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Strike Force

Jeff Bennett, general manager of AMF Chicopee Lanes

Jeff Bennett, general manager of AMF Chicopee Lanes, says there has been a seismic shift in the bowling industry in recent years.

Those who haven’t been in a bowling alley in decades probably wouldn’t recognize today’s centers. There are strobe lights and black lights, disc jockeys, and fine food. These are just some of the adjustments center owners have made to bring people to their doors and, more importantly, bring them back.

It is late Friday night at Shaker Bowl in East Longmeadow — or ‘Galactic Bowl’ time, as it has come to be called.

The lanes are lined with tiny rope lights, and bouncing colored-light orbs dance on the walls and floor as a disc jockey plays tunes and bowlers enjoy drinks from the bar or food from the recently expanded menu. There are also prizes awarded each night in the form of discount coupons for return visits.

“The people who are here come to hear the music and have a good time. It’s a different atmosphere – more of a nightclub feel,” said Justin Godfrey, general manager of the operation.

This scene, and Godfrey’s words, speak to just how much the business of bowling — not the game, really — has changed over the decades and especially the past several years.

Indeed, where once people came to bowl, and the only thing those who owned such establishments had to do to bring in business was unlock the front door, now there’s … Galactic Bowl and a whole host of initiatives like it. And they are the new reality.

Today, there are fewer bowling lanes in operation than even a decade ago, and those still in business would be somewhat unrecognizable to those who grew up on the game in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. Now, the lanes have black lights and strobe lights. There are music videos or disc jockeys on weekend nights to appeal to young people looking for a place to socialize with their friends. Arcade games have become a staple, and food and beverage sales figure prominently as a source of income.

Bowling, it seems, is not the thing people come to do — it’s something else they come to do.

“There has been a huge shift in the bowling business,” said Jeff Bennett, general manager at AMF Chicopee Lanes, who has been involved with the industry since the ’80s.

He noted that AMF bowling centers represent the largest operation of its type in the world, and today, some are set up more like lounges and don’t cater to leagues, which were once the backbone of the business. “They’re designed for folks who want to make food and drink as much a part of their experience as bowling.

“Centers used to have double shifts on weeknights for league play; one would start at 6 p.m., and another would begin when the first league finished at 8:30,” he went on. “Years ago, many people bowled three to four times a week; they belonged to a men’s or ladies’ league as well as a couple’s league, and food and drink only accounted for 10 to 15% of a center’s revenue.”

Jon Roberts, left, and Jim Feeley

Jon Roberts, left, and Jim Feeley are committed to making needed adjustments at Agawam Bowl, one of the few remaining candlepin facilities.

Jim Feeley, who grew up bowling and watched it every Saturday on TV, made similar observations. “When I was a youngster and young adult, I was glued to the TV set when candlepin bowling was on,” said the manager of Agawam Bowl, a candlepin operation.

He bowled on a sanctioned team at Springfield Technical High School, and today he enjoys the sport with his son. But Feeley and others who have spent years in the business say people today are too busy to make long-term commitments to league bowling, and there are so many sports and activities for young and old alike that can be done year-round, that bowling no longer takes the lead when it comes to recreational pursuits.

“Owners have had to make big investments to improve conditions and the attractions they offer at bowling centers to stay in business,” Feeley said. “It’s not easy to do well today.”

But some operations are. These are the ones who have made the necessary adjustments — and the requisite investments.

For this issue and its focus on sports and leisure, BusinessWest looks at how the game — and the business — have changed, and the types of programs bowling centers have developed to attract patrons.

No Time to Spare

Erik Semb remembers when people used to line up at the door of French King Bowling Center in Erving, just east of Greenfield, in hopes of joining a bowling league.

Some of its busiest years were from 1987 to 1991, when 300 people bowled in leagues Monday through Friday. At that time, 80% of the business consisted of league play, and 20% was open play.

But today, those numbers have become reversed, not only at French King, but at all bowling operations, and Semb cites changing demographics, attitudes, and priorities as the main reasons why.

Three decades ago, all of the area factories, including Erving Paper Mills and Strathmore Paper Co., had leagues, he noted, but when those industries left town, went to swing shifts, or downsized, business began to plummet.

Meanwhile, today’s young professionals don’t have as much time for recreation as previous generations, or so the theory goes, and there is considerably more competition for what time they do have, he went on, listing everything from the Internet to ziplines.

“It’s a commitment, and people today are so busy today,” he said of bowling and especially league play. “The average person works longer and more hours than they did 20 years ago, and there are more women in the workforce.”

So, like most all bowling facilities, French King has made necessary changes, many of which have been successful.

These include everything from a focus on corporate outings — Dylan Chevrolet in Greenfield has hosted several there, for example — to leagues that play only every other week.

“We also have black-light bowling on Friday nights and all day Saturday and Sunday,” said Semb, adding that these steps are typical of what’s taking place across the industry.

“The industry is at a crossroads,” said Shaker Bowl’s Godfrey, noting that everything about the business is different, from how the game is presented to how it’s marketed to how operations are staffed.

Indeed, most bowling centers now have an event planner on staff, he said, adding that one is necessary to make sure that the many different types of gatherings that now take place are well-planned and well-executed.

“Marketing used to be mainly done for leagues, but now you need to invest in advertising just to get people in the door,” he told BusinessWest, citing another key change. “Arcade games are huge, and many centers are going after birthday parties or offering laser tag.”

“For most people, bowling is simply a night out and a social experience,” he went on, adding that only 5% to 10% of people who bowl do so competitively. “Our goal is to elevate the guest experience; we want to create memorable experiences for every guest on every visit; it’s become our mission.”

And it’s the mission for every bowling facility, because the game itself is not enough to bring people in.

Making the needed adjustments is difficult — and costly — and many operations simply haven’t been able to keep up, said those we spoke with.

There used to be about eight 10-pin bowling lanes locally, Bennette noted, but now there are only a handful, including AMF Chicopee Lanes. “There are none in Greenfield, one in Pittsfield and one in Great Barrington,” he said, adding that few candlepin bowling lanes exist in the area, and the ones that are still open are often small operations. “Their struggle is more mighty than the 10-pin centers.”

Candlepin bowling is almost strictly a New England and Canadian sport. The main difference between 10-pin and candlepin is that, in the latter form, each player uses three balls per frame rather than two; the balls are smaller, weigh less, and don’t have finger holes; the pins are thinner; and when they are downed they not cleared away between balls during a player’s turn.

Justin Godfrey

Justin Godfrey says aggressive marketing is necessary today to get people in the doors and attract new bowlers.

The average age of bowlers at AMF Chicopee Lanes is 25 to 45, and they usually bowl at least once a week. Many are there on weekend nights, when the average age is 25 to 35.

“We have music videos playing on screens over the lanes and black lighting. It’s a very upbeat atmosphere, and people are here for two to three hours, eating and drinking while they bowl,” Bennett said, adding that, generations ago, bowling centers were often empty on weekend nights.

AMF Chicopee has two men’s leagues on Friday nights that are very competitive and a few competitive women’s leagues, but they are the exception.

In general, there are very few men-only leagues, and the remaining women’s leagues are typically made up of senior citizens, although the number of mixed leagues has grown.

AMF Chicopee’s leagues have remained at the same levels they were at 15 years ago, but Bennett says that may be true because there are fewer centers today, and whenever one closes, many of its bowlers move to the remaining centers.

Knowing the Score

Jon Roberts purchased the building Agawam Bowl is housed in on April 1, and had no plans to continue the bowling operation, but decided to do so when he found how important it was to the community.

“There aren’t many candlepin lanes left, and one woman in the senior league has bowled here for more than 50 years,” he said, noting that candlepin centers in Westfield, Holyoke, and Springfield closed over the past several years; there were at least a dozen candlepin centers in Springfield alone decades ago.

His decision to keep the business going and make needed adjustments are steps reflective of those trying to make what amounts to a 7-10 split in this business.

He reconditioned the lanes and recently hired a marketing manager, he said, citing a few examples.

Agawam Bowl offers a number of summer programs, including a Friday Night Pizza League that people can join with no commitment — each person is assigned a handicap score, and each week teams are composed of bowlers who show up. At the end of the night, the top-scoring team gets free pizza courtesy of the other bowlers.

It also started a Summer Fun Bowling program; children have to rent shoes, but if they register, they can play two free games each week.

The program has been very successful: 1,400 young people are registered, and an additional 100 family passes have been sold.

Feeley said there has been a revival of interest in candlepin bowling in Eastern Mass., but owners everywhere have had to improve conditions and add attractions.

For example, the center in Wilmington, Vt., which that was rebuilt after it was devastated by Hurricane Irene, has added a restaurant and mini-golf course.

“We have had a pretty good summer and are trying to reestablish a youth group here, but have problems because so many kids have schedule conflicts,” he said, adding that they tried adding special effects such as lights and music, but it didn’t prove popular.

However, Agawam Bowl does host its share of corporate events and birthday parties.

“The game is not out of the woods, but I have hope for the future. There are people who want to continue to go bowling at a competitive level, but we need more families to start bowling,” Feeley said.

