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Taking the Plunge

A poolside patio built by RJM Landscaping.

A poolside patio built by RJM Landscaping.

When inground pools were at the height of their popularity in the ’70s and ’80s, most were classic rectangles, outfitted with a diving board and maybe a twisting slide, ringed with a four-foot-wide patio and a fence. Today, inground pools aren’t as common, but a growing contingent of customers are going beyond the rectangle and using odd shapes, elaborate hardscapes and waterfalls, and other amenities to turn their backyard into something resembling a resort. These poolscapes aren’t cheap, but the quality-of-life upgrade, designers say, make the cost worthwhile.

When does a vacation not feel like a vacation?

Actually, much of the time, Rick Miller said.

“Typically, when you go away, it’s really not like a vacation — you get home, and you’re beat,” he noted. “Many people feel it’s a lot more relaxing to stay around the house and have their own privacy and not have to mingle with everyone else who’s on vacation.”

Besides, he added, “travel is so expensive these days, and some people fear it a little bit on a security level — they feel they’re more secure staying around their home. So, instead of investing in a trip and going away, they put that money in their backyard.”

And sometimes, it’s a lot of money.

Miller, president of RJM Landscaping Inc. in Westfield, is one of a handful of area landscape designers who installs high-end poolscapes — not just inground pools, but the hardscapes, water features, and other elements around them that create the feel of a resort right in the customer’s backyard.

“The price range is all over the spectrum,” he said. “It can be a simple, rectangular pool, with a four-foot-wide swath of pavement, what they used to do in the old days,” he told BusinessWest, “but for many people, it’s gotten a lot bigger. For people who want to spend more time in the backyard, it’s worthwhile to make that kind of investment, and stay at home rather than going somewhere else.”

Ted Hebert, owner of Teddy Bear Pools & Spas, said a recent emphasis on elaborate poolscapes has led to a downturn in the sale of inground pools themselves, which have long been the domain of the middle class, a group that Hebert feels is shrinking in America.

Those who do purchase inground pools, by and large, don’t want a basic 18-by-36-foot rectangle with a diving board, he noted; they’re looking for a waterfall, LED lighting, ornamental fencing, and colored, stamped concrete or rock formations. “Now that $25,000 pool may be more like $45,000 or $50,000, and when you add landscaping and other things, it can get expensive.”

Brian Campedelli says many customers want natural-looking water features around their pools.

Brian Campedelli says many customers want natural-looking water features around their pools.

Often, that means well into the six figures, said Brian Campedelli, president of Pioneer Landscapes Inc. in Easthampton. The higher-end projects — full-yard transformations that center around a resort-like poolscape — may run between $80,000 and $150,000, and Campedelli may tackle only a couple of those a year, but there are wide variations in pricing depending on what features a customer needs to have.

“We design what you want; there are custom pool houses with full running water, beautiful kitchens, outdoor showers — you can spend a quarter-million on your backyard if you want to fully transform it,” he explained. “Most people don’t know what they want; they just know they want to beautify their backyard around their inground pool. They might have some ideas, and it becomes clearer when we show them the design process and some of our ideas and materials we use.”

Those might include elements of falling water, fire, and raised plant beds, as well as pergolas, outdoor kitchens, and even, in some cases, a small extension off the house for a bar, a flat-screen TV, and lights on dimmers.

In other words, many clients don’t have a specific vision for how their poolscape will fit into their yard — or they just imagine that basic rectangle, a ring of concrete, and fence — but Campedelli, and landscape designers like him, can help them develop a vision that encompasses the entire yard, turning it, essentially, into a permanent vacation space.

“Once we’re done, they understand the concept; they see the way it flows,” he said. “We want to create an outdoor room that uses the entire space.”

Young and Old

Some customers for high-end pools are families with young children, Campedelli noted, but more are middle-aged professionals who have navigated past a mortgage and college payments for their grown children, and are looking to invest more significantly in their homes and yards.

“What they can get in a pool depends on a lot of things, but we try to work within their budget and do the best we can with what they have,” he said. “We try to give them the most we can from their landscaping dollar. It’s my passion, so I’ll usually throw a lot of things in. It’s not always the best business practice, but I’d rather give them then ultimate experience and maximize the potential of their backyard than walk away feeling like they missed out.”

Some elements, like artistic landscape lighting, aren’t on a customer’s radar until Campedelli brings up the options, and demonstrates how well-placed lights can create a soft, meditative glow. “It can change the entire feel of the backyard, as opposed to having a powerful light off the house. I’ll nudge them toward something like that, and they appreciate it.”

Such high-end poolscapes do price a wide range of people out of the market, Hebert said, and the retail pool industry has seen a decline in basic, no-frills inground pools. “Going back to the ’70s, ’80s, early ’90s, there’s no comparison. In the mid- to late ’80s, there was a lot of easy money around, and anyone could get a mortgage. You’d buy a house for $100,000, and in five years, it was worth $150,000 to $200,000.”

This Pioneer Landscapes project reflects another popular feature, the poolside bar.

This Pioneer Landscapes project reflects another popular feature, the poolside bar.

People would think nothing, he said, of spending that equity on an inground pool. In the years following the housing-market crash, however, that kind of equity is much tougher to come by, and homeowners are just as likely to find themselves upside-down on their mortgage. “That has taken money away from people, taken away their purchasing power.”

At the same time, he said, kids don’t play in their own yards as much as they used to; if they’re not tied up in organized sports, camps, and otherwise heavily structured summers, they’re indoors, communicating with virtual friends — and often comfortably air-conditioned.

People would think nothing, he said, of spending that equity on an inground pool. In the years following the housing-market crash, however, that kind of equity is much tougher to come by, and homeowners are just as likely to find themselves upside-down on their mortgage. “That has taken money away from people, taken away their purchasing power.”

“The people who are in a position to afford an inground pool may have central air,” he noted. “If you think back to the ’60s and ’70s, that wasn’t the case; it was hot, and your kids played outside and came in when the streetlights came on.” It’s a different world today, he added, one that values comfort and hypersecurity over free play.

Even families who might enjoy an inground pool but think they can’t afford it may simply be prioritizing their spending in a way that squeezes a pool out of the equation, Hebert explained.

A week-long vacation, for example, may cost $5,000 to $6,000, money that would easily cover a year’s worth of payments on a 10-year loan for a $50,000 poolscape that can be enjoyed every day, from May to September. Meanwhile, families spend hundreds of dollars each month on TV services, smartphones, and Internet — line items that could also easily be reduced and earmarked for an investment in the backyard, where a family can enjoy cooking out, hosting parties, and just relaxing in the water.

Lifestyle Adjustment

Instead, people who buy inground pools today tend to want more than the basics, said Miller, noting that customers’ average age tends to be in the 40s and up. But for landscape designers who can handle these jobs, they pose uniquely creative opportunities.

“It’s definitely a niche; I don’t think this is something that your basic landscape contractor can do,” he said. “The trend right now is very unique shapes, and water jets and waterfalls are popular items. As far as pavers go, the biggest trend is paver slabs, which are larger pieces of paving stones, with fewer joints to be seen by the customer. With each of these things, there’s a higher cost.”

But it’s worth it, he added, for people who want to turn their backyards into a true quality-of-life enhancer.

“We’re trying to get the whole mixture of elements out there — not just a pool and a patio, but maybe a fireplace, water features, and outdoor kitchens as well. When people have big get-togethers, it’s not just swimming; it’s cooking out and serving food.”

People with the means to spend plenty of money on travel — CEOs and business owners, for example — will still do that, Campedelli said, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want to create a vacation-like environment at home, too.

“These are people with stressful jobs, and there’s no better feeling than to kick off the suit and tie, put on a bathing suit and flip-flops, go out back, and feel like you’re in the Bahamas,” he said. “Once people see how they can use their backyard, they want something like this.”


Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Luxury Living Sections

High Tide

An estimated 142 million Americans went boating in 2016 — 36% of U.S. households — according to the 2016 Recreational Boating Participation Study, released earlier this month by the National Marine Manufacturers Assoc. (NMMA), the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation (RBFF), and Discover Boating. Of these 142 million individuals, half were children (under the age of 18), and 17 million were first-time participants. Of those Americans who went boating in 2016, those who spent the most hours on the water or engaged in fishing and watersports were more likely to consider purchasing a boat.

“The results of the new Recreational Boating Participation Study illustrate the breadth of recreational boating in the United States and the opportunity for our industry to get more Americans on the water and ultimately buying boats — exploring emerging markets such as Hispanics, reaching younger boaters, and encouraging those already active in boating to pursue boat ownership,” said Thom Dammrich, NMMA president.

“The study makes clear what we all know as boaters — the more time spent on the water, the more likely someone is to become a boat owner,” he went on. “As an industry, it is our job to help people spend more time on the water and facilitate the boating and boat-buying process — whether that’s through lobbying for improved access and infrastructure, nurturing active boaters through marketing, or providing more accessible ways to try boating through such things as classes or rental opportunities.”

Added RBFF President and CEO Frank Peterson, “the insights from this report support a healthy and thriving participation level for boating, which helps fund local conservation programs across the U.S. As we strive to increase participation in both recreational boating and fishing, the report also gives us a deeper look at the connection between the two activities, reinforcing a need for early introduction. This information will help us grow the sport, creating more customers for the industry, more fishing-license and boat-registration purchases, and increased tackle and equipment sales.”

Positive Currents

Prepared by QSA Research & Analytics, the study assessed the total number of boaters in the U.S., including those active during 2016 and those who went boating for the first time during 2016, as well as those who have never gone boating. The study also profiled both active boaters and first-time boaters according to their demographic characteristics, and measured the number of household participants who were active boaters and first-time boaters during 2016, their ages, and genders. Other topics featured in the study include boat ownership participation, the amount of time active boaters spent boating during 2016, and the activities they engaged in while boating, including fishing and watersports. Among the findings:

• On average, active boaters spend an average of 71.5 boating hours per season. First-time boaters spend much less time — an average of 23 boating hours.

• Active boaters (74%) are much more likely than lapsed boaters (42%) to say it is easy or very easy for them to go boating. The perceived ease or difficulty of going boating is also associated with the number of days active boaters spend on the water. Just 20% of those who said that going boating is difficult spent more than five days on the water during 2016.

• Time spent boating and engaging in active pursuits while boating (fishing and watersports) are predictors of purchase consideration among potential buyers. Those who considered purchase of a boat during 2016 spent an average of 13.3 days on the water with an average of 6.9 hours per trip, while those who did not consider purchase spent only 6.9 days and 4.4 hours. In addition, purchase consideration was more strongly related to activities like watersports and fishing than to relaxation, spending time with family or friends, and enjoying nature.

