But what does keep him at night — sort of, but not really — are the other two main categories for all those discreet tasks: ‘the things that will make this a great customer experience’ and ‘how do we make this special?’

“We’ll open our doors at 11 o’clock on August 24 — that was never a question,” he explained. “We’re in ‘how do we make this place special?’ mode. We’re going to open, but we’re also going to have a great customer experience. The things that keep me up at night are making sure that we deliver on the promise of a phenomenal entertainment.

“You want to be unique, you want to stand out; I want to compete, and I want to win,” he went on, referring to the considerable competition MGM Springfield will face. “And our team does, too; that’s what motivates me, and it’s what motivates all of us.”

For this issue, one of the last in the pre-MGM era, BusinessWest talked with Dixon about the daunting process of opening the doors, and also about what will happen in Springfield on Aug. 24 and the days to follow.

He couldn’t — or at least he didn’t want to — make projections on how many people will come through the doors on opening day. But he expected the facility to reach full capacity (10,000 people in the casino) and for Springfield to see a day probably unlike any other in its history.

“There has been a tremendous amount of pent-up demand for some time now,” he said, referring to the almost-decade-long task of getting the state’s first resort casino up and running. “We are preparing to make sure that we can do our best to help satiate that demand on opening day.”

Task Masters

As he talked with BusinessWest about these final few days until opening, but also the long, character-building process of getting to this point, Dixon said MGM Springfield has essentially evolved from a startup company with a handful of employees (granted, one with a billion-dollar construction project unfolding around them) into one of the region’s largest employers.

The metamorphosis has come slowly and greatly accelerated over the past several months, to the point where it’s much harder for him to keep track of additions to the staff and putting names with faces. But the culture that was created when the company was a handful of people working on the ninth floor of Monarch Place, and later MGM’s headquarters on State Street, still prevails today.

“You walk through the hall, you meet a new face, and they may not know who you are,” he noted. “So the small things you did at the very beginning to build a great culture with that small group are important; we’re doing our best to make sure we have the right structures and processes in place to ensure that this culture emanates to the 3,000 we’ll be welcoming over the next few weeks.”

Together, this growing team is drawing lines through items on the ‘discrete tasks’ list, dozens, if not hundreds a day, said Dixon, adding, again, that the process of doing so is as exhilarating as it is daunting.

When asked what a typical day is like, he gave the expected answer — there is no such thing, or words to that effect.

But he said there are some common denominators, such as the starting time — 6 a.m. — with a daily briefing from MGM on news stories that impact the company and individual properties across the country.

MGM has made great progress toward completing the 12,704 (and counting)

Alex Dixon says MGM has made great progress toward completing the 12,704 (and counting) tasks needed to get the casino and the rest of the complex open by Aug. 24.

“And as you can imagine, as of late, we’re driving a lot of news, especially with the properties in Las Vegas,” he told BusinessWest. “That’s always a great wake-up call; you read the news locally, but also read the news that’s impacting the business.”

From there, he’s often off to a meeting with one of the many groups he’s involved with within the community, such as the Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau’s executive committee breakfast session he attended the day he spoke with BusinessWest. He prefers to keep such community work in the morning so as to free up the remaining hours for his day job — or his long-day job, the way things are going.

When he talked with BusinessWest, Dixon referenced hour-long meetings with members of the executive team to address what he called ‘mission-critical items.’ Then, they were meeting three times a week. Soon (if not already), there will be a session a day.

“These are things we need to execute on,” he explained. “And it requires some degree of acceleration or just an intense level of focus to get us over the hump.”

Labor of Love

As an example, he mentioned “fallout” in a particular job category, a situation where the company is struggling to make hires. In such an instance, and there have been some, the team will work closely with the human-resources director and the leader of the department in question to ramp up efforts to address the situation.

Hiring is obviously one huge component of the process of getting things ready for Aug. 24, said Dixon, adding that 3,000 people have to be brought on board across several dozen different positions. But to get to 3,000, MGM actually needs to have a higher number of people in position to be hired, he explained.

“Once you make a job offer, there will be some people who just don’t show up,” he noted, adding that this is a hospitality-industry-wide issue, not something unique to MGM Springfield. “Just because you offer someone a job, they don’t really work until they show up that first day and get into their position.

“That’s the case across the board in many of our front-line positions,” he went on. “So what we’ve done, in some cases, is over-hire to account for some of that attrition, be it in security, beverage servers, or table-games dealers.”

But hiring covers only a portion of those 12,704 discrete tasks, said Dixon, who said they cover three basic “journeys,” as he called them — ‘customer,’ ‘employee,’ and ‘supplier’ — with the ultimate objective of earning an operating certificate from the Mass. Gaming Commission.

To get that certificate, MGM Springfield has a long list of things it has to satisfy in order to show that it is ready to welcome customers safely and appropriately — and also account for the revenue it is expected to generate for the state.

“This is a big business for the Commonwealth,” he explained. “Our regulators are on-site, and we have to satisfy a laundry list of things in order to prove we’re worthy of that operating certificate.”

He offered some examples:

• The casino must make sure the slot machines are “talking” to the central system monitored by the Gaming Commission to ensure the integrity of the games;

• All of the cameras must be approved by the commission to ensure that the operation has the appropriate oversight of the games and other areas within the complex;

• The commission also must approve the internal controls that MGM Springfield operates against so that the operation can be held accountable;

• The commission also makes sure the operation has all the needed licenses from local agencies, for everything from pouring alcohol to serving food; and

• The security plan must be approved to ensure the operation is adequately securing the facility as well as the Commonwealth’s assets.

It’s Getting Real

As opening day draws closer, the team at MGM will take the process of being ready to a different, higher level, said Dixon, referring to what he called ‘play days’ and other types of dress rehearsals for the real thing.

And these auditions will set the stage for what are known as ‘test nights’ (that will be publically announced), during which the operation’s performance will ultimately determine whether the state grants that coveted operating license.

“At those activities, we have to simulate what it is like to operate with real money and be able to perform these functions,” Dixon explained. “The Gaming Commission is assessing our ability to execute those functions in a controlled environment. That’s the big, substantive, last step before we are issued that operating certificate.”

As for what he’s seeing in Springfield now, as opposed to when he arrived 18 months ago, and what he expects to see after the casino opens, Dixon said there has been a metamorphosis there as well, especially when it comes to perceived attitudes about the casino.

“It’s been fascinating to see how things have shifted, from doubt in some cases — ‘is this really going to happen?’ — to ambivalence in other cases, to quietly watching, to trepidation, to what you see now, which is excitement.

“Whether you see people buying their tickets to see Stevie Wonder [who will appear at the MassMutual Center on Sept. 1] to people coaching up a son, daughter, niece, or nephew for an interview, or hearing the excitement of someone getting their first job or getting back into the workforce … it’s fascinating to see the progression.”

Meanwhile, he said that one doesn’t have to wait til Aug. 24 to witness the impact MGM Springfield is already having in Springfield’s downtown.

“If you walk along Main Street around noon, you see the streets teeming with people,” he noted. “They’re well-dressed, new haircuts, looking good, sharp — and friendly. You see the impact of 3,000 people, and we haven’t even onboarded everyone. You see the streets come alive with energy.

“Downtown has been defined by the absence of people after hours,” he went on. “Now, we’ll be defined by the presence of people; and this will be people from Springfield, but also surrounding communities, and people who haven’t been to Springfield in a while. I just can’t wait for people who will walk into our facility and walk into downtown Springfield and have this immense level of pride, not just in MGM, but in the city and the region.”

On Aug. 24, there will be a parade down Main Street an hour or so before the facility officially opens at 11 a.m., he said, adding that it will involve employees, dignitaries, and some entertainers from within the MGM family.

After that? He said National Harbor, the $1.5 billion casino in Maryland that MGM opened roughly 18 months ago, reached full capacity within hours of opening. And MGM is preparing for just such a contingency.

“Knock on wood, we can only hope we’ve got more demand than what we’re able to accommodate in the building,” he said, echoing a belief certainly shared by the city, the region, and the Gaming Commission.

Playing the Numbers

Getting back to his sleeping patterns as Aug. 24 draws closer, Dixon said there are obviously days when he rests better than others.

“The hours are getting shorter,” he said, adding, again, that the ever-growing team working draw lines through those 12,704 discrete tasks are working simultaneously on hundreds on individual assignments, but also the very big picture.

“It’s truly amazing; it takes every individual person on this team to take care of their silo, but also keep their head above water enough to look horizontally and make sure we’re coming together in a cohesive manner.”

It all about the journey, or journeys, Dixon said, adding that the plural is most definitely needed, as they work as a unit toward a common goal — not just opening the doors on time, but making the place special.

And that’s why this process is as exhilarating as it is daunting.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Sales and Marketing

The Art and Science of Story Telling

The team at BRIGADE

The team at BRIGADE shows off the many honors garnered at the recent Ad Club of Western Mass. award show.    Photo by Stephanie Craig Photography

It was just a few weeks after Kirsten Modestow and her husband relocated to Western Mass. from San Francisco that she got the phone call that would ultimately change her life. The person at the other end was looking for someone to do some freelance work for a fledgling vodka brand called Svedka. As many people know, Svedka has gone on to become the top-selling imported vodka in the U.S. What they may not know is that, with that notable first client, Modestow created the marketing firm BRIGADE, one that has certainly built on that solid foundation in every way.

Kirsten Modestow says the branding company she would call BRIGADE (yes, all caps) was started on her kitchen table.

Which doesn’t exactly make it unique; many startups are blueprinted in such a setting. Which makes this one different is what happened after it was conceived.

For starters, that kitchen table would later become an official work station for one of the first hires, and soon other parts of the house were absorbed by additional team members as they came on board.

“The first person was in the living room, the second person was at the dining-room table, the next one was in the spare bedroom … then we all moved into the garage,” she explained. “When there was no room in the refrigerator for people’s lunches, we knew it was time to go.”

