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At the Quarter Pole

Alex Dixon stands by the ice skating rink opened late last month at MGM Springfield

Alex Dixon stands by the ice skating rink opened late last month at MGM Springfield, one of many amenities expected to draw visitors to the resort casino over the holiday season.

MGM Springfield recently wrapped up its first business quarter, as well as that 100-day milestone. This was described by GM Alex Dixon as a time of listening, watching, learning, and tweaking, and this pattern will continue — through the holidays and the months and quarters to follow — as the facility strives for continuous improvement and growth through new business and repeat customers.

100 days.

That’s a chosen milestone and time for reflection when it comes to presidents and governors. And for other individuals and institutions as well, including the $960 million MGM Springfield resort casino.

The facility passed the 100-day threshold earlier this month, and at the urging of BusinessWest, General Manager Alex Dixon used the occasion to spotlight not only how well the resort operation is doing against early projections — it’s been averaging roughly 15,000 visitors a day, and the occupancy rate at the hotel has been at or above 90%, according to the casino’s spokesperson — but to talk about how this is still very much a new business, one that is watching, listening, and, most importantly, learning.

There have been some well-documented changes — inspired by the casino’s ‘You Said, We Did’ campaign — made over the first three months of operation, Dixon noted, listing everything from a reduction on the price of a scooter rental to a doubling of the number of video poker games on the casino floor to the addition of a popular carnival table game called ‘Let It Ride,’ a poker derivative, as Dixon described it.

“Along the way, on those first 100 days, you start to get feedback from both customers and employees,” he explained. “I think of it [‘You Said, We Did’] as a brand of continuous improvement, both internally and externally.”

But the learning process comes on many different levels, he noted, using the Friday after Thanksgiving, when there was a tree-lighting ceremony and other festivities, to get his point across.

“Along the way, on those first 100 days, you start to get feedback from both customers and employees. I think of it [‘You Said, We Did’] as a brand of continuous improvement, both internally and externally.”

Casino operators knew it was the day after a holiday and also a day off for most people, but they didn’t quite anticipate what these factors, coupled with the Big Balloon Parade and other events, would mean for visitation to their facility.

“That Friday … absolutely did not look like any other Friday, where it’s a much-later-arriving crowd and an older crowd,” said Dixon, adding that what (and who) they encountered certainly caught the management team off guard. “We needed to manage a much younger crowd, and one that had many people who were here for the first time.

Peter and Michelle Wirth

Peter and Michelle Wirth say their business, Mercedes-Benz of Springfield, which bought naming rights to the skating rink, has a lot on common with the casino in that they are both relatively new ventures working to establish themselves.

“A quarter seems like a while, but we’re really still a new business in our infancy,” he went on. “And while there are some patterns that have emerged, we’ve really only been open 14 weekends; we learn something new every peak weekend.”

And the team at MGM is now in the midst of another comprehensive, multi-faceted learning experience — the facility’s first holiday season.

The casino has been decorated for the occasion, and it has opened an ice-skating rink — Olympic silver medalist Nancy Kerrigan was on hand for the opening ceremonies.

The holiday season is one when many people will be visiting this region to spend time with friends and family here, Dixon noted, and also a time when families are off from work and school and looking for things to do. And, naturally, MGM will be aggressive in its efforts to seize some of their time.

But while extraordinary in some ways, the holiday season will be like others since late August, when the casino opened its doors amid considerable fanfare, and those to come, he said. It’s merely another opportunity that must be seized.

For this issue, BusinessWest looks at the casino’s first 100 days and how they are reflective of a pattern of continuous improvement that management says will define the operation in the months and years to come.

Straight Shooters

They call them VIP Roundtables.

That’s the name attached to what amount to large, well-organized feedback-gathering sessions, said Dixon, adding that the first one was staged in late October.

“We bring in our best guests, provide them with a nice meal, and all of our executives sit at tables with these guests so that we’re able to get that direct feedback,” he explained, adding that time at his table yielded several pages of notes on his legal pad. Among the suggestions upon which the casino took action — from the VIP Roundtables and other vehicles for conveying feedback — were the addition of electronic roulette, Let It Ride,’ more waitresses serving cocktails, extended hours for some of the South End Market dining options, improved traffic flow in the parking garage, and the addition of ‘top-dollar’ (high-limit) slot machines.

Management even made some adjustments in the store of the hotel, specifically with ‘MGM’ branded items and apparel.

“People wanted more logoed gear,” he explained. “We rolled out some swag — different polos, hats, sweatshirts — but as people earn loyalty points with us and as they frequent the property, you can only buy the same T-shirt, hat, or polo so many times, so we quickly added a new and wider variety.

“Our business is a series of small, minor tweaks to the customer experience,” he went on. “And for our customers who come two, three, four times a week, these small changes are big; if you’re favorite thing in the world is playing Let it Ride, us having Let it Ride is a very big deal.”

Elaborating, Dixon noted that those operating in this sphere, as in most other business sectors, tend to break things down, revenue-wise and otherwise, by quarter.

And in this case, obviously, it was MGM Springfield’s first quarter.

It’s been a busy one, marked by everything from the announcement of a Wahlburgers restaurant coming to the site to the launch of a comedy club; from ceremonies in the casino’s Armory Square to mark Theodor Geisel’s birthplace to a vote of the facility’s security personnel not to unionize.

There were some new partnerships as well, such as one with Mercedes-Benz of Springfield, which is sponsoring the ice rink and a car-giveaway program (more on that later).

But mostly, it’s been a time of watching, listening, learning, and tweaking, Dixon said, adding that while some feedback comes directly from customers at VIP Roundtables and formal surveys, most of it comes from employees — who are passing on what they see and hear.

A doubling of the number of video poker games on the casino floor

A doubling of the number of video poker games on the casino floor is one of several tweaks Alex Dixon’s team has made in response to guest feedback.

“The best place that we get direct customer feedback is our front-line employees,” he explained. “It’s important that we talk and develop a deep relationship with those front-line employees because they will tell us what the customers are telling them.”

Over the first quarter, some patterns have emerged in terms of traffic volume and the origination points for visitors, said Dixon. In general, guests have come from a radius of 150 to 250 miles, meaning all of New England and New York. But the lion’s share (pun intended) of the guests (to both the casino and the hotel) are coming from the 413.

He noted that bus service to the casino has been fairly steady and that more routes may be added in the near future.

Meanwhile, bookings for the meeting and event spaces have been solid as well, he noted, adding that a number of large-scale events, including the Bright Nights Ball in November, have been staged on the property, and several area companies, from Florence Bank to Whalley Computer, have already rented spaces for sales meetings, product showcases, and other purposes.

Playing Their Cards Right

Moving forward, the team at MGM will go on listening and tweaking, said Dixon, adding that the goals in this business are the same as they are in any other — to create repeat business, drive new business, and continually look for new opportunities to grow.

Which brings him to a development known as the ‘study hall.’

That’s a play on words involving the casino’s hotel lobby, which boasts a number of shelved books and thus looks like a library, said Dixon.

“A quarter seems like a while, but we’re really still a new business in our infancy. And while there are some patterns that have emerged, we’ve really only been open 14 weekends; we learn something new every peak weekend.”

However, on Friday nights starting at 6, it looks more like an entertainment venue, with a one- or two-piece band playing before an audience of business people and others just looking to unwind and get the weekend started.

“This is catered toward the after-work business crowd,” said Dixon, adding that, rather than being a response to given feedback (like more video roulette), this was a proactive step.

“Marketing is a little bit of reacting or meeting customer demand,” he said. “But in other cases, it’s creating demand for things for people didn’t even know they wanted. We’re mixing a great, literary-themed space and a cocktail and beverage program with entertainment, and hoping that we can create some magic.”

As for repeat business, MGM wants to drive as much as it can, obviously, said Dixon, adding that this will be achieved through a host of factors, including solid customer service, a number of amenities beyond the casino floor, and entertainment options outside the MGM complex.

“We hear from our customers … they stay for a two- or two-and-half-day stay, and they experience all of the amenities within a day or a day and a half — max,” he explained. “And then they say, ‘what else can we go do?’”

There is a good list of other things to do, he went on, adding that MGM is partnering with the Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau and individual attractions like the Basketball Hall of Fame, Springfield Museums, and the Springfield Armory to promote all there is to do.

“We’ve engaged all these entities to help promote Springfield as a destination,” he went on. “And we want more bars, more restaurants, more vibrancy, because that is going to get a return trip.”

As for the holidays, well, it’s an intriguing, potential-laden time for the casino, but it’s also somewhat uncharted territory, at least for a resort operation in this market.

“I wish I had a crystal ball as to understanding just when people will be coming and visiting,” he said, adding that, while days when schools have been closed this fall and that Friday after Thanksgiving have provided some clues, there are still some unknowns. “What we’ve begun to think about is how to change our meal periods, our hours of operation, to be more nimble when there are different events occurring in the city, because we still don’t quite know how things will impact us.”