• Active boaters are economically diverse. The majority (62%) have household incomes under $100,000 per year.

• 32% of first-time boaters were Hispanic compared to 10% of active boaters, suggesting they’re continuing to emerge as a significant market.

• 58% of first-time boaters were renters compared to 25% of active boaters.

• First-time boaters were more likely than other active boaters to use personal watercraft (PWC), suggesting that PWCs are a gateway to boating.

• 86% of PWC owners also owned a powerboat, while 21% of PWC owners owned a non-motorized boat.

• The median age of a first-time boating experience was 12, and individuals who had a childhood boating experience were more likely to remain active boaters (52% versus 40% of lapsed boaters), reinforcing that people who boat as a child are more likely to be life-long boaters.

• There is a strong connection between fishing and boating: 83% of active anglers were also active boaters.

• The mean age of the first fishing experience was 10; 90% of anglers and 94% of active anglers had their first fishing experience before age 18.

• Boating is a social pastime. Almost all active boaters say they spend time with friends or family while boating (95%). Enjoying nature (94%) and relaxing (93%) are also nearly universal boating experiences.

Sales Are Up, Too

Earlier this year, the NMMA, which represents the nation’s recreational boat, engine, and marine-accessory manufacturers, announced that sales of new powerboats increased between 6% and 7% in 2016, reaching an estimated 250,000 boats sold as consumer confidence soared and manufacturers introduced products attracting younger boaters. In fact, as one of the few original American-made industries — 95% of boats sold in the U.S. are made in here — recreational boating is seeing some of its healthiest gains in nearly a decade, a trajectory the NMMA expects to continue through 2018.

Big boats are back; one of the standout areas of growth in 2016 was among yachts and large cruising boats, a category that has been slower to rebound as high-net-worth individuals looked to remain more liquid post-recession. New yachts and cruisers saw gains between 1% and 3% percent in 2016, and that trend is likely to continue.

At the same time, manufacturers are making smaller boats (watersports boats, pontoons, day boats, etc.) that are more affordable as they aim to attract new, younger boaters and even more sales. What’s more, boats are also becoming more versatile, providing an all-in-one experience from fishing to cruising to watersports, making them more appealing to a wider audience.

Luxury Living Sections

Rising Tide

Oxbow Marina in Northampton

Oxbow Marina in Northampton

A boat is, for most buyers, a true luxury item, and price tags can get high. Yet, boat sales have remained steady over the decades, and even the Great Recession posed only a blip for the industry, which has posted steady gains for the past several years. The bigger challenge, sellers say, is generational — specifically, drawing young people into the activity who will then share the passion with their own children.

Diane Bassett Zable calls it “water therapy.”

“You go away on a Friday night, spend a couple days and nights on a boat, and come back refreshed — you feel like you’ve been away even longer than that,” said Bassett Zable, co-owner of Bassett Boat, whose family business has been in Springfield for 73 years.

“You might not get your kids to sit still in your 29-foot living room, but on a 29-foot boat, away from video games or TV — unless you choose to have a TV — they’ll start playing cards again with the family,” she went on. “It’s a wonderful family activity. You’ll find a lot of families that boat also snow ski together, and vice versa; they want that family unity. Boating really does give that to you.”

Maritime enthusiasts across the U.S. echo that passion, and boat sales nationally have remained healthy over the past few years, with steady improvement each year the norm, according to Boating Industry.

In fact, following a solid 2015, this sector is expecting an even stronger year in 2016, Thom Dammrich, president of the National Marine Manufacturers Assoc., told the publication, noting that the broader economic indicators that affect sales are healthy. “The economy, while not robustly strong, is still positive. Fuel prices remain low. Interest rates remain low. There’s nothing negative happening to adversely affect boat sales in the coming year that we can see today.”

Chuck Burke, who co-owns Action Marine in Holyoke with Paul Robillard, notes that the inverse is also true. “When you get high gas prices, when interest rates go up and the economy is shaky, we see a direct drop on sales,” he said.

Not lately, however. Through mid-May, Action has seen a 16% increase in business over this time last year, but Robillard said that number may be a bit deceptive. Last year, a longer, colder winter meant a later start on sales, which was followed by a very strong June. This year’s mild winter weather got sales ramped up earlier, but a mediocre June would bring the numbers in line with 2015, so the jury is still out. But the partners are confident that brisk business will continue through the spring and into summer.

Mick Duda, owner of Oxbow Marina in Northampton, which has long sold a wide range of boats alongside its slip-rental, service, and supply business, agreed.

“Business has stayed strong,” he told BusinessWest. “The only slow year was about seven years ago, in the recession. People didn’t have the discretionary income, so they didn’t buy boats, or they were buying repossessed boats.”

In a healthy economy, it’s a different story.

“The people we primarily sell to have the capacity to buy these things. We’re not selling small sports-store-type products. Our cheapest new boat starts off around $20,000, but some go up to a half-million. That’s the niche I want to be in.”

Diane Bassett Zable

Diane Bassett Zable says a passion for boating is often passed down from parents to children, so it’s important to get young families interested in the activity.

In a recent Boating Industry reader survey — including boat dealers, manufacturers, marina owners, and others working in the industry — 77%  said they expect their revenue to increase this year. More than half expect revenue to increase by more than 10% for 2016, while only 4% expect their revenue to decrease. That would be an improvement over 2015, a year when 71% said their revenue increased, 13% reported a decline, and 16% said business was flat.

Duda said his team at Oxbow — which includes his children, Clay Duda and Shelley Anderson — has been recording strong sales at regional boating expositions. “We go in with a positive attitude, and our shows are always really strong. We have top-notch products because we’ve been in it so long, and we get clientele who can well afford to buy a boat.”

Behind the Numbers

Still, nearly half the respondents in the Boating Industry survey said they are ‘very concerned’ about the challenge affordability poses to the industry, with 96% saying they were at least ‘somewhat concerned’ about the issue.

But Bassett Zable said many are looking at raw numbers instead of the monthly cost — banks will accept 15-year terms on new boats up to $50,000 and 20 years for pricier models — while too many look to buy used, not realizing that new boats bring warranties and lower interest rates.

“A lot of people might not realize how affordable a new boat is,” she said. “When they’re new to the sport, they say, ‘oh, what do you have used?’ I chuckle at that. If you’re new to something, why do you want someone else’s headaches?”

Instead, Bassett deals almost exclusively in new craft, backed up with long warranties and a service culture — the staff answers their phones even after hours and on weekends — that have ranked the business second nationally on the industry’s Customer Satisfaction Index. After all, she said, a negative experience will chase newcomers away much more quickly than the price of a new boat.

As for a boat’s value, if it has a sleeping area, she said, that can become a second-home writeoff. “A lot of people don’t realize that. It’s direct waterfront property. You can wake up with a cup of coffee and a seagull. You can finance that for $100,000 and pay $599 a month. That’s the cost of a fancy hotel room for one night. It’s really affordable, but I don’t think that message has reached everyone.”

Mild winter weather with minimal snow, as the region enjoyed this past winter, can help raise the profile of boating come spring, Burke said. “You’re not getting bogged down in shoveling snow, and when the shows start in January, February, and March, that kind of gets the ball rolling. February is more like mid-March, business-wise, because of the lack of snow.”

In addition, he recalled, the last few years have seen rainy springs that raised water levels and kept marinas and boat owners from opening their docks early. “This year, the weather was more consistent, which was conducive to early boating.”

Duda doesn’t have an issue at Oxbow, whose slips are protected from swells and heavy flooding. “On the river proper, you never know what’s going to happen, but here, there’s no current whatsoever,” he said, adding that the slips are secured by a network of underwater cables, keeping everything in place.

He said the marina benefits greatly from its visibility from Interstate 91, but he doesn’t wait for business to come to him, taking part in shows throughout the Northeast and delivering product from New Jersey up to Canada. But plenty of customers visit the spacious showroom, lined with Crownline fiberglass vessels, Bennington pontoons, and other models.

“You can’t beat the exposure from the interstate. This is the crossroads of the Northeast, the junction of 90 and 91,” he said. “And people with this kind of money want to see what they’re buying; they don’t want to look at a catalog. They want to come inside a nice showroom and look at the boats displayed.”

The property, celebrating its 50th anniversary with a series of events this year, has come a long way from its humble beginnings. Duda was a dairy farmer in Easthampton when he came across some property for sale along the Connecticut River. He bought it with the intention of farming, but started to consider boating as a potential business opportunity. So he bought more land neighboring the first parcel — where hundreds of boats are now moored — and launched a marina. Today, he owns more than 200 acres, which is home to not only the marina, but two soccer fields and the headquarters of a waterski team.

“When I met with the neighbors, they were happy because it was a mess over here,” he said, recalling that the property was a popular site for nighttime parties before he began buying up the land — a good investment, it turned out, considering that waterfront property has become so expensive that many dealers can afford only small parcels with smaller showrooms. “But Oxbow has grown so much. We’re busy.”

Living Large

Sellers of large boats are experiencing a resurgence in business. Specifically, boats over 40 feet, hit hard during the recession, posted some of their strongest numbers, Dammrich noted, especially in the offshore fishing market.

Buyers who can work a larger boat into their monthly budget have more than one reason to do so, Bassett Zable said, including ease of operation. Twin-engine boats above 30 feet long can be fitted with a joystick and steered like a video game — in other words, much easier than a smaller boat.

However, many factors go into choosing the right vessel, Duda said. “A boat has to meet the needs of the family and what its desire is. If it’s just fishing, they want an offshore fishing-type boat. If they’re interested in cruising, overnights, that’s something different. If you can fit the family to the right model boat and price, then they’ll be happy. If not, they won’t be happy.”

Paul Robillard, left, and Chuck Burke

Paul Robillard, left, and Chuck Burke say a robust service business buoys the bottom line at Action Marine no matter what kind of sales year it’s been.

Still, despite the positive signs, Boating Industry reported that a decline in entry-level boaters remains an issue for the industry in 2016, which is reflected in the continuing decline in sales in the ‘runabout,’ or small motorboat, market.

“Back in the ’80s, young people were getting into boating, but fewer are now,” said Burke, a 50-year industry veteran who opened Action with Robillard 26 years ago. That’s why attending boat shows is important. “It gets the boating season going and allows people to see what’s out there, what’s new.”