By that, she meant move into larger quarters, which the company has done a few times, but we’ll get back to that later.

The other thing that separates BRIGADE from other ventures hatched on the kitchen table is the pace of growth. Indeed, over the past 13 years, the company has expanded to 35 employees, most of them artists and designers who commute to the current home on Route 9 in Hadley from across Western Mass. and well beyond.

And their client list includes a number of prominent national brands, including Svedka vodka, the Wyndham Hotel Group, Black Box Wines, and Vertical Water, as well as some local businesses, such as Esselon Café, just a few hundred yards down Route 9.

Actually, Svedka wasn’t a national brand when Modestow was hired as a freelancer to help with a branding campaign. It was a fledgling vodka label looking to break out — and it did, big time; a few years ago, it surpassed Smirnoff as the top-selling imported vodka in the U.S.

The team at BRIGADE designed packaging for Svedka strawberry seltzer.

The team at BRIGADE designed packaging for Svedka strawberry seltzer.

“We’ve been along for the ride,” Modestow said, noting how the growth of Svedka and BRIGADE have mirrored one another. “Over the past 13 years, we’ve grown with them.”

But BRIGADE hasn’t outgrown Modestow’s kitchen table, then a space on University Drive, and then a totally renovated foreign-car sales and service shop further down Route 9 because of one client — although Svedka certainly has played a huge role in that transformation.

Instead, it’s been the company’s ability to work with clients to create branding that resonates, builds name recognition, and drives sales, Modestow explained, adding that this is what branding, the company’s specialty, is all about.

Elaborating, she said BRIGADE focuses on helping clients tell their story, and to do that, she and her team must first understand what that story is and then develop effective ways to communicate it.

“We get to know a client by doing an audit of their existing brand,” she explained. “We always see it as the client being the expert in what they do in their industry, and we bring in the branding piece, so it’s crucial to work with them as a partner.”

That was certainly the case with the new coffee bags the company created for Esselon Café. Coffee had long been a key ingredient in the restaurant’s recipe for success, said Modestow, but a while back, its leaders decided a new look was needed.

“People are more open to working with remote agencies. Before, it was a case where you went to an agency in one of the larger cities. Around 2006, when we started, there was a willingness to work with people who weren’t down the street, and that had a lot to do with our success.”

“We worked with them to determine how to capture the heart of Esselon and capture who and what Esselon is,” she explained, adding that BRIGADE came up with new packaging that drew on the Western Mass. landscape — specifically the Seven Sisters portion of the Holyoke Range — as well as new language: “All roads, bike paths, and quests for the best cup of coffee lead to Esselon Café.”

Kirsten Modestow

Kirsten Modestow

“The whole idea is that they’re on the bike path and everyone comes to Esselon; the place is packed, and you have to park illegally,” she explained. “We decided to embrace all that — we have these bike paths and roads that wrap around the bag, and we told this café story, and it’s been awesome for them; the bag is loved by Whole Foods, and retail sales have tripled because of it.”

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at how BRIGADE has moved well beyond that kitchen table and grown its own brand by delivering services that tell a story and generate results.

Seeking an Ad-vantage

Modestow told BusinessWest that the BRIGADE story really starts in Boston, where she worked for the acclaimed marketing agency Hill Holiday Advertising and such clients as Dunkin’ Donuts.

When the dot-com sector was at its pinnacle, however, the place to be was San Francisco, and Modestow went there and had the opportunity to join a firm and work with brands such as Electronic Arts Inc. (EA), the video-game maker.

Her firm eventually closed its doors, however, after losing one of its mainstay clients, and Modestow and her husband were at a crossroads.

“I could afford to live in San Francisco for about four and half minutes after that,” she joked. “I think we sold our house within seven days and left.”

The two then made a pact of sorts. They would relocate to wherever one of them found a job first.

“He beat me by a day; he got a job in Western Massachusetts — he’s originally from Worthington — and we came here,” she explained.

And it wasn’t long after they landed that she got that life-altering phone call.

“Someone called and said, ‘I have a freelance opportunity for you on this startup vodka brand called Svedka,’” she recalled. “Over the past 13 years, we’ve grown with them and helped them along the way; they’ve been really wonderful to us.”

As noted earlier, the company quickly outgrew Modestow’s kitchen table, refrigerator, and garage, and settled into that space on University Drive, above the popular Hangar restaurant. It wasn’t exactly a long stay, though, because the company continued to grow at a rapid rate, doubling in size from five to nine employees in a few years.

It then relocated to the foreign-car shop — a site that required a massive renovation effort — but outgrew that in just over a year, as Modestow recalled, adding that the next home is intriguing on many levels.

A portion of the 8,500-square-foot facility was home to a Registry of Motor Vehicles office, and even though it’s been closed for quite some time, people still walk in the front door looking to renew their driver’s licenses, said David Bosch, the company’s operations manager.

Another portion of the facility has home to Zoe’s Fish House, he went on, adding that, while BRIGADE renovated all the spaces into work areas, including a banquet facility that never became reality, it kept the bar intact.

The company doesn’t have a liquor license, obviously, but it does use the bar for company functions, said Bosch. Meanwhile, it’s an unusual decorative touch, and it give the company a chance to showcase many of the brands it has helped develop in what would be described as a natural setting.

The space is wide open, said Modestow, adding that this the desired environment for a marketing firm where people work together to create solutions for clients.

“We work in branding, and a lot of that is people coming together to solve a problem,” she explained. “So being in a very open space, one that’s conducive to gathering, is important.”

BRIGADE should be in this home for quite some time, because there is not only ample room to grow, but plenty of business coming through the door as the company continues to build strong word-of-mouth referrals.

The new coffee bag that BRIGADE created for Esselon Café has helped spark a surge in retail sales.

The new coffee bag that BRIGADE created for Esselon Café has helped spark a surge in retail sales.

Indeed, as noted earlier, Svedka has been a dream first client and solid foundation for BRIGADE. But the company has been able to build on that foundation, said Modestow, and for several reasons.

One is the large number of contacts she made from her previous career stops, and the experience she gained working for national and global clients, a tremendous asset in this business, as in any other.

“Having the exposure in Boston and San Francisco enabled me to work on some high-caliber clients and hone my skill set that I could then pass on to people here,” she explained. “We started off with an ability to work on those high-caliber clients; we’re really good at it, so we’ve attracted through our work the attention of others.”

Another factor is a growing willingness among corporations to work with agencies not based in New York, Boston, or Los Angeles, or whatever major metropolis the corporation was based in or near.

“People are more open to working with remote agencies,” she noted. “Before, it was a case where you went to an agency in one of the larger cities. Around 2006, when we started, there was a willingness to work with people who weren’t down the street, and that had a lot to do with our success.”

Getting the Message Across

But easily the best reason for the company’s success is the results it has garnered for its clients, said Modestow, adding that more important than the awards the company has gained for its work — and it has won many — are the gains registered by the companies looking for help with their brand.

Which bring us back to Esselon Café.

That new packaging has won a number of awards for BRIGADE, said Modestow, but the bigger story is that dramatic rise in retail sales at Whole Foods and other locations.

It came about through that art and science of storytelling and creating a brand that speaks to who they are.

When asked about the methods for gaining such results, Modestow returned to the subject of effectively partnering with the client to solve a problem or revitalize a brand.

The client knows their industry, their product or service, and their story, she went on. BRIGADE essentially takes that insight and uses it to create a brand that conveys the story in a way that resonates.

Steps include the brand audit she described earlier, and also creation of brand strategy.

“We would work through positioning statements with the client, help them figure out their key messages, how they’re different, how they talk about themselves, what their voice is, and more,” she explained. “And once we have that platform, then we would go into the visual component of all this — bringing it all to life visually through some kind of toolkit, which might be a refresh logo or packaging or a new website. We’re helping them see how this language and this new positioning can visually come to life.”

As the company creates these strategies and brings them to life, it does so not with a hard focus on targeting specific demographic groups — a mistake some companies make when marketing and branding — but building a brand that’s “authentic.”

“I don’t think you build a brand to speak to a specific group of people,” she told BusinessWest. “You build a brand that’s true to who the brand should be, and then it resonates with the right people.

“A mistake you see is when companies think the key to their success is going out and capturing the Millennials,” she went on. “Well, the Millennial doesn’t want to be captured — you have to find them because you have something compelling that made them want to believe in you. It’s about consumer experience and storytelling; people want an authentic experience with a company.”

As an example of how the firm partners with its clients, Modestow referenced the Wyndham Hotel Group and some of its specific brands, including one in particular — Travelodge.

“It was kind of an old brand with old, tired signage,” she explained, noting that, at the time, Wyndham hadn’t put much emphasis on branding, but has since changed that attitude. “We helped refresh the Travelodge brand, we helped them with an ad campaign, and we helped them with a new way to talk about themselves.”

Another example is work with Svedka to launch a new line of spiked seltzers. The company designed the cans in a way that were true to the Svedka brand but also resonated within the growing spiked-seltzer product category, said Don Magri, the company’s chief financial officer.

“They came to us with a good amount of research that they had already done on their consumer and who they were really trying to target,” he explained. “You go through iterations, but you’re really trying to creating a design that is true to the brand going into a new category, but also hitting the demographic they’re trying to reach.”

Looking down the road, those at BRIGADE said they look to continue providing clients with what they call ‘responsive branding,’ so that they are ready for the future and their brands are as well.

In short, they aim to do what the company’s done from the beginning — grow with its clients.

“We want to grow and create new opportunities for our employees and then for the people who don’t work here yet,” said Magri. “Growth for the sake of growth is not something we’re interested in, but growth for the sake of growing our skills and growing our client base and securing our client mix is our plan.”

