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Horse Sense

President and CEO Gene Cassidy

President and CEO Gene Cassidy.

When people think of the Eastern States Exposition, they often think immediately of the Big E, the 17-day fair that dominates the tourism landscape at the start of each fall. But Eastern States is much more than that, as reflected by its diverse array of events, both large and small, and the resulting economic impact on the region — not to mention its important mission of keeping its agricultural heritage alive for future generations.

Fifty-two years ago, notes Greg Chiecko, a local camping group set up shop at the Eastern States Exposition — and have come back every year since.

“That was our first non-fair event. They took the building for the whole month — it took that long to set up, do their show, and move out.”

How things have changed, said Chiecko, director of Sales. The Big E, the 17-day fair that has taken place each fall for more than a century, remains the ESE’s most famous calling card. But outside the fair, the grounds hosts more than 100 events annually, some small-scale, some much larger, like the camping and outdoor show that now crams hundreds of vehicles into three large buildings each February.

One of the many horse shows at the ESE.

One of the many horse shows at the ESE.

“The dynamics have changed substantially over the past 50 years,” Chiecko said. “They’ve been doing it so long, it’s amazing. They still take a little while to move in, but they do it with such accuracy, and they literally move out of all the buildings in a day.”

A quick look at the coming month’s schedule demonstrates the range of groups that present events here. February alone offers the Amherst Railway Society’s Railroad Hobby Show, the aforementioned Springfield RV Camping and Outdoor Show, the Springfield Sportsmen’s Show, and two dog shows. March brings the Old Deerfield Spring Sampler Craft Fair, Mark’s Northeast Motorsports Expo, the Antique & Modern Firearms Show, the Maple Harvest Day & Pancake Breakfast, the AMMO Fight League, a Massachusetts 4-H Blue Ribbon Calf Sale, and the large Western Mass. Home and Garden Show — not to mention two more dog shows.

“We call ourselves the flexible facility in the heart of New England, and we truly are,” said Chiecko, who will leave the ESE next month to become president and CEO of the Outdoor Amusement Business Assoc. “And every show is different. The Big E and the Fiber Festival are the only events we produce. We’re a landlord the rest of the year. Some of these are volunteer groups, some are professional promoters, some are associations … it runs the gamut. They produce the shows, and we offer services, like ticket takers, ticket sellers, security, and more. They can use our services or use their own.”

Greg Chiecko calls the ESE “the flexible facility in the heart of New England.”

Greg Chiecko calls the ESE “the flexible facility in the heart of New England.”

Gene Cassidy, president and CEO of the Eastern States Exposition, noted that the facility also offers services like advertising, sign manufacturing, banking, and other amenities that many venues don’t have in their portfolio. The result of this flexibility and roster of services results in a high retention rate, with groups that return year after year. In addition, he noted, “some staff people have been here for 40 years. So there’s a lot of institutional memory.”

The ESE’s consumer shows — home shows, gun shows, camp shows, sport shows, and the like — tend to be among its most popular offerings, Chiecko said. “We’re also the dog-show capital of the Northeast. In 2017, we had 36,000 AKC-registered dogs on our property, just from the AKC shows, not counting other groups. Dog shows are a big deal. And we love dog shows because they come on holidays: Easter, Thanksgiving weekend, Fourth of July weekend, times of the year when it would be difficult to fill our spaces.”

“In 2017, we had 36,000 AKC-registered dogs on our property, just from the AKC shows, not counting other groups. Dog shows are a big deal.”

EASTEC, the largest manufacturing event east of the Mississippi, returns to the fairgrounds this May for its biannual visit. “Exhibitors love it, and the area restaurants and hotels do great,” Chiecko said, adding that local trade shows, from the likes of J. Polep Distribution Services and Performance Food Group, also regularly host events. Meanwhile, clients book parties and weddings at Storrowton Tavern and the Carriage House, which managed by a private firm but owned by the ESE.