Action specializes in fishing boats — alumimum vessels between $10,000 and $20,000, and some offshore fiberglass fishing boats in the $20,000 to $40,000 range. “Our strong suit is fishing. What we’ve got, our niche, we’re sticking with that.”

But fishing is just one way to enjoy the water, Duda said. “Boating is certainly very popular, and it’s a true family form of recreation, which everyone in a family can enjoy at the same time.”

Bassett Zable understands the family appeal, but knows it’s a constant challenge to attract families who have never experienced boat ownership.

“Boating is here to stay, and once people understand how great it is, they love it. It’s such a fabulous family memory. And if their children grow up with it, they’ll want to stay part of it, so we have to make sure it stays affordable.”

To that end, her goal is to make boat shopping a pleasurable experience, and stress service after the sale. “Dealers look like equals, but we’re not,” she said. “Not all manufacturers are equal, and neither are dealers. What’s their reputation? If they say they’re going to do something, do they do it? If you buy a boat from Bassett, you’re joining my Bassett Boat family — and I take that seriously.”

She recalled someone who called, panicked, on a Sunday evening. He needed to clean up a spill in the cabin of his 34-foot boat before his wife saw it, but couldn’t find the central vacuum. “He was so happy that I answered the phone and helped him. I was in a supermarket in Florida, but I took the call.”

Bassett Boat, which overlooks Lake Massasoit in Springfield and boasts a second location in Old Saybrook, Conn., also offers learn-to-boat programs to turn novices into capable captains.

“I want to deal only with quality products that bring quality customers, and then turn around and give them quality service,” Bassett Zable said. “When you can stick with that strategy, that’s a winning combination.”

Continued Growth

Speaking of service, Burke said that side of the business is what insulates Action from recessions like the one that struck eight years ago. “If the economy goes down, people tend to put their money into repairs to keep what they have going. Either way, it kind of balances out for us because we have a strong service background, and people bring their boats to us for service. In fact, that’s what keeps the door open. Sales are nice, but secondary.”

Duda also stressed the value of taking care of customers, and said many employees have stayed with Oxbow for decades and know the business well.

“Work is what I live for, and I’m still working at my age,” he said. “I still wake up at 3:30 to plan the day.”

With his children doing most of the selling these days, Duda can devote part of his time to growing vegetables on some of Oxbow’s acreage. Last year saw squash, and this year he’ll be growing sweet corn.

“After all,” he said, “I’m still a farmer” — one who, 50 years ago, saw a future in the boat business and took the plunge.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Luxury Living Sections

Healthy Meetings

Spa

By Jaclyn C. Stevenson

There’s a new movement afoot in resorts across the country. Meditation techniques are offered alongside manicures. Lessons in stretching appropriate for the workplace precede a soak in the hot tub, and sessions of tai chi join cups of chai tea in the spa’s quietest corners.

Indeed, luxury resorts are offering a greater number of health and wellness opportunities to guests of all types, but there’s a particular focus of late on corporate groups. According to the “Global Spa & Wellness Trends Forecast” published by Spafinder Wellness Inc., for the 13th time, workplace wellness is one of the top 10 trends in the spa industry for 2016.

The study suggests that this is a direct response to a growing number of businesses across the country taking the well-being of their employees more seriously, for the health of both their teams and their companies’ bottom lines.


Go HERE for a list of area Day Spas


For instance, it found that, if businesses want their employees to engage in, and stick to, new behaviors, they are well-served to introduce a broad range of wellness activities that go beyond a traditional gym membership. That’s a niche resorts that offer wellness services can fill, and gradually businesses are identifying ways to combine stress reduction, fitness, healthy eating habits, and more into their company meetings and retreats.

There’s the Rub

That’s not to say it’s always an easy sell. Christine Mariconti, spa director at Cranwell Spa and Golf Resort, said she and her team have made a concerted effort in recent years to highlight relaxation and wellness offerings to corporate groups, and she’s seeing an overall uptick in spa services during meetings. But all-inclusive packages are still scantily booked, and it falls to Cranwell’s team to identify each group’s specific needs and desires, as well as what their schedules and budgets will allow.

“We truly believe these types of services are important to offer to employees, but the biggest problem is they just don’t have enough time,” said Mariconti. “Typically, corporate groups are booked right through dinner, and I see very few businesses that can devote part of their budget to an entire day of downtime for their employees.”

To help address that issue, Mariconti said Cranwell has developed a suite of services for guests pressed for time, including 22-minute facials and massages or express manicures and pedicures. She said corporate groups have begun working these breaks into their agendas more often — after lunch and before the afternoon session, for example — to offer a unique incentive as well as a moment of respite in a jam-packed schedule.

“It offers an opportunity to break away for a moment, to clear the mind, and exhale,” she said. “Guests don’t need to feel like they’re holding their breath all day. Plus, they return to their meetings refreshed and ready to go.”

Canyon Ranch in Lenox

Canyon Ranch in Lenox welcomes executives to its facilities for corporate retreats, then works with them to create individualized plans for each guest to implement at home and work.

Conversely, Mariconti noted that Cranwell also offers spa allowances that give employees the opportunity to spend a full day using its facilities, often as a goal-setting reward.

“It’s such a positive thing,” said Mariconti. “We work with companies to book those services and sometimes, a group of coworkers will even come together. That is such off-the-map activity for most people, and also very important for the health of their team.”

Dawn Ramsey-Jacobsson, director of sales with Canyon Ranch in Lenox, which specializes in wellness-based services, agreed that the trend toward holistic services and programs for members of corporate groups is picking up slowly, growing little by little as the definition of ‘healthy meetings’ continues to widen.

“The demand is not as high as we’d like, but ‘health and wellness’ has definitely become a buzz term, and more and more we’re seeing companies taking a closer look at how they run their meetings and really trying to make them healthier,” she said, noting that the resort typically welcomes C-suite executives to its facilities for extended board meetings and corporate retreats, and works with these groups to create individualized plans for each guest that can be implemented upon return home — and to work.

“This is the perfect environment to focus on wellness objectives and personal goals in the health realm. We can present all we have to offer to guests to try hands-on, and they can work a plan through before they leave.”

All Canyon Ranch visitors complete a confidential health and lifestyle questionnaire prior to arriving and reside in an alcohol-free environment for the length of their stay. Nurse educators and ‘lifestyle concierges’ are always on hand, and chefs and dietitians work in tandem to develop all of the resort’s meals, which are typically low-sodium and locally sourced.

Its most inclusive — and, in another way of speaking, exclusive — option is the Executive Health Program, an integrated plan that includes a full physical and diagnostic testing; nutrition consultations; an exercise physiology consultation with a personalized exercise prescription; private training in yoga, tai chi, qi gong, or meditation; and more.

“There is definitely a strong instructional piece incorporated into the customized agendas we create for all of our groups, and more companies in general are looking for these types of classes,” said Ramsey-Jacobsson. “In fact, nearly all of our groups take some sort of class now.”

Give Me Your Tired…

In terms of corporate guests, this often translates to solving some of the key stressors members of the American workforce suffer. For instance, 55% employees who responded to the SpaFinder Wellness study reported that the top obstacle to work productivity was overall fatigue. Job stress was a close second at 52%, followed by lack of time to accomplish tasks (47%) and poor sleep (45%).

The survey also found that roughly nine in 10 employees who tried a new fitness or wellness activity felt inspired to continue it on a consistent basis, and 38% said they were more productive and happier at work.

Those new activities could be as simple as replacing donuts and coffee with fruit and bottled water, or going a few steps further and taking a class in chair yoga, or attending private lectures covering stress management or the importance of sleep.

“The objective has become teaching people to live longer, healthier lives,” said Ramsey-Jacobsson, “and corporate meetings are just one place we can start. Business gets done, healthier decisions are made, and companies are giving their employees a real gift by investing in their health.”

Luxury Living Sections

Expectations Are Soaring

Kevin Bradley

Kevin Bradley says business travel on Rectrix’s charter planes is increasing to and from Westfield Barnes Airport.

Westfield Barnes Airport is home to a number of businesses that provide a wide array of services, ranging from fixed-base operators, the equivalent of a commercial terminal for private planes, to general maintenance, antique restoration, retrofitting or upgrades to interiors, and avionics, which include communications, navigation, and other key systems. These companies are busy these days, as plane ownership is strong in the region — and not just among the rich.

Kevin Bradley calls them “time machines.”

He was referring to the private jets Rectrix has available for hire that are used by businesspeople to transport them to and from meetings in distant states.

Clients can drive their cars directly up to these well-outfitted aircraft that are stationed in general-aviation airports and board immediately, which saves the time it would take to park, check in, go through security, and suffer the delays that can occur at a commercial airport. Once passengers are airborne, they have access to technology, privacy, and comfort that allow them to continue their business dealings alone or in conjunction with the people they are traveling with, which can include satellite phone systems, wi-fi service, conference tables, and comfortable seating.

“If someone from Dallas needs to attend a meeting in Greenfield, they can charter a flight to Westfield Barnes Airport, find a rental car waiting for them on the ramp, and return home the same day,” said Bradley, vice president of operations for Rectrix Commercial Aviation Services Inc.

“If they flew commercially, they would probably have one or two connections and have to stay overnight,” he went on, adding that demand for the company’s services is high, and its target market is business travelers, although some people do charter jets to take them to vacation spots.

“These planes correlate to the Four Seasons — they are the Ritz Carlton of aviation in terms of luxury hospitality,” he told BusinessWest.

Rectrix, whose services in Westfield include a maintenance facility called AirFlyte, is one of three businesses at the 1,200-acre airport that provide a wide array of offerings that range from fixed-base operators (FBOs), which are the equivalent of a commercial terminal for private planes, to general maintenance, antique restoration, and retrofitting or upgrades to interiors, not to mention avionics, which include communications, navigation, and displays and management of multiple systems that aircraft need to function.

“People don’t realize how much general aviation occurs in Westfield,” Bradley explained. “Westfield Barnes Airport is a huge economic engine for the regional economy, and the businesses there have brought a tremendous infusion of money and skilled jobs to the area.”

Steve Cass agrees. “It’s a great location and a great place to work. We have approximately 250 people employed at our Westfield facility, and last year we serviced nearly 1,600 customers for both in-house and on-the-road events,” said the vice president of technical marketing and communications
for Gulfstream Aerospace Corp.

Meanwhile, Tom Trudeau, who founded Aero Design Aircraft Services in 1984 at Barnes, says city officials and the Federal Aviation Administration are very supportive of the airport, which is rare because Westfield could make more revenue by selling the land to developers.