Overall, the casino has worked to create a list of reasons why individuals, groups, and families should make the casino part of their holiday plans, said Dixon, adding that the decorations, an expanded Kringle Candle shop (it now occupies space in the old armory as well as the former church in Armory Square), and the skating rink are all parts of this equation.

“There was a Rockefeller Plaza-like feel to the lighting ceremony,” Dixon said of the events just after Thanksgiving and the ongoing atmosphere in the plaza. “It creates an energy and vibe.”

A vibe that Mercedes-Benz of Springfield wanted to become attached to.

Indeed, the company not only brought the naming rights to the rink, but it staged a “Choose Your Ride” promotion whereby a lucky individual won a new Mercedes-Benz in a drawing staged on Dec. 1.

Peter Wirth, co-owner of the dealership with his wife, Michelle, said a solid partnership between the two entities has emerged over the past few years (before the dealership opened and long before the casino opened) in part because they are both new businesses trying to establish themselves and share similar approaches to customer service — as well as geographic service area, if you will.

“MGM is known for providing unparalleled customer service in their world, and that’s exactly what we’re trying to provide in our world,” he explained. “The brands’ missions complement each other nicely.

“At the same time, their geographic reach is very similar to ours,” he went on. “They see the vast majority of their customers come from 50 miles away, and that’s how far our reach is as well.”

Still, such a partnership with a casino and an ice-rink sponsorship would be considered an ambitious marketing step for a single dealership, said Michelle Wirth, adding quickly that Mercedes-Benz of Springfield considers this a calculated roll of the dice, to use casino-industry language, and, more importantly, something positive for the community.

“It makes good business sense to partner with MGM, but it’s also part of our strategy to give back,” she said. “This creates a lot of positive energy.”

Odds Are

As in the political realm, the 100-day milestone is merely a time for businesses to stop and reflect. Or another time, to be more precise.

Indeed, the process of reflecting, and learning, is ongoing for those at MGM Springfield, who will add a holiday season’s worth of observations and feedback to what has been gathered already in efforts to continuously improve.

“Throughout the course of the year, we’re still learning and still growing our database,” said Dixon, adding that tweaks will continue to come.

Like Let it Ride games and more items in the store with the MGM logo on them. As he said, they seem like small changes, but for the customer, they’re big.

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

Features Women of Impact 2018

Celebrating the Women of Impact

More than 400 people turned out at the Sheraton Springfield on Dec. 6 for BusinessWest’s inaugural Women of Impact luncheon. Eight women were honored for their achievements in business and with giving back to the community. Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito attended and offered remarks on subjects ranging from advancements in STEM education to a host of bipartisan efforts at the State House. Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno also offered remarks. The keynote speaker was Lei Wang, the first Asian woman to complete the Explorers Grand Slam.

 

The Women of Impact for 2018 are:

• Jean Canosa Albano, assistant director of Public Services, Springfield City Library;

• Kerry Dietz, principal, Dietz Architects;

• Denise Jordan, executive director, Springfield Housing Authority;

• Gina Kos, executive director, Sunshine Village;

• Carol Leary, president, Bay Path University;

• Colleen Loveless, president and CEO, Revitalize Community Development Corp.;

• Janis Santos, executive director, HCS Head Start; and

• Katie Allan Zobel, president and CEO, Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts.

Photography by Dani Fine Photography

Thank you to our sponsors:


Sponsors:

Bay Path University; Comcast Business; Country Bank; Granite State Development

Exclusive Media Sponsor:

Springfield 22 News The CW

Speaker Sponsor:

 

 

 

 

Event Keynote Speaker

Lei Wang
The first Asian woman to complete the Explorers Grand Slam. Lei Wang’s journey redefined success in her own terms, and today, she is challenging individuals around the world to do the same.

In 2004, Lei, who grew up as a Beijing city girl who had no athletic training, set out to climb Mount Everest. She was on a promising career trek in finance with an MBA from Wharton. But she was excited about proving that an ordinary person could climb Everest. That excitement empowered her to not only climb Everest, but to become the first Asian woman to complete a journey to the summits of the highest mountains on each of the 7 continents and to the north and south pole, a feat called the Explorer’s Grand Slam. As she endured outstanding hardships and overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles, she made an astonishing  discovery. She discovered that excitement is the driving force motivates and empowers every one of us and the secret to innovation, peak performance and extraordinary achievement. Today as a speaker, author and adventurer she travels the world to ascend new summits and empower individuals and organizations to dream big, take a leap of faith and to tap into the power of excitement to realize their potential and reach the heights of success. Read more about Lei here.

Meet the Judges

Samalid Hogan
Samalid Hogan is the regional director for the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center Network’s Western Regional Office. In that role, she has built partnerships across public, private, and civic sectors to achieve economic-development goals for the Pioneer Valley region. In 2014, Hogan founded CoWork Springfield, the city’s first co-working space, which focuses on serving women and minority-owned businesses. In addition, she was appointed to the Governor’s Latino Advisory Commission in 2017, and serves on the boards of several organizations, including Common Capital, the New England Public Radio Foundation, the Minority Business Alliance, and National Junior Tennis and Learning of Greater Springfield. A BusinessWest 40 Under Forty honoree in 2013 and winner of the Continued Excellence Award in 2018, she was also awarded the Grinspoon Entrepreneurial Spirit Award in 2017 and was recognized as a Woman Trailblazer and Trendsetter by the Massachusetts Latino Chamber of Commerce in 2016.

Susan Jaye-Kaplan
Susan Jaye-Kaplan is the founder of the Pioneer Valley Women’s Running Club and Go FIT Inc., and co-founder of Link to Libraries Inc., an organization whose mission is to collect and distribute books to public elementary schools and nonprofit organizations in Western Mass. and Connecticut. She is also the co-founder of the Women’s Leadership Network and founder of the Pioneer Valley Women’s Running Club of Western Mass., as well as an advisory board member and fundraiser for Square One. She has received one of the nation’s Daily Point of Light Awards, the President’s Citation Award at Western New England College, Elms College’s Step Forward/Step Ahead Woman of Vision Award, Reminder Publications’ Hometown Hero Award, the Mass. Commission on the Status of Women Unsung Heroines Award, the New England Patriots’ International Charitable Foundation Community MVP Award (the only person to receive this award two times), and the Girl Scouts of Pioneer Valley’s Women of Distinction Award. She was chosen one of BusinessWest’s Difference Makers in 2009. She has also received the National Conference on Community Justice Award, the Springfield Pynchon Award, and the Holyoke Rotary’s Paul Harris Award.

Dora Robinson
Dora Robinson has served as a nonprofit leader and practitioner for more than 35 years. She recently retired from the United Way of Pioneer Valley (UWPV) after serving for more than eight years as president and CEO. Previously, she served as the first full-time president and CEO of Martin Luther King Jr. Family Services for 19 years. The foundation for these leadership roles is based on previous experiences as corporate director and vice president for the Center for Human Development and vice president of Education at the Urban League of Springfield. Her earlier professional experiences included social work with adolescents and families, community outreach, and program planning and management. She is currently an adjunct professor at Springfield College School for Social Work and the School for Professional Studies. Dora has received much recognition for her work as a nonprofit executive leader and her work in social justice. Most recently, she was elected to serve on the board of directors for the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts and is serving as a steering committee member to establish a neighborhood-based library in East Forest Park.

Sports & Leisure

Having a Blast

Kendall Knapik says Hot Brass meets a recognized need in the region for a public shooting range.

Kendall Knapik says Hot Brass meets a recognized need in the region for a public shooting range.

New Businesses like to start off with a bang. Hot Brass in West Springfield has done that laterally — thousands of bangs actually. It’s the only indoor shooting range within a few hours’ drive. And it’s one of two businesses — a gun retail shop called Guns Inc. being the other — operating out of a former auto body shop on Main Street. Thus farm the ventures are on target when it comes to established goals and patterns of growth.

It doesn’t have a nickname. Yet.

They just call it the ‘50-cal.’ That’s short — although not much shorter — for .50 caliber, as in the .50 caliber sniper rifle made by Connecticut-based Bushmaster Firearms.

The BA 50, as it’s called, weighs 30 pounds and is nearly five feet long. It fires — quite loudly — a huge projectile that makes a very large hole in the paper target, and is touted by its maker for its extreme accuracy.

It is now one of the star attractions at the Hot Brass indoor firearm and bow range in West Springfield, a public facility, which opened its doors late last summer.

“It’s very popular — people love firing it,” said Kendall Knapik, manager of this family business, noting that visitors can rent it for $35, plus $10 for every round (the ammunition is expensive) — or fire it just once or twice — and people of all ages and persuasions have done just that. “We have a lot of people come in, rent the 50-cal, and get pictures and video with it, because it’s not often you see one of those.”