Bennett agreed. “The game’s inexpensive, and something people can do from age 2 to 102,” he said, adding that AMF Chicopee Lanes has an e-mail club that offers discounts several times a month and other special offers for people who sign up when they bowl.

“It’s a benefit for our loyal customers,” he went on. “Marketing has had to change to keep up with time and the demographics; today people can text and get coupons, so we run contests on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook to keep in touch with young people. But our customer base is so broad that it takes a lot to keep in contact with people of all ages.”

Although the center used to target 25- to 40-year-olds, today, every age group has become a focus. There are ramps so people with handicaps can bowl, six-pound balls that can be pushed down the ramps by 3- and 4-year-olds (bumpers are put in the gutters to increase their chances of knocking down pins), and senior leagues with members in their 80s. “Millenials have fun here on Saturday nights, and we have programs that cater to all abilities and interest levels,” Bennett said.

AMF Chicopee is also the setting for many corporate outings and fund-raisers; it caters to eight to 10 groups a month and works with corporate planners to build special menus.

Semb says French King Bowling Center holds about two corporate events a month as well as a lot of Christmas and birthday parties. “When companies go out to dinner around the holidays, people usually only socialize with co-workers who sit next to them. But when they have a party here, everyone socializes with each other when they are not bowling,” he said.

Since it’s a candlepin center and the balls weigh only two pounds, six ounces, small children can enjoy it, and even preschool groups have gone to French King.

Next Generation

Although the scope of bowling has changed, many adults are introducing their children to the sport. Theresa Sherman was at Agawam Bowl with her two children, their friend, and her own friend Alicia Richter, who brought her 5-year-old daughter and 4-month-old to the lanes on a recent stifling hot day.

“My high school had a bowling program, and I came from a generation that bowled a lot and enjoyed it. My daughter is at a good age to start, so I definitely plan to bring her here more often,” Richter said.

Sherman recalled bowling lock-ins in high school, when students would spend the entire night in a center, bowling and eating pizza. “I bowl occasionally and came here when my son’s school sponsored a bowling night. We loved it and hadn’t known that there were candlepin bowling centers around here. But we discovered their summer program; the children love it, and it’s definitely a good family activity.”

Five-year-old Logan agreed. “It’s better than anything. The pins are like bad guys, and the balls are like power balls,” he said.

Indeed, although the reasons people bowl have changed, it’s still a sport and an activity which current and future generations can enjoy in a world where superstars and special effects reign.

Sections Sports & Leisure

Return to Nature

Ramblewild’s aerial adventure park

There are eight courses in Ramblewild’s aerial adventure park for people to choose from, accommodating beginners to experts.

Few people ever get the opportunity to play high in the treetops.

But at Ramblewild LLC in Lanesborough, children and adults of all ages and abilities can swing through the forest like Tarzan, climb rope ladders, and encounter a series of challenging obstacles as they make their way through a series of 15 platforms connected by bridge elements set 15 to 50 feet high in the treetops.

Program Director and Operations Manager Luke Bloom says Ramblewild’s aerial adventure park is the largest of its kind in North America.
“When we built this, our goal was to reintroduce kids to nature in an exciting way,” he told BusinessWest. “Technology has become an appendage that consumes so much of everyone’s life, and this is the first generation of children who will have to seek out the solitude of nature on their own. We want to get them excited about being stewards of the forest, and they can see the beauty and relaxation it can provide while they’re here; there is so much that can be learned from the forest.”

The focal point of the park is a central platform rising 15 feet from the ground called the Hub, which is the starting point for eight different adventure courses or trails that meander from tree to tree at various heights throughout the forest.

“We have something for everyone,” said Bloom, noting, however, that children must be at least 7 years old and 55 inches tall to enter the park. “We’re set up like a ski area and have two courses for beginners, two for intermediates, two advanced trails, and two for experts.”

They include elements that range from high wires to ziplines, balancing logs, rope ladders, cargo nets, suspended bridges, and more; four of the courses cross a ravine via ziplines that swing people 100 feet above its bottom.

Although the aerial park is decidedly the crown jewel of Ramblewild, it is far more than a place to have fun. Feronia Forests owns the 1,450-acre property, and the company has chosen not to follow the typical approach taken by most foresting companies, which involves evaluating the trees as a commodity and selling their wood for profit.

Bloom says there are no plans to harvest the trees at Ramblewild for the next 30 to 50 years, although some may be taken down to maintain the overall health of the forest. Instead, four avenues are being used to make the land profitable while sustaining its natural beauty.

platforms

Some platforms in the treetops are joined together by suspended bridges.

The first avenue is recreation, which is provided at the aerial adventure park and through an extensive network of hiking and snowshoeing nature trails that begin at the lodge and wind their way over Brodie Mountain, showcasing a wide variety of flora and fauna.

The second is education; many schools bring classes to Ramblewild to get hands-on lessons about science and history. Their programs are aligned with national STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) applications as well as the Massachusetts Common Core state standards for grades 3 to 12.

“We like to look at this as one of the largest living laboratories in the Northeast. Most classes are already studying what they come here for, and our programs are custom-designed for each teacher,” Bloom said. A 120-acre sugar forest with 6,000 taps provides the raw material for a commercial maple-syrup business, which is the third avenue of business and economic development, while the fourth is providing jobs and vocational opportunities for people in the area.

“These programs all support each other and make Ramblewild a workable, functional place where we can turn a profit without cutting down trees,” Bloom told BusinessWest, adding that wind turbines at the top of Brodie Mountain are a visible display of the power that can be generated from natural resources and also provide lessons in renewable energy.

Sustainable Projects

The philosophy and concepts employed at Ramblewild were the brainchild of Paolo Cugnasca and his daughter, Valentina Cugnasca, who are the principal investors.

“When Valentina was a student at the University of San Francisco she wrote a doctoral thesis titled ‘Tree Hugging Capitalism,’” Bloom said, explaining that the ideas that make Ramblewild successful stem from her work.

Education is a critical component, and it’s based on silviculture, defined as the art and science of controlling the establishment, growth, composition, health, and quality of forests and woodlands to meet the diverse needs and values of landowners and society on a sustainable basis.

“When school and camp groups come here, we explain how we manage our open space compared to other foresting companies, how we get the most of the forest with the least amount of damage,” Bloom noted.

Classroom lessons typically last six hours. A physics class could study the idea of bodies in motion by using the ziplines, and a fifth-grade teacher could use the course for a geology lesson because glacial scarring can be seen from the top of the mountain. There are also opportunities for natural-history lessons, and Bloom said a high-school English teacher brought a class to Ramblewild to inspire students to write poetry.

“We have a stage in the adventure park and had a high school collaborate with area jazz musicians to conduct free concerts in the forest,” Bloom noted. “The potential here is literally unlimited in terms of applicable lessons, and we make things as easy as possible for teachers.”

ropeFor example, a third-grade class might visit Ramblewild during maple-sugaring season and learn how much science is involved in tapping a maple tree, as well as how to care for it and what takes place from the root structure up to the cellular level.

“The students feel the tree, put a tap in it, and are able to taste the sap, which is the tree’s lifeblood,” Bloom said. “It’s like clear water, and we talk about the evaporation process needed to turn it into maple syrup, which many people don’t know about; they think it comes out of the tree as sweetened syrup.

“When we say we’re the largest living laboratory, what we mean is that the forest is a place to hammer home lessons taught inside the classroom,” he continued. “It is infinitely more powerful when you can see something, touch it, smell it, and taste it. Studies have shown that people only retain 10% of what they hear, 50% of what they see, and 90% of what they do, and we operate under that onus: we want people outside seeing, tasting, smelling, and feeling the forest.”

Ramblewild sells light, medium, and dark maple syrup, and this year it began working with Hillrock Distillery in New York to produce maple-bourbon syrup.

Bloom explained that Hillrock is one of few in the country that produces whiskey from farm to bottle on the premises. It ages its whiskey in white oak barrels to turn it into bourbon, and Ramblewild purchases the used barrels, fills them with maple syrup, and ages it for 14 weeks before filtering it into bottles.

A group of campers from Smith College recently visited Ramblewild, and after learning about its full forestry program, they went for a hike in the sugar bush and were taught about that operation.

Berkshire Wind Co-op’s wind power project on top of Brodie Mountain, which consists of 13 wind turbines located on Ramblewild propery, is another place where students of all ages can experience nature in a unique way.

“We take them to a place where they can stand underneath a 320-foot tall wind turbine and talk about how it works and how kinetic energy is turned into electric energy, which is then returned to the grid for use by the consumer,” Bloom said. “It’s one thing to learn about it from a book and another to stand beneath one of these giants and see it firsthand. It’s pretty incredible.”

Classes have lunch at Ramblewild, and afternoons are spent at the aerial adventure park, playing in the treetops.

There is also a nonprofit division of the corporation called Feronia Forward whose sole purpose is to provide funding to allow more schools and students to participate in Ramblewild’s programs.

“A percentage of the price of every bottle of maple syrup we sell goes into the fund. The proceeds are often matched by investors, and over the last two years we have given more than $100,000 to school groups,” Bloom noted.

Dedicated Mission

It took four years for Ramblewild to become operational: three to procure the land and obtain the necessary permits, and a year to build the aerial adventure park.