Bottom Line

In other words, the company is going to continue doing what it’s been doing from the start, back when work was being done on Modestow’s kitchen table and her refrigerator was getting filled with employees’ lunches.

The company has come a long way since then — a quick tour of the facilities at 195 Russell St. make that clear — but the guiding principles remain the same.

And those are to tell the client’s story and create an authentic experience that resonates. When you that, it’s a lot easier to do what BRIGADE has done with and for Svedka and all its other clients — be along for the ride.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Education

A Healthy Relationship

Springfield College’s recent visitors from China

Springfield College’s recent visitors from China included, from left, Wang Di, Dr. Huang Yizhuan, Cao Xiaojie, Wang Xinran, and Li Dehua.

One side of Sue Guyer’s business card bears the Springfield College logo, address, and website, and declares that she is a doctor of physical education (DPE), is athletic-trainer-certified (ATC), and a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS).

It also notes that she is chair of Exercise Science and Sport Studies and professor and clinical education coordinator of the Athletic Training Program at the college.

On the other side, it says all or most of that — in Chinese.

And she’s far from the only one at the 133-year-old college handing out business cards also printed in that language — one of the many visible signs of a relationship between the college and businesses, educational institutions, and civic leaders in that country that goes back decades and has only grown stronger in recent years.

Indeed, Guyer has handed out her card with the Chinese version facing up on countless occasions, including several visits there, including her first, in 2008, just before the Summer Olympics were staged in Beijing.

“We took 17 students over for an academic/cultural experience,” she recalled. “And China seemed to be the perfect place to go because we were looking at sports medicine — eastern and western approaches — and we were also looking at human performance, and we have relationships with multiple institutions in China.”

“We decided that, rather than go over there all the time, we would keep our expertise here and have them come to us.”

Many of those words and phrases — including ‘academic/cultural experience’ and ‘perfect place to go’ were no doubt uttered by those participating in the very latest example of this healthy relationship, one that wrapped up last week. Springfield College’s School of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation hosted 16 Chinese educators for intensive instruction in sports performance and sports medicine.

The participants, who hailed from several different cities and represented a number of institutions and businesses, received instruction and insight into everything from concussions to sport nutrition to the principles of treatment and rehabilitation during a two-week program focused on fitness, management, and leadership. For their efforts, they earned a certificate and continuing-education credits.

Sue Guyer

One side of Sue Guyer’s business card bears the Springfield College logo, address, and website, and declares that she is a doctor of physical education (DPE), is athletic-trainer-certified (ATC), and a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS

And for those participants, this was an eye-opening, valuable experience.

Cao Xiaojie (Andre), a coach with the Saipu Fitness Institute, the largest fitness-training academy in China, spoke with BusinessWest near the start of the two-week program. He said the course of study was different from that in China (we’ll hear more about that later), and it was intriguing to compare western approaches and techniques with those learned in China.

“There will be a lot that we can take home with us from this experience,” he said, adding that Springfield College was one of several stops he and two colleagues from the institute made during a six-week visit to the U.S. “And we’re also looking at possible opportunities to work with Springfield College in the future.”

Guyer told BusinessWest that Springfield College, known nationally and internationally for its many sports- and fitness-related programs, has been fielding a growing number of requests from groups in China for its educators to visit that country and make presentations.

“We were getting four or five requests a year,” she explained. “And we decided that, rather than go over there all the time, we would keep our expertise here and have them come to us. That was the main impetus for putting this summer’s program together; we couldn’t meet all the requests to go there.”

The genesis of these requests is a heightened interest in sports performance, sports medicine, nutrition, and other subjects, and a desire to learn what would still be called ‘western’ practices, strategies, and methods for teaching and learning, especially as the country gears up for the 2020 Winter Olympics, said Maura Bergan, assistant professor of Exercise Science and Sports Studies, director of the summer program, and another of those providing instruction to the visiting delegation.

“The summer has always been a popular time for Chinese professionals to come over to learn a little more about sport medicine, human performance, and strength conditioning,” she explained. “So this summer we really worked hard to create a mainstream curriculum, a summer conference or seminar symposium.”

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest talked with Guyer, Bergan, and some of the participants (often with help from an interpreter) to get some perspective not just on this summer’s program, but also decades of collaboration and a relationship that is healthy in every respect.

Speaking Their Language

As noted earlier, Chinese delegations visiting Springfield College to observe and learn is not exactly a recent phenomenon. In fact, Chinese students and educators have been visiting, and studying at the college for more than a century.

Maura Bergan

Maura Bergan says the curriculum for the summer program featured both theory and hands-on learning, a departure from the teaching process in China.

The origins of the relationship trace back to John Ma, a member of the Springfield College class of 1920 and graduate class of 1924. He was the first international scholar from China to visit the school, and is the founder of modern physical education in China and founder of the Chinese Sports Federation.

“We’ve had a long-standing history and relationship,” said Guyer, adding that groups have been coming to the college regularly over the past several decades.

In recent years, the college has hosted the Beijing Sports Institution’s softball team; a number of visiting coaches and educators, who would often come over for a semester at a time; the developmental hockey team; and other constituencies. And, as she mentioned earlier, the college was getting all those requests to come there.

In response to all that demand, the college decided to put together an intensive two-week summer program, one that attracted the large and diverse delegation that arrived on July 23.

Participants represented a host of institutions, including the Saipu Fitness Institute, Chengdu Sport University, the Shanghai Research Institute, the Dessy Fitness School, and the national women’s softball team.

Together, the visitors kept to a packed schedule — but one that still left time to visit Harvard, MIT, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, a fast-food restaurant, and other sites of interest (remember, this is an academic/cultural experience — with instruction representing a blend of sports medicine and injury prevention and human performance).

Specific courses included:

• “The Epidemiology of Athletic Injuries,” which focused on common injuries, contact versus non-contact injuries, and other subjects;

• ‘“An Introduction to Sport Performance,”taught by Bergan, featuring everything from a tour of facilities to instruction in training, to creation of a ‘performance plan’;

• “Components of a Warmup,” focusing on such matters as mobility, soft tissue, and preparation;

• “Introduction to Performance Testing”;

• A program on Plyometrics (jump training) and explosiveness;

• “Weight Lifting Instruction”;

• A program on conditioning focused on everything from programming to energy systems; and even

• “Music & Performance.”

Much of the instruction was hands-on, said Guyer, adding that participants were given both theory (in the morning sessions) and hands-on, practical application in the afternoon classes.

“They don’t do a lot of hands-on in China — a lot of is theory and lecture,” she explained. “So they like our approach to blending the theory with the hands-on, and that’s what makes our programs so exciting for them — they get to do what they’re learning, and that’s not a traditional learning style in China.”

As an example, she cited study of concussions. In China, these professionals would learn the textbook application of concussion with regard to what they would see and do. During this summer’s program, there was a lecture, but also work in the lab, where they practiced what they would see with a concussion, how they would evaluate one, and how they would treat it.

“We allow them to practice the skills they learn in the classroom rather than just the didactic, the theory,” she explained, adding, again, that this teaching method resonates with them.
Bergan called it a “holistic approach” to teaching sports medicine and human performance.

“We decided to combine the two together, and they get a little of both,” she explained. “They get the sports-medicine side, and they get the performance side, and that’s different and unique for them.”

Participants who spoke with BusinessWest at the start of the two program, such as Dr. Huang Yizhuan, a spinal surgeon and representative of the Chengdu Sport University, said they hoped to bring home with them new insights into sports medicine and human performance.

“It has been a learning experience,” he said through an interpreter. “This is a great opportunity for me to bring sports-medicine knowledge back to China.”

Course of Action

Bergan’s business card doesn’t have all of her information in Chinese on the reverse side — yet.

Indeed, she is planning to go visit that country this fall for still another of the many exchanges that have marked the past several decades. By then, she’ll have printing on both sides of her card.

And her visit will add another chapter to a decades-long relationship that has generated an exchange of ideas and yielded real learning experiences for people in both countries.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Sales and Marketing

Putting the Focus on Innovation

The team at GCAi

The team at GCAi: from left, John Garvey, Quinn Garvey, James Garvey, Mary Shea, and Darcy Fortune.

John Garvey isn’t shy about noting that he never worked for a large ad agency, or a ‘traditional’ ad agency, as he calls them.

In fact, he’s rather proud of that background — as are the rest of the members of the team at the agency he formed more than 30 years ago known as Garvey Communication Associates Inc., who didn’t work for a traditional agency either.

They’re all fond of saying they didn’t follow any model in creating and then shaping the firm known as GCAi, but instead created their own model.

“None of us come from an agency background,” Garvey explained. “So we put this together on our own; we didn’t throw away the book — we just didn’t really know the book was there; so we invented our own book.”

“There’s a lot of misconception out there about how Facebook works, especially with regard to advertising.”

As they talk about this book, the company’s main players — Garvey; his son, James, the social-media marketing analyst; Mary Shea, vice president of Digital Strategy; and Darcy Fortune, digital PR analyst — collectively wear out the word ‘innovation’ as they discuss evolving technology, what the company can do with and for clients with regard to this technology and using it to reach targeted audiences, and, perhaps most importantly, how they do all that.

Indeed, they’ve all become involved with MassChallenge Boston, the group that helps accelerate startups, and they’ve also assisted Valley Venture Mentors (through donations of money and expertise) in its efforts to mentor startups and expand its mission. And such work has fostered a true spirit of innovation within GCAi itself as it partners with clients to help them navigate a changing landscape within marketing and with everything from understanding and maximizing social media to corporate reputation management.

“Innovation is a stick that you have to sharpen continually,” John Garvey explained. “You literally cannot be innovative unless you have your eyes wide open and you’re looking and you’re learning and you’re challenging yourself. Being around startups … that entrepreneurialism, that innovation, is absolutely contagious. So we find ourselves thinking and acting in new and different ways.”