The BA 50 is just one element of what has become a large, multi-faceted operation. There are actually two businesses located at once was an auto-body shop on Main Street — Hot Brass, a new venture, and a retail firearms component known as Guns Inc., launched by Knapik’s parents, David and Cheryl Knapik, and formerly operated out of a small storefront farther down Main Street.

“We have a lot of people come in, rent the 50-cal, and get pictures and video with it, because it’s not often you see one of those.”

Within those two ventures, there are many smaller divisions, or revenue streams, if you will, from the indoor firearm and bow ranges to ‘license to carry’ gun-safety courses held every other Sunday; from a growing number of events — there have been several bachelor parties, for example — to the gun sales themselves, which have been steady if not spectacular since Donald Trump was elected president and a huge threat to gun accessibility removed (more on that later).

Together, these many components are meeting or exceeding lofty goals set when the ceremonial ribbon was cut, said Knapik, adding that, overall, the ambitious venture was launched out of perceived need for these various services, and the need has been verified.

“There are several private clubs in this region, but no public ranges,” she explained, adding that this is the only facility that fits this description within a roughly 100-mile radius.

Thus, there are often a variety of license plates seen in the large parking lot, not to mention a very diverse client base, said Knapik, adding that while sport shooting has always been fairly popular, it is becoming much more so, involving men, as it has historically, but now also women, couples, even businesses looking for a new and different way to do some team-building work.

The .50 caliber sniper rifle is a popular attraction at Hot Brass, drawing shooters of all ages.

The .50 caliber sniper rifle is a popular attraction at Hot Brass, drawing shooters of all ages.

“We’re seeing all kinds of people coming in to use the ranges — people of all ages,” she said, adding that the facility has hosted everyone from law-enforcement officials and military veterans to grandmothers starting a new hobby.

For this issue and its focus on sports and leisure, BusinessWest talked at length with Knapik about this family operation and why it is on target — both literally and figuratively — when it comes to ambitious projections for visitation and overall growth.

Barrels of Fun

Knapik said the vision for Hot Brass and Guns Inc. started to come into focus more than two years ago, and the picture — and the promise — were enough to lure her back to the family business after several years spent living in Manhattan and working in the healthcare field.

That vision was for two symbiotic businesses operating under the same roof that would meet recognized needs within the region, she said.

The symbiotic part is fairly self-explanatory: Those who purchase guns need a place to shoot; meanwhile, those looking to purchase a gun will often try before they buy, and if they try at this range, they only need to walk a few dozen feet to likely find the model they’re looking for.

Indeed, Guns Inc. stocks both new and pre-owned firearms from such brands as Colt, Smith & Wesson, Sig Sauer, Ruger, Glock, Remington, Winchester, and Springfield Armory — as in the Springfield, Ill.-based company founded in 1974 to resurrect the most historically significant designs produced at the Armory in Springfield, Mass., such as the M1-Garand, the 1911 A1, and the M14, according to the company’s website.

As for the need part, Knapik noted, again, that there were and are several private ranges operated by sportsmen’s clubs in this area. These are outdoor facilities for the most part and require a membership.

Springfield-based Smith & Wesson operated a public shooting range at its facility on Roosevelt Avenue, but it closed several years ago, said Knapik, adding that, in many respects, Hot Brass fills that void and several others within the marketplace.

Getting the doors open was a massive undertaking — a $4 million investment overall — that involved obtaining not only a special permit from the city, but a mix of renovation and new construction at the former West Side Auto Body.

The new facility features five 50-foot pistol lanes; 10 rifle, shotgun, or pistol lanes that are 90 feet long; and two 61-foot-long archery lanes.

Through the first business quarter of operation, each of the various components of the business have seen a solid response from the buying public, said Knapik, who started with the archery lanes.

While not a hugely popular sport, archery is gaining some traction, she told BusinessWest, adding that Hot Brass offers a place to practice indoors; many practitioners are limited to their backyards, which makes it difficult to practice several months out of the year.

As for the shooting ranges, as noted earlier, they’re attracting diverse audiences, including many law-enforcement officials, individuals, couples (it’s become a popular date-night activity), bachelor parties, groups, and more.

the new location for Hot Brass and Guns Inc. is on target

Four months after opening, the new location for Hot Brass and Guns Inc. is on target when it comes to the many goals set for the twin businesses.

Sport shooting is popular because it’s a form of release, Knapik told BusinessWest, especially at a time when many are burdened by large amounts of stress and need a way to attack it.

“You definitely feel much better after you shoot a little bit — that’s the consensus, anyway,” she said. “People always leave smiling, and they tell us how much better they feel, which is good to hear.”

Many are also leaving with guns, accessories, and clothing from Guns Inc., and, very often, photos of video of themselves, sometimes with the BA 50 and often in front of a ‘Hot Brass’ step-and-repeat erected near the front lobby.

Memberships are available for frequent shooters — and that’s a large constituency — or the range can be rented for $26.50 per hour.

Knapik said there are ongoing discussions about staging competitions at the facility, and that might well happen, but for now, the focus is on keeping the ranges open for visitors, and thus keeping them content.

“You definitely feel much better after you shoot a little bit — that’s the consensus, anyway. People always leave smiling, and they tell us how much better they feel, which is good to hear.”

It’s also on bringing more people and new and different audiences to the facility, she noted. While word-of-mouth referrals have been a large part of the marketing strategy, the company has done some radio and other traditional forms of advertising to get the word out.

As for gun sales at Guns Inc., Knapik said the “hysteria” from the months leading up to the 2016 election has certainly died down. Any by hysteria, she meant anxiety over whether — and for how long — people could buy certain weapons.

With Donald Trump in the White House, such anxiety has dissipated, if not evaporated entirely, slowing gun sales to a considerable degree.

Still, people are buying, as evidenced by the large number of gun shows staged in this region, many of them at the Big E, which is just a mile or so down the street, another factor driving traffic to Hot Brass.

Meanwhile, it’s holiday season, and that brings a number of visitors to the showroom, said Knapik.

“For many people, a gun is a great gift,” she said, adding quickly that, unless one is certain which model and caliber to put under the tree, a gift certificate is in order.

Loaded Questions

With a sticker price of nearly $5,000, it’s safe to say not many people will be finding a gift-wrapped BA 50 waiting for them on Christmas morning.

That’s OK … they can still fire one at Hot Brass, and probably leave, as Knapik said, feeling much better, with a smile on their face, and probably a commemorative photo.

The large gun has become one of many factors contributing to a solid start and promising outlook for this multi-faceted operation.

The Knapik family certainly took their best shot when they doubled down on their business a few years ago, and now, a wide range of visitors can do the same thing.

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

Work/Life Balance

Cold Comfort

The holiday season that stretches from Thanksgiving into January is, in many ways, a cheerful time, one of togetherness, connection, and giving. But, in truth, many people dread the season for the stresses it brings — to finances, relationships, workload, you name it. While those stresses can’t be eliminated, they can often be managed through a combination of mindfulness, realistic expectations, and simply seeking help.

The holiday season is usually a magical time for kids — a month of anticipation, togetherness, and warm feelings they’ll remember forever.

The problem is, years later, those memories often collide with adult realities like balancing work and home responsibilities, strained finances, and relationship conflicts. In short, it’s not always the most wonderful time of the year. Rather, the holidays can rank among the most difficult.

“There’s a lot of demand that comes from expectations — from our families, or what happened last year, or what we see on TV — or simply what we want to happen. There are a lot of expectations, but the best thing is to remain mindful of the reality of family, finances, and other situations that change from year to year,” said Dr. Edna Rodriguez, a clinical psychologist with Providence Behavioral Health Hospital.

Especially challenging are the expectations people feel from the outside — whether it’s to maintain a perfect home, make appearances at gatherings when they’d rather stay home, or further tax finances already stressed by family gift purchases.

“It’s important to learn to say ‘no’ to that extra party or secret Santa or Yankee swap, which can put your budget on edge and make you feel stressed out when resources are limited,” Rodriguez noted.

Dr. Stuart Anfang, chief of Adult Psychiatry at Baystate Medical Center, agreed.

“As fun as the holiday season can be, it can also be stressful,” he said. “Lots of drinking and eating, lots of entertaining, lots of spending — it’s important to do these things in moderation. If we get too tired, if we eat and drink too much, if we’re too stressed by preparations or shopping, all of this can take a toll, both mentally and physically, that can really dampen our holiday celebrations.”

Anfang noted that increased family contact may also be stressful.

“Sometimes bringing together family members can lead to too much togetherness — fighting at the dinner table, re-opening old wounds, triggering buried conflicts,” he noted. “It can be helpful to give yourself a little space, try to de-escalate tense situations, and remember that this is supposed to be about fun and celebration.”

 

Dr. Stuart Anfang

Dr. Stuart Anfang

“If we get too tired, if we eat and drink too much, if we’re too stressed by preparations or shopping, all of this can take a toll, both mentally and physically, that can really dampen our holiday celebrations.”