“We’re in our third season and expect to make a profit this year. We stay very busy from June until after Columbus Day and expect to get about 20,000 visitors this year,” Bloom said.

The operation has five full-time employees but adds up to 40 additional staff during their busy season, which fulfills the goal of providing vocational opportunities for people living within a 100-mile radius.

In addition, every product used at Ramblewild comes from local businesses, including the raw materials needed to create the buildings and the aerial adventure park.

Ramblewild has been named a ‘B corporation’ for the past four years, which is an elite recognition given to companies that use business for the higher purpose of solving society’s most challenging problems. Only a handful of firms have earned the environmental distinction, as the standards are very stringent.

“Our ultimate goal is to be a place where families, teachers, and anyone interested in the forest can come, a place where they can disconnect from technology and reconnect with family and friends in an effort to educate the next generation about stewardship of the forest,” Bloom said. “We want them to claim responsibility for the environment, as if they don’t, no one else will. It’s our sole purpose, and we are proud of what we have created.”

That would be another world, high in the treetops and on top of Brodie Mountain, where it’s easy to forget the pressures of the modern world and find the extraordinary peace that nature can provide.

Sections Sports & Leisure

Doubling Down

Dave Fluery

Dave Fluery says there are many advantages to owning two golf courses instead of one, and this explains his pursuit of Elmcrest Country Club.

Dave Fleury says it wasn’t long after he and business partner Greg Lindenmuth acquired Crestview Country Club in Agawam that they started thinking about the various benefits — especially the many economies of scale that would present themselves — if they owned two courses instead of one.

So they kept at least one eye on several potential acquisition targets in the region, not knowing when an opportunity might present itself.

Elmcrest Country Club, the private course in East Longmeadow, wasn’t actually one of them. But that changed, in dramatic fashion, in the days, hours, and especially the final minutes before that club and all the items in it were set to be auctioned off in January.

Indeed, maybe a week before that scheduled auction, and while Fleury, a golf-course designer by trade, was in Spain working on a project on the Costa Del Sol, the plan — if he could get to the auction upon his planned return — was to look at acquiring some tables and chairs, a request that came from his banquet manager.

But upon driving to the auction, picking up Lindenmuth on the way over, the discussion turned to maybe coming home with something much more, like the course itself. And after talking to those handling the auction upon arriving, Fleury was told this was eminently doable — if he could produce a check for $50,000 in 18 minutes and meet some other obligations.

“It was close, but we made it back with two minutes to spare,” he recalled, adding that, upon calling his lender at Westfield Bank, Fleury was pleased to learn it had a branch in East Longmeadow. A call was made, and the check was waiting for him when he got there, enabling the partners to race back and acquire the club for what would have to be considered the bargain price of $1 million.

All that constitutes an exciting, page-turning first chapter in this unfolding story. What happens next? Well, the authors are looking to script something along the lines of the comeback story they wrote for Crestview, which has recovered from the depths of economic gloom and rebuilt its membership to the desired 300 mark in four years.

But there will likely be some different plot twists, and, in essence, there has already been one.

Fleury said the turnaround at Crestview didn’t exactly start well. Members at the private club weren’t happy with the way they were left in the dark in the months before the course was sold, and weren’t thrilled, to put in mildly, with Fleury’s plans to make it a semi-private operation — one that’s open to the public but with many perks for members.

It took a while, but the Crestview ship was eventually righted. Members who stayed came to appreciate the new model, and many who left decided to come back when they saw how well it was working.

At Elmcrest, the semi-private plan has been given a much warmer initial response than the one originally received at Crestview, said Fleury, noting that many long-time members saw Crestview’s success — in fact, many of them had moved there as Elmcrest started its spiral — and welcomed the model for their former (and likely future) club.

“The members were so supportive and so positive,” he said of the Elmcrest members. “They believed in us because they thought we saved Crestview and resurrected that club; now they saw us as someone who could come into their club and effect positive change.”

For this issue and its focus on sports and leisure, BusinessWest looks at Fleury’s latest entrepreneurial venture within the highly competitive local golf market, and what this gambit means for him — and the playing field.

Fore Example

When asked what happened at the East Longmeadow club to bring it to precipitous decline and finally that auction in January, Fleury, a fairly close observer of the local golf market who was helped in this assessment by some insider information gleaned from long-time Elmcrest members who moved to Crestview, paused for a moment. He then said he would select his words carefully in a bid to be diplomatic, which he was.

“Let’s just say the club was struggling with the current economic and cultural environment that golf is in,” he explained. “The economics are still not the best, and it seems that, in a way, golf has lost its way somewhat, because of the economics, the time constraints, and everything that’s been said about the game.

“The owners didn’t know how to move forward,” he continued, adding that they told members theirs was a private club, but they didn’t run it like one, with numerous outings, specials, promotions, coupons, and other business-generating moves that private clubs just don’t take.

“The members didn’t feel appreciated,” said Fleury, adding that the situation, and the club’s finances, deteriorated to the point where the course and its various assets had to be auctioned.

With this acquisition, Fleury said he will soon enjoy those economies of scale, or cost synergies, as he called them, which are critical in a business where expenses keep rising and revenues are generally flat.

To make his point, he cited a piece of equipment known as a greens aerator, a vehicle that punches holes into the greens to allow air into the soil beneath. Such a procedure, called aeration, is undertaken at least once or twice a year.

“If you have to buy one of them, and the cost is $50,000, you’re much better off when you can spread the cost of that equipment over two courses instead of one,” he explained. “That’s a real cost synergy, and I can think of probably 25 more examples like that.”

But while having two golf courses can be advantageous, it has to be the right two courses, meaning operations that complement one another and don’t necessarily compete.

“We wanted to continue to grow the brand and the company,” he explained. “And the way to do that is by finding another course close enough, but not too close, in the same market, but not in the exact same market, from the standpoint of the price point and the property.”

To explain, he offered thoughts blending geography and economics in a way that resonates with many area business owners.

“I don’t have an issue with the Connecticut River, but apparently, a lot of people do,” he said, noting that it acts as a kind of borderline that many people looking to do business — and that includes playing golf — don’t want to cross.

Elaborating, he said that, while Crestview has done well since he acquired it, one area where it continues to struggle is with attracting players from communities east of the river, in both Massachusetts and Connecticut.

The Elmcrest acquisition gives the company an opportunity to tap into both geographic quadrants, and with courses that won’t exactly compete with one another because they will be at different levels price-wise and customer-experience-wise — Crestview at the high end, with Emcrest just one notch below.

Course Correction

As he talked with BusinessWest in mid March, Fleury was anticipating that Elmcrest would be open the first weekend in April.

“The course is in great shape, we’ve got our team in place, and we’re ready to go,” he said, uttering words he probably couldn’t have imagined just a few months ago.

But the landscape has changed, and very quickly. Now, Fleury wants to keep on altering it, making his small family of courses — and it would have to be called that — a formidable presence in the local market.

You might just say he’s changing the course of things — or courses, to be more precise.

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

Sections Sports & Leisure

Private Conversations

David Brosseau

David Brosseau says that, while conditions have improved somewhat for the area’s private clubs, many challenges remain.

David Brosseau has been a member of Springfield Country Club for a quarter-century now, so he can speak from experience about how the landscape has changed over that time.

Not at the club, necessarily — although there have been renovations at the stately clubhouse, the building of a skating rink on property formerly occupied by tennis courts, and tweaks on the course, especially the treacherous, downhill, par-4 sixth hole — but in the marketplace.

Indeed, over the past several years, Brosseau, now in his second year as president of the private club off Route 5 in West Springfield, has seen developments that wouldn’t have been contemplated in 1991 — because they didn’t have to be. Things like membership drives, promotional ads in area publications, special introductory rates, and elimination of initiation fees.

But all those steps and more are part of a new reality for private clubs (most of them, anyway), who have seen waiting lists become a thing of the distant past, replaced by spirited competition for a dwindling number of golfers and families willing to make the investment needed to join a club.

“It’s very competitive out there right now, and it’s been that way for a while, especially the past five or six years with the turndown in the economy and the turndown in golf,” said Brosseau, adding that the number of clubs has actually increased, with the addition of Great Horse in Hampden, while the pool of prospective members is flat at best. “But we’re starting to see things improve somewhat.”

Mary McNally, the recently installed president of the Country Club of Wilbraham, a semi-private course that sees most of its play from its members, agreed. She said her facility, which she described as primarily a golf club — it doesn’t have a pool, tennis courts, or other family-oriented amenities — has confronted everything from the general decline in the number of people playing golf to an evident lack of loyalty among members at area clubs, in part because they’re not paying any initiation fees.

The Wilbraham club is more than holding its own — membership is currently at 300, a solid number, and it is working to hard to increase public play — but, like most clubs in the area, it must work much harder to maintain those numbers than it did years ago.

The good news for clubs is that what would be considered the worst seems to be over. That would be the lingering effects of a devastating recession on top of all those factors, a perfect storm that made for some lean and trying years.

“I think conditions are improved overall — the economy is better, and more people are looking to join a club,” said Attilio Cardaropoli, owner and general manager at Twin Hills Country Club in Longmeadow, one of the healthier facilities in the region.