“But this airport is pretty solvent,” he told BusinessWest, explaining that his company has always done well and has never been affected by downturns in the economy. All of Aero Design’s business comes from word-of-mouth advertising and ranges from inspections and general maintenance on small private planes to antique restorations, which can take several years if it requires taking a plane completely apart and rebuilding it.

Tom Trudeau

Tom Trudeau says Aero Design Aircraft Services is one of a few companies in New England that does restoration work on antique planes.

The company is one of a few in New England that does this type of restoration, and although this end of the business is limited to clients who can afford costly overhauls, Trudeau also caters to the lower end of the aviation business.

“Contrary to what most people think, flying is not necessarily a rich man’s activity. If you fly strictly for recreation, you can own a plane for less than the cost of a new car,” he said, adding the aircraft he works on range in price from $15,000 to about $3 million. About half his work is on planes used strictly for pleasure, while the remainder involves restoration on more expensive aircraft, which are often owned by businesses.

“But we’re so diverse,” he went on. “We update upholstery and do engine work and sheet metal repair — everything an airplane needs.”

For this edition and its focus on luxury living, BusinessWest takes a closer look at these companies that share space with the Massachusetts Air National Guard and Army National Guard at Westfield Barnes Airport, and how their work continues to take them to new heights.

Plane Speaking

Standards for maintaining aircraft are very strict, and all small planes must undergo annual inspections. Inspection times vary for larger aircraft, but a problem discovered on any plane must be repaired before it can be flown again.

Trudeau said most general-aviation planes in the air today are 15 to 20 years old, and, unlike automobiles, they increase in value as they age. For example, a four-person passenger plane that cost $20,000 in 1975 is worth double that today, and, if it’s in exceptional condition, the value is a lot higher.

As a result, Aero Design is often called upon to install new radios and instrumentation in addition to making upgrades to the interiors of aircraft, and the quality and scope of the company’s work on antique planes has been featured in a number of aviation magazines.

At present, the company is in the process of completely rebuilding a 1952 de Haviland Super Chipmunk, a process that has taken three years. “It probably cost $4,000 to $5,000 when it was new, but it’s worth $200,000 now because it’s so rare and has been modified and upgraded through the years,” Trudeau noted.

Although catering to this market is more lucrative than doing inspections and small repairs or upgrades, the company can do anything an airplane needs, Trudeau said. He has four to five employees and also works on the planes himself. The jobs the company undertakes are so diverse that it never lacks for business, especially since there is always a new generation of pilots purchasing small aircraft.

“Flying gets into your blood, and we have customers who don’t need their planes for business, but just enjoy going up in the air. We also service sport planes, aircraft used by businesses, and planes people have built themselves,” the pilot said, explaining that Aero Design’s clients range from a farmer to a dentist to people who have taken up flying in retirement.

Gulfstream caters to an entirely different market, and works almost exclusively on its own fleet, along with Falcon aircraft.

The interior layout of Gulfstream jets

The interior layout of Gulfstream jets allows business travelers to work in a private, comfortable setting.

Cass said the Northeast has proven to be a very popular corridor for business travel due to financial districts in New York and the number of businesses in Boston, and 65% of its 2,500 planes are kept in the U.S.

In fact, business has been so good that, in 2013, Gulfstream built a new, 125,000-square-foot hangar in Westfield to accommodate not only its flagship G65OER jet, which costs $65 million, holds up to 16 passengers, and can travel non-stop from Boston to Beijing — a distance of about 7,500 nautical miles — but an influx of other models that routinely need service.

“The new hangar doubled the capacity of planes we can store there,” Cass told BusinessWest, adding that there was a real need for the structure due to the increase in business jet travel.

The company’s Westfield location is one of eight service centers in the U.S. and three overseas, in London, Brazil, and Beijing.

“As the fleet continues to grow, more investments are made in infrastructure,” Cass continued, adding that more than 50% of Gulfstream jets are owned by corporations, 30% are owned by individuals, and fewer than 10% are used by the government or built for special missions.

These jets are popular with Fortune 500 companies and other large firms because their cabins are quieter than commercial planes, the pressurization is better, which makes flying easier on the body, and large windows are tailored to provide a lot of natural light and better viewing.

“They allow business travelers to be productive while they’re in the air,” Cass noted. “In addition to high-speed Internet, people can have private phone conversations with a level of security that is important to them.”

Gulfstream produces about 100 to 150 new aircraft each year, and its Westfield operation has shown long-term, steady growth as the fleet continues to grow.

Propelling Growth

Bradley said Rectrix started as an FBO in 2005 in Hyannis, expanded to Sarasota, Fla. in 2008, and has two facilities at Barnes.

The first is AirFlyte Inc., which handles maintenance, and the second is its Aerodrome FBO Center, which is one of five such brick-and-mortar facilities in Massachusetts and Florida that offer amenities such as private business suites, state-of-the-art conference centers, and chart and weather rooms.

Rectrix purchased AirFlyte in 2012 from Gary and Judy Potts, who established the business in 1988. “Our companies complemented one another, and it filled a void in Rectrix,” Bradley explained, adding that, although AirFlyte wasn’t on the market at the time, its owners were willing to sell because the direction Rectrix planned to go in fit well with their vision for the future.

The purchase gave Rectrix a foothold in every geographic area in the state, boasting other locations in Worcester, Bedford, and Hyannis, and AirFlyte has been expanded to those sites, as well as Florida.

AirFlyte also attained the elite status of being named an FAA 14 CFR Part 145 Repair Station, which means it is held to high standards, and its programs, systems, and methods of compliance are thoroughly reviewed, evaluated, and tested. The FAA specifies the types of aircraft that can be serviced, and random drug and alcohol testing and stringent background checks on employees are included.

“We can work on almost any corporate jet, and we complement Gulfstream,” Bradley said, adding that Rectrix has registered 400% growth over the past two and a half years. In fact, after AirFlyte was acquired and its FBO in was rebranded with the Retrix name, the company purchased another FBO at Barnes called Five Star Jet Center, which was a competitor.

The company owns two Challenger 300 jet aircraft and five Learjet 45s, and manages an additional five aircraft, which are all brought to Westfield for maintenance.

“There is a fair demand in Western Mass. for business travel on private jets, and our fleet is wi-fi equipped so business isn’t interrupted while people are in the air,” Bradley noted, adding that there are about 500 commercial airports in the U.S. and about 15,000 general-aviation airports, which means travelers who fly in private planes can typically get closer to their destinations. “Some of our planes have satellite TVs, and some have videoconferencing, which allows them to be airborne conference rooms.”

The FBO and maintenance facility in Westfield complement each other, and AirFlyte Inc. services about 50 planes there each year. Its work includes inspections, repairs, and some avionics upgrades and interior improvements such as new carpeting, leather upholstery, entertainment and communications systems, and lighting; however, the company doesn’t do retrofitting.

Taking Flight

Demand for services at Westfield Barnes Airport continues to grow as private planes are used more frequently for business and pleasure.

“Not only do the companies there infuse the economy with money and good-paying jobs, they attract new customers. We view them as one unit because they offer a full complement of services,” Bradley said, adding that people don’t realize how much general aviation occurs there, and the use of business aircraft is a good gauge of how the business market is doing, as growth in the industry means deals are being made and the economy is growing instead of contracting.

“Over the past two years, there’s been an increase of 20% in use of our private jets by individuals, and the rest can all be attributed to business travel,” he continued.

Which means these companies at Barnes are not only helping to bolster the local economy, but they’re raising it to new heights as more people use ‘time machines’ and take to the air for business and pleasure.

Luxury Living Sections

Fancy Footwork

Karen Tesini

Karen Tesini says customers are willing to pay for quality in a product they’ll have to live with for a long time.

Flooring products aren’t cheap, for the most part, which is why Best Tile recently opened an outlet store that caters to customers on a budget.

“We have a closeout outlet to stay in tune with people who don’t have the financial means to buy higher-end materials,” said Karen Tesini, manager of the Springfield-based store. But she found she doesn’t do nearly as much business there as she does in the main showroom. “Our customers are serious buyers; they know tile has longevity, it’s not something they’ll change frequently, and they’re willing to pay for high quality. That’s our typical client.”

Jorge Morgado agreed.

“The average person coming in, if they’re not looking to move often, if they’ll be staying in their home for a while, they’re really looking for better-quality materials, better-quality flooring,” said the vice president of Baystate Rug and Flooring in Chicopee and East Longmeadow. “People are still value-driven, but with the trend toward an improving economy — at least, there’s definite movement in that direction — they want something of quality.”

Steve Omartian knows something about quality. As the third-generation owner of Toros Omartian & Son, his family has been dealing in hand-woven, high-quality Oriental rugs — buying, selling, cleaning, repairing, and appraising them — for 96 years, and only in recent decades has he begun stocking rugs at price tags less than $5,000, to capture a segment of the market that prefers to stay around $3,000 or less.

“Professionals in the area were telling me, ‘I can’t afford your rug; it’s like $20,000, isn’t it? We could never afford a rug from you guys,’” he recalled, suggesting he had a perception problem more than a price problem. “The Omartian name had suggested very expensive rugs, but we were priced just like any other rug store. We do moderate to high-end rugs, we do collectibles — all the different designs and colors available in the oriental-rug industry now.”

What Tesini, Morgado, and Omartian have in common — besides businesses focused on floor coverings — is the need to strike a balance between quality, since customers will live with their products for a long time, and shoppers who focus on the bottom line. It’s not always an easy tradeoff.

“Obviously the economy — even though people say it’s thriving — is still soft in this area,” Morgado told BusinessWest, noting that his customer base has tended to skew older (typically professional people in their 40s and up) and it’s always a challenge to attract young people who are just as likely to grab a machine-manufactured rug on sale at Home Depot.

But if there’s one thing high-end and budget-conscious shoppers have in common, its that their tastes change — often quickly.

Broad Opinions

Indeed, Morgado said, “just like clothing trends, the style of hardwood flooring has changed over the years. In the past, he explained, hardwood options existed on a single continuum, dark finish to light finish, and three-inch planks were standard across the industry.

“Today’s look is completely different,” he went on. “People are looking for the wide boards, wide planks, with some character, whether it’s hand-scraped, darker-stained, whatever it takes to create that unique, different finish. These are considered higher-end products.”

Jorge Morgado

Jorge Morgado says tastes in wood flooring have shifted in the past couple of years to wider planks and shades of gray.

He noted that proponents of wider planks feel they make a room feel more open and can create the appearance of a cleaner-looking space. Another rising trend is setting planks at a diagonal, rather than vertically or horizontally.

