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MGM Ushers In a New Era at the MassMutual Center

Meeting Expectations

mmcdpartOn July 1, MGM Springfield took over exclusive venue management at the MassMutual Center, thus beginning an intriguing new chapter in the history of a facility that was first opened almost a half-century ago and was expanded in 2005. The hope and expectation, locally and at the state level, is that MGM’s name, reputation, and strong track record in the entertainment industry will enable the facility to realize its considerable potential.

Alex Dixon calls it “a sleeping giant we plan to unleash.”

He was referring to the MassMutual Center, or the MMC, as it’s sometimes called, in downtown Springfield. And with those few words, Dixon, general manager for MGM Springfield, actually said quite a bit.

With ‘sleeping giant,’ he succinctly and poignantly noted both the MMC’s considerable potential as an event and convention venue — and the fact that, since it opened in 2005, not all of that potential has been realized. In fact, ‘underperforming’ is the word you often hear in relation to the track record for this facility, created through a $70 million investment from the state and now part of the portfolio of venues owned and overseen by the Mass. Convention Center Authority (MCCA).

We have an extremely walkable downtown, easy access off I-91, a great hotel product, and an emerging entertainment corridor. If you stand at the corner of State and Main streets and look to your left and right, you can see the palette that’s there for a bustling corridor over the next several years.”

And that reference to waking it up, to “unleashing” it? That was an equally effective and economical means to sum up the hope — most would actually categorize it as an expectation — that MGM, now venue manager at the MMC, will, through its name, reputation, resources, and the $950 million casino it is building across the street, enable the facility to elevate its game.

Dixon, who arrived in Springfield just a few months ago from the Horseshoe Baltimore Casino, understands these expectations, and believes they are realistic. More to the point, he knows that it is now part of his job description to make them reality.

And he believes a confluence of factors, from MGM’s track record in the entertainment business to the game-changing nature of the casino when it comes to drawing meeting and convention goers to Springfield’s broad, ongoing resurgence, will allow him to succeed with that mission.

“We have an extremely walkable downtown, easy access off I-91, a great hotel product, and an emerging entertainment corridor,” he said in offering a partial list of the city’s many assets. “If you stand at the corner of State and Main streets and look to your left and right, you can see the palette that’s there for a bustling corridor over the next several years.”

Nate Little, director of Communications & External Relations for the MCCA, agreed, and said MGM Springfield’s management — and the neighboring casino — should enable the MMC to improve its performance in what has always been an extremely competitive market for events and conventions in the Northeast.

Alex Dixon

Alex Dixon says MGM — and a host of other constituencies — are looking forward to the next chapter in the story of the MassMutual Center.

“With MGM’s pipeline of talent and leadership in the entertainment industry, we hope and expect that the company will bring an entirely new level of performance to the MassMutual Center,” he told BusinessWest. “And with the resort opening across the street, there is a good chance for a kind of symbiosis; we expect and hope that it will be a beneficial relationship.”

Both Dixon and Little said it will take time for the MMC to ramp up and dramatically improve its overall performance, in large part because many events are booked several years out. But Dixon noted that there are already signs of progress, especially when it comes to the number of inquiries about the facility and available dates.

“I’m pleasantly surprised by the number of in-bound calls already, well in advance of having a sales team in place,” he said. “There are a number of people expressing interest in the facility.”

For this issue and its focus on meetings and conventions, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at MGM’s role as manager of the MassMutual Center and what it means for the future of that all-important regional asset.

Dates with Destiny

When it was announced back in February that MGM had finalized a deal to take over exclusive management of the MMC, staff members at the facility became some of the very first MGM employees in Springfield.

“They’re our first team members,” said Dixon, noting that the occasion was a milestone of sorts and part of an ongoing, quite comprehensive transition to put the MMC onto MGM’s systems and fully integrate that facility with the casino resort complex due to go online roughly 13 months from now.

We’re really getting our house in order so that we can put our best face forward once we begin to market the facility as one big campus.”

“We’re really getting our house in order so that we can put our best face forward once we begin to market the facility as one big campus,” said Dixon, adding that such work will continue for several more months.

It represents a key turning point in the history of the facility previously known as the Springfield Civic Center, which opened 45 years ago and underwent a significant expansion and renovation project starting in 2003.

That project, which included renovation of the arena and the addition of 100,000 square feet of meeting and convention space, was strongly supported by area legislators, especially those representing Springfield, on the theory that it would be a key component in efforts to bring greater vibrancy to the city’s downtown and become a catalyst for progress in a city suffering economic decline and on the brink of receivership.

But while the MMC has had its moments over the years and has played host to a wide variety of events and meetings — everything from college commencements to Bay Path University’s annual Women’s Leadership Conference to the Western Mass. Business & Innovation Expo (scheduled for Nov. 2) — it has not, by most barometers, performed as the MCCA hoped it would.