That was certainly not the case seven or eight years ago, when the club was in financial distress and rumors swirled that the valuable real estate in the northeast corner of the town would be transformed into a subdivision.

But Cardaropoli not only resuscitated the club, he’s returned it to full membership — 300 or so members — and undertaken extensive renovations and additions, on the course and in the clubhouse, to better serve those members.

He said the key to success is catering to members, providing value, and offering a return on their investment. For this issue and its focus on sports and leisure, BusinessWest looks at how clubs strive to do just that.

Members Bounce

As she talked with BusinessWest in late March, McNally echoed what the leaders of virtually every club in the region have been saying for years now — that there is at least one too many of these facilities serving the general population.

Such sentiments explain why the recent auction of Elmcrest Country Club in East Longmeadow, a private facility that has been struggling for several years, was watched very closely: perhaps now there would be one less club with which to compete.

Attilio Cardaropoli

Attilio Cardaropoli says Twin Hills Country Club in Longmeadow has staged a dramatic comeback through a strong focus on serving members.

But the news that the partners who acquired Crestview Country Club in Agawam and converted it into a semi-private facility would do the same at Elmcrest after submitted the winning bid for the property (see related story, page 19) put an end such speculation — and optimism.

Which means the bounce that Wilbraham might have seen if Elmcrest closed — the clubs are only a few miles apart — certainly won’t be as great, said McNally, adding that this development merely adds another small layer to the ongoing challenge facing area clubs.

In a nutshell, that comes down to closing the proverbial gap between where the membership total stands and where a club’s leadership would want it to be. Years ago, most clubs didn’t have gaps, and if they did, they were small and easily closeable.

In recent years, though, and especially during and after the Great Recession, the gaps became wider, and to close them, clubs responded with a number of measures. Some were time-tested tactics, such as offering the fall months for free when someone signs on for the following year. But most were relatively new (at least for private clubs in this market), like advertising, membership drives, price incentives, waiving initiation fees, and creating new products in their form of specially tailored membership packages for constituencies ranging from young professionals to retirees.

Overall, such steps have worked at SCC, said Brosseau, adding that the club has closed its gap significantly, thanks to a recent membership drive (the first in several years), which added nearly 70 new members, and other steps.

For example, the club would at times offer three years of membership for the price of two, while it also restructured fees for existing members to bring them more in line with what recent recruits were offered, a step that has helped improve retention, as well as morale.

Overall, the club has evolved somewhat over the years, he went on, and is now more of a social club for families than a golf club, another clear sign of the times.

And this is reflected in some changes in scenery, such as that aforementioned skating rink.

“We put in a skating rink, and we get the warmest winter in years,” he joked, adding that, while the club struggled to keep the ice surface clear, it has generally succeeded in its mission to become more family-friendly.

That word ‘friendly’ was also used by Cardaropoli, who summoned it when talking about how Twin Hills does not levy assessments on members for capital improvements, maintenance, or any other reason, and this greatly improves morale.

And it gives the club another addition to an already solid list of selling points, including accessibility, price, course quality and walkability (there are few steep hills, despite the name on the sign), and large practice facility.

“We have a great course and a great location, and we cater to the membership,” he explained. “Every year, we’re taking on some improvements or renovations to the course, but the big thing is that we never have any special assessments or initiation fees, so when someone joins, they know exactly what they’re going to be paying, and there’s no surprises at the end of the year.”

The Country Club of Wilbraham, which expanded from nine to 18 holes in 2002, has fewer and different selling points — it lacks many family-friendly facilities and, thus, focuses on its strengths, intimacy and golf.

“We’re a small club, and we’re low-key,” she said. “We don’t have tennis or a pool or a fancy dining room, but we have a lovely facility and a relaxed atmosphere; we just try to be who we are and not pretend to be something we’re not, and I think that’s going to be the key to our success.”

Historically, that formula has worked well, she said, adding that the club has picked up several new members in recent months (many of them returnees who had left) and is ahead of the budgeted number for 2016.

Keeping it in or above that ballpark is an ongoing challenge, she went on, in part because of the competition and attractive offers from other clubs, but also that lack of loyalty she mentioned earlier.

“Someone might to go to one club one year because it’s $300 less,” she explained, adding that this happens more frequently now because people aren’t paying initiation fees. “But then, people often wind up coming back to where their friends are.”

Dues and Don’ts

Lately, more people have been coming back to the country-club lifestyle or experiencing it for first time.

It’s certainly not like it was 25 years ago, when Brosseau first joined SCC, or even 10 years ago, but conditions are improving gradually.

Still, stern challenges remain, said those we spoke with, adding that clubs must continue to be diligent and imaginative in their efforts to attract and then serve members.

Because the current environment constitutes a new normal.

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

Sections Sports & Leisure

Communion with Nature

Benjamin Quick

Benjamin Quick hopes to strengthen and grow programs at Pioneer Valley Riverfront Club so more people can experience the beauty of the Connecticut River.

Sunlight dances off sparkling water as Emily Quirk sits on a platform overlooking the Connecticut River. Her white socks are wet and muddy, but the 17-year-old pays no heed to the chilly breeze blowing along the riverfront; her focus is upstream as she watches for the two boats she helped launch — thus, the muddy feet — return from their first outing this season.

Quirk has been rowing since eighth grade, and is a member of the Pioneer Valley Riverfront Club’s (PVRC) competitive team. “The sport is unique. Not many people are involved with it, but just being on the river is so peaceful,” she said.

It’s that same feeling and sense of wonder that newly appointed PVRC Executive Director Benjamin Quick hopes to promote in his mission to expand the club’s visibility, programming, and sponsorship. He also wants to upgrade some of the equipment and improve the boathouse, and although he has only been on the job a few weeks, new programs have already been put into place, and marketing efforts have begun to meet those goals.

“Most people don’t know anything about rowing. They think the only way to get on the water is to rent a kayak. But our rowing program provides recreational and competitive opportunities,” Quick said, adding that it only takes one day to learn to paddle a dragon boat.

His efforts to raise awareness about PVRC will get a decided boost in early December, when PVRC hosts the 2016 U.S. Rowing Annual Convention.

“This will be the most momentous rowing event in Springfield in a century; it will be the culmination of our work this year and put Springfield on the map,” Quick said, explaining that the convention is the premier event for organized rowing and teaching.

The multi-day affair will highlight the history of rowing, look to its future, and include a number of seminars and programs.

“We’re the gateway to the Connecticut River in Springfield, and this will be dream exposure,” Quick continued. “The rowing community is international but very networked, and since PVRC is the host club, it lends a degree of legitimacy to what we have felt here internally.”

More than 600 rowers, coaches, and interested people are expected to attend, along with several dozen vendors, and although the events will be held in Springfield hotels, PVRC will offer boathouse tours and is planning a Saturday-evening gala to make the convention memorable.

The last convention was held in Philadelphia, which boasts 12 private, exclusive boathouses that date back to the 19th century. “It’s a tough act to follow, but we are the people’s solution to getting on the water in Springfield,” Quick said, explaining that the City of Homes was selected as the 2016 venue due to efforts by the Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau.

GSCVB President Mary Kay Wydra said outreach began when there was talk of hosting the Olympics in Boston in 2024. During that time period, the tourism board worked hard to make connections that would promote sports-related activities in Western Mass., which led to winning the bid to have the U.S. Rowing Convention held here.

“We want to bring sporting events to the region that have an economic impact on our local economy,” said GSCVB Director of Sales Alicia Szenza. “We’re really proud that Springfield was selected.”

Changing Landscape

Springfield has a storied rowing history, and in 2012 PVRC took up residence in a century-old building that formerly housed Bassett Boat’s showroom. It sits on the edge of North Riverfront Park, which recently received a $1.3 million makeover, and is backed by the 3.7-mile Connecticut River Walk and Bikeway.

Quick said the club is delighted with the new pergola, pavilion, picnic tables, nautical flagpole, and sitting walls at the park, and works closely with the city to maintain it.

The views and the new amenities were designed to attract more people, and the improvements are important to the public face of PVRC, which is dependent on sponsorships, grants, and donations to fund its annual $500,000 budget.

The clubs sponsor a large number of youth programs, and Quick said the business community has been very supportive, with many companies stepping forward to help, such as Peter Pan Bus Lines, which houses some of its boats during the winter.

The Dragon Boat Festival

The Dragon Boat Festival on June 25 offers businesses a unique team building opportunity on the Connecticut River that includes entertainment, food, and a chance to compete for prizes.

The clubhouse has undergone recent renovations; new men’s and women’s locker rooms with showers have been added, and a new community room is slowly taking shape, where parents can relax and young people can do their homework if they arrive before the afternoon programming begins. The floor was just finished, thanks to help from United Water (Suez) in Agawam, which supplied the labor to paint it after a broken pipe destroyed the carpeting last winter. In addition, donations of high-quality, second-hand furniture are being accepted.

“Everyone who is exposed to what we do wants to help,” Quick said. But, unfortunately, many companies that support the club have told him they will have to reduce their contributions this year.

“But I see it as an opportunity, not a challenge,” he continued, adding that the organization has taken a close look at where to make improvements and what can be cut. For example, the club just hired three, part-time seasonal coaches, which is a reduction from the past, when they were overstaffed and didn’t have enough formal programs. “But that leak in the dam has been plugged,” he noted.