Such an operating mindset is necessary for a marketing firm today, said Shea, because change is constant, it’s coming from every direction, and the pace of change is only accelerating. Also, in this era of conversion, marketing firms are increasingly being judged not on their ability to garner exposure, but on sales generated by a specific campaign or strategy.

Which brings Shea to the subject of data and access to it.

“One of the most profound changes to come to marketing is marketers’ ability to use data,” she said, while summing up how the landscape has been altered by technology and why innovation is important. “It’s a seismic change in terms of our ability to get our work done.”

James Garvey, seen here presenting at a MassChallenge event

James Garvey, seen here presenting at a MassChallenge event, says companies have more access to data than ever before, and they must take full advantage of that opportunity.

Elaborating, she said Google AdWords, Facebook, and other vehicles enable marketers to send specific messages to targeted audiences in ways that simply weren’t possible decades or even a few years ago.

James Garvey agreed.

“It’s a fascinating time to be involved in social-media marketing since Facebook is in the headlines daily,” he told BusinessWest. “There’s a lot of misconception out there about how Facebook works, especially with regard to advertising. We develop messaging for clients, and we use Facebook as a means of delivering the message in a way that people can consume it, but also delivering it directly to the audience we need to reach — meaning very specific groups of people.

“For example, you can reach men or women ages 25 to 35 who live within two miles of downtown Springfield who are interested in home ownership,” he went on while elaborating. “That’s how specific you can get.”

GCAi, which boasts clients across virtually all sectors of the economy, including financial services, healthcare, transportation, and more, is a certified Google Partner (the only firm in the region to gain such status), and its qualified AdWords professionals are independently tested and certified in several different aspects of online advertising each year.

Meanwhile, the company specializes in what it calls the ‘ideation’ approach to working with clients to identify needs and challenges, map out a marketing strategy, and determine the most effective methods of getting a message across.

To explain, Shea and Fortune pointed to the whiteboards on all four walls of the GCAi conference room. Over the course of an ideation session, they will become covered with writing in the form of answers to questions asked and thoughts about what to do, strategically, with that information from a marketing and branding standpoint.

For this issue and its focus on sales and marketing, BusinessWest talked with members of the GCAi team about marketing, technology, and social media — but mostly about innovation, and how it enables the company and its clients to stay on the proverbial cutting edge of progress.

Data Driven

On the day BusinessWest visited GCAi, the whiteboards in the conference room were covered with what amounts to a bullet-pointed chronology of the firm.

Noted milestones included everything from the elder Garvey’s first work in public relations, back in college for the U.S. Youth Games, to the arrival of each staff member (Shea started as an intern in 2004, for example); from the reminder that Garvey needed a loan from his grandmother to stay afloat after the dot-com bubble burst at the start of this century and business dried up, to his self-proclaimed 15 seconds of fame when he captured a dramatic photo of the tornado that tore through downtown Springfield on June 1, 2011, an image that went viral within minutes after it was taken.

“What social-media marketing and Google AdWords has done is essentially democratize the use of data for businesses across the board. So it is a seismic shift. This is profound data; it’s not just likes and clicks.”

Mostly, though, the walls tell the story of a company responding to rapid, constant change in technology, especially within the realm of digital marketing, and using innovation to help clients make sense of it all — not an easy task in any respect — and make the very most of their marketing budgets.

Indeed, the team likes to say that GCAi, unlike many businesses today, has social media figured out, and it has created a niche of sorts as it specializes in helping clients large and small figure social media out and put all that data that is now available to good use.

“There is a lot more data available today, there’s easier access to it, it’s instantaneous, and you can use it quickly and easily to make adjustments to a campaign,” said Shea, adding that, not long ago, companies would have to spend a lot of money to access such information, which essentially limited that access.

“What social-media marketing and Google AdWords has done is essentially democratize the use of data for businesses across the board,” said John Garvey. “So it is a seismic shift. This is profound data; it’s not just likes and clicks.

But having access to data is just part of the equation. Knowing what to do with it and how to present a message to the audience being targeted … that’s the other side. And the team at GCAi has become specialists in such work, handling both aspects of this work — creating content and a message (work that falls more to Fortune and John Garvey), and devising the most efficient, cost-effective means of disseminating it, work assigned to Shea and James Garvey.

And the watchword in all aspects of this work is relevance.

“That’s the church we go to pray at,” said John Garvey, referring to that team. “If the message isn’t relevant, meaning the target audience we spoke of doesn’t react to it in a positive way, find it useful, and find it interesting, then we get penalized as marketers; it’s the modern-day equivalent of hanging up a bad ad that no one gets.”

To keep clients and their messages relevant, the GCAi team focuses on innovation, said Fortune, adding that the company’s involvement with Valley Venture Mentors and MassChallenge has helped it in a number of ways, from getting in touch with what’s happening within specific business sectors to sharpening presentation skills, to mentoring startups on the best ways to reach their audience.

“We sit with them and talk with them for maybe 10 minutes, and you can see the light go off,” said Fortune. “They’re excited to have that tidbit of information from us on how to reach people. And you get to meet people from around the world; it’s very exhilarating.”

John Garvey agreed, and noted, again, that when you hang around entrepreneurs all the time, there is a trickle-down, or rub-off, effect.

“We’re much more attuned to new and different ways of getting results,” he explained. “Our secret sauce is comprised of ingredients like energy, innovation, and ideas, and the cake that we’re trying to make is to create really meaningful and measurable results, and the only way that’s possible is through a continual search of the means and methodologies of these platforms, but also an appetite for data, the ability to digest it, break it up, understand it, and make it relevant to the client.”

James Garvey agreed, and said his technical background — he’s a graduate of BWM of North America’s STEP program and has worked for both BMW and Mercedes-Benz in the Boston and New York City markets — has helped him, and thus the firm, grasp the importance of data and measuring results.

“Having that engineering background, or training, and working with data are very similar,” he explained. “They’re very precise, measurable, and granular.”

Together, those involved with content and those focused on dissemination work together to create an overall strategy, said Shea, adding that, collectively, the team works to find the right channels to get the message across.

“You can’t fit a round peg into a square hole,” she said, adding that each platform, or channel, is different, and it’s critical to devise content that is appropriate for each one and not ease into a one-size-fits-all mentality.

John Garvey agreed. “All those platforms are arrows in our quiver, and Mary and James help us figure out the right means and methodologies to take this to market.”

And finding the right ones is now critical, said James, noting that marketing firms like GCAi are now more accountable, if that’s the proper term, when it comes to sales — or the conversion of leads into sales — than ever before.

“Marketing firms are more responsible further down in the sales funnel than we were even a few years ago,” he explained. “Before, we were measured by our ability to generate top-of-mind awareness; now, our clients hold us responsible for a full and trackable conversion, meaning that we can prove that our campaign led to a particular conversion. That responsibility totally changed.”

The Last Word

There’s been a recent addition to the décor at the GCAi suite of offices in Monarch Place — an old manual Underwood typewriter that the senior Garvey found “somewhere.”

It’s an example of where technology and this industry were a long time ago, said Fortune, and therefore a reminder of how quickly and profoundly things change.

So quickly and profoundly that trying to project a few years, or even a few months, into the future is a largely futile exercise. There’s no better way to explain why an effective marketing firm today must, or should, have an operating philosophy grounded in innovation — in constantly finding new and better ways to do business and help clients succeed.

And there’s no better way to explain why GCAi continues to grow and prosper.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Sales and Marketing

Taking Flight

Using drones, Bert Perry has captured compelling images of many area landmarks, including Mount Tom.

Using drones, Bert Perry has captured compelling images of many area landmarks, including Mount Tom.

Bert Perry says it started off as a hobby.

And it is still that, for the most part. However, it is now also a business, and one that, with each passing week, becomes more competition for his time and a source of questions about what to do about his day job.

‘It’ is a venture called Aerial 51 Studios, a play on words involving the highly classified U.S. Air Force facility in the Nevada Desert often associated with UFO folklore. But unlike its namesake, this business isn’t shrouded in mystery; for the most part, it’s a drone photography and video venture that is steadily adding clients across a broad spectrum.

They include everything from developers seeking photographs of their properties from above — as in well above — to marrying couples looking for some different photos to add to the album. He’s also shot footage used in some films, including some that have made their way onto cable television, including a Christmas story titled The Spruces and the Pines, a Romeo and Juliet-like tale about two families that own Christmas-tree farms.

Bert Perry says Aerial 51 started out as a hobby

Bert Perry says Aerial 51 started out as a hobby, but it has evolved into a growing business.

A graduate of the Rochester Institute of Technology and a graphic designer and photographer by trade, Perry has worked for a number of advertising and marketing agencies in Springfield and other markets, including Boston and New York City.

His current business card — or his other business card, to be more precise — declares that he is creative director with Guardair Corp. in Chicopee, a maker of pneumatic tools and other products.

“I love photography and saw a huge opportunity from the sky, the different perspectives you can get — things you just can’t get from the ground.”

He loves his work and plans on staying in that job, but a fascination with both drones and photography gave life to a hobby and now a business, one where the sky appears to the limit, or no limit, as the case may be.

“I love photography and saw a huge opportunity from the sky, the different perspectives you can get — things you just can’t get from the ground,” said Perry, adding that images from above have always been dramatic and effective from a marketing perspective, and drone technology makes them more accessible and affordable.

But one has to know what they’re doing, when it comes to both the drone and the camera, he told BusinessWest, adding that both are certainly acquired skills.

And in the case of drones, at least when they’re used for commercial ventures, one must have a pilot’s license, he explained.

“I went on the third day that they offered the test,” he said, adding that, to gain such a license, one must study everything from FAA rules and regulations to weather to how to communicate with air-traffic-control towers.

“There’s a lot to it, and it was all very new to me, so I studied for about three months,” he said, adding that he has to retake the test again soon to keep that license.