Morgado also noted that reclaimed wood is growing in popularity because it appeals to customers on two levels: eco-friendliness, and a vintage, one-of-a-kind look. This wood is being reused from sources such as barns, beams, wooden barrels, and salvaged logs, and the planks typically have characteristics that are different from board to board.

Finally, shades of gray are all the rage in hardwood flooring, rather than the natural finishes that have dominated for so long. One reason is that it tends to be a more neutral backdrop for paint, upholstery, and accessories. “People are attracted to that,” he said.

Tesini agreed, saying the gray craze has crossed over into tile as well. “A year and a half, maybe two years ago, the most popular color was beige. And, just overnight, a lightswitch was hit, and now everything is white and gray tile.”

Another consumer trend, Morgado said, is tile that looks like wood. At a time when designers are getting away from wood-colored cabinetry in favor of black and white, wood-colored flooring, if not hardwood itself, can be an attractive complement, since the rest of the space isn’t overwhelmed with wood. “More people are doing these uniquely finished things that are not considered traditional.”

Tesini said customers are responding to the sheer quality of tile that mimics wood. “Now, it’s digitally imaged, where before, it was screen printed. Digital imaging has come so far, and it’s difficult to tell it’s not real wood. Almost every manufacturer has changed their process to provide the highest-quality image on tile. It’s really an amazing time to be in the tile business.”

The other big trend in tile has to do with size, she told BusinessWest, with the long-popular 12-by-12 tiles being overshadowed today by 12-by-24 pieces. And that’s just the residential side. “Commercially, the bigger, the better: 16-by-32, 24-by-24.”

Changing Tastes

The biggest shift in the Oriental rug industry, Omartian recalled, was a change, in the early to mid-1980s, in how designs were created.

“In the interior-design field, American [wholesale] buyers would go to the countries of origin and buy what they made. But in the ’80s, they started telling them what to make, what designs and colors they wanted. And the market drastically changed — it became more appealing to the American consumer. It’s progressed that way ever since.”

That shift means Oriental rugs aren’t just an afterthought to a design, but are often included in a complete room strategy, just as fabrics, paint, wallpaper, and draperies are. “As far as the decision goes, it’s incorporated in the process, where, prior to the ’80s, it wasn’t.”

Steven Omartian

Steven Omartian says his company has stayed nimble in order to sell high-end rugs in an economy that has not fully recovered from the recession.

That was an overall positive to dealers like his family, but Omartian says the industry still faces plenty of challenges, including an economy that remains a bit soft. One change to compensate for fluctuating economy is an increased business presence; where his business was once 85% residential and 15% commercial, now it’s closer to 60-40. “We sell a lot for professional offices — an accent piece in the office or a large Oriental rug in the conference room, as well as occasionally hanging carpets on the wall as artwork.”

Morgado said manufacturers of wood flooring — and other materials, for that matter — produce lower-quality versions of their products to bring in value hunters and people who can’t afford high-end materials, but those who can afford top-line products demand them, if only because of how permanent those choices tend to be.

That said, while hardwood remains a popular choice, it typically trades places back and forth with carpeting in the race for most-popular floor covering.

“Designers know it’ll be a hardwood trend, then a carpet trend, then back to hardwood. The trend now is that carpet is starting to come back around. Designers are saying, ‘if you want a room to be comfortable, it’s a lot easier to bring comfort with a carpet,’” he explained, noting that today’s top-line rugs are built for both softness and better cleanability than before. He cited one brand in particular, Karastan, as the “Mercedes brand,” and noted that many people gravitate toward that as an alternative to wood.

While tile brands jostle for market dominance as well, Tesini said, she has seen a huge demand for Carrera tile — particularly in white and gray, of course — for kitchen floors, backsplashes, and bathrooms. But, she added, there will always be a place for natural stone.

“There’s an exotic quality to stone — it will always cost a bit more money than porcelain based on the rarity of certain types of stone, like marble,” she said, adding, however, that higher-end tiles are closing the price gap. “Natural stone is still very, very popular. Tile has come so far, but stone is stone; it’s what God created, and he’s not making it any better or worse. It’s never gone away in popularity.”

Which means it’s one more option for home and business owners looking to spend a little money — or a lot, as the case may be — for perhaps their most-used possession.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Luxury Living Sections

Personal Space

Rick McCullough

Rick McCullough learned plenty of lessons from his father, who launched what is now a second-generation home-construction business 60 years ago — among them hard work, integrity, and an emphasis on personal relationships. It’s that hands-on quality of his work that McCullough counts among the most enjoyable aspects of his job — not to mention an economy that has shed some lean years and is roaring with new life as families once again invest in high-end, custom homes.

Richard McCullough runs a successful home-building company, but he still refers to it as “my dad’s business.”

That’s because he grew up around R.A. McCullough Inc. — the construction firm launched by his father during the 1950s — and, along the way, picked up plenty of inspiration and lessons for his future career as the second-generation president of this Longmeadow-based family business.

“He first sold houses for other builders as a Realtor, and as he looked at what people were building, he said, ‘I can do this, and I can do it better,’” McCullough told BusinessWest. “So he purchased some raw pieces of land and developed them, and just built the company from there over the decades.”

After he graduated from college in 1995, he went into his father’s business full-time.

“Before that, I was out in the field, doing the grunt work, but after college, I graduated to the office,” he said — a decision that wasn’t always set in stone. “My dad was this amazing businessman, builder, and developer, but I didn’t seriously consider it until I got older. During my college years, I began to see [construction] as a natural fit for me.”

As one of the region’s most prominent builders of high-end and custom residences — typically 3,000 square feet and up — McCullough says he enjoys the hands-on aspect of dealing with clients and helping them turn their design visions into reality.

“I love helping them make decisions around building custom homes,” he said. “And I find there’s less miscommunication when I’m hands-on. I don’t get that phone call saying, ‘so-and-so didn’t call me back; what’s going on?’ There are fewer surprises that way. But I really do enjoy every aspect of this business, everything that’s involved in building homes, from the design through the end result.”

For this issue’s focus on luxury living, McCullough talks with BusinessWest about the changing nature of what a custom home is — and why he enjoys keeping up with those changes.

Beyond the Floor Plan

Make no mistake, he explained — ‘custom’ has meant different things over the decades.

“For example, in the ’80s, bigger was better, and customizing didn’t mean quite what it does nowadays. Back in the ’70s and ’80s, there wasn’t a whole lot of custom millwork, for example, unless it was in the ultra-high end. People today are less concerned about size and more about quality, what goes into it, the finishes.”

Today’s home buyers seem more educated and sure of the touches they desire in a home. As he walked along Bridle Path Ridge in Somers, Conn., a small development of high-end homes his company developed, he explained that, while the exteriors reflect a consistent — but not copycat — look, the interiors are very different, based on their buyers’ preferences.

“The houses’ architecture matches — you can tell it’s the same builder — but they’re very different from each other,” he said. “I love the challenge of creating something different. Sometimes they’ll see a house next door to where they want one built, and they’ll say, ‘that’s what I want.’ Well, we can do that floor layout, but let’s do something unique and something that won’t be a carbon copy of your neighbor.”

Those differences encompass everything from materials to finishes to subtle stylistic changes. “We can mix it up a little bit without going crazy — we’re not going to build a contemporary next to a colonial. It’s a different flavor while staying in the same realm of style.”

As for interior layout, customization today is largely a reflection of the family’s lifestyle.

“It’s really about customizing to an owner’s needs,” he said. “Where is the focus? It’s normally still through the kitchen, through the family room, areas where you spend the vast majority of the time, for ease of entertaining. Or you might want areas for a child to be close to the main part of the house, but have their own separate area.”

Home buyers are always going to focus on price — a home is likely their biggest investment — but McCullough said square footage doesn’t tell the whole story.

“Plenty of people say, ‘what’s the price per square foot,’ but what’s in the house? People think going from 3,500 to 2,500 square feet translates very easily from a cost-per-square-foot standpoint, but if you’re spending, say, 175 per square foot on a 3,500-square-foot home and you want to go to a smaller footprint, you’ll probably have the same size kitchen, same number of bathrooms, same finishes — so you’re going to spend more money per square foot.”

Particularly in the high-end housing market, he added, it’s important to keep an eye on a home’s future marketability. “You say you want only three bedrooms. Well, at least leave space to have a fourth bedroom — over the garage, unfinished. Marketability-wise, that adds a little value for the next person who’s going to buy it down the road.”

Priorities have shifted somewhat for homeowners in the realm of energy efficiency, McCullough said, noting that airtight construction and energy options like geothermal heating are becoming more popular.

He also noted that technology has impacted the features that high-end homebuyers are looking for today — and not just in the realm of home entertainment.

“People want things to be automated now; they want their lighting systems working off their smartphones. Controlling your heating and cooling from outside your home — that’s a relatively new thing in our industry, and you can’t underestimate that part of the business and how much that will grow.”

Bridle Path Ridge in Somers, Conn

Bridle Path Ridge in Somers, Conn. is one of McCullough’s recent developments of high-end, custom homes.

That goes for retrofitting existing homes as well, he added, a process made easier these days by the emergence of wireless technology.

“Cable companies are offering security systems — 20 years ago, you wouldn’t have guessed that would be happening. We have complete home automation … lights, thermostat, cameras you can view on a smartphone,” he went on. “There are so many apps, so many security systems. And it’s evolving so fast. Once you get these systems installed, things will change even more. It happens quickly.”

Ups and Downs

With the homebuilding industry on the upswing, McCullough is happy the recession years are well behind.

“That was an incredible challenge, and something that definitely left a mark on every developer, builder, and remodeler. Some fared better than others, but it was a rough recession,” he said, adding that it was difficult to tell when the tough times would end, challenging developers who wanted to time their investments.

“If a developer saved money throughout the recession, they might have been able to pick up properties, be opportunistic as they prepared for a turnaround, but the turnaround took longer than we thought. Developers were thinking, ‘we’ll have another year or two of this,’ but it lasted a little longer,” he explained. “There’s no book to go to on how to play it. It changed our industry somewhat, and hopefully we don’t forget the lessons of what we went through.”

As a recent past president of the Home Builders & Remodelers Assoc. of Western Mass. — an organization that advocates for contractors on the legislative level and educates consumers about companies and services — McCullough was in regular contact with builders during the extended downturn and came away impressed by their resilience.

“Everyone kept their heads up, even though it was obviously tough,” he said. “It’s a tough industry. We all know it. But our membership has significantly increased recently, which tells you where the economy is.”