To illustrate that point, he told BusinessWest about a few new, formal initiatives that will kick off this summer. They include a five-day learn-to-row program that will take place the first week of each month; a dragon-boat paddling program, and an opportunity for experienced rowers to engage in high-performance training.

Corporate outings are also on the menu, and will range from kayaking to canoeing, with refreshments. “These programs will allow adults to get some exercise, see the city from a new perspective, and have a story to tell, which is part of the century-old rowing legacy,” Quick said, noting that business events will be custom-tailored to suit individual needs.

As mentioned before, youth programs comprise a critical part of the club’s mission, and about 100 young people are exposed to start rowing through the club — and hopefully develop a passion for it — each year. They come from a wide range of area communities, and many receive scholarships.

“Rowing is not a high-school sport, and our program gives kids from Springfield public schools an opportunity to see the city from the river,” said Quick. “If it opens one door even a few inches wider, we consider it a success.

“We’re trying to get kids to feel good about doing something well and set the bar high for them,” he went on, adding that this constitutes a commitment the PVRC has made to the city and its sponsors.

Rowing has another benefit for young athletes; almost 50% of females who apply for rowing scholarships receive them, and last year one of PVRC’s competitive rowers earned a full scholarship to George Washington University.

Adults who join the club become part of the Master’s Program and can choose to row competitively or simply enjoy lazing along the river on warm summer nights. However, most contribute financially or through donations of time, and many become mentors to teens in the youth programs.

“They work shoulder to shoulder with them during volunteer activities, which is an experience these teens couldn’t get anywhere else,” Quick said.

One of the club’s largest events is its Dragon Boat Festival, which will be held June 25, and will attract more than 500 paddlers from all over the Northeast. “The boats are magnificently decorated and have drummers who sit in the bow and set the beat for the paddlers,” he noted.

Teams are still needed, and groups and organizations are invited to sign up. The cost is $2,000, which includes a half-day of training, all that is needed — life jackets, the boat, coaching — and more.

“The festival is the perfect event for businesses and organizations looking for a new team-building opportunity,” Quick said, adding that no experience is needed. The day will also include a breast-cancer-survivor flower ceremony, Asian-themed entertainment, music, food, and vendors.

But not everyone wants to compete, so people can sign up to learn how to paddle and join others several nights a week on the club’s dragon boats. “We need more paddlers,” Quick said, noting the activity is well-suited to a variety of abilities, and women make up the majority of people who choose to navigate the river in this manner.

Tom Siddall was recently appointedthe new varsity and master’s rowing coach, and his goal is to change the way training is conducted by focusing on strength and conditioning, mobility, flexibility, volume, and intensity.

“I’ve been able to scale the program so participants can do as much as they want,” he said, explaining that, since rowers spend so much time indoors practicing during the offseason, it’s important for them to gain functional strength, which includes doing exercise such as squats, dead lifts, or one-leg unilateral movements.

Worthwhile Venture

On a recent day, Julia and Luis Cortes were rowing on machines overlooking the riverfront. “I like the discipline and commitment this requires,” said 16-year-old Luis, explaining that each person strives to break through their own personal barriers.

Julia was excited about getting out on the river, and said her enthusiasm has grown since they signed up five months ago.

Quick doesn’t find that surprising. “Sometimes you just have to stop and gawk at the wildlife,” he said. “We see bald eagles fishing on the river, and it’s an inspiring sight.”

And it is in line with the soaring goals of this club, which introduces people to a form of exercise that nourishes the mind, body, and spirit.

Sections Sports & Leisure

A Nation of GMs

fantasySportsDPart

Fantasy sports — born decades ago as a niche pastime for baseball überfans who tracked statistics by hand with calculators — has since exploded into an instant-data industry that claims more than 56 million participants. Most of those drafted their football teams last week in anticipation of the season, while others will put up money to redraft each week on sites like FanDuel and DraftKings. One thing is for sure: whether for fun or profit, the fantasy world has changed the way people watch sports — and the leagues, networks, and advertisers couldn’t be happier.

Before Mark McDonald jumped into fantasy football, he’d watch the Patriots on Sunday, and not much else. But now?

“It has dramatically changed my viewing habits,” said McDonald, a professor of Sport Management at UMass Amherst. “Games between horrible teams, games that once meant nothing to me, now I want to watch to see how my fantasy team is doing. I like that sense of control — I’m the general manager, controlling my own team, and watching other players to see who I might pick up. It changes your view of football. Even Thursday nights are must-watch.”

McDonald started playing GM four years ago when fellow faculty members at the Isenberg School of Management invited him into their league. He’s been hooked ever since, and was preparing for drafts in two different leagues the week he spoke with BusinessWest.

He’s not alone. The number of people participating in fantasy sports — football, baseball, basketball, hockey, even golf and auto racing — is expected to reach 56.8 million this year, a staggering increase of 37% from 2013, according to the Fantasy Sports Trade Assoc. (FSTA).

The vast majority play in season-long leagues, going head to head with a different team’s owner each week. But, increasingly, ‘daily’ fantasy sports, played for real money — FanDuel and DraftKings are the two giants of this industry — are becoming more popular. At the end of 2014, the two online services posted a combined $920 million in entry fees from 1.3 million paying users — numbers this year’s participation is expected to far surpass.

“It gives fans another connection point,” said Janet Fink, another UMass professor and chair of the Department of Sport Management. “Fantasy football is much more widely popular than any other fantasy sport, but they’re all growing. And now you have these day-to-day, week-to-week leagues getting more popular as well.”

Indeed, fantasy sports has come a long way from its 1970s origins, when hardcore baseball players played something called Rotisserie, drafting players at the start of the season, then tracking their statistics, by hand and with calculators, and translating those stats into a scoring system. Today, the data is instantaneous, meaning owners can sit on the couch with a smartphone and watch the points roll in.

And, by the tens of millions, that’s exactly what they do.

Fan Fare

Andrew Zimbalist, a professor of Economics at Smith College and one of the world’s foremost sports economists, has observed the impact of fantasy sports on American life, which goes well beyond that annoying guy in the lunchroom on Tuesday complaining about losing by a point because Julio Jones dropped an easy touchdown Monday night.

“It’s something that increases the avidity of fandom and, in some cases, extends fandom,” he explained. “People who are involved in fantasy sports are paying much more attention to the game. They subscribe to more online services and satellite services.

“The other effect they have, to some degree — and it differs by sport — is more generalized fandom,” he went on. “If I’m a Red Sox fan living in Massachusetts, without the fantasy-sports component, I’m following the 25 people on the active Red Sox roster. But if I have Mike Trout in my fantasy-baseball league, if I’ve got Joe Mauer on my team, I’m not only into the Red Sox games, but Angels games and Twins games, etc.”

That sort of changed behavior is something sought after and prized by professional sports leagues, Zimbalist added.

“Football, for a variety of reasons, has long been a national sport; even though fans have a team they follow and support, true football fans will watch two games, and might stay around for Sunday evening,” he explained. “But in the other leagues, like baseball — say you’re a Padres fan living in San Diego. You’re going to watch the Padres games; you’re not going to watch the Giants or Diamondbacks. But some of the fandom becomes nationalized when you have fantasy sports leagues. That is a very valuable component — and it’s a growing fandom.”

No wonder, then, that ESPN hosts the most popular fantasy platform (Yahoo! is the second-largest), while DraftKings recently secured $300 million in funding from Fox Sports, Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, and Major League Soccer. In return, the company plans to give away $1 billion in prizes this year, more than triple the $300 million it awarded in 2014.

Meanwhile, the larger play-for-cash entity, FanDuel, which pays out more than $10 million in prizes every week, recently raised $275 million from investors, including affiliates of Google, Comcast, and Time Warner.

Janet Fink

Janet Fink

“Research has been done asking whether, if people got too much into fantasy sports, it might decrease their interest in their own team,” Fink said. “In fact, they found quite the opposite. People around here still root for the Patriots, but they flip to the Red Zone to check out their fantasy team. That way, the viewership of games league-wide increases. There’s extra incentive to watch the Chargers versus the Raiders when you wouldn’t do that normally.”

McDonald is familiar with DirecTV’s Red Zone channel, which jumps, all Sunday long, between teams on the cusp of scoring — a fantasy maven’s dream. He noted that his league’s owners get together twice a year for Sunday viewing parties, but they don’t watch the Patriots; they watch Red Zone. “One aspect to fantasy that’s a bit negative is how it impacts viewing your favorite team.”

Fink has read studies showing that, while some fantasy hobbyists remain more interested in their home-state team, others come to identify more with their fantasy players and seek them out on TV instead. “But in most cases,” she added, “it’s probably a very complementary relationship.”

Speaking of relationships, McDonald believes fantasy football has strengthened connections between the people he works with at Isenberg.

Mark McDonald

Mark McDonald

“As with any business school, we have a bunch of different departments — accounting, finance, management, marketing … seven or eight in all. There are faculty members I might not otherwise interact with, and now, if I run into the owner I’m playing against that week, we’ll get some friendly trash talking going on in the hallway. You get to know each other. We find ways to get together now.”