Perry said he launched (that’s another industry term) his business three years ago. He had been practicing drone photography for some time, he explained, and as people saw his work, which he was proud to display, many became intrigued by the possibilities and hired him for assorted jobs.

Over the past few years, Perry has used positive word-of-mouth referrals and a social media presence on Facebook and other platforms to consistently add many different types of clients.

For example, he’s done some work with the operator of a large go-kart operation. Several of the photographs and much of the video has been taken from several dozen feet up, but there have been many requests for images from eight to 10 feet off the ground, a height that provides a different and often powerful perspective.

“A lot are from above, but I’m getting a lot of requests for lower shots where I move or wrap around a subject,” he explained.

He’s also done a good amount of work for developers, photographing everything from malls to former manufacturing facilities that have come onto the market. He’s also photographed a number of high-end residential properties as well, providing images from different altitudes to help grab and hold the attention of potential buyers.

And then, there’s weddings. He’s handled a few of them, including one at Springfield Country Club (also a client) where he captured the outdoor ceremony from above.

“I’ll get some unique photos of the bride and groom,” he explained, adding that shots from a few hundred feet up can provide a unique perspective. “One couple wanted me to fly during the ceremony; I was off in the background, it buzzed a little bit, but it didn’t interfere with anything.”

Perry works mostly with drones, but he’s also taken footage while hanging out the window of a helicopter in areas where drones can’t be flown.

He said he benefits from possessing a waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration that enables him to fly drones at night, and also a background in graphic design that helps him devise ways to imaginatively frame his subjects and use visual images to convey messages.

He said most of his work has come outside the Greater Springfield market, but he’s hoping to add more local work to his growing portfolio as companies in this area realize the full potential of drone photography to help get a message across.

Looking ahead, he said he’s not sure where this venture will land (still another industry term). He knows only that this isn’t a hobby anymore, and hasn’t been one for a while now.

Rather, it’s a business seeking to reach new heights — in all kinds of ways.

— George O’Brien

Meetings & Conventions

Meeting Expectations

Rendering of the event spaces at MGM Springfield.

As MGM Springfield continues the final countdown to its Aug. 24 opening, the company is starting to generate considerable momentum in what will undoubtedly be one of the most important aspects of its operations — hosting meetings and conventions. MGM is creating what is being called a ‘campus,’ one that should catch the attention of groups planning everything from product showcases to association conventions to weddings.

Monique Messier was a little late for her scheduled conversation with BusinessWest, but there was a good reason — one that gave her something else to talk about.

Indeed, she was wrapping up work to book the first wedding at the hotel at MGM Springfield, and those talks took a little longer than expected.

Messier, executive director of sales for MGM Springfield, didn’t share too many details about that wedding other to say that it was booked for September — only a few weeks after the facility opens its doors — and that the couple was excited to be tying the knot in the glittering, new $950 million casino complex — and more excited that they would be the first to do so.

“It’s someone who knew they wanted to be in MGM,” she explained, referring to the short time frame between the booking and the nuptials. “They waited until we could get them into the building to see it, and we did; they were sold.”

Monique Messier

With the meeting and event spaces at the MGM Springfield hotel and the MassMutual Center, Monique Messier said, the company can sell a “campus” of facilities to a host of constituencies.

Messier said this will be obviously be the first of many weddings at the facility, and that such ceremonies will comprise one element in a spectrum of gatherings that can be staged at a broad portfolio of meeting and event spaces at the casino and the MassMutual Center across the street.

“It’s a resort feel coming to downtown Springfield,” she noted, adding that this ‘feel,’ as well as the views and a wide array of facilities and amenities, should move Springfield up several notches when it comes to the radar screens of event planners and business owners and managers looking for a place to gather.

MGM Springfield had an unveiling of sorts for the meeting and event spaces earlier this month, revealing photos and details of some of the rooms. Officials there have been offering tours this spring and summer to event planners and other groups, but thus far it has mostly kept those spaces under wraps.

What’s becoming clear, though, is that what’s under those wraps is spacious, unique, and versatile, and that, collectively, the facilities provide Greater Springfield with a great opportunity to attract more events of all kinds. Already, there has been considerable interest, said Messier.

“We’re working with hundreds of groups already, and we’re in the process of trying to get as many groups as we can under contract,” she explained, adding that, while she couldn’t name clients that have signed on, there is a mix of groups and companies from within the 413 and outside it as well. “I think we’ll see quite a few new faces coming into downtown Springfield with all the different groups that have already shown interest in us here.”

In all, there will be 34,000 square feet of event and meeting spaces at the casino complex. There will also be abundant natural light and a host of indoor and outdoor options.

“We’re working with hundreds of groups already, and we’re in the process of trying to get as many groups as we can under contract. I think we’ll see quite a few new faces coming into downtown Springfield with all the different groups that have already shown interest in us here.”

Many of the individual facilities will incorporate the names of some of MGM’s sister properties in an effort to highlight the resort’s connection to other top destinations around the country.

There’s the 10,600-square-foot Aria Ballroom, a nod to the resort and casino in Las Vegas that opened in 2009; the smaller (5,600-square-foot) Bellagio Boardroom, named after another MGM property on the Vegas strip; the 1,000-square-foot Borgota Meeting Room, named after the Borgata Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City; and the 1,000-square-foot Beau Rivage Boardroom, a nod to the MGM property in Biloxi, Miss.

There will also be the renovated former National Guard Armory (most recently used as the South End Community Center) that will offer a unique, 4,800-square-foot room that will enable the groups that book it to stretch their imaginations and create an environment to suit their specific needs.

“This is a gorgeous, open area,” she told BusinessWest. “Groups can have high-end functions there; we can seat about 200 people banquet-style.”

Overall, the collection of spaces, coupled with the many attractions at MGM Springfield — from the casino floor itself to the Regal Cinemas complex, 10-lane bowling alley and arcade, TopGolf Swing Suite, and a variety of restaurants — will undoubtedly catch the eye of groups staging conventions, companies looking for team-building options, and a host of other constituencies.

For this issue and its focus on meetings and conventions, BusinessWest takes an inside look (not really, but it’s close) at the array of spaces at MGM Springfield and how they are expected to change the landscape when it comes to the all-important conventions business.

Space Exploration

Messier told BusinessWest that she and her sales staff will be selling the collective space at MGM Springfield and the MassMutual Center as a “campus,” because that’s truly what it is — one that boasts everything from a sports arena capable of seating nearly 10,000 people and huge convention spaces, to the hotel, its 252 rooms, 16 suites, and assorted ballrooms, boardrooms, and restaurants; from an open-air plaza inspired, Messier said, by the classic New England town common, named Armory Square, to the bowling alley and movie theaters.

Most groups won’t need all that, but it’s there if they need it, she went on, adding that just beyond this campus are more hotels and restaurants, performance venues including Symphony Hall and CityStage, and attractions ranging from Six Flags to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Put it all together and it’s a fairly easy package to sell, she went on, adding that a number of groups and events have already been scheduled.

“We did a tour yesterday for an association that’s looking at us for April, along with another that’s looking at us for 2022,” she said. “We have business that runs the gamut, from short-term, coming in in September, to a year out, to five years out.”

And there has already been a wide range of different types of events scheduled, she on, listing everything from that first wedding to this fall’s annual Bright Nights Ball, to take place in the Aria Ballroom, to a host of meetings and conventions.

In designing the spaces, MGM wanted to capture the flavor of Las Vegas and other gaming and convention hot spots, not just with the names on the venues, but with their luxurious look and feel and also the way they promote collaboration, interaction, and productivity, said Messier, adding quickly that there are considerable amounts of local flavor and personal touches.

The hotel was designed in a way that recognizes Springfield’s industrial roots, she noted, while eclectic artwork evokes this region’s creative iconography, visually referencing Dr. Seuss, Emily Dickinson, and Merriam-Webster Dictionary, among others.

The spaces will also be adaptable, she said, adding that while the Aria ballroom can hold up to 540 and the Ballagio up to 360, they can be configured to seat smaller gatherings.

‘Adaptable’ is also a word that can be used to describe the former Armory.

All of the meeting spaces are on the second floor of the hotel, and running the full length of those spaces is a terrace that looks out on Armory Square, with the Armory itself in the middle of the plaza, she explained, adding that these views are still another selling point when it comes to this campus.

“When you walk through our space, the whole terrace is open, and natural light floods in,” she said. “It’s an amazing view of the whole property.”

Messier said the collection of facilities within the campus she described will be especially appealing to business groups and individual companies.

Indeed, the various spaces can be utilized for everything from product showcases to annual retreats and sales meetings; from those increasingly popular team-building exercises to gatherings to entertain and recognize clients, vendors, and employees.

Bottom Line

Summing up what’s she’s seeing and hearing on the phone — from potential clients, her sales staff, and that couple getting married at MGM in a few months — Messier said the City of Homes and the region surrounding it are gaining the attention of a wide range of constituencies.

“I feel like there is revitalized interest in coming to Springfield,” she said. “With all the great attractions we already have in the area, for clients to be able to book here, bring their clients here, bring their salespeople here, bring their company outings here … it’s a classic win/win for people.”

As she mentioned earlier, it’s quite an attractive package, and one that’s already starting to sell itself.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Construction

Creating a Solid Foundation

This lake home in Westhampton

This lake home in Westhampton is one of the many projects in Keiter Builders’ portfolio of residential projects.

While earning his master’s degree in finance at the University of Rhode Island, Scott Keiter wasn’t thinking about using it to manage his own construction company. But after a dose of the ‘real world,’ as he called it, while working for an insurance company, his passion for carpentry took his career in a completely different direction. In a short decade, Keiter Builders has constructed a solid business foundation and a diverse portfolio of projects across several disciplines.

Scott Keiter likes to say his company is what he calls “a typical Valley builder.”