 

Sometimes that means just stepping away for a few minutes, Rodriguez said.

“People have to spend time with family members — maybe family members you don’t necessarily feel comfortable with. So if you have to remove yourself from the area, do it — maybe go to the bathroom, breathe, and come back. Checking in with yourself is the most important thing.”

That ‘checking in’ applies to most stressful situations, she added, around the holidays or not.

“Research shows that, by doing that at least two minutes a day, you will have better stress management and remain more present in your day. With apps on smartphones, people can set up alarms to remind them to take a deep breath and focus on their breathing. In fact, it can be breathing or taking a walk or just taking a break from overwhelming situations.”

Business, Not Pleasure

Those holiday stresses, of course, often creep into the workplace, which has its own specific set of challenges to begin with. According to a study by Virgin Pulse, a leader in the field of employee well-being, 70% of employees are significantly more stressed during the holidays, and more than 10% said they’re between 60% and 100% more stressed.

“It’s no secret that, for many, life is getting more complex and stressful each and every year. It’s become increasingly vital that employers help their teams better manage their stress and priorities — especially during the holidays — for each person to be their best and brightest selves, at work and in life,” said Chris Boyce, CEO of Virgin Pulse. “This time of year, it’s important we help employees stay on top of their work priorities and holiday checklists. Supporting their health and happiness using tools, resources, and programs that drive all aspects of their well-being will help them better keep their stress and health under control.”

Katie Sandler, a wellness and professional coach, told Inc. magazine that it’s important to put aside time for oneself.

“Put aside 5, 10, 15 minutes a day to do something for yourself with intention,” she said, which may include taking a walk or listening to a favorite song or two. “No one ever took a few intentional minutes to de-stress and said, ‘dang, I wish I hadn’t done that.”

Rodriguez said parents often get overwhelmed spending time with family and keeping the mystery and magic of Christmas alive for their children. “Having another set of expectations at work increases stress and defeats the purpose.”

 

Dr. Edna Rodriguez

Dr. Edna Rodriguez

“If you have to remove yourself from the area, do it — maybe go to the bathroom, breathe, and come back. Checking in with yourself is the most important thing.”

 

Managers have their own set of challenges, she added. “When all your employees are getting time off and you need to handle the work, that’s when your wife, husband, or partner may be a little on edge, because you’re absent at times they wish you were present.”

That’s when drawing lines becomes important — or at least using technology and other means to get out of the office and connect with the people who matter most.

Avoiding a Blue Christmas

The American Psychological Assoc. offers the following tips to handle stress around the holidays.

Take time for yourself. There may be pressure to be everything to everyone. You’re only one person who can only accomplish certain things. Sometimes self-care is the best thing you can do, and others will benefit when you’re stress-free. Go for a long walk, get a massage, or take time out to listen to your favorite music or read a book. All of us need some time to recharge our batteries, and by slowing down, you will actually have more energy to accomplish your goals.

Volunteer. Find a local charity, such as a soup kitchen or a shelter, where you and your family can volunteer. Also, participating in a giving tree or an adopt-a-family program, and helping those who are living in true poverty, may help you put your own economic struggles in perspective.

Have realistic expectations. No Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or other holiday celebration is perfect. View inevitable missteps as opportunities to demonstrate flexibility and resilience. A lopsided tree or a burned brisket won’t ruin your holiday; rather, it will create a family memory. If your children’s wish list is outside your budget, talk to them about the family’s finances this year and remind them that the holidays aren’t about expensive gifts.

• Remember what’s important
. The barrage of holiday advertising can make you forget what the holiday season is really about. When your holiday expense list is running longer than your monthly budget, scale back and remind yourself that what makes a great celebration is loved ones, not store-bought presents, elaborate decorations, or gourmet food.

Seek support. Talk about your anxiety with your friends and family. Getting things out in the open can help you navigate your feelings and work toward a solution for your stress. Don’t isolate.

Holidays are also a time when people put a lot of value on materialistic things,” she told BusinessWest, which can lead to anxiety. Doing random acts of kindness can be a way to counter that — whether it’s lending an ear to neighbor or co-worker going through difficulties or contributing to a local soup kitchen.

“That keeps us grounded and focused on the true meaning of the holidays; it keeps us connected with each other, being human and being together. That’s another way to manage stress,” Rodriguez noted.

It’s true, of course, that the urge to do good deeds can be another way to create stressful expectations, but acts of kindness don’t have to be time-consuming, she said; just looking for moments in the day to show kindness is often enough.

Feeling the Loss

For many individuals — both those estranged from their families or those who have suffered a loss — the holidays can be a particularly lonely and isolating time. While it may seem like everyone else is celebrating, they’re reminded more than usual of loved ones they miss.

There’s nothing wrong with such emotions, Rodriguez said, but she added that some may find it helpful to actually schedule some time daily — even five to 10 minutes — to give themselves over to grief and reflection and even a good cry, before tackling whatever else their day brings.

Many people get ‘blue’ at this time of year, and that can be normal, Anfang added.

“It is also harder for some people when the days get shorter and colder,” he noted. “We get concerned when symptoms start causing significant functional impairment, making it harder for you to function at work and at home. Sleep disturbance, loss of appetite and weight, decreased motivation and energy, daily tearfulness, thoughts to hurt yourself or wishing you were dead — these are potential signs of clinical depression.

“If you see these symptoms in yourself or your loved ones, that’s the time to contact a primary-care provider or seek evaluation by a mental-health professional,” he went on. “Depression is very treatable, and no one should suffer in silence, especially at the holidays.”

That’s because the holidays, for many people, is a time to connect, Rodriguez said.

“It’s really about being with each other, being together. Whatever background you have, we’re all together for a reason.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Law

Navigating Change

Amy Royal

Amy Royal

Amy Royal was taking a calculated risk when she left a stable job in employment law to start her own firm at the start of the Great Recession. But those calculations proved correct, and as her firm marks 10 years in business, she reflects on how her team’s services to clients continue to go beyond legal aid into a business relationship that helps companies — and the local economy — grow.

Many employers, truth be told, don’t think the grand bargain is much of a bargain. And they have questions about how it will affect them.

“Massachusetts tends to be ripe with emerging employment issues, like the grand bargain,” said Amy Royal, referring to this past summer’s state legislation that raised the minimum wage and broadened family leave, among other worker-friendly measures.

“But that’s one of the things I enjoy — the education piece we offer to clients: ‘this is what the grand bargain looks like, and we’re going to help you plan for it. This may not seem so grand, but we’re here to help you navigate this and figure out how you’re going to work within these parameters now.’”

Royal and her team have helped plenty of employers over the 10 years since she opened her law firm, Royal, P.C., in Northampton. Since launching the business as a boutique, woman-owned, management-side-only firm in 2008, that framework hasn’t changed, but the way the team serves those clients has certainly evolved.

“Now that we’re 10 years old, we’re thinking about rebranding, thinking about growth, and how we can provide additional opportunities here at the law firm,” she told BusinessWest. “Is it continuing to market in this very discrete area or expanding beyond that?

“We obviously only represent companies,” she went on, “but in our relationships with clients, we’re being asked to handle other things for those companies apart from employment law.”

“Now that we’re 10 years old, we’re thinking about rebranding, thinking about growth, and how we can provide additional opportunities here at the law firm.”

For example, the firm represents a large, publicly traded company that recently launched a new brand and wanted help creating contracts with vendors and negotiating with other companies it was collaborating with. Another client is a large human-service agency that called on Royal to interpret regulations of its funding sources and help negotiate contracts related to those sources.

“So we’ve organically expanded over time,” she said. “We still represent companies, but we do more for them, because we’re seen as a true advisor to them. So now, at 10 years, I’ve looked at the firm and asked my team, ‘is this something we should now be marketing?’ We still are a boutique firm representing companies, but what we’re going to be rolling out in the coming year is a rebranding initiative — one that’s focused on telling the story of what we are doing here that’s more than just employment law.”

Tough Timing

Royal began her law career working for the Commonwealth, in the Office of the Attorney General, handling civil-litigation matters, which included some employment claims. From there, she went into private practice at a regional law firm that solely handled management-side labor and employment law.

Amy Royal (center) with some of her team members

Amy Royal (center) with some of her team members, including (top) attorneys Daniel Carr and Timothy Netkovick, and (bottom) Heather Loges, practice manager and COO; and Merricka Breuer, legal assistant.

With that background, Royal sensed a desire to start her own company — which turned out to be a risky proposition, opening up into the teeth of the Great Recession.

“I obviously took a huge leap; I was at an established law firm and had been there for a long time. I had an established job, with a very young family at the time. And it was 2008, when, obviously, the economy wasn’t in good shape.”

So she understood if people thought striking out on her own might not have been the safest move.