The word he chose to describe the current mood? “Euphoric.”

“The market hasn’t fully recovered; we may not reach the level of the early to mid-2000s, when things were flying. But it was so bad for so long, and everything is good right now, in my mind — everything from existing home sales to remodeling to new construction.”

That’s partly because many potential buyers were just waiting out the storm but never ditched their plans for a new residence.

“A lot of people doing that work now had the money to do it, but had a lot of uncertainty — ‘will I get my investment back if I spend a premium on a major remodel or a new home?’ You don’t do that unless you have some view of the future that’s positive. It’s been great getting back into the swing of things after so long a downturn.”

The year has been so positive for the industry, in fact, that even the cold months will be productive in many corners.

“I normally see the vendors and the subcontractors I work with go into seasonal adjustments, down periods heading into winter,” McCullough said. “But people are staying busy through the holidays. Not everyone believes contractors work through the holidays because of the frozen ground, and they wonder whether that’s a good time to have something done. But it’s busier now than it’s been in years.”

Two Hats

McCullough’s father continued to work in real estate in the ’70s, at a good-sized brokerage firm called McCullough & Taft Realty — a tradition the junior McCullough continues today as a real-estate agent at Keller Williams Realty in Longmeadow.

“I’ve been a real-estate agent, where I’m helping a client negotiate with a builder, and I look over the specifics of the contract. It’s an interesting perspective, being more on the outside.”

But there’s something special about being on the construction side.

“I love being hands-on and engaged in every aspect of the project; that’s something I enjoy,” he said, noting that, even though the company has fluctuated in size over the years, he’s always stayed closely involved in projects — an emphasis on relationships he learned from his father.

“My dad was so honest and straightforward,” McCullough said. “I’ve told people he was no rocket scientist, but he worked hard, and his integrity was at the forefront of everything he did. And that’s the way I choose to follow. In the old days, everything was done on a handshake, and it’s nice to feel like we can do that in certain circumstances.”

That’s why he tells people R.A. McCullough is his father’s business.

“To me, it’s more about maintaining the same standards he had. That definitely builds the passion with me — wanting people to be happy, wanting people to have a good experience. It’s definitely not about the money. It’s about everything my dad stood for.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Luxury Living Sections

Rolling Along

RV trailer Stock

Chris Adams says the reasons behind a resurgence in recreational-vehicle sales are obvious.

“The economy is getting better, and gas prices are going down quite a bit. The industry is way up,” said Adams, a member of the Pioneer Valley 8 chapter of the North American Family Campers Assoc., and co-chairman with his wife, Trudi, of the upcoming 2016 Camping & Outdoor Show at the Eastern States Exposition.

The statistics back up that assessment. According to the Recreation Vehicle Industry Assoc. (RVIA), RV shipments in 2015 are expected to top 365,000 units, which would be the highest total since 2006, and the sixth consecutive year of growth since sales bottomed out in 2009, the low point of the Great Recession.

But RV popularity isn’t only a recent phenomenon driven by economic winds. According to the RVIA, motorhome ownership has reached record levels, with more than 9 million households in the U.S. now owning an RV, the highest level ever recorded. That figure marks a 16% increase since 2001 and a 64% jump since 1980.

Marc LaBrecque has experienced the entire spectrum of that growth. He started servicing, then selling, towable RVs in 1973, at Minuteman RV in Chicopee. Today, he’s the owner of Diamond RV Center in West Hatfield, the region’s largest motorhome dealer, and a business reaping the benefits of not only a surge in sales, but growing demographic diversity among buyers.

“In 2004 or 2005, you could pinpoint the fifth-wheel buyer by age — 62 to 72,” he said, referring to a towable RV that connects to the rear axle of a pickup truck. “That’s really changed. That demographic starts now at 30 and goes to 70.”

Meanwhile, big-dollar motorhomes, the kind that don’t need towing, have become more popular with the 45- to 60-year-old demographic, when they were once dominated by older buyers.

“It’s getting much younger — probably because 20-year payments are available,” LaBrecque noted. “It’s almost like getting a mortgage on your home. You can get into a nice, new motorhome for $125,000, and that payment could be $600 or $650 a month.”

Still, he went on, “our bread and butter is still our travel trailers. You can get a nice travel trailer in the $25,000 to $35,000 range and have a payment about $250 a month — that’s affordable for many people.”

Smart Investment

That affordability has drawn growing numbers of Americans looking for a more outdoor-oriented style of vacation, and perhaps new friendships, as regular campers tend to form bonds and meet up on weekends.

“It’s a nice way to just get away from the hustle and bustle of the work week and kind of kick back and relax,” said Adams, who has owned RVs for more than 20 years.

In a Harris Interactive survey on the benefits of RV ownership, experiencing nature and outdoor activities and enjoying quality family time topped the list. Owners also said they’ve built stronger bonds with loved ones, eat healthier food on the road, and enjoy sleeping their own beds and using their own bathroom facilities.

There may be financial benefits as well. A vacation cost comparison prepared last year by PKF Consulting USA showed that a family of four can save 27% to 62% on vacation costs by traveling in an RV, even when factoring in ownership costs and fuel. For a two-person traveling party, savings are 11% to 48%.

In addition to vacation travel, RV owners use them for tailgating, travel with pets, business, and to participate in outdoor sports and other leisure activities. As for vacation time, the survey indicates that owners lean toward shorter trips closer to home — enjoying campgrounds rather using up fuel and time on the road. More than 90% of RVers take three or more mini-vacations per year, choosing from more than 16,000 campgrounds nationwide.

Chris Adams

Chris Adams says RV enthusiasts may prefer different types of vehicles, but they bond through their mutual love of camping.

For this style of vacation, fuel prices would have to nearly triple over current levels to make RV trips more expensive for a family of four than other forms of travel. “While fuel costs are a component of the overall vacation cost, fluctuations in fuel prices aren’t significant enough to affect a family’s decision of whether or not to take RV trips over other types of vacations,” said Kannan Sankaran, PKF’s lead researcher for the study.

It helps, Adams, that motorhome enthusiasts have many price points to choose from.

“It’s a large spectrum,” he told BusinessWest. “A family that’s just starting out, or that may not have a lot of money, may want to start with a pop-up camper or just get out there with a tent. It goes all the way up to people who are retiring and buying the big-dollar motorhomes with all the luxuries. There’s a huge variety all depending on where you are in life.”

LaBrecque said he started selling Newmar motorhomes — a high-end line, costing $250,000 and up — about two years ago. “We’re doing a pretty good job with the $400,000 Dutch Stars — 40- to 43-foot, diesel motorhomes with ceramic tile floors, cherry cabinets, high-end stuff. That market has come alive. It makes Diamond more of a destination point.”

RV SalesChart1115bAccording to the RVIA, manufacturers, recognizing the growing diversity of RV owners, are focused on offering products with an optimal mix of size, amenities, and price, including budget-friendly options like lightweight trailers and smaller, fuel-efficient motorhomes. Technologies such as solar panels and energy-efficient components are showing up on more models as well, to appeal to users with a bent toward going green.

LaBrecque said he’s selling more high-end models than ever to people who aren’t yet retired but are looking down the road to a luxurious mode of recreation.

“A lot of these guys have done OK in business, but were pushed into a corner” by the Great Recession, he explained. “They worked hard for the last 10 years to get through this stuff, not spending money. But now, things are OK, and they’re thinking, ‘I can afford to do this. My family suffered through the recession; let’s do it.’”

Whatever the level of luxury an RV owner prefers (or can afford), “once you get out camping with other people, you all have that in common,” Adams said, citing his own experiences with members of Pioneer Valley 8. “In our group, we treat it like a family; we all know each other. Everyone is friendly. If someone is having trouble with their motorhome, people stop and help them. We all relate to each other.”

Showtime

These days, Adams and his wife are focused on chairing the annual Camping & Outdoor Show, a year-round task that heats up as the event approaches; the couple have been spending at least 10 to 12 hours a week on coordinating all the moving parts that will draw hundreds of vehicles and thousands of enthusiasts to the Big E on Feb. 12-15.

“Everything is put on by volunteers,” he said. “It’s a lot of work. It definitely would be a lot easier if it was a job with a salary, and you could focus on if eight or hours a day. But we’re all volunteers. It’s a pretty large undertaking.”

The show’s popularity seems secure, as analysts at research firm TechNavio estimate that North American RV sales will continue to grow at more than 8% per year, on average, through 2019. With buyers in the 35-to-54 age group now the largest segment of owners, according to a University of Michigan study, industry prospects seem secure. And no one is counting out the Baby Boomers, retiring with, in many cases, large nest eggs.

“This has made our advertising so hard to do,” LaBrecque said. “In the old days, we would hit country-western stations, the NASCAR people. Now, there’s such diversity. And with fuel prices down, so many people are buying SUVs again, and they have that tow trailer.”

In short, RV sales keep rolling along.

“The good economy is just getting started,” LaBrecque told BusinessWest. “I’m hoping we’ll be on a roll for awhile.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story Luxury Living Sections
GreatHorse Moves Strongly Out of the Gate

More than three years — and $45 million — after what started off as a basic renovation of the Hampden Country Club golf course, GreatHorse has made its debut. This new name is not followed by ‘golf club’ or ‘country club,’ said President Guy Antonacci, because it is much more than the former, and is not the latter, in the traditional sense of the word. Instead, management is calling this a ‘lifestyle club,’ and say it more than meets that description.

Guy Antonacci

Guy Antonacci says GreatHorse is a “lifestyle club,” a statement backed up by the size and amenities of the clubhouse, seen here from the course.

As Guy Antonacci remembers things, it was supposed to be just a “facelift.”

That was the term he used to describe what his family, owners of USA Hauling and a number of other business ventures, intended to do with Hampden Country Club when they acquired it at auction in early 2012.

The initial plan, he told BusinessWest, was to take a club, opened in 1973 and that was, by most accounts, tired — an adjective that could be applied to the course, clubhouse, and practically every other aspect of the operation — and make it far less so.

They started with the sand traps, eventually investing more than $2 million in work to refurbish them. But as that undertaking progressed, it became clear that the work couldn’t stop there.

“This project has evolved 10 times,” he explained. “It started with bunkers and drainage, but then you realize the bunkers don’t match the grass on the greens, and they don’t match the fairways. You re-grass the greens, and then you say, ‘the greens are 40 years old; we’re putting all this money into everything else … we might as well redo the greens.