By that, he means it is relatively small, at least when compared to outfits in larger cities, boasts a diverse portfolio — out of necessity and good business sense more than anything else — is agile, and also always looking to add new disciplines to the equation.

Florence-based Keiter Builders is quite atypical, however, in that it is a first-generation company, started just 10 years ago, almost at the height of the Great Recession (we’ll get back to that challenge later), and therefore doesn’t have a long history.

Indeed, most of the builders in the 413 can boast in their ads — and on the sides of their trucks — that they were launched a half-century or more ago. Their principals can talk about starting out working for their fathers, who can talk about starting out working for their fathers.

Scott and Jill Keiter.

There isn’t any of that Keiter Builders, said Scott, who noted that his father is an aerospace engineer and he himself earned a master’s degree in economics at the University of Rhode Island, and while he was earning it, thoughts of putting it to use to manage his own construction company rarely, if ever, entered his mind.

However, and this is a big ‘however,’ Keiter worked as a carpenter during the summer while in high school and college, developed somewhat of a passion for building, and stayed in touch with the industry throughout his education.

“I tried different careers, and between my bachelor’s degree and my master’s degree, I went to work for State Farm Insurance in auto claims — that was my introduction to the real world,” he said. “Which wasn’t for me; when I got my master’s degree, I decided I needed a break and went back to carpentry.”

To move the story along, things “progressed,” as he put it, deploying a word he would use early and often, and Keiter Builders started to establish a foothold and begin its transformation into, well, a typical Valley builder.

Download the PDF: List of General Contractors

Today, as noted, it is diverse, specializing in commercial, residential, and institutional work, with clients including Smith College and Amherst College, a number of smaller businesses in and around Paradise City, and the city of Northampton itself — Keiter is currently handling a number of projects within Look Park, for example.

As much as Scott Keiter is into building dwellings, commercial spaces, and softball diamonds, among other things, right now he’s mostly engaged in building his business, a process that, like most, he finds enjoyable, but also quite challenging, given the pressures of what comes day to day.

“One of my challenges is looking ahead,” he explained. “You’re just so busy as a small-business owner, it takes everything you’ve got just to get through the day, but you need to focus on tomorrow as well as today.”

With that in mind, he wants to continuously expand the portfolio, and he’s doing that through various initiatives, everything from investments in the ‘heavy construction division,’ as he called it, which is pursuing subsurface utility work, trenching, and heavy civil projects, to efforts toward gaining certification to handle work for the state Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance, or DCAM, which would enable it to pick up work at UMass Amherst and other state-run facilities (more on all that later).

For this issue and its focus on construction, BusinessWest turns the spotlight on Keiter Builders, a comparatively young firm that has constructed a solid business foundation and is looking to continue building upon it.

By the Booklet

As part of those business-building efforts he described, Keiter said the company has become more aggressive in its efforts to promote its brand.

Like most all builders, large and small, word-of-mouth referrals have always been the most effective marketing tool, but the company has added another component with a slick promotional brochure that Keiter and his staff, including his wife, Jill, invested considerable time and energy in and are quite proud of.

This booklet does a very effective job of explaining the company’s depth and agility — or that ‘progression,’ as Keiter described it, while detailing not only what it does, but also, and perhaps more importantly, how.

Indeed, it devotes pages to the firm’s work to carefully develop a sound pre-construction strategy and manage the construction process and meet the most fundamental of objectives in this highly competitive business — finishing on time and to the specifications set by the client.

But it mostly focuses on wide array of projects in the portfolio.

That list includes everything from a telescope observatory dome at Smith College to the memorial fountain at Look Park; from the Valentine Hall rooftop deck at Amherst College to the work at Roberto’s restaurant in Northampton; from the new Northampton offices of the law firm Bacon Wilson to the Convino Wine Bar in Thornes Marketplace.

It also includes an addition and renovation to the optical studios almost directly across Main Street in Florence from the Keiter offices, as well as a host of new homes, remodelings, and additions.

Overall, that brochure shows a great deal of progression in a decade and how quickly the company has been able to establish itself within this market.

And remember, it started at the height of the recession. Well, sort of.

“We weren’t really a construction company at that time,” said Keiter, adding that the enterprise amounted to him handling a wide array of carpentry work. “We went out and just built a network of clients, and kept at it.”

By that he meant, well, a lot of things, including taking whatever jobs he could get, eventually adding his first employee and then more as the project list grew — “we’re really fortunate to have an excellent group of craftsmen working for us” — and lots of hard work building the solid relationships that are the very bedrock of this sector.

The softball field at Smith College

This relationship-building ability is clearly evident in the list of projects the company is currently handling, including several smaller initiatives at both Smith and Amherst Colleges, for which Keiter has already handled a number of assignments, and ongoing work at Look Park — which is in the midst of a comprehensive capital-improvement project. Renovation of Pines Theater is among the current initiatives.

There are a also a few residential projects ongoing, as well as a new building to support teen housing being developed by a Greenfield-based group called Dial/Self, said Keiter, adding that the company continues to build on the relationships it has forged in its early years while also establishing new ones.

“I don’t think there’s a defining moment over the past 10 years when it comes to how we’ve arrived here,” Keiter explained. “We try to take a long-term approach to our work as it relates to the quality, but also the relationships, and that’s really paid off for us.”

He offered Smith College as an example.

“We’ve been working with them for about six years,” he explained. “We started off doing very small projects, and we’ve just earned their respect and worked our way up to being involved with larger projects. As a first-generation company, we have to consistently prove our value.”

The company currently handles work within a relatively small geographic radius — roughly 15 miles from its Florence base, by Keiter’s estimates — but it is looking to expand that reach as well as its list of core competencies.

Keiter Builders handled renovations of the common area at Amherst College, one of its many institutional clients.

Indeed, Keiter, as noted, is currently investing in a heavy-construction division — a subsidiary of the company, actually — based in Hatfield. This division pursues work with utilities and larger contractors and focus on excavating, trenching, and site work, and it has been growing steadily, said Keiter.

Such diversification is important, especially for a sector so profoundly impacted by downturns in the economy.

“We need to stay engaged in many different disciplines,” he explained. “Sometimes, when commercial or institutional is a little slow, the residential fills the gaps. We really enjoy all the different kinds of projects; it keeps us sharp.”

Meanwhile, the company now owns a number of properties in the Northampton area and will look to develop them, said Keiter, adding that he’s eyeing a mix of commercial and residential development opportunities.

Then there’s the process of becoming DCAM-certified, which, Keiter said, should open a number of doors, including the large one involving UMass Amherst.

“We’re starting to enter the public arena,” he told BusinessWest, adding that DCAM certification should be a catalyst for growth within the heavy-construction division as well as the traditional contracting side of the venture.

Building a Legacy

Keiter, who has young children, said that someday, maybe his company can be one of those that boasts multiple generations of ownership and a half-century of history.

“I really enjoy building the business — it’s a pleasure to build a legacy,” he explained. “My hope is that maybe, sometime down the line, there will be a second generation.”

For now, he’s focused on that business- and legacy-building process, and said the formula for doing that is pretty straightforward.

“You have to keep grinding and building a reputation,” he explained. “And in our industry, there are no shortcuts to doing that.”

Indeed, there’s just hard work — on the job site and in creating and strengthening relationships. And success in those realms has enabled Keiter to come a in way in a short decade.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Commercial Real Estate

Lots of Potential

 

Evan Plotkin, left, with parking attendants Joe Martin, middle, and Damien Denesha

Evan Plotkin, left, with parking attendants Joe Martin, middle, and Damien Denesha at the new service just outside 1350 Main St.

Valet parking isn’t exactly a novel concept; banquet halls, restaurants, and hospitals have been offering that service for years, if not decades. But it is when it comes to downtown Springfield’s office towers. One Financial Plaza recently introduced the concept, and in a few weeks, it is living up the promise first foreseen a decade ago.

Evan Plotkin says he first conceived of the idea of instituting valet parking at 1350 Main St. in downtown Springfield — the office tower he co-owns — almost 10 years ago.

Then, as now, he thought the service would bring a needed, higher level of convenience to people visiting professionals and other tenants in the tower, take some off the rough edge off Springfield when it comes to the issues of parking and enforcement of same — matters that can keep some from even venturing into the city to do business — and be another selling point when it comes to attracting new tenants and prompting existing tenants to re-up.

So why did it take a decade for the concept to become reality and, according to early projections, fulfill all that promise?

“I couldn’t really afford it back then,” said Plotkin, who laughed as he said that but was nonetheless quite serious with his tone. But there were other reasons as well, ranging from the economy — that was the height of the recession — to some logistics (getting all the needed approvals from the city), to a vibrancy level that needed to still come up a notch for this to really work. Or two notches. Or three.

All of those issues, including the notches of vibrancy, are now being referred to with the past tense, or certainly will be when MGM Springfield opens its doors in a month. So Plotkin and the other owners of 1350 Main have made that dream from a decade ago a reality, and they’re off to a fast start, by Plotkin’s estimates, with this valet parking venture, which also serves visitors of neighboring City Hall, the county courthouse a block or so away, and other nearby facilities, at the start of this month.

That was the Fourth of July week, as you’ll recall, so the numbers have to be kept in perspective, said Plotkin, adding that those first few days, the attendants were parking 25 to 30 cars a day. By early the next week, the numbers had doubled, and on July 12, a Thursday, they parked 73 cars.

“And I think those numbers will just continue to grow as more people become aware of the service,” said Plotkin, adding that roughly half of the customers thus far have been visitors to City Hall, more than a third have ventured to 1350 Main, and the rest have had other destinations in mind.

The service, managed by Valet Park of America, is roughly as expensive as traditional parking, said Plotkin, noting that the cost is $2 for 20 minutes or less (enough time for a quick visit to tenants at 1350 Main or offices in City Hall), $4 for visits ranging from 20 minutes to two hours (enough time to go the gym on the building’s ninth floor), and $2 for each additional hour after that. Several tenants at 1350 Main already provide vouchers to visitors to cover the cost of the service, just as they would with normal parking.