Real Money

Advertisers covet the fantasy-sports market, according to the FSTA, which reports that team owners are mostly college-educated with an average household income topping $75,000. At last measure, 66% of participants were male, and 34% female, but those figures have been steadily moving toward each other in recent years.

However, the daily and weekly games at FanDuel and DraftKings remain almost exclusively the domain of men. Meanwhile, a survey of more than 1,400 players by Eilers Research found that more than 40% of these players have reduced the amount of time they devoted to traditional fantasy leagues.

“Everyone I know is pretty much in it for season-long fun, low-stakes games. But I am concerned that our students are increasingly drawn to that world,” McDonald said of the high-risk sites, saying they’re occupying a role that online poker recently dominated.

But — because of the obvious risk involved — is it legal? The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) of 2006, intended to regulate the financial institutions that act as the monetary link between gamblers and Internet casinos, seems to say yes.

While some states — Arizona, Iowa, Louisiana, Maryland, Montana, and Vermont — have enacted their own laws muddying the waters around this issue, the vast majority of states, including Massachusetts, have not.

That leaves the UIGEA as the go-to authority, and the federal law specifically does not regulate games in which “all winning outcomes reflect the relative knowledge and skill of the participants and are determined predominantly by accumulated statistical results of the performance of individuals (athletes, in the case of sports events) in multiple real-world sporting or other events.”

In other words, in the eyes of the law, fantasy sports are considered games of skill, not luck.

McDonald, again noting the excitement of a weekly draft, worries about their appeal and the potential for addiction and financial trouble, no matter how shrilly FanDuel and DraftKings shout about millions in winnings on their ubiquitous radio ads.

“It’s so exciting to redraft and select your team every week,” he told BusinessWest. “They may think the way we old guys play is slow and boring. If you have injuries early in the season, it can kill you. But with the weekly games at DraftKings and FanDuel, you get away from that, and every week is a new opportunity to make choices.

“But,” he went on, “people do put a lot of money at risk, and I think it’s addicting. It’s like crack to fantasy sports players. It’s a weekly high, and in a sport like baseball, it could be a daily high.”

For now, McDonald considers himself firmly in the camp of more than 55 million people who have become amateur GMs not for big payouts, but for the fun, the challenge, and the camaraderie.

“It’s a social thing that enhances the viewing experience,” he said. “For me, personally, putting money at risk would take some of the fun out of it; I think it would be very stressful.”

After all, trash talk is stressful enough.


Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Sports & Leisure

Pioneer Volley

George Mulry

George Mulry stands in front of one of the many displays at the Volleyball Hall of Fame, which is seeing a rise in visitorship.

In 1895, William Morgan invented a game he called ‘mintonette’ for adult males at the Holyoke YMCA in hopes of retaining members who were leaving because they found another recently invented game, basketball, to be too violent.

“He was the Y’s physical-education director, and he created the sport so middle-aged businessmen would have something to do on their lunch break,” said George Mulry, executive director of the International Volleyball Hall of Fame in Holyoke. “The name of the game was changed to volleyball a year later by a professor at Springfield College, and today, it’s played by more than 880 million people. It is an international powerhouse sport, the second-most-popular game in the world, and one of the most popular at the Summer Olympics.”

Indeed, the game has come a long way since it began in a small gymnasium in Holyoke. It ranks as one of the top sports in nine countries, and the Fédération Internationale de Volleyball (FIVB) boasts 220 members, making it the largest sports federation in the world.

“I see more people smiling when they are playing volleyball than I do in any other sport; it’s a great game, and people at any level not only enjoy it, but appreciate the camaraderie it promotes,” said Charlie Diner, a member of the Hall’s board of directors. “Volleyball is a game that is fun.”

In many ways, the Hall of Fame created to honor the games, founder, legacy, and greatest players, coaches, and contributors has followed a somewhat similar path.

It started in a closet in Wistariahurst Museum, with some additional space in Holyoke City Hall for storage. It has moved a few times over the years, but has generally struggled to find adequate space and resources to properly tell the game’s intriguing story.

But the Hall has gained some much-needed momentum in recent years, building awareness, gaining visitorship, hosting more events, and adding new displays to capture the game’s progression and impact on society.

Visits to the museum are on the rise, and today, 4,000 to 5,000 guests embark on the self-guided tour inside the space each year. One thing they particularly enjoy is trying on the Gold Medal won by Maurico Lima at the 1992 Summer Olympics. The athlete was inducted in 2012 and donated the medal to the museum, along with other memorabilia.

“Many people pose for photos wearing it around their necks. It’s a popular thing to do,” Mulry said. “Donating items is a way for Hall of Famers to keep their legacy going.”

The nonprofit changed its name from the Holyoke Volleyball Hall of Fame to the International Volleyball Hall of Fame last year to reflect the fact that it has been inducting international players for some time. This will be the Hall’s 30th year holding the ceremonies, and so far, 125 inductees from 21 countries have been honored.

But the museum operates on a tight annual budget of $215,000. Mulry is the only full-time employee, and the museum relies heavily on fund-raisers, donations, and sponsors to keep it operational.

For this issue and its focus on sports and leisure, BusinessWest offers some quick history lessons on the sport of valleyball and a detailed look at how its shrine is scoring points as it strives to gain relevance and increase visitorship.

Spike in Interest

A display of large, colorful panels

A display of large, colorful panels with photos documents volleyball’s historical timeline.

Mulry told BusinessWest the Hall of Fame has always had close ties to Springfield College, a relationship that began when Morgan met James Naismith, who founded the game of basketball in 1891 while teaching at the International YMCA Training School (now Springfield College).

Morgan was on Northfield Mount Hermon’s football team, and after watching him play during a game at the college, Naismith successfully recruited the young athlete and brought him to Springfield College. “He had wanted to become an engineer, but abandoned those plans to teach physical education,” said Mulry.

After graduating, Morgan became director of physical education at the Holyoke YMCA and gave birth to his own game. “He borrowed from a lot of different sports to create it. He took the net from tennis, the ball from basketball, and the innings from baseball, which were used when the game was first played,” Mulry explained.

The game of mintonette received its new name after it was introduced to the public at a tournament at Springfield College that was held during a national conference for YMCA directors. “Professor Alfred Halsted decided volleyball was a more appropriate name because the players were volleying the ball across the net,” Mulry said. “After the demonstration, the game spread through the nation’s YMCAs, then was adopted by the military because the troops were looking for something to do that was not physically taxing.

“The YMCAs took the game to the Philippines and a few other countries, but the military introduced it to Europe and the rest of the world during World War I,” he went on, “and the level of play increased dramatically.”

The first national championship was held in 1922 at the Brooklyn YMCA, but the game was played on an almost a purely recreational basis through the early 1930s. However, a dramatic change occurred in April 1947, when representatives from 14 nations formed the FIVB and began recruiting teams from across the world to play in tournaments.

The first world championship for men was held in 1949, followed by the first world championship for women in 1952, and the game reached an even broader audience a dozen years later when it was introduced and played at the Tokyo Olympics by both men’s and women’s teams. Beach volleyball wasn’t added for another 32 years, however, and that inaugural Olympic competition took place in Atlanta.

Despite the game’s popularity, it wasn’t until the early ’70s that anyone proposed creating a museum to house memorabilia and recount the game’s history and the success of its players.

“At that time, the Greater Holyoke Chamber of Commerce was looking for ways to position the city and make it interesting to tourists,” Mulry noted, adding that, even though it established an ad hoc committee to promote the idea of Holyoke becoming home to a Volleyball Hall of Fame, the only thing it did was host an tournament for YMCA teams.

However, in 1978, the Holyoke Volleyball Hall of Fame was officially incorporated, and the first induction ceremony was held in 1985. But the organization still didn’t really have a home.

Points of Interest

“All it consisted of was a closet in Wistariahurst Museum and space in City Hall that was used to hold memorabilia,” Mulry said, adding that things changed in 1987, when the city of Holyoke gave the Hall an area in a building on Dwight Street to use free of charge. “The space was small, and the only things put on display were a few jerseys, nets, and uniforms,” Mulry said.

However, when the building was renovated a year later, the museum was given an area three times larger, which encompassed 4,500 square feet.

Mulry told BusinessWest it was only supposed to be a temporary home, and a capital campaign was launched with the goal of raising $27 million for a new building. “An architect was hired, and 15 possible sites were looked at before it became clear that it wasn’t feasible to raise that amount. So, the temporary space became our permanent home.”

Although a few exhibits were added at that time, the majority of displays, as well as the annual events the organization stages, have been developed over the last four years as officials take a proactive stance to attract new visitors and increase interest in the sport.

Their efforts were helped two years ago, when the museum received additional space in the building, which allowed them to move their archives there.

“We’re categorizing them, and we created a special exhibit titled ‘Volleyball in the Military,’ a 1964 Olympic exhibit, and we continue to put single artifacts on display,” Mulry said. “We also set an area aside for local events, and have hosted a lot of receptions over the past two years.”

Glass display cases

Glass display cases for current inductees house donated memorabilia, including photos, uniforms, medals, and other significant keepsakes.