“That facelift … well, it turned into full-blown plastic surgery on the entire body,” Antonacci, the club’s president, added with a hearty laugh, noting that what happened on the course also transpired with the clubhouse, added amenities (everything from a pool to bocce courts), and a new, separate banquet facility a few hundred yards from the first tee.

Roughly $45 million later (no, that is not a misprint), GreatHorse — a name chosen in a nod to one of the family’s many entrepreneurial pursuits, a horse-breeding operation — is ready for prime time.

Well, sort of. The course is open, but work continues, specifically on a redesigned, lengthened, and toughened finishing hole. The rambling, 25,000-square-foot clubhouse, described by Antonocci, the club’s president, as “mountain rustic,” is getting some finishing touches, especially in the pool/cabana area and those aforementioned bocce courts, but is otherwise ready for members. The banquet facility is still under construction, but there have already been a number of bookings, and the first wedding is expected early next year and perhaps by the holidays.

As for those members, there are already close to 600 of them, said Antonacci, who stressed that he was counting individuals, not memberships (there are roughly 170 of those). And he’s quite proud of that distinction.

Indeed, the name Great-Horse is not followed by ‘Country Club,’ ‘Golf Club,’ or anything else, he said, and for a reason. It is not designed to be either of those, in the strictest sense of the words.

Instead it is what he called a ‘lifestyle club,’ one that is already appealing in a huge way to families.

ExteriorClubhouse“I think a big part of our early success is owed to the fact that we’re very kid-friendly,” Antonacci noted, listing facilities and activities ranging from a playground and pool to a planned kids’ movie night. “The golf-only model, or the old country-club mentality, clearly hasn’t worked in this region over the past 10 to 15 years; we’re calling ourselves a lifestyle club, and we want activities for not just the husband and wife, but everyone, right down to very young kids.”

GreatHorse, the facelift that became a full-body makeover, was designed to be different, and it has already succeeded in that mission, said Antonacci, adding that members and potential members alike recognize and appreciate the difference between this facility and more traditional clubs.

The facility is opulent, to be sure — from leather seats on the golf carts to individual wine lockers in the 160-seat dining room (there are 24 of them, and only a handful remain to be sold) — but also casual, or “comfortable,” as Antonacci put it.

That means jeans are allowed in the dining room and the men’s lounge, complete with its majestic views and mounted deer and elk heads (many of which are trophies Antonacci has bagged himself), and there is no prohibition on cell-phone use, as there is in many clubs.

“We want members to feel comfortable; we want members to feel relaxed,” he explained. “We don’t want guys to feel like they’re walking on eggshells; we want it to be an extension of your home.”

For this issue and its focus on luxury living, BusinessWest paid a visit to GreatHorse, a tour that certainly revealed why this facility with the great view is worthy of that designation ‘lifestyle club.’

Going to Great Lengths

Antonacci has some simple advice — some might call it a warning — for those looking to kick the tires on GreatHorse and see what all the fuss is about.

“If you don’t intend to join, you probably shouldn’t visit this place,” he said with a voice that blended sarcasm with a strong dose of seriousness.

The implication was clear, and those sentiments have been backed up by the club’s strong performance out of the gate. Indeed, those who do visit — and have the wherewithal to join the high-end club — are finding it difficult not to eventually sign on the dotted line, Antonacci said. “We have a very high close’ rate.”

That’s because there is much more to tempt potential members than the course, although that’s a good place to start. Other selling points include everything from massage rooms in both the men’s and women’s locker rooms to the 30-odd TVs scattered around the facility; from the view out the back of the clubhouse to the many aspects of the operation that make it family-friendly.

And it all started with that bunker-restoration project in the late spring of 2012.

Turning the clock back more than three years, Antonacci said his family, always looking for solid business opportunities, set about finding one in what most would consider an unlikely place, literally and figuratively, at that time.

The dining room in the GreatHorse clubhouse overlooks the course.

The dining room in the GreatHorse clubhouse overlooks the course.

Indeed, the golf industry, which had been thriving in the years after Tiger Woods appeared on the stage in the mid-’90s and gave the game a huge dose of adrenaline, was still suffering mightily several years after the Great Recession took a severe toll on public courses and private clubs alike.

A number of area clubs were either officially or unofficially for sale, and Antonacci said his family looked, to one extent or another, at several of them, including Hickory Ridge in Amherst and Crestview in Agawam.

The search eventually ended at Hampden, a course and a club that had certainly seen better days but had a spectacular view and what Antonacci described as “good bones.”

What was on those bones obviously needed some work, though, and it eventually came in waves, and in many respects mirrored the experiences of the homeowner who does over one aspect of a room and then realizes this necessitates other steps. And when that room is finished, the others must be made over as well.

So it was with GreatHorse.

While creating a championship golf course, the new owners decided they needed not simply a makeover of the clubhouse, but something new, big, and bold.

“Originally, we were going to fix up the banquet hall and generally leave the old building as is,” Antonacci said. “But we knew that, to do it right, we would have to get rid of the old facility, and that’s when we decided to go full steam ahead with building a new clubhouse.”

And while Guy and one of his brothers, both avid golfers, essentially presided over the course makeover, the new clubhouse was a family affair.

“Everyone got involved,” he recalled, adding that the firm given the assignment to design the clubhouse, Portsmouth, N.H.-based TMS Architects, was given some simple instructions — design something elegant and distinctive, yet also “casual.”

And by all accounts, it delivered, with a facility that includes a full fitness center, a salon, the massage rooms, and a Dale Chihuly chandelier near the front entrance.

“It’s upscale enough to charge what’s being charged,” Antonacci explained, adding that the structure looks more like it belongs in the Rockies than in Western Mass. “But it’s laid-back enough to where you can come, kick your shoes off, relax, and not have to worry about rules.”

Mane Attraction

Billy Downes remembers carrying two of those old-style (and quite heavy) leather golf bags at one time when he caddied at Hampden just after it opened.

That’s why, when it was suggested that the course, with several steep climbs, is difficult to walk, he just smiled.

Downes has a long history at Hampden. He caddied there, played out of the course, and was its pro, after an earlier stint at nearby Elmcrest, when the club went on the auction block in 2012. He told BusinessWest that the creation of GreatHorse has stimulated a great deal of interest and speculation across the region, and in some ways it has re-energized the local golf market.

“I’ve been in the golf business my whole life, and on this end (being a club pro) for the past nine or 10 years, and I’ve never seen in that time what I’m seeing here,” he said. “People come in, whether they’re from another club in this area or not, and their attitude is totally changed. They’re excited — they’re excited to play golf again, they’re excited to be here … it’s fun to see.”

And the course itself is a big reason for this enthusiasm. Redesigned by noted course designer Brian Silva, it is now easily among the best tracks in the region and is already being mentioned as a potential U.S. Open qualifying site and host of state and regional tournaments such as the Mass. Amateur.

Capable of being stretched to just over 7,300 yards, the course maintains, for the most part, its original routing, but is otherwise entirely new. That includes dramatic makeovers to the first and 10th holes, which featured blind tee shots down the mountain and were widely criticized by players.

“It’s a great test of golf for people of all ability levels,” said Downes as he offered a quick tour. “We’ve created what is sure to be a great golf experience.”

To ensure that goal is reached, the club is planning a large teaching facility, and has constructed a huge practice area and three putting greens.

The large pool area at GreatHorse

The large pool area at GreatHorse is one of many features that have made it attractive to families.

But Antonacci and GreatHorse General Manager Bryan Smithwick stressed that there is much more to this facility than the course. Indeed, the tour revealed everything from a huge outdoor patio area with five TVs to two semi-surround golf simulators, suitable for lessons and playing a host of courses virtually; from the massage areas to the so-called ‘club room,’ complete with several large TVs, which Smithwick described as an ideal setting for fantasy-league draft nights; from the huge pool area to a tennis and paddleball complex currently under construction.

Overall, the clubhouse and adjoining facilities were designed with the same philosophy as the golf course — to provide an enjoyable experience.

And everything in the package has to succeed with that goal, said Smithwick, adding that as much attention is paid to the food and wine being served as there is to the grass on the greens.

“You can have all this,” Smithwick said, gesturing to the golf course seen outside the windows of the men’s lounge, “but if the food doesn’t match, you’re not going to be successful.”

The goal is to make the club a nearly year-round operation (it will close just after the Super Bowl next February and re-open a month later for March Madness) and to become a family’s restaurant of choice.

Officially open just a few months now, the club has caught the attention of the buying public, said Antonacci, adding that the more than 170 memberships sold thus far far exceed the goals and expectations for this date.

“In the beginning, maybe six or eight months ago, we were saying that we’d be happy to get 75 or 80 memberships to start, and they’d bring their friends, and everything would catch on the second year,” he recalled. “We thought the first year was going to be extremely light, but that hasn’t been the case at all.”

And when one does the math and divides the number of members by the number of memberships, it’s clear that GreatHorse is appealing to its intended audience — families.

They hail from several surrounding communities in Massachusetts and Connecticut, and even one from Boston. Thus far, the club has relied solely on word-of-mouth referrals, said Antonacci, adding that more formal, targeted marketing is planned.

When asked about the overall goal for memberships, Antonacci said common sense will ultimately dictate a number.

“A lot will depend on activity — some people play once a month, others six days a week,” he noted. “We’ll probably cap the golf memberships at 275 to 350; once we sense that the place feels crowded, we’ll shut it down. One thing we want to avoid is a guy showing up on Saturday morning and not being able to get out for several hours.”

Antonacci didn’t get into any details on rates, offering instead to qualify the price structure. “We like to say that we offer Rolls-Royce value at Audi prices.”

Gait Attraction

Antonacci said that most of the golf publications and other types of periodicals that might review the course and the overall operation won’t do so for at least a few more months.

And those at GreatHorse want it that way.

They would prefer those writers and editors to see and experience a finished product, and, as mentioned earlier, this one isn’t quite finished.

But it’s not too early to declare this one of the more intriguing regional business stories of 2015 and a venture that, like the horses that inspired its name, will run hard and fast in a crowded field of competitors and likely emerge a big winner.

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

Luxury Living Sections
Demand for High-end, Custom Homes Grows as Economy Improves

From left, Jason Pecoy, Kent Pecoy, and Suzanne Clarke

From left, Jason Pecoy, Kent Pecoy, and Suzanne Clarke say outdoor living space has become a key component of luxury homes.

Think about a beautiful marble or tiled shower with multiple showerheads that pulse and even give off steam in a state-of-the-art bathroom that glows with warmth from a gas-burning fireplace.