The service, operated on what’s known as City Hall Place, has a few spaces right outside City Hall, roughly two dozen more in the Civic Center Parking Garage, and more in the lots under I-91, said Plotkin, adding that, with the way the concept is catching on, more may be needed.

This isn’t exactly a novel idea — valet parking has been used by banquet facilities, restaurants, and hospitals for years now. But it is for an office tower, at least in this market, said Plotkin, adding that, as he surveyed a changing landscape downtown and pending changes, especially MGM, he decided it was time to execute that plan he first conceived all those years ago.

“We looked at what was happening downtown, and the construction for MGM and the [I-91] viaduct creates a lot of conversation about parking, and it’s always pretty negative,” he explained. “I really wanted to get ahead of all that with our building.”

Elaborating, he said 1350 Main St. doesn’t have any structured parking (an attached garage or lot) and has historically been challenged by having to rely on nearly facilities. And with MGM set to open, that challenge, and the perception of parking issues, would only grow.

“Visitors there will utilize that garage, but they’ll also be looking for other places to park,” he noted. “And what happens is that regular people who just want to do business downtown will have this fear that it’s going to be challenging to find a space. People will say, ‘it’s a hassle; I don’t want to feed a meter all day.’”

Thus far, the service is doing just what he thought it would. It’s providing that layer of convenience for visitors, his tenants seem to like the service and consider it added value, and, in Plotkin’s mind, it’s helping to put a friendlier face on downtown Springfield.

Or at least a strong counter to the parking patrol that polices the central business district. Those individuals are just doing their jobs, he said, but they put visitors to the downtown area and his building on edge — and sometimes dent their wallet.

Valet service is “putting a positive face on parking in Springfield,” said Plotkin, who has been a tireless promoter and supporter of Springfield and especially and its downtown, and was recognized by BusinessWest as one of its Difference Makers for 2018 for those efforts. “There’s a negative connotation with those meter maids. People don’t like to get $50 tickets; they see those people coming, and they run out of the middle of a meeting or a lunch to put quarters in the meter.”

He said the arrival of MGM Springfield will certainly drive the numbers at the valet service higher and bring the business venture closer to and eventually past the break-even point he knew he couldn’t reach a decade ago.

Damien Denesha, recently named manager of this site by his employer, Valley Park of America, agreed.

“Once MGM opens, there will be a lot more people downtown, and parking will become more difficult,” he told BusinessWest. “Demand for this service will certainly grow.”

It took a decade for the concept Plotkin first put on paper to become reality. But thus far, the service seems to have, well, lots of potential, in every sense of that phrase.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Features

Back to the Future

Opened in 1956 and hardly touched since, Westfield State University’s Parenzo Hall will soon have a 21st-century feel and house 21st-century initiatives.

Ramon Torrecilha says that when it opened in 1956, Parenzo Hall, the first building on what was then Westfield State College’s new campus on Western Avenue, housed “pretty much everything.”

That included classrooms, the dining hall, a large auditorium, administrative offices — yes, everything, said Torrecilha, president of what is now Westfield State University.

Over time, many all of those facilities moved somewhere else. The dining commons went in Scanlon Hall, new classroom facilities were built, and a number of administrative offices were moved down Western Avenue to the building, acquired by the college nearly 20 years ago, that was once the world headquarters for Stanley Home Products, later Stanhome.

But Parenzo remains an important center of activity of the school, as home to everything from a gym to labs to gatherings in that auditorium. Yet, while still relevant, Parenzo needed a 21st-century feel, and, more importantly, a 21st-century function — or several of them.

It will get both as the university embarks on a $40 million project likely to commence in 2020.

Indeed, the building will be modernized and brought up to current codes. But even more importantly, it will be home to some forward-thinking initiatives, said Torrecilha, referring specifically to the planned Center for Innovation and Education and the Center for Student Success and Engagement.

The former will leverage technology and serve as what Torrecilha called the “nexus for innovative collaboration in Western Mass.” and partner with community colleges, K-12 school districts, and industry partners. The latter, meanwhile, will strive to improve student outcomes and also address the continuing decline in the number of working-age adults.

Parenzo’s auditorium was packed on July 10 as a number of civic and economic-development leaders, college faculty and staff members, and even some students were on hand to see and hear Gov. Charlie Baker and other members of his administration talk about the legislation known as H.4549, “An Act Providing for Capital Repairs and Improvements for the Commonwealth,” a bill Baker signed that afternoon amid considerable fanfare.

The measure authorizes nearly $4 billion to address statewide capital needs, including higher-education campuses, health and human services facilities, state office buildings, public-safety facilities, and courts.

Gov. Charlie Baker signs H.4549, which includes $21 million for Parenzo Hall.

When he was asked by BusinessWest what inspired state officials to direct $21 million of that money toward Parenzo Hall — an amount to be matched by the university itself — Torrecilha said it was much more than the need to put a modern face on a 62-year-old building that certainly needed one. “It’s never been renovated,” he noted. “We still have the original windows, there are ADA issues, and there are a host of other improvements that need to take place; it doesn’t even have air conditioning.”

Indeed, what certainly resonated, he said, was what the college intended to do with the new Parenzo.

And to determine what that new life would be, Torrecilha said he essentially “hit the road” and visited a number of the school’s partners — a large constituency that includes the four area community colleges, the K-12 community, especially in Westfield, Holyoke, and Springfield, the Economic Development Council of Western Mass., and the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce — asking what they would like to see and gain from a new Parenzo.

“I asked, ‘how would a renovated Parenzo help you advance your mission,’’ he recalled, adding quickly that the respective mission vary, obviously, and that fact was reflected in the answers to that inquiry.

And it also reflected in the broad new strategic plan for Parenzo and the two new centers that will be based there.

The ‘Center for Innovation in Education and Industry Partnerships,’ is aptly named, he explained, because it will focus on the two distinct and equally important initiatives.

“We intend to work very closely with industry in Western Mass. so the university can partner with them in create programs and curriculum that support their operations,” he explained, adding that the EDC and the chamber will among the partners in this endeavor. “It’s about engaging with industry, doing needs assessments, and then turning to our faculty and programs and say ‘how can we help this particular industry in developing more skills and knowledge (in perspective employees) so the business is supported.”

The university, its faculty, and administrators already engage in such conversations with industry leaders, but the new center will take the dialogue — and the various forms of response — to a much higher level.

Meanwhile, the center will also focus on innovation in education, with a strong focus on technology, Torrecilha noted, adding that there are a number of significant changes taking place in how subject is taught — or can be taught — and the center will work to help WSU various partners, including the K-12 community and the community colleges, make the most of this technology.

“Because of technology, the learning process is being revolutionized,” he explained. “Today, there are digital laboratories, and the way we are teaching chemistry, physics, and even biology is changing. Those days when people would dissect a frog … all that can now be done digitally, and one of the things I’m envisioning is for the center to work with the K-12 community and our community college partners to set up that kind of exchange and partnerships.”

Torrecilha said that work will soon begin to blueprint what the new Parenzo will look like and how its spaces will be apportioned. He doesn’t have specific answers yet, but did say the school will make the very most of what is still a valuable asset.

“The building is 90,000 square feet, and we’re going to use every inch of it,” he said.

Thus, the building most associated with the school’s past, will play a very prominent role in its future.

— George O’Brien

Cover Story

This Is a Laughing Matter

Pam Victor and Scott Braidman

Pam Victor and Scott Braidman will soon open what they believe is the first improv club in Western Mass.

Pam Victor is official president and founder of Happier Valley Comedy, but she prefers the title ‘head of happiness.’ It’s effective, and she likes it, and as the founder, she said picking her title is one of the rewards of her job. The far bigger reward, though, is changing people’s lives — just as hers was changed — through improvisation.

Pam Victor refers to it affectionately as simply ‘the experiment,’ or, more formally, the ‘can-I-make-a-living-doing-what-I-love experiment.’

It was undertaken back in the summer of 2014, and the premise was pretty simple. Victor was going to see if she could make $16,000 a year — the poverty level for a family of two back then — through a business based on improvisation.

She was confident — well, sort of — that she would meet or surpass that threshold, but at the start, she was already thinking about the great blog post she would have if she didn’t.

“‘An artist can’t even break the poverty line,’ or something like that, is what I would have written,” Victor recalled, adding that she never had to submit that blog post, because she greatly exceeded her goal by teaching improvisation and using it to help professionals and others achieve any number of goals, including one she calls the ability to “disempower failure,” which we’ll hear more about later.

Today, that nonprofit business Victor started, called Happier Valley Comedy, continues to grow while carrying out a simple mission — “to bring laughter, joy, and ease to Western Massachusetts (and the world).”

It does this through three business divisions:

• Classes in improvisation. Victor started with one, and there are now eight a week, and there’s a waiting list for some of them;

• Comedy shows, such as the one on June 9 at the Northampton Center for the Arts, featuring the Ha-Has, the comedy group Victor started; and

• Personal and professional growth through use of improvisation, what the company calls its ‘Through Laughter’ program. Victor and her team visit companies, groups, and professional organizations and undertake exercises — usually highly interactive in nature — designed to help bolster everything from confidence levels to communication to team building.

It’s not what many people think of when they hear ‘improv’ — people taking to the podium and talking off the cuff (stand-up comedy) or even some of those other things people might conjure up; “we don’t cluck like chickens, and we don’t do ‘trust falls,’” said Victor. People do stand in circles, sometimes, and they do take part in exercises together.

Many of them are designed to address self-confidence and what has come to be known as the ‘impostor syndrome,’ said Victor, adding that this afflicts everyone, not just women, although they often seem especially vulnerable to it.