Popular tournaments include the annual Police and Fire Challenge, which pits members of the New York City fire and police departments against teams composed up of emergency personnel from across New England. “There is a great rivalry between the Holyoke and Springfield teams,” Mulry said, adding that they are among many groups that participate.

During last year’s tournament, state Sen. Don Humason and state Rep. Aaron Vega unveiled a new exhibit titled “Humanity and Sports,” which was dedicated to two members of the New York City team who lost their lives in 9/11. “It has been one of our most well-received displays,” Mulry said.

In addition, the Hall of Fame began holding the Spalding Western Mass. Boys & Girls High School All-Star Games and the Massachusetts Boys & Girls High School All-State Games in Holyoke high schools four years ago, which include free clinics for players ages 10 to 12 throughout Western Mass.

To carry out these various programs, the Hall relies heavily on support from the community and, especially, Holyoke-based businesses and institutions.

“What we do would not be possible without the business community; they help offset our expenses, and we are certainly grateful for their help,” Mulry said, adding that the city of Holyoke, Holyoke Medical Center, and Holyoke Gas and Electric are major sponsors, while Dinn Brothers and the Dowd Agencies have been sponsors for more than a decade.

“They continue to make significant contributions and fund our induction ceremonies and events. PSI 91 is our newest sponsor, and we have many other local firms that support us,” he noted.

The organization also relies on an annual appeal, and donations are collected from 40 participating regions under the umbrella of USA Volleyball, which provides a dollar-for-dollar match, resulting in about $30,000 each year.

“They certainly see the value in having the museum on U.S. soil,” Mulry said, as he discussed how he and the 15 members of the board of directors are doing all they can to promote interest in the museum. “We’re working with the governing body of the Fédération Internationale de Volleyball to finalize an agreement that would make us the official repository for artifacts in the world. We expect make an announcement about it in October during the induction ceremony.”

That will allow the Hall to open its fund-raising to the 220 federations associated with the FIDV, and additional funds raised will be used to make improvements and update the displays.

Net Gains

“We’re the one true Volleyball Hall of Fame for the world, and anyone who is at all interested in the history of any sport should come here,” said Mulry. “We offer people a chance to see artifacts and learn about a sport that started out in Holyoke.”

Diner agreed. “We’re trying to expand awareness of the sport and its history to help grow the game, and this is a good place for community organizations to hold events. It’s steeped in Holyoke’s history,” he said.

It’s an intriguing history indeed, and it’s likely that Morgan could never have imagined that the simple game he created for aging businessmen would become a hugely popular sport played in nations throughout the world.

Meanwhile, the sport’s Hall of Fame still has considerable work to do to build its profile and visitorship, but it is making net gains — in many different respects.

Sections Sports & Leisure
Wilderness Experiences Unlimited Is in the Confidence Business

Wilderness Experiences  Unlimited

Wilderness Experiences
Unlimited

Imagine your child donning a full-body harness and helmet, climbing to the top of a 35-foot wall and rappelling down it; trekking into the woods and learning to track animals; or sitting around a campfire and listening to Native American stories.

These and other adventures, such as kayaking, which take place during the summer camp run by Wilderness Experiences Unlimited in Southwick, are structured to help young people build confidence, self-esteem, and pride in achievement, all while enabling them to gain an appreciation for the outdoors.

“Our youth group adventures are designed to be safe, exciting, educational, and most of all, fun. It is never too early or too late to instill a sense of respect and wonder for the natural environment in children,” said T. Scott Cook, who founded the business 34 years ago. “We use adventure sports as a carrot to get kids outdoors.”

However, the offerings at Wilderness Experiences also extend to adults who want to embark on adventurous vacations.

They can learn to scuba dive in Southwick, then use their newfound skill on a trip to the Cayman Islands or Florida. Or they can choose an exotic destination such as Africa, where they can interact with orphaned animals in the wild that are being rehabilitated, and enjoy other excursions as they make memories that will last a lifetime.

Cook, who says outdoor play requires skills and knowledge, has written a book titled Outdoor Leadership: the Noble Gift.

“Play is a value-added necessity in life; it’s fun to have fun, but you have to know how,” he said, quoting Dr. Seuss and adding that he believes people often forget that play is critical to living a balanced life.

It’s something he keeps front and center in his own life. The morning of his interview with BusinessWest, he climbed off his bicycle after a relatively short — at least for him — 30-mile ride.

“I would have gone farther if I didn’t have this meeting,” he said, parking his bike in front a poster that shows his daughter Aubrey carrying a kayak. She shares his love of the outdoors and is a professional tri-athlete who will serve as assistant director of the camp this summer.

An impressive ropes course stands behind the poster — there are huge nets, sky-high poles with a network of lines, an enormous spiderweb configuration of ropes, and features such as the ‘rickety bridge’ and ‘multi-vine’ that were created to help summer campers challenge themselves individually and in groups as they master the course with the help and support of team members.

Meanwhile, an almost-Olympic-size swimming pool in the building on 526 College Highway provides a perfect setting for children and adults to learn to swim. Scuba-diving lessons are also conducted there, and seniors enjoy staying fit in special water-aerobics classes.

T. Scott Cook

T. Scott Cook believes people forget that play is critical to living a balanced life — and he’s trying to change that.

Over the years, Wilderness Experiences Unlimited has been a tremendous success; the summer camps are so popular, they are filled by January, and the majority of the counselors are former campers who return year after year to share their love of the outdoors.

However, Cook keeps the camp small and accepts only about 50 young people in each session, which runs from Monday to Friday, with overnight programs and field trips for older campers. Although he could easily have grown due to demand, he chooses to remain small so he has the time to get to know each child and be sure everyone has a meaningful experience.

“When I started this, I had been running large camps with 300 kids and 70 staff members, so I really never got to know the campers, or even all of the staff. I prefer to keep it manageable,” he told BusinessWest.

Still, the scope of offerings at Wilderness Experiences has expanded since Cook opened his first camp. At that time, his primary goal was to teach children about the outdoors, help them build confidence by mastering physical challenges, and give them opportunities to learn sports they could continue for a lifetime.

That’s still the goal, but there are now many more ways to embrace and meet it.

Early Exposure

Cook’s parents ran outdoor camps when he was young, and he was involved in scouting for many years.

“Playing in the outdoors has always been a big piece of my life,” he said, adding that, in his early college years, he majored in photojournalism but found the career didn’t offer much potential, so he sought out an outdoor-recreation leadership program and eventually earned a doctorate in the field. “I had always worked in summer camps, and when I finished my schooling, I founded Wilderness Experiences Unlimited.”

During the school year, he served as a consultant and worked with children in local school systems who had emotional and behavioral challenges.

“I provided their physical education via an incentive-based program; if their behavior faltered, they were not allowed to participate,” he said, noting that he took them on field trips that included rock climbing and kayaking as well as other outdoor activities they enjoyed. “It was a positive experience.”

After 15 years in that role, he was offered a job running the Wilderness Leadership Program at Westfield State University. He retired from the position last spring, but hosts a special Outdoor Wilderness Leaders program in Southwick for campers ages 12 to 18 who have been recommended by three counselors. It runs year-round, and participants advance through the ranks, volunteer at different organizations, and host their own trips and social events.

Cook has led people on excursions as far away as Africa

In addition to his offerings in Southwick, Cook has led people on excursions as far away as Africa.

“The goal is for them to learn more about their personal values and core beliefs as well as the way they communicate,” he said. “As they gain confidence, they take younger children under their wing, so it ends up being a very positive place.”

Although not everyone qualifies, every camper gains self-knowledge. “When campers navigate the ropes course, they build their confidence and self-esteem. They have to dig deep inside and share their feelings and emotions because it can seem daunting,” Cook said.

He cited the example of climbing to the top of a telephone pole, then jumping off. It’s a group exercise, and although each camper is carefully outfitted with a full body harness, helmet, and other protective gear, it’s a virtual leap of faith that requires trust in other team members.

“The perceived risk is big, but the actual risk is small due to all of the safety measures in place,” he explained.

Every camp session contains an aquatics segment. “The campers do some type of swimming, whether it’s in our pool or in a mountain stream where they get to know the natural world better. We also take them to state parks to explore the outdoors and go on hikes and play outdoor games,” Cook noted.

His joy in introducing campers to the outdoors has never diminished.

“If a child goes for a walk in the woods and understands nature and learns how to track animal behavior, the woods don’t seem as overwhelming; we present it as a story, a habitat with living things,” he explaned. “When you understand something, it’s easy to respect it, and when you respect it, it’s easy to love and value it. And if you introduce kids to things they have fun doing when they are young, they are likely to continue to play as adults and enjoy their lives. People who recreate have goals and reasons to stay fit.”

Each camp session also contains a spiritual element, which is focused on the way young people view nature. “When they’re outdoors, they are part of a circle of life, and we have campfires where we tell Native American stories of days gone by and how these people perceived the world around them,” Cook said.

Change in Venue

Wilderness Experiences Unlimited teaches participants how to scuba dive

One program of Wilderness Experiences Unlimited teaches participants how to scuba dive, then arranges trips to Florida and the Cayman Islands to help them enjoy that new skill.

Wilderness Experiences began selling sporting goods years ago, and the Cooks eventually purchased Westfield Water Sports in Southwick and combined it with their own small retail operation.