“But given how long I’d been practicing law at the time, it felt to me like it was now or never,” she explained. “I really wanted to see if I could make a go at it, and I felt like I had the tools to develop a business. Oftentimes, law firms aren’t thought of as businesses; they’re thought of as practitioners, but not businesses. But I knew I could create a law firm in a strategic way and develop it and make a company out of it.”

At first, Royal’s wasn’t the only name on the letterhead. At first, the firm was called Royal & Munnings, with Amy Griffin Munnings as a partner, helping Royal get the firm off the ground. Later, after Munnings moved to Washington, D.C., the firm was known as Royal & Klimczuk, for then-partner Kimberly Klimczuk, who subsequently departed and currently practices employment law at Skoler Abbott in Springfield.

Currently, Royal employs four other attorneys full-time, in addition to two full-time paralegals and other support staff.

“I really wanted to take the model of a specialized, boutique practice and build upon it with a strong client base of corporations throughout our Valley and beyond — because we do represent companies in Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Vermont, as well as national corporations,” she explained.

“I believed it didn’t so much matter where we were located because we go out to our clients,” she added. “So I chose Northampton because I have really enjoyed the community — I went to Smith College, and I thought I could have an impact here and throughout the region and beyond in creating employment opportunities for people.”

That is, in fact, how Royal sees her work: by helping clients navigate through often-tricky employment issues, she’s helping those companies grow and create even more jobs in the Valley.

And while many of those thorny issues have remained consistent, they’ve ebbed and flowed in some ways, too.

“Given the employment-law landscape, there becomes hot areas at certain times, and we become sort of subspecialists in those areas,” she explained. For example, early on, she saw a lot of activity around affirmative action and dealing with the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs. Wage-and-hour conflicts have become increasingly prominent in recent years as well, and Royal, P.C. has handled client defense on those issues, as well as general guidance on how to avoid claims altogether.

“I do feel like we can advise clients and help them flourish,” she went on. “I’m so committed to this region, and I know there’s been a lot of work done over the last decade since our birth as a law firm, in the business community and the community at large, on how to make the Pioneer Valley an even more attractive place for people to live and earn a living and feel like they have opportunities here — that they don’t have to be in Boston to have those opportunities.”

Risk Managers

As she continues to grow the firm, Royal says it’s always a challenge to find talented attorneys who are skilled in labor and employment law and also understand her vision for the company.

“Practitioners often think, ‘here’s what the law says.’ We need to be telling clients, ‘OK, here’s what the law says you can do, but this is also a business decision, and everything is about weighing and measuring risk and deciding whether you can bear that risk or not, whether that’s a good practice or not.’”

“Given how long I’d been practicing law at the time, it felt to me like it was now or never. I really wanted to see if I could make a go at it, and I felt like I had the tools to develop a business.”

And challenges to employers are constantly evolving, whether it’s legislation like the grand bargain or issues that arise from new technology. She recalls what a hot topic portable devices, like smartphones and tablets, were in the early part of this decade.

“Now it’s like everyone has one,” she said, “but at that time, it was a huge issue for employers, who were asking, ‘where is our data going? If you’re a portable employee, what’s happening when you leave with that phone?’”

The economy can affect the flow of work as well. In the early days of the firm, as the recession set in, litigation crowded out preventive work such as compliance matters, employee handbooks, and supervisory training. In recent years, she’s seen an uptick in requests for those services again.

Sometimes, employers will call with advice before taking disciplinary action with an employee — just another way Royal aims to be a partner to clients. The firm also conducts regular seminars and roundtables, both for clients and the public, on matters — such as legislative changes and policy wrinkles — that affect all employers.

In some ways, that’s an extension of the way Royal wants the firm to be a presence in the broader community. Another is the team’s involvement with local nonprofits.

“I’ve tried to set that tone,” she said, “but it’s never been met with resistance — it’s always been met with ‘oh, yes, maybe we can do this, maybe we can do that.’ It’s been important to me to have a team that really wants to support their community.”

Meanwhile, that team has been focused, perhaps more than ever before, on what exactly Royal, P.C. is — where the firm has been in the past, what it is now, and what it wants to be going forward.

“We have a strong, viable book of labor and employment business, and what I’ve communicated to my team is, ‘we can keep going for the next 10 years, 20 years, on that book, and achieve growth.’ Or we can look at our brand and say, ‘do we want to grow beyond that? Do we tell the story of the other services we’re able to provide, and create other employment opportunities for people in the Valley?’ There’s a consensus here that that’s really the direction we should be going in.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Mayor Thomas Bernard says North Adams is a small, post-industrial New England city

Mayor Thomas Bernard says North Adams is a small, post-industrial New England city with economic challenges, but has generated plenty of momentum in addressing them.

As a long-time resident of North Adams, Mayor Thomas Bernard understands the city’s reputation as a tourist destination. It’s a good reputation to have, as it puts more cars on the streets and feet in local establishments.

But North Adams — the least-populated community in the Commonwealth classified as a city — is much more than that.

“I think the untold story about North Adams — and the Berkshires in general — is that we have a robust manufacturing sector here,” said Bernard, who began serving his first term as mayor at the start of this year. “We talk about the role of culture and tourism, but we have manufacturing, too.”

And the sector is a bustling one, he added, citing Tog Manufacturing Co., which makes precision-machined parts, and is looking to expand both its space and workforce over the next few years. The company is also a good example of the workforce-development partnerships being forged in the industry locally.

“They have a really good connection with McCann Technical School, while MCLA [Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts], our great public university, has an engineering partnership with General Dynamics to meet their workforce needs. And then Crane Paper, which was bought recently by Mohawk, is talking expansion as well in the next couple years, adding a shift and adding workers,” he said. “Take those things together, and it’s a significant engine that often gets overlooked in conversations about the economy and economic development in the Berkshires, and North Adams in particular.”

That’s not to say the cultural sector isn’t important, anchored, of course, by MASS MoCA, which recently underwent a $65 million expansion, adding 130,000 square feet of gallery space and enhancing the outdoor courtyard space. The work took place on the south end of the campus of the former Sprague Electric factory, whose 16 acres of grounds and 26 buildings with an elaborate system of interlocking courtyards and passages was transformed into the museum in 1999. The facility has a regional economic impact of more than $25 million annually.

Then there are newer projects like Greylock WORKS, an ongoing transformation of the former Greylock Mill along Route 2. Salvatore Perry and Karla Rothstein of Latent Productions in New York City saw potential in the site four years ago and purchased the 240,000-square-foot property for $750,000.

“The narrative has been that, when big companies left in that wave of industrial migration in the mid-’80s and beyond, manufacturing stopped. That’s just not the case.”

The first goal was to create a large event space, and further developments have included a commercial kitchen and a specialty food marketplace; a rum distiller is the first tenant. Each business will have a small area for retail operations and also have room to conduct wholesale operations to help sustain a flow of year-round revenue. The Greylock WORKS development will eventually include a residential component as well.

Meanwhile, Thomas Krens, who was one of the driving forces behind the establishment of Mass MoCA two decades ago, proposed another project for North Adams a few years ago: a $20 million model-railroading and architecture museum in Western Gateway Heritage State Park that has a footpath directly across from MASS MoCA’s south gate.

Once completed, that project is expected to bring another 200,000 to 300,000 visitors to North Adams each year.

Those projects — far from the only ones creating energy in North Adams — are an intriguing sample of what the city has to offer. But Bernard thinks there is far more potential, and hopes to see it come to fruition.

Down on Main Street

Bernard is cheered by recent high-profile developments, but knows overall progress in any city is not an overnight proposition.

“There are persistent challenges,” he told BusinessWest. “I’m looking out my window at Main Street, 20 years after MASS MoCA happened, and we still haven’t totally cracked the code on a booming, bustling downtown.”

He compared North Adams to Shelburne Falls, which has a “really lovely, compact, interesting downtown” that people flock to, for the Bridge of Flowers and other attractions. “But you have to know Shelburne is there … you have to be intentional to go there and find it.”

And if an out-of-the-way town like that can have a thriving downtown, he went on, why shouldn’t North Adams — with a museum in MASS MoCA that draws some 250,000 visitors each year, many of them from outside town — be able to create a more vibrant downtown of its own?

“After 20 years of good intentions, and investments by the museum, the city, and the chamber, we’re still trying to figure that one out,” he said, adding that one thing that could provide a spark is more market-rate housing and mixed-use development downtown to put more feet on the streets.

North Adams at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1878
Population: 13,708
Area: 20.6 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $18.38
Commercial Tax Rate: $39.85
Median Household Income: $35,020
Family Household Income: $57,522
Type of government: Mayor; City Council
Largest Employers: Crane & Co.; North Adams Regional Hospital; BFAIR Inc.
*Latest information available

That would in turn create demand for more eclectic food options, specialized retail, and galleries — “the kinds of things that are equally attractive to locals who have lived here their whole lives, people who transplanted here because they love the idea of this small New England city, and tourists who are here for the day or the weekend.”