That’s far from an exhaustive list, but it does lend credence to Chiecko’s “flexible facility” motto.

“I’ve been here 24 years, and I’ve never heard a “can we do it?” inquiry that I’ve had to say ‘no’ to,” he said. “The facility is so flexible, and our crew is so flexible, we can do anything.”

Animal Attraction

Despite the myriad events the ESE presents each year, its heritage remains firmly rooted in animals and agriculture.

“We do 13 horse shows outside the three we do for the fair,” Chiecko said. “We do a sheep show, youth cattle shows, and we have a big poultry show coming up next month. And this past year, we had the National Rabbit Association. We had 18,000 rabbits here.”

“The joke,” Cassidy quickly added, “was that 18,000 rabbits came, and 36,000 left.”

The attendance level varies among these events, Chiecko noted. “A lot of the horse shows tend to watch themselves rather than anything else. But the rabbit show attracted a huge population from the general public.”

The annual Western Mass. Home and Garden show

The annual Western Mass. Home and Garden show brings attendees face to face with hundreds of local businesses.

However, when it comes to most animal events, Cassidy said, “I wish there were more people engaged. It’s our job to promote the breed or species, put it out there for the public to consume, and they’re free events. The fact is, if the Big E had more days or we had more acreage, more of those shows would take place during the course of the fair so we could get as many people from the public exposed to that. But we do our best to try to promote interest in it; we believe it’s important for agriculture. It’s mission-driven; we’re not making any money on that. That’s all stuff we promote and invest heavily in.”

Still, “the more shows we can put in during the fair, the more it helps us fund our agriculture program, most of which happens outside of the fair, in the other 49 weeks of the year,” he went on. “We make it available to the public so they can have the exposure. It’s tough in this day and age, when the youth in the general population are so disassociated from agriculture, and we deal with the hardcore animal activists, the people who have serious agendas against consumption of animals, and they influence public policy to the detriment of the greater good of society.”

That has affected the national 4-H program, which gets federal funding and is being influenced by people outside of agriculture, which results in regulation making it harder for children to be involved. Meanwhile, Future Farmers of America, a private nonprofit not under federal control, is going strong, Cassidy explained, noting that, no matter the vehicle, it’s important to keep engaging young people in agriculture and animal rearing. “Those are the kids that going to feed the world in the next generation.”

It’s one of the reasons why the Big E, which continues to set attendance records, is so critical, in that it helps fund the other 49 weeks of events while driving interest in animal shows; people are more likely to check out such shows once they’ve bought a ticket and are at the fairgrounds.

“At one time, we had four or five antique shows here. The Internet has almost eliminated antique shows because people can shop from the comfort of their own living room.”

“The fair is just a fundraiser. It’s like your church bazaar, except we just happen to run 17 days and are one of the biggest in the world,” Cassidy said. “It’s a fundraiser for us to drive stewardship into our mission. I wish more people were as excited about that mission as we are. I look down the road a generation, and we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

On the other hand, Chiecko said, the consumer shows are still strong because people enjoy events that reflect their hobbies and interests. But even there, the Internet has impacted certain shows.

“At one time, we had four or five antique shows here. The Internet has almost eliminated antique shows because people can shop from the comfort of their own living room, which is really too bad, because the quality of what people get isn’t nearly the same. It’s the same with craft shows. That’s the nature of the business cycle — we’re no different than a brick-and-mortar store dealing with Amazon.”

Living the Mission

Cassidy emphasized more than once during BusinessWest’s visit that the Eastern States Exposition makes a priority of its agricultural mission. “Not everyone relates to that mission. But if we can’t support agriculture, we can’t support everything else we support – and we support a lot.”

He’s not just talking about planned events. The fairgrounds has been a staging center for emergency situations as well. Northeast Utilities set up camp and fed its crews there during the famous October 2011 snowstorm. A few months before that, the ESE’s dorms housed hundreds of people suddenly made homeless