Imagine a pool cabana that resembles a small but stately home and is fronted by fluted columns and floor-to-ceiling windows with a kitchen and bar inside. Or a four-season room with glass walls that open onto a gorgeous patio that extends the home’s living space into the outdoors.

These areas exist locally in luxury homes where every feature is designed to please the most discriminating buyer. The demand for them is growing, and local builders who specialize in this niche market report that they have a substantial number of projects underway or planned for the near future.

“The market is doing well, and the luxury-building market is in full recovery mode,” said Richard McCullough, president of Richard A. McCullough Inc. in Longmeadow, who finished his term as president of the Homebuilders and Remodelers Assoc. of Western Mass. “It took a while for things to improve after the recession, but it’s a different feeling today when I pick up the phone; it’s no longer surprising when someone says they have a lot and want to build a luxury home on it.”

Laplante Construction Inc. in East Longmeadow, which is known for custom-designed homes, has been busy for the past four or five years. It diversified into the remodeling industry long before the economy went into a downward spiral and has steadily built that business, said Raymond Laplante, who founded the company and does most of the design work. “We’ve been doing whole-house teardowns and rebuilds, and are putting up large contract homes today.”

But styles, as well as the size of custom-built homes, have changed dramatically in recent years, and today’s wish lists reflect a desire to save energy and utilize every square foot of space.

“Luxury doesn’t mean large,” said Kent Pecoy, president and founder of Pecoy Signature Homes and the Pecoy Companies in West Springfield. “In the past, luxury homes were usually about 7,000 square feet. Today, they are much smaller — 4,000 to 5,000 square feet — but still have the same appointments: beautiful kitchens, spacious family rooms, built-ins, custom finishes, and swimming pools.

“We’re putting a lot of emphasis on outdoor living, with covered porches, outdoor kitchens, built-in grills, and fireplaces, and are making much better use of basements,” he went on. “Some even have kitchenettes that lead outside to the pool.”

McCullough agrees. “In the ’80s, luxury homes were all about size. Bigger was better, and it was taken to the extreme. Most homes had massive, two-story foyers,” he told BusinessWest.

But that hearkens to a bygone era. Formal living rooms have become passé, and formal dining rooms are not important to most buyers.

“Space that would have been used for a living room in the past is being turned into studies or casual conversation areas,” Pecoy said. “People tell us they want space they can use every day or for more than one purpose, such as a sunroom that doubles as an eating area. As a result, what we’re building is very different than what we built five years ago, and completely different than 10 years ago.”

Lots are also much smaller and closer to workplaces. “In the past, people wanted a lot of land, but now they are happy with an acre or even a half-acre,” Pecoy said. “They don’t want to be way out in the country, so the lots they choose are closer to the center of town. They want convenient commutes; they want to be able to enjoy area restaurants and shopping without having to drive long distances to get there.”

Entertaining has become an important part of many peoples’ lifestyles, and to accommodate that, luxury homes typically have open-concept floor plans that contain a spacious, state-of-the-art kitchen, adjoining family room, and an area that opens into the backyard.

“People don’t want to waste space, so layouts are efficient,” Laplante said, adding that outdoor living plays a key role in design, and his company is building a large number of spacious cabanas, outdoor fireplaces, and kitchens.

Return to Health

The size of luxury homes has gone up and down as quickly as the economy over the past decade or two, and Pecoy said the upward spiral began after 9/11.

“People didn’t want to travel, and since they decided not to buy vacation homes and were going to stay home, they wanted bigger houses. We had built good-sized homes prior to that event, but not nearly as large as the ones that were built for a few years after.”

Richard McCullough

Richard McCullough says foam insulation and geothermal heating and cooling are popular options in newer luxury homes.

The belief that bigger was better continued until the economy tanked and homebuilding almost came to a halt. Some builders, including Pecoy, had branched out years before, so they still had plenty of work, but although that wasn’t true for everyone, McCullough said, companies with long histories didn’t despair. “Everyone in the industry who has been through this once or twice had a measured amount of optimism,” he explained. “And things are good right now, although that could change because we don’t know what could occur in this geopolitical environment.”

Still, local luxury homebuilders are busy again. McCullough is about to start his fourth home in a development he created in Somers, Conn. called Bridal Path Ridge, and is working on a large addition to a custom-built home there.

“The owners are putting on a new wing with a second family room, office, screened-in porch, pool, hot tub, and outside kitchen area,” he said, noting that he believes many people who could afford to remodel held back while the economy was in a state of flux. “A lot of money sat on the sidelines, but now it is being reintroduced into the market. The fear has faded, and builders are benefiting.”

Jason Pecoy said the demand for screened-in porches, four-season rooms, and covered patios is on the rise. “We just put a roof over a patio in Longmeadow with stone seating walls around it,” said the vice president of the Pecoy Companies and son of Kent.

Efficient use of space even extends into the bathroom, and whirlpool tubs that were rarely used have lost their appeal, while free-standing and claw-footed tubs have made a comeback. In addition, demand for oversized tile or marble showers has heated up.

McCullough said most of the luxury homes he builds today are under 4,000 square feet, and the majority of the space, or about 2,800 square feet, is on the first floor, especially if the home is being built for professionals approaching retirement age who want their master bedroom downstairs, but need bedrooms for visiting children and grandchildren upstairs.

In addition, a growing number of older adults are adding luxurious in-law apartments to their homes, then selling the homes to their children. “There is a big push for these apartments. But people want all the amenities available, and that includes an open floor plan,” Laplante said, adding that he has built in-law apartments that range in size from 1,200 to 1,600 square feet.

The second-home market is also beginning to gain strength.

“We just acquired four acre-plus lots in West Dennis across from the beach and are about to start building a 4,200-square-foot spec home there,” said Suzanne Clarke, director of sales and marketing for the Pecoy Companies. “And we just finished a 3,000-square-foot luxury home in West Dennis that has a beachy feel, with beautiful trimwork, built-in bunk beds for the children with carved seahorses, coffered ceilings, a gorgeous outdoor screened-in porch with a fireplace and TV, and a large patio.”

Attention to Detail

Although today’s luxury homes are smaller, interest in interior detail has grown.

“There is a focus on unique finishes,” McCullough said, citing a custom casing over a doorway with a crown and cap as an example, and adding that, during the course of many remodeling jobs, owners of luxury homes make the decision to change all of the trim on the first floor.

He builds many homes for professionals approaching retirement age, while Laplante has many clients with young children, who prefer a young, transitional style, which translates to elegant, custom-built moldings with simple lines, quartz countertops, and porcelain plank floors in the kitchen that look like hardwood. “They want a clean, modern look, and many choose character wood for the floors, which shows the knots and irregular grain,” he explained.

Keeping rooms off the kitchen have also become popular. “They usually have a fireplace, a small desk, and some seating. They’re small but comfortable nooks that give kids a place to study,” Laplante went on.

Richard Gale, project manager for Laplante Construction, said these rooms allow parents to converse with their children while they cook. “Sometimes we build a center island in them with desks around the perimeter. The room can be used as a place to eat or do homework.”

Raymond Laplante, left, and Richard Gale

Raymond Laplante, left, and Richard Gale say attention to detail is a critical component in the design of a new luxury home.

Advances in technology are also making their way into design, and Laplante said mudrooms often contain charging stations where children and adults can plug in all of their devices, and these areas typically have benches that double as storage areas with cubicles and shelves above them to hold books and outdoor clothing.

The playroom is another area where space is maximized. “Parents want things organized, so the rooms may have open shelves or cabinets with pullout drawers,” Gale noted.

The desire to utilize space to the fullest has even washed up in the laundry room, he added. “They’ve become a lot more complicated; they’re bigger and have more cabinetry and space to store things.”

Basements are another area used as part of the living space, and they are becoming recreation centers in new, luxury homes. Some buyers still request formal movie theaters, although builders say that trend is giving way to informal areas that contain a fireplace with a big-screen TV stationed over it.

“Game rooms are popular, and some people want spas, steam rooms, saunas, or lap pools in their basement,” Laplante told BusinessWest.

Incorporating ‘green’ building measures — particularly energy-efficient touches — is also an item on wish lists. “But for many people, it’s more about saving money than about saving the environment,” McCullough noted.

Laplante agrees, but says many of his clients want to make a contribution to the environment, and their desire is boosted by government subsidies that provide cash rebates and incentives for energy-efficient construction.

Pecoy says operating costs have become part of the conversation when people discuss the design of a luxury home.

“In 2004, even if I brought it up, no one wanted to talk about it,” he said. “But today, we’re setting up homes for solar and making sure the main body of the roof faces as much toward the south as we can.”

Foam insulation is slowly replacing fiberglass, and geothermal heating and cooling systems have become popular. “The heating systems cost two to three times more than a traditional system, but pay for themselves over a period of six to eight years,” Laplante said.

Pecoy added that people are also concerned about sustainability and where their building materials come from.

“We used to use a lot of exotic woods, such as ribbon stripe mahogany that came from rainforests,” he said. “But today, people prefer local hardwoods such as oak, ash, and maple.”

Fireplaces are still hot, but the demand for wood-burning models has gone up in smoke, being replaced with gas units that are easy to operate and don’t waste heat. “Saving energy has become ingrained in people’s minds, because no one knows where energy prices will go a year from now,” McCullough said.

Still, the warmth of a fireplace remains attractive, and Laplante’s clients are putting them in bathrooms and bedrooms and using zero-clearance models in hallways that allow them to be mounted on walls.

“They’re not all at ground level, and many look like artwork,” Gale said.

And because entertaining friends and family at home has become so popular, many luxury homes are designed with a guest bedroom and adjoining bathroom large enough to almost be called a second master suite.

Moving Forward

Although designs have changed in recent years, McCullough said, the biggest difference in the market today is people’s willingness to spend money.

“My view is that we’re on a precipitous rise. This year is much better than last,” he told BusinessWest, adding that it means work for builders, subcontractors, suppliers, and companies that make products for construction.

Laplante is building in East Longmeadow, Hatfield, South Hadley, and Southampton, as well as Connecticut. “Some of the homes are on individual lots, while others are in subdivisions. We’re also doing a lot of major renovations,” he noted. “For us, business is great.”

Pecoy said the majority of his firm’s business used to come from building luxury homes. “It has slowly picked up, and right now, it is about 40%,” he noted, adding that many existing luxury homeowners are remodeling and expanding their outdoor space.

Indeed, the list of projects his company is doing is staggering. “We have expanded our footprint, playing in a much bigger sandbox and traveling farther than we used to,” he said.

But for Pecoy and other custom homebuilders, it’s a joyous ride in a season that holds great promise.