Speaking of tourists, that’s actually the name of North Adams’ newest hotel, a 48-room retreat inspired by the classic American roadside motor lodge, set on the banks of the Hoosic River.

Tourists was the brainchild of Ben Svenson, a Boston-based developer, and a team of partners. They stripped a crumbling roadside lodge down to the studs and turned it into something both retro and decked out in modern amenities.

A wooden boardwalk leads to the river, while a saltwater pool was added, and an event space was fashioned from a neighboring farmhouse. Wooded walking paths lead to a yoga pavilion, open fields, a sculpture installation, and an old textile mill. A deconsecrated church in the woods will become Loom, where Cortney Burns, a James Beard Award-winning chef, will begin creating dishes in 2019.

Manufacturing Progress

No matter what happens in the realms of tourism, dining, retail, or any number of other high-profile elements of an attractive city, Bernard understands North Adams has a strong foundation of other businesses that may not receive the same attention.

“The narrative has been that, when big companies left in that wave of industrial migration in the mid-’80s and beyond, manufacturing stopped. That’s just not the case,” he said. “I mentioned Tog — they’ve been at it for 20-30 years in the same location, employing 25-30 people. For them to be talking about facility expansion and workforce expansion that would effectively double their workforce in North Adams and the Berkshires, that’s significant. That’s a big win.”

To meet that workforce need, however, he recognizes the importance of partnerships between industry and education to provide training, retraining, and professional development to help people access career opportunities.

“To be honest and realistic, we’re still a small, post-industrial New England city, and we have our economic challenges,” he said. “While we’re paying attention to all the great development that’s happening — it’s what drives growth and progress in the future — we can’t lose sight of people who have been here all their lives and are struggling because of fixed incomes and low incomes, seniors worried about taxes, or people who don’t have the education and skills to compete for the jobs that are here.”

Bernard believes North Adams is in a good spot to meet those needs and keep growing.

“I take a lot of pride in being the mayor of the smallest city in the Commonwealth — in population, but not by stature,” he said. “We’re a world-class destination for the arts, for culture, for outdoor recreation, for tourism, and we’ve got great educational resources in the city.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sports & Leisure

Changing Lanes

Jeff Bennett says league bowlers and casual players are looking for different amenities

Jeff Bennett says league bowlers and casual players are looking for different amenities, and facilities need to cater to both constituencies.

Jeff Bennett remembers when the Pioneer Valley was home to many more bowling alleys than exist today.

“A lot of mom-and-pop centers started to close. We had a couple around here,” he told BusinessWest. “If you didn’t put in automatic scoring, blacklight bowling, if you didn’t keep the centers updated and clean, with nice bathrooms — well, those are the centers that don’t exist anymore. If you’re going to drop 70 or 100 bucks to go out for the day, are you going to the run-down place, or the place with the upbeat music, lights, and arcade? What’s going to be a more fun atmosphere?”

Bennett, general manager of AMF Chicopee Lanes, said his business, and that of its parent company, Bowlero, which boasts some 300 facilities nationwide, is doing well and still growing year after year, but added that such success doesn’t happen on its own. “We make people want to keep coming back and having fun. That’s what we try to focus on.”

Justin Godfrey agrees. “The important thing is to give them a quality, consistent product and make sure the guest has a memorable experience and wants to come back to your facility,” said the general manager of Shaker Bowl in East Longmeadow, which is now part of the Spare Time chain. “That’s really what it boils down to — treating people right and generating return business. Word of mouth is still king when it comes to getting people in the door.”

Those who haven’t been in a bowling alley in decades may be surprised by today’s centers, where they may encounter strobe lights and black lights, disc jockeys and music videos playing on large screens, and freshly made food.

“You get different crowds,” Godfrey said. “You get families more during the day, then at night, we run the light show and get the music going. It’s a different atmosphere from the leagues, which don’t want music. It just depends on the group.”

While there are fewer bowling lanes in operation than even a decade ago, those that are still in business have increasingly turned to a model that’s not just about bowling, Bennett said, touting amenities in Chicopee like food made from scratch, a full liquor license, servers that take orders on the lanes, and more.

“If you’re going to drop 70 or 100 bucks to go out for the day, are you going to the run-down place, or the place with the upbeat music, lights, and arcade? What’s going to be a more fun atmosphere?”

“That’s what casual bowlers are looking for — they’re looking for more atmosphere. They’re not just coming in for 20 minutes to bowl a game and leave. They’re here two or three hours — it’s one-stop entertainment, where they can have food and drinks, bowl, and play some arcade games. We have games geared for kids, and some old-school games for the adults.”

Godfrey said food and beverages can account for 25% or more of a center’s business, so it’s not an afterthought. Neither is the continual effort to introduce more people to the game — and everything that surrounds it these days.

“Before, you could just open your doors and people would come in, and many still do,” he said. “But we’ve really ventured out. We have event planners; we actually have people going out to create business, and that’s been very helpful for a lot of our centers. We do a lot of corporate parties. We work with a high-school gym class twice a week — we bring carpets into the gym classes and introduce kids to the sport. If the kids like it, they say, ‘hey, mom, let’s go bowling.’”

Different Strikes

Bennett said Bowlero has different brands within the company — AMF being just one of them — and centers can be quite different from each other.

“What we term a traditional center is still heavily league-focused, and a lot of that comes from the demographics and what you have around you. We have two centers in Manhattan, and both combined don’t have a league bowler — it’s all events and retail-play driven, and those are the two biggest grossing centers,” he explained.

“But then you have a lot of our traditional centers in the Northeast that still rely on our league base, especially during the fall and winter season,” he added, noting that leagues account for about one-third of total lane use, with between 1,300 and 1,350 league bowlers showing up each week, up to 34 weeks a year.

“We’re still focused on league bowlers — Monday to Friday, we’re busy every night, all 40 lanes. And we have to do certain things for them — regular white lights, and we work on lane conditions that affect their scoring.”

But the company also put a lot of money into amenities that attract non-league bowlers, he added, including a video wall, a new audio-visual system, black lights, and a new arcade.

“On weekends, we focus on the retail or open-play bowler — casual fun for kids and adults,” he said. “We do a ton of kids’ birthday parties and corporate events on the weekends. Over the next month, quite a few businesses are going to do holiday parties. And on weekend nights, it’s mostly adults; on Saturdays between 5 and 1, we’re extremely busy.”

Justin Godfrey says today’s bowlers want a memorable experience — one that often includes more than just bowling.

Justin Godfrey says today’s bowlers want a memorable experience — one that often includes more than just bowling.


At Shaker Bowl, Godfrey has seen a shift in his 18 years there, from a league-centric model to more open bowling for kids, adults, and families. Leagues don’t attract younger people like they used to, he said, and many people don’t want to make the commitment for 30-plus weeks. To counter that reality, he’s offering a 12-week league on Sunday nights to capture interest during the colder months.

But the Spare Time chain — which also has sites in Northampton, Vernon, Conn., and Windsor Locks, Conn. — understands it’s not just about bowling anymore.

“They’re really gearing it toward other entertainment options for the guests,” he said. “In Windsor Locks, which is newly renovated, there are escape rooms, laser tag, a huge arcade, and a restaurant. It’s more of a family entertainment center than your traditional bowling center.”

There are other factors that go into a successful center, he added, from cleanliness to consistent food quality across all sites in a chain. And let’s not forget the game itself, which has been attracting families for generations due to its easy-to-learn, hard-to-master qualities.

“Anyone can do it, and we meet the needs of all age levels, too,” he said. In fact, the day BusinessWest visited, Shaker Bowl was hosting a special-needs group in wheelchairs, bowling off taller metal ramps adapted for them.

“We’ve got ramps for the kids, all different weight balls — we can accommodate people of all ages, sizes, skill levels, everything. I think that’s definitely part of the appeal.”

Something for Everyone

There used to be about eight 10-pin bowling lanes locally, Bennett noted, but now there are only a handful. 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.

Like Godfrey, he noted that the center offers ramps so people with handicaps can bowl, six-pound balls that can be pushed down the lanes by 3- and 4-year-olds, and bumpers in the gutters to increase their chances of knocking down pins.

“Successful centers nowadays, in most markets, have to cater to everybody and do everything,” Bennett said, noting that AMF Chicopee Lanes hosts myriad junior and adult tournaments, not to mention fund-raising events for organizations like the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Big Brothers Big Sisters, and many others.

“We need all those types of events to be successful nowadays,” he added. “Springfield has a lot of options, especially with the casino here. We were worried that would affect us a little bit, but there’s been no effect so far.”

In short, business keeps rolling along for bowling centers that understand this changing market, and craft an experience that’s about more than just strikes and spares.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Employment

One Year Later

By John S. Gannon, Esq. and Amelia J. Holstrom, Esq.

The #MeToo movement began making national headlines just over a year ago.