“I see it in my female colleagues, and I see it stop us from manifesting our successes because we talk ourselves out of success before we even have a chance to get into the ring,” she explained, referring specifically to the voice inside everyone that creates doubt and thoughts of inadequacy.

Happier Valley visits companies, groups, and organizations

With its Through Laughter program, Happier Valley visits companies, groups, and organizations and undertakes exercises designed to boost everything from confidence levels to communication to team building.

“The improv exercises help us step into the unknown and step into possibilities,” she went on. “It’s a muscle that we can strengthen, and every time we do it, we strengthen that muscle.”

Meghan Lynch, a principal with the marketing group Six Point Creative, has become a big believer in improv. She was first introduced to it when Victor did a presentation at a women’s leadership group, and Lynch then arranged to have Happier Valley come to her company. There have been several workshops, and as employees are added, Lynch schedules what are known as ‘improv workout sessions.’ Six Point even hires Happier Valley to do improv sessions as the company onboards new clients “to start the relationship off with some momentum,” as she put it.

All three divisions of this business — and the venture as a whole — are set to be taken to a much higher level with the opening of what Victor is sure is the first improv club in Western Mass.

Currently, it has another name — the “dirty vanilla box.” That’s how Victor and business partner Scott Braidman, who takes the twin titles general manager and artistic director, refer to the 1,300-square-foot space being built out at the Mill Valley Commons on Route 9 in Hadley.

There, in a retail center that Victor and Braidman have nicknamed the ‘Play Plaza’ — there’s also a tavern, an Irish dance center, a kung fu studio, and an outfit that grows coral at that location — the partners are outfitting space into classrooms and a performing area with 70 seats.

“This is the answer to a dream, really,” said Braidman as he walked within the space, noting that this will be the first improv club in Massachusetts outside of Boston, and it will enable him to meet a long-time goal of doing essentially what Victor has been doing — making improv a career.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with Victor and Braidman about their venture, which is, indeed, a laughing matter — and also a very unique enterprise that is changing businesses, and changing lives, through improvisation.

Getting into the Act

As one might expect, Victor, who takes the title ‘head of happiness,’ uses humor early and often to communicate her points.

Consider this response to the question about why she believes her improvisation classes have caught on to the point where there is that waiting list.

“It’s cheaper than therapy,” she deadpanned, adding quickly that, in many ways, that’s not a joke. Her classes — $22 to $25 for each of eight classes — are much, much cheaper than therapy. And from what she’s gathered, they are just as effective, as we’ll see.

Three years or so later with those classes and the other divisions within Happier Valley Comedy, the experiment is more or less ancient history. The matters at hand now are building out that dirty vanilla box and substantially updating the business plan to reflect everything this facility can do for this nonprofit venture.

Before looking ahead, though, to tell this story right, we first need to look back — about 15 years or so, to be exact.

That’s when the clouds parted, as Victor put it in a piece she wrote about her venture for Innovate 413, and “the Great Goddess of Improv locked me in a fierce tractor beam with songs of love and connection.”

Happier Valley logo

Thus began what can be called a career in improv. But things developed very slowly after that.

Victor took one leap of faith, as she called it, when she founded an improv troupe that played mostly in libraries as fundraisers. And she took another one in 2012 when she summoned the courage to spend five weeks in Chicago studying at the mecca of longform improv, the iO Theater.

She took a third leap, perhaps the biggest, a few years later, when, after the son she had homeschooled for 10 years went off to college, she waged that aforementioned experiment.

“I tried everything,” Victor said when recalling the early days and her efforts to promote improv and its many benefits. “Classes, writing about it, doing corporate-training workshops, speeches — anything I could do, I tried. And sure enough, it worked out.”

By that, she meant that after six months, not a year, she had passed that $16,000 threshold and, more importantly, had gained the confidence to launch a business, officially a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, that would be called Happier Valley Comedy.

“It was one of those experiences where not thinking about the impossibility of it was quite advantageous,” said Victor, using more humor as she put into perspective the experience of launching a business based on improv in a region that was essentially an improv desert. “Ignorance is power in some ways.”

In the beginning, she started with one set of classes — titled “The Zen of Improv” — and doubts about just how many there could eventually be.

“I thought I had run out of the number of people who were interested in taking improvisation in the Pioneer Valley — those 12 people,” she said, adding that some of those original students signed up for more, and, to her surprise, there were many more people willing to take seats than she imagined.

Why? Maybe because it is cheaper than therapy, she told BusinessWest, adding that few of her students actually want to perform improv. They sign up because the sessions are fun and they give participants a chance to experience what Victor calls “the true meaning of community.”

“People seem to find that the classes have a great deal of impact outside of the classroom as well,” she explained. “People regularly tell me that improv has changed their life, and that’s a good feeling. It’s a fantastic community of people, and you get to make a whole bunch of new friends, which is rare as an adult.

“Improv is a team sport,” she went on. “We’re seeking joy, we’re seeking ease, and we’re also seeking how to make our scene partners look good; people learn how to be of service to each other and to the moment, so there’s a lot of mindfulness to it as well.”

As Victor and her team would discover, these improv classes were not only popular and effective, but demographically unique within the improv world in that they were and still are dominated by middle-aged professional women and not the younger men that are the norm.

“We’re the unicorn of improv, or Wonder Woman’s island,” said Victor, adding that she’s not really sure why her classes take on this demographic shape, but she’s clearly proud and quite happy that she doesn’t have the problem most other improv groups have — attracting women.

She would, however, like to attract more men … but that’s another story.

Grin and Bear It

As for the Through Laughter division of the company, it has also enjoyed steady growth, said Victor, adding that Happier Valley Comedy uses improv within that broad realm of personal and professional development to improve people’s lives at home and in the workplace.

And this aspect of her business takes on a number of forms, she said, citing, as just one example, an interactive presentation she’s done with groups such as the Women Business Owners Alliance called “Meet Your Evil Eye Meanie: How the Voice of Unhelpful Judgment Is Getting in Your Way.”

It uses improv exercises and humorous stories to help women identify and disempower their fear-based internal critical voice in order for them better manifest their professional dreams.

“As my comedy hero Tina Fey says, ‘confidence is 10% hard work and 90% delusion,” she noted. “The primary focus of my job is to help people quiet their voices of unhelpful judgment and get to the ‘delusion’ that leads to success.”

And with that, she again referenced the ‘impostor syndrome.’ In her efforts to help people address it, Victor has actually put a name to the problem, or at least to the voice inside people that causes all the trouble.

Pam Victor says improv is cheaper than therapy

Pam Victor says improv is cheaper than therapy — and arguably a lot more fun.

“We call him ‘Calvin’ — that’s a random name; that’s the voice inside our head that is our evil critic. It’s the voice that’s constantly in our head conjugating ‘to suck’ — as in ‘I suck at this,’ or ‘you suck at this’ — it’s that super-judgmental voice,” she said, referring to things people say to themselves, out loud or under their breath.

“I teach people that voice is a liar,” she went on. “And by naming it, that helps to disempower it a little bit or make it a little more manageable, because that voice is never going to go away — that’s human nature; that’s who we are. But we can use some techniques for quieting it.”

These are improv exercises, she went on, adding that they are designed to address that impostor syndrome and the accompanying fears and doubts and be that team sport she described earlier.

She’s putting together another presentation, a workshop she’s titled “F*ck Your Fear and Trust Your Truth,” a name that speaks volumes about what she wants attendees to do — not just that day, but for the rest of their careers and the rest of their lives.

This is a part of a subcategory within the Through Laughter division devoted to personal growth and female empowerment, she explained, adding that this workshop is being designed to help women use the skills associated with improv to enable them to quiet their judgmental voices and their inner critic so they amplify their truth and speak their mind.

“This will hopefully help women on all fronts, from their personal life to their professional life,” she noted. “Women in leadership roles can hopefully get better at speaking up for themselves and being heard, even women eyeing political positions — they’re calling this ‘the Year of the Woman.’”

Lynch told BusinessWest that the use of improv has been beneficial to Six Point on many levels. It has given employees there a common vocabulary, she said, including the now-common use of the word ‘triangles.’

Explaining it is quite complicated, said both Lynch and Victor, but a triangle essentially describes a relationship between a group of people, especially employees. There are several triangles within a company, and the actions of a specific employee could impact several such relationships. The goal of triangle-related exercises is to make individuals understand how their movements impact such relationships.

“We’ll often start conversations now with ‘let me tell you about my triangles — these are the pressures I’m experiencing — you tell me about yours, and how do we work together to solve this problem?’” said Lynch. “And it’s been a game changer in terms of creating trust and open communication around those, and that’s just one example of adopting that vocabulary into our day-to-day lives in a way that improves communication.”

Both Victor and Braidman believe Happier Valley will be able to introduce more people to the notion of triangles — and many easier-to-comprehend concepts as well — as they build out that vanilla box into an improv club.

The two had been looking for a site for some time, said Braidman, adding that the nonprofit got a huge boost from the most recent Valley Gives program — $26,000, to be exact — that made creation of this new facility possible.

The location is centrally located, he went on — halfway between Amherst and Northampton and on busy Route 9 — and the space is large enough and flexible enough to host classes, performances, workshops, and more.

If all goes according to plan, he said, classes should start there in late June, and Happier Valley comedy shows will commence in August.

Passion Play

Victor told BusinessWest that Braidman will often give her some good-natured grief about her unofficial titles at Happier Valley Comedy and those assigned to other people as well. ‘Head of happiness’ is just one of hers. “Laugh leader’ is another used on occasion, and there are still others that come into play.

“I have my own business, so I get to make up my own titles,” she explained, adding that this is just one of the perks that comes from conducting that experiment, succeeding with it, and, indeed, making a business doing something she loves.

The bigger perk is changing lives, just as hers was changed, through improvisation.

It’s a reward that takes her well above the poverty line, in every way you can imagine.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]