Indeed, Little said that other venues in the MCCA portfolio, such as the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center and the John B. Hynes Veterans Memorial Convention Center, are running events — or “are occupied,” as he put it — between 50% and 60% of the days in a year. That is roughly the industry standard and a good number, because many events require setup before and cleanup after they happen. Meanwhile, the MassMutual Center has historically performed well under those numbers, although he didn’t have exact figures at his disposal.

It was with an eye toward improving this track record that the MCCA awarded a contract involving joint management of the facility to MGM Springfield and Spectra (formerly Global Spectrum) last year, with the understanding that the former would eventually assume exclusive venue management, with Spectra continuing to handle the food and beverage side of the operation. That happened on July 1.

Earlier this year, employers at the MassMutual Center became the first MGM team members in Springfield

Earlier this year, employers at the MassMutual Center became the first MGM team members in Springfield, and there were was a ceremony at the MMC to mark the occasion. MGM Springfield President Mike Mathis is second from left; General Manager Alex Dixon is at far right.

Elaborating, Little said the market for events, meetings, and conventions, especially in smaller markets like Springfield, is extremely competitive. The hope and, again, the expectation, is that MGM Springfield’s management will provide a strong leg up in this marketplace.

“The huge advantage to having MGM on the scene is that there are very few venues of that regional size and quality that are attached to a name like MGM,” he said. “We think that’s going to be a huge benefit for us, and the goal all along was to maximize the performance of the MMC, which we think has huge potential as a venue.

“And we can’t imagine anyone better than MGM to help us unlock that potential,” he went on, adding that the simple goal is to have the building be used much more than it is currently being used.

Gathering Momentum

For his part, Dixon isn’t particularly interested in past performance at the MMC, although he is aware of it. Instead, he’s clearly focused on the present and future.

“We’re looking forward to the next chapter,” he told BusinessWest, adding that MGM has already commenced writing it.

As he discussed this next chapter, Dixon said there are many pieces to this puzzle, including work to ensure the highest quality for events already on the books — many were scheduled months if not years ago — while also going about filling more dates on the calendar.

And MGM will bring vast experience and resources to both sides of this equation, he said.

MassMutual Center employees celebrate their entry into the MGM family.

MassMutual Center employees celebrate their entry into the MGM family.

“This year, we’re really going to be enhancing what we already have,” he said, referring to everything from scheduled banquets to presentation of the Springfield Thunderbirds hockey team as it gets set to begin its second season. “And over the next year, we’ll be working to get the frequency and quality of events firing on all cylinders; we are working hard to make sure we get this right.”

By that, he meant both the quantity and quality aspects to this mission to improve the performance of MMC and fulfill an obligation within the host-community agreement to produce four marquee events a year in Springfield.

But Dixon said he considers those events to be merely a baseline, and he anticipates bringing more and better events to the city across the wide spectrum of entertainment. And he said the city has many things going for it in this regard, starting with the MMC itself, which has “great bones and a great staff.”

Beyond that, there is the casino complex itself, a comprehensive “downtown refresh,” as he called it, with many moving parts, and a partner at the state level (the MCCA) willing to invest time, talent, and resources into efforts to take the MMC to the next level.

“Considering all that, you can’t help but be positive about the days ahead,” said Dixon. “We’re getting ready to welcome people to the show — that’s our mantra.”

And the ‘show’ will take many forms, he said, adding that the facilities and amenities he mentioned could help attract a host of shows and conventions to downtown Springfield, and especially the latter.

“What’s great about our environment here is that, if you have a mid-size convention here mid-week, you can really take over the downtown core,” he explained. “Between the hotels, our facility, and the restaurant product, there’s a rollout that we can do that you just wouldn’t see in a bigger market.

“In Boston or some of the other larger markets, you’re a drop in the bucket,” he went on. “Here, we can roll out the red carpet. I’m a big believer in using what you have to the best of your ability. We’re going to hustle to find mid-week convention business, and we’re going to hopefully unlock some groups and businesses that have gone elsewhere.”

At the same time, he went on, MGM and partnering groups will work to convince area organizations that might historically look outside this region (and specifically downtown Springfield) for sites for corporate retreats and other gatherings to “conduct business at home.”

Conventional Thinking

This reference to ‘home’ brings Dixon to what would have to be considered the big picture, or at least the bigger picture.

“Everyone is not just rooting for the success of the building, the MassMutual Center, they’re rooting for the success of Springfield,” he explained. “And if you get that right, it creates a momentum that just builds on itself.”

Creating momentum is what state leaders had in mind when they invested $70 million in the expansion of the Civic Center almost 15 years ago. The facility has generated some of that precious commodity, but the expectation is that, with MGM’s name, reputation, and cache behind the facility, there will be much more in the years to come.

As Dixon said, ‘welcome to the show.’

George O’Brien can be reached at obrien@businesswest.com

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