Since then, more than 200 prominent individuals have been accused of harassment. From Harvey Weinstein to Matt Lauer to newly appointed Supreme Court Justice Brett Cavanaugh, new allegations of sexual harassment have been appearing in the news almost weekly, and sometimes daily, over the last year.

John S. Gannon, Esq

John S. Gannon, Esq

Amelia J. Holstrom, Esq.

Amelia J. Holstrom, Esq.

It should not come as any surprise that employers are feeling the impact of the #MeToo movement. The number of sexual-harassment lawsuits filed increased drastically from 2017 to 2018. In October 2018, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency responsible for enforcing federal discrimination and harassment laws, released preliminary data for fiscal year 2018 showing that, for the first time since at least 2010, the number of sexual-harassment charges filed with the EEOC increased.

Additionally, the EEOC reported that it had filed 41 lawsuits alleging sexual harassment, more than a 50% increase over the previous year, and that it had collected close to $70 million on behalf of sexual-harassment victims in fiscal year 2018. The number of lawsuits is not the only thing on the rise; juries seem more willing to issue large damage awards to plaintiffs alleging sexual harassment. Just a few months ago, a jury in Massachusetts awarded a plaintiff more than $3 million in damages in a sexual harassment lawsuit.

Best Practices for Employers

Businesses that want to avoid being another #MeToo statistic need to take a hard look at their culture and ask: What are we doing to provide a workplace free from harassment? With allegations of harassment and lawsuits on the rise, now is an important time for employers to revisit best practices and take proactive steps aimed at protecting employees and reducing legal risk.

First, employers must have an anti-harassment policy, which should clearly outline the internal complaint and investigation procedure. State law requires employers of six or more employees to have a written sexual-harassment policy that is distributed at time of hire and annually to all employees. Among other things, the policy must include a notice that sexual harassment is unlawful and that it is unlawful to retaliate against someone who reports sexual harassment or participates in an investigation. 

The policy should also outline where and how employees can bring internal complaints of harassment and what the investigation procedure is. If either of these processes are unclear at your workplace, now is the time to revisit them and develop a complaint process and investigation procedure.

Second, employers should be doing annual sexual-harassment training. Although Massachusetts law only encourages training, implementing effective harassment training into your workplace culture demonstrates that you care about the issue. It also can protect you against a costly lawsuit.

Under the law, if a supervisor harasses a subordinate or knows about harassment but fails to take prompt steps to report, investigate, and stop the conduct, the supervisor has created significant legal risk for the employer. As a result, it is important that supervisors receive periodic training on what constitutes sexual harassment and what to do if they receive a sexual-harassment complaint or observe potential harassment in the workplace. A few hours of training per year could save an employer from a costly lawsuit. Further, annual training for all employees can be beneficial because it highlights what is not acceptable and outlines the serious repercussions, including termination, for harassing behavior.

Preventing Costly Litigation

As noted at the outset, juries are issuing multi-million-dollar awards in harassment cases. At the same time, employment-discrimination cases are also seeing record-setting jury verdicts. Earlier this year, a jury in Massachusetts awarded a plaintiff $28 million in a discrimination and retaliation case. Read that sentence again.

Having solid policies and engaging in regular training can get employers only so far. In order to avoid the risk of a runaway jury, employers may want to consider requiring employees to enter into agreements calling for private arbitration of employment disputes. Commonly referred to as arbitration agreements, these employment agreements require that employee and employer submit all disputes to a neutral arbitrator, as opposed to filing a lawsuit in court and having the case decided by a jury.

The arbitration process is typically less costly and time-consuming than court actions. Plus, the arbitration decision is usually final, as there are only limited opportunities for either side to appeal.

Bottom Line

The #MeToo movement is undoubtedly bringing positive changes to the workplace. Still, businesses need to be proactive and take steps to create a culture free from harassment. This starts with an effective workplace policy against harassment and regular training for employees.

If a culture change is necessary, it has to start at the top. Leaders lead by example, and these folks must be more committed than anyone to creating an environment free from harassing behavior.

John S. Gannon and Amelia J. Holstrom are attorneys with Skoler, Abbott & Presser, P.C., one of the largest law firms in New England exclusively practicing labor and employment law. Gannon specializes in employment litigation and personnel policies and practices, wage-and-hour compliance, and non-compete and trade-secrets litigation; (413) 737-4753; [email protected] Holstrom specializes in employment litigation, including defending employers against claims of discrimination, retaliation harassment, and wrongful termination, as well as wage-and-hour lawsuits. She also frequently provides counsel to management on taking proactive steps to reduce the risk of legal liability; (413) 737-4753; [email protected]

Features

It’s That Time of Year

By Kristina Drzal-Houghton, CPA, MST

Year-end planning for 2018 takes place against the backdrop of a new tax law — the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act — that makes major changes in the tax rules for individuals and businesses.

Kristina Drzal Houghton

Kristina Drzal Houghton

For individuals, there are new, lower-income tax rates, a substantially increased standard deduction, severely limited itemized deductions and no personal exemptions, an increased child-tax credit, and a watered-down alternative minimum tax (AMT), among many other changes. For businesses, the corporate tax rate is cut to 21%, the corporate AMT is gone, there are new limits on business interest deductions, and significantly liberalized expensing and depreciation rules. And there’s a new deduction for non-corporate taxpayers with qualified business income from pass-through entities. The following is a brief synopsis of these and other changes.

Businesses and Business Owners

• For tax years beginning after 2017, taxpayers other than corporations may be entitled to a deduction of up to 20% of their qualified business income. For 2018, if taxable income exceeds $315,000 for a married couple filing jointly, or $157,500 for all other taxpayers, the deduction may be limited based on whether the taxpayer is engaged in a service-type trade or business (such as healthcare), the amount of W-2 wages paid by the trade or business, and/or the unadjusted basis of qualified property (such as machinery and equipment) held by the trade or business.

The limitations are phased in for joint filers with taxable income between $315,000 and $415,000 and for all other taxpayers with taxable income between $157,500 and $207,500.

• Deferring income to the next taxable year is a time-honored year-end planning tool. If you expect your taxable income to be higher in 2018 than in 2019, or if you operate as anything except a C corporation and you anticipate being in the same or a higher tax bracket in 2018 than in 2019, you may benefit by deferring income into 2019. With the passage of tax reform largely going into effect in 2018, new considerations may need to be made for the end of 2018. Of course, if an individual is subject to the alternative minimum tax, standard tax planning may not be warranted. The rules are quite complex, so don’t make a move in this area without consulting your tax adviser.

• Businesses should consider making expenditures that qualify for the liberalized business property expensing option. For tax years beginning in 2018, the expensing limit is $1,000,000, and the investment ceiling limit is $2,500,000. Expensing is generally available for most depreciable property (other than buildings), and off-the-shelf computer software.

For property placed in service in tax years beginning after Dec. 31, 2017, expensing also is available for qualified improvement property (generally, any interior improvement to a building’s interior, but not for enlargement of a building, elevators or escalators, or the internal structural framework), for roofs, and for HVAC, fire protection, alarm, and security systems. The generous dollar ceilings that apply this year mean that many small and medium-sized businesses that make timely purchases will be able to currently deduct most if not all their outlays for machinery and equipment.

What’s more, the expensing deduction is not prorated for the time that the asset is in service during the year. The fact that the expensing deduction may be claimed in full (if you are otherwise eligible to take it) regardless of how long the property is held during the year can be a potent tool for year-end tax planning. Thus, property acquired and placed in service in the last days of 2018, rather than at the beginning of 2019, can result in a full expensing deduction for 2018.

• Businesses can also claim a 100% bonus first-year depreciation deduction for machinery and equipment bought used (with some exceptions) or new, if purchased and placed in service this year. The 100% write-off is permitted without any proration based on the length of time that an asset is in service during the tax year. As a result, the 100% bonus first-year write-off is available even if qualifying assets are in service for only a few days in 2018.

• A charitable-donation deduction is available to businesses, but the actual deductibility depends on the business form. A corporation is allowed a deduction of up to 10% of its taxable income, whereas a pass-through entity is subject to an individual’s limitations. Specific types of assets may also have limited deductibility or may need to meet certain requirements. In addition, the substantiation and reporting regulations for charitable donations were recently updated. While most of the changes were relatively minor, qualified appraisals and qualified appraisers must now meet particular requirements. You should contact your tax advisor before making charitable donations, particularly inventory items, to ensure you meet the deduction requirements.

• Beginning in 2018 and until 2025, taxpayers other than C corporations are limited in their ability to deduct business loss. The excess business loss that is disallowed is instead carried forward as part of the taxpayer’s net operating loss in succeeding years.

Individuals

• As a general reminder, there are several ways in which you can file an income-tax return: married filing jointly, head of household, single, and married filing separately. A married couple, which includes same-sex marriages, may elect to file one return reporting their combined income, computing the tax liability using the tax tables or rate schedules for ‘Married Persons Filing Jointly.’