The acquisition allowed them to bring scuba diving into the mix because the store sold scuba gear, and it was then that Cook built a pool where he could conduct diving and swim classes, and later added the ropes course.

Prior to the acquisition, Wilderness Experiences Unlimited had operated out of a number of sites, including Huntington and a variety of spots in Westfield. But location has never been a critical ingredient in the camp’s success.

“It doesn’t take an amazing property to make an amazing camp — it takes amazing people,” Cook told BusinessWest. “All I needed was a place where I could launch adventures from.”

He closed the retail end of his business in January, and New England Bike moved into the space and took over the scuba operation. “My wife Laura and I both had careers, and we were running two businesses,” he noted, adding that she was a nurse at Shriners Hospital. “So we left the retail side and can focus now on what we love best — the pool, our summer camps, and our travel business, which Laura launched about 20 years ago.

“We’ve always traveled, so we take people to our favorite locations around the world,” he went on. “We’ve hosted trips on every continent except Antarctica, and we’re going there in 2017.”

The focus is on visiting historical and cultural sites, but participants are also taken off the beaten track so they can see what life is like in small towns. “We may spend as much time in someone’s personal wine cellar having a six-hour meal as we do at a tourist attraction.”

There is an adventure component included in every trip, and excursions have included whitewater rafting on the Zabezzi River in Africa and diving to see great white sharks.

“On one side trip, we met orphaned juvenile lions under age 2 and went for a walk with them. Once they are grown, they stop having contact with people and their offspring are released into the wild,” Cook noted, adding that they have done the same thing with young elephants and giraffes at responsible rehabilitation facilities.

Cook firmly believes that play is a necessary component in a balanced life. “But many adults get distracted. They’re busy working, being a good parent, and watching their children play sports, so they don’t take the time to have fun themselves,” he said.

He and his daughter have been traveling around the world for years to compete in national and world-championship triathlons, and he made sure she became acclimated to the outdoors at an early age. “She spent three nights living in a tepee with me during her first year of life,” he said.

Although he realizes that’s far more than most people want to do, his mission at Wilderness Experiences Unlimited remains unchanged.

“It’s a place where people of all ages can face their fears and accomplish things they didn’t ever think they could do,” he explained. “We hope to continue to open up new worlds for young people and adults.” n

Sections Sports & Leisure
Sonny’s Place Sets Standard for Family Entertainment Centers

Chris Shaw

Chris Shaw says the goal at Sonny’s Place is to provide a wide range of activities for people of all ages.

Chris Shaw says the phrase ‘family entertainment center’ has been around for decades and is certainly not a new business concept.

But it has definitely come a long way since the days when such venues consisted of a driving range and miniature golf course with a soft-serve ice-cream stand near the entrance, he went on, adding quickly that Sonny’s Place, the Somers, Conn. venture he serves as general manager, is probably the best example in this region of how such facilities have evolved.

Indeed, the site on Main Street, formerly home to a driving range carved out of a former fruit and vegetable farm, is now home to everything from go-karts, a zipline, and a rock wall to batting cages, an arcade, and a performance stage for live acts — the country group Trailer Trash performed there last weekend. There is also a bar and a barbecue restaurant.

And while Sonny’s does, indeed, offer a miniature golf course, there is no windmill or clown’s mouth to navigate. Instead, there are fountains, a rock formation, and a number of other landscaping features.

“This is not the type of mom-and-pop operation we saw years ago,” said Shaw, who has owned such a facility himself. “The family entertainment center has come a long way.”

And Sonny’s Place is, in many respects, setting the new standard, he told BusinessWest, adding that the facility has added a new attraction almost every year since the Antonacci family, also owners of USA Hauling and the recently christened Greathorse (formerly Hampden Country Club), acquired the property nearly a decade ago.

Together, these attractions draw roughly 600 to 1,000 people a day, depending on the weather, said Shaw, adding that, while most visitors are from Connecticut and Massachusetts, license plates from other states can be seen in the parking lot.

And there is plenty of room for further expansion — both literally and figuratively, he said, adding that the facility closed its driving range a few years ago, leaving that vast acreage for new activities and revenue streams. The zipline now occupies some of that space, said Shaw, adding that a host of possibilities, from a ropes course to another arcade; from laser tag to bumper boats, are all potential expansion options.

“There are a lot of things we can do to further enhance the experience and provide people with even more to do,” he added. “We’re looking at a number of attractive options.”

For this issue and its focus on sports and leisure, BusinessWest paid a visit to Sonny’s Place, a tour that yielded ample evidence of how the family entertainment complex has changed and what it takes to succeed in this new environment.

Setting the Stage

Shaw had Monday, June 22 off from work. He remembers looking forward to it, because he knew there wouldn’t be many other off days for a while.

Indeed, that Monday marked the start of summer vacation for most young people in the region, and by the end of that afternoon, most all other schools had shut things down until late August or early September.

Thus, the very busy season is now underway at Sonny’s Place. This is a year-round facility, certainly, but most of its visitors — and revenue — come in the summer months.

And on that Tuesday, roughly an hour before the facility opened, Shaw had one eye on the weather — thunderstorms and even hail were predicted for that afternoon, and clouds were already gathering by 10 a.m. — and the other on the four months to come.

Sonny’s place has been enjoying steady growth over the past several years, and Shaw certainly expects that trend to continue in 2015 due to continued expansion of the facility and strict adherence to the basic formula for success in this specific business sector.

Elaborating on that formula, he said it involves, well, living up to that timeworn anthem in this business, the one about having something for everyone, meaning, in this case, every age group.

Sonny’s Place has maintained a pace of adding a new attraction roughly every year

Chris Shaw says Sonny’s Place has maintained a pace of adding a new attraction roughly every year — and there is still considerable room for expansion.

Actually, the goal is to have many things for everyone, and Sonny’s Place is accomplishing that — with everything from bounce houses for the very young to a bar with a full liquor license for those who were very young decades ago — as well as activities for everyone in between. For example, 80 students from the class of 2015 at Somers High School were on the grounds just hours after receiving their diplomas for late-night and then early-morning activities that could be placed in the category of ‘safe alternative’ to whatever else the graduates might have been doing that night.

“It’s called a safe grad party, or a safe after-party,” he explained, adding that Sonny’s Place has hosted it the past two years. “They had a buffet served at 11, they also had a hypnotist, and full run of the facility until 5 in the morning.

“We tried to build a well-rounded facility that covers all ages,” he went on. “Mini-golf is good for all ages, the go-karts are good for the teenage crowd — but also for adults, because they like to do it, too — and we have the bar back here so parents can come back and relax, and we have live entertainment for the adults.”

Another part of the success formula, though, involves continually adding new attractions to build on the experience and drive repeat business. This has been the basic mission since the Antonacci family acquired the facility formerly known as Somers Golf Center.

Back then, it had a driving range and a miniature golf course, no doubt with a windmill, said Shaw, adding that, over the years, the venture has added significantly to the footprint while upgrading facilities like the golf course.

The goal was to create an entertainment center that people could spend a half-day or more at, not just a few hours, said Shaw, adding that Sonny’s Place has become a destination in every sense of that word, for families, groups such as summer camps (like the one based in New York State that makes a pilgrimage every summer), and even area businesses.

Indeed, Windsor, Conn.-based Alstom Power, a global leader in power generation, power transmission, and rail infrastructure, will stage three outings for employees and their families at Sonny’s Place this year.

Those visitors, like other others, will have a host of options available when it comes to recreation and possible competition, from miniature golf to mini-bowling; from the zipline to the so-called ‘monkey motion’ jumper, which, said Shaw, blends bungee jumping with a trampoline.

Visitors purchase what is known as a ‘Sonny Moni Card,’ which can be loaded based on dollar amounts or increments of time, said Shaw, adding that they represent another vast improvement over the facilities of years ago — no more feeding quarters into arcade games or buying tickets for individual attractions — and can be used over several days, depending on the amount purchased.

Most visitors will spend several hours at Sonny’s Place, said Shaw, adding that the basic goal in the business plan is to not only extend the day, but bring people back repeatedly over the course of a season that stretches from April to October.

And this goal was the primary motivation for expanding the options in the broad category of hospitality, he noted, adding that a barbecue pit is now open to the public. And then, there’s the live entertainment.

Trailer Trash also made an appearance last year, said Shaw, who couldn’t quantify the turnout — he didn’t have an exact number — but could qualify it.

“There was an overflow crowd,” he explained. “We had to park cars on the old driving range, and we never had to do that before.”

He was expecting a similar turnout this year, and also predicting good crowds for a host of other scheduled acts, including Southern Rain, Jeff Pitchell, Frank Serafino, Lobsterz from Mars, Brass Attack, and many others.

Coming Attractions

Shaw admitted that he didn’t get to see Trailer Trash when it played Sonny’s Place in 2014. He was far too busy dealing with that overflow crowd he described and making sure the night ran smoothly.

He was hoping to get a look for this year’s show, but was hedging his bets in anticipation of another huge turnout.

As for time off? As he said, there won’t be much of that between this summer and the end of the season.

Such is life in the modern family entertainment center, a realm where the bar is being set consistently higher — and Sonny’s Place continues to clear it.

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