If a married couple files separate returns, in certain situations they can amend and file jointly, but they cannot amend a jointly filed return to file separately once the due date has passed. A joint return may be filed even though one spouse has neither gross income nor deductions. If one spouse dies during the year, the surviving spouse may file a joint return for the year in which his or her spouse died.

Certain married persons who do not elect to file a joint return may be entitled to use the lower head-of-household tax rates. Generally, in order to qualify as a head of household, you must not be a resident alien, you must satisfy certain marital status requirements, and you must maintain a household for a qualifying child or any other person who is your dependent.

• Higher-income earners must be wary of the 3.8% surtax on certain unearned income. The surtax is 3.8% of the lesser of net investment income (NII) or the excess of modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) over a threshold amount. As year-end nears, a taxpayer’s approach to minimizing or eliminating the 3.8% surtax will depend on his estimated MAGI and NII for the year. Some taxpayers should consider ways to minimize (e.g., through deferral) additional NII for the balance of the year, others should try to see if they can reduce MAGI other than NII, and still other individuals will need to consider ways to minimize both NII and other types of MAGI.

• The 0.9% additional Medicare tax also may require higher-income earners to take year-end actions. It applies to individuals for whom the sum of their wages received with respect to employment and whose self-employment income is in excess of an unindexed threshold amount ($250,000 for joint filers, $125,000 for married couples filing separately, and $200,000 in any other case). Employers must withhold the additional Medicare tax from wages in excess of $200,000 regardless of filing status or other income. Self-employed persons must take it into account in figuring estimated tax.

• Long-term capital gain from sales of assets held for over one year is taxed at 0%, 15%, or 20%, depending on the taxpayer’s taxable income. The 0% rate generally applies to the excess of long-term capital gain over any short-term capital loss to the extent that it, when added to regular taxable income, is not more than the ‘maximum zero-rate amount’ (e.g., $77,200 for a married couple). If the 0% rate applies to long-term capital gains you took earlier this year — for example, you are a joint filer who made a profit of $5,000 on the sale of stock bought in 2009, and other taxable income for 2018 is $70,000 — then before year-end, try not to sell assets yielding a capital loss because the first $5,000 of such losses won’t yield a benefit this year. And if you hold long-term appreciated-in-value assets, consider selling enough of them to generate long-term capital gains sheltered by the 0% rate.

• Postpone income until 2019 and accelerate deductions into 2018 if doing so will enable you to claim larger deductions, credits, and other tax breaks for 2018 that are phased out over varying levels of adjusted gross income. These include deductible IRA contributions, child tax credits, higher-education tax credits, and deductions for student-loan interest.

Postponing income is also desirable for those taxpayers who anticipate being in a lower tax bracket next year due to changed financial circumstances. Note, however, that in some cases, it may pay to actually accelerate income into 2018. For example, that may be the case where a person will have a more favorable filing status this year than next (e.g., head of household versus individual filing status), or expects to be in a higher tax bracket next year.

• Beginning in 2018, many taxpayers who claimed itemized deductions year after year will no longer be able to do so. That’s because the basic standard deduction has been increased (to $24,000 for joint filers, $12,000 for singles, $18,000 for heads of household, and $12,000 for marrieds filing separately), and many itemized deductions have been cut back or abolished. No more than $10,000 of state and local taxes may be deducted, miscellaneous itemized deductions (e.g., tax-preparation fees, moving expenses, and investment expenses) and unreimbursed employee expenses are no longer deductible, and personal casualty and theft losses are deductible only if they’re attributable to a federally declared disaster.

You can still itemize medical expenses to the extent they exceed 7.5% of your adjusted gross income, state and local taxes up to $10,000, your charitable contributions, plus interest deductions on a restricted amount of qualifying residence debt, but payments of those items won’t save taxes if they don’t cumulatively exceed the new, higher standard deduction.

• Some taxpayers may be able to work around the new reality by applying a ‘bunching strategy’ to pull or push discretionary medical expenses and charitable contributions into the year where they will do some tax good. For example, if a taxpayer knows he or she will be able to itemize deductions this year but not next year, the taxpayer may be able to make two years’ worth of charitable contributions this year, instead of spreading out donations over 2018 and 2019.

• If you’re age 70½ or older by the end of 2018, have traditional IRAs, and particularly if you can’t itemize your deductions, consider making 2018 charitable donations via qualified charitable distributions from your IRAs. Such distributions are made directly to charities from your IRAs, and the amount of the contribution is neither included in your gross income nor deductible on Schedule A, Form 1040. But the amount of the qualified charitable distribution reduces the amount of your required minimum distribution, resulting in tax savings.

• Make gifts sheltered by the annual gift-tax exclusion before the end of the year and thereby save gift and estate taxes. The exclusion applies to gifts of up to $15,000 made in 2018 to each of an unlimited number of individuals. You can’t carry over unused exclusions from one year to the next. Such transfers may save family income taxes where income-earning property is given to family members in lower income-tax brackets who are not subject to the kiddie tax.

• For tax years beginning after Dec. 31, 2017, the unearned income of a child is subject to ordinary and capital-gains rates applicable to trusts and estates. The earned income of a child is taxed according to an unmarried taxpayer’s brackets and rates. The kiddie tax is not affected by the tax situation of the child’s parents or unearned income of any siblings. The kiddie tax applies to: (1) children under 18 who do not file a joint return; (2) 18-year-old children who have unearned income in excess of the threshold amount, do not file a joint return, and who have earned income, if any, that does not exceed one-half of the amount of the child’s support; and (3) children between the ages of 19 and 23 if, in addition to the above rules, they are full-time students. Investment earnings in excess of $2,100 will be taxed at the rates that apply to trusts and estates.

These are just some of the year-end steps that can be taken to save taxes. Again, by contacting your tax advisor, he or she can tailor a particular plan that will work best for you.

Kristina Drzal-Houghton, CPA, MST is the partner in charge of Taxation at Holyoke-based Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C.; (413) 536-8510.

Work/Life Balance

Survey Says

While salary is still the most important aspect of a job for most, a new survey from the Employers Associations of America (EEA) notes that lifestyle factors are a significant consideration as well.

In its 2019 National Business Trends Survey, the EEA aimed to determine the top five most important factors prospective employees are looking for, with the goal of assisting employers with recruitment and retention. The top five factors included, in order, competitive pay (named by 82% of respondents), good work/life balance (69.2 %), flexibility in work hours (56.1%), opportunities for advancement (55.4%), and competitive health benefits (49.9%).

“The shortage of labor will be a key factor for employers in 2019,” said Phil Brandt, who chairs the EAA board of directors. “How employers will fill those new jobs is the real story. Employers will need to be even more creative in their recruitment and retention efforts than ever before.”

And if employees are prioritizing balance in their lives, companies should take notice, if only to assess the well-being of their workforce.

“These days, work-life balance can seem like an impossible feat. Technology makes workers accessible around the clock. Fears of job loss incentivize longer hours,” business writer Deborah Jian Lee noted in Forbes recently, noting that, according to a Harvard Business School survey, 94% of working professionals reported working more than 50 hours per week, and nearly half said they worked more than 65 hours per week. “Experts agree: the compounding stress from the never-ending workday is damaging. It can hurt relationships, health, and overall happiness.”

Still, this year’s EEA survey indicates a fair amount of optimism on the part of business executives for 2019. Nearly 74% describe their projected 2019 business outlook as a slight to significant increase in sales and revenue.

“The shortage of labor will be a key factor for employers in 2019. How employers will fill those new jobs is the real story. Employers will need to be even more creative in their recruitment and retention efforts than ever before.”

Supporting that optimistic outlook is the fact that 54% of executives surveyed plan to hire permanent staff in 2019. When asked the primary reasons for their 2019 hiring plans, 72% said their hiring will be to fill newly created jobs. 

When asked which strategies executives are using to overcome recruitment and retention challenges, respondents identified, as the three top strategies, adjusting pay ranges upward, providing additional training and development for existing staff, and increasing starting salaries.

Executives were also asked to identify their top five serious challenges over the next year. The top five were talent acquisition (54%), talent retention (41%), ability to pay competitive wages (33%), ability to pay for benefit costs (28%), and competition in general (28%).

When that question shifted to their serious concerns over the long term — within the next five years — respondents cited talent acquisition (57%), talent retention (48%), ability to pay for benefit costs (43%), ability to pay competitive wages (40%), and competition in general (34%).

Finally, the survey also indicated the top five measures executives say they have been implementing — or are planning to continue to implement in 2019 — to strengthen business. These are investing in technology (52%), investing in equipment (50%), increasing recruiting emphasis (38%), increasing training budget (30%), and increasing total rewards education (22%).

The EAA is a not-for-profit national association that provides this annual survey to business executives, arming them with insights and trends for business outlooks, business-investment plans, staffing levels, hiring plans, job creation, pay strategies, and business challenges. The 2018 survey included 1,295 participating organizations throughout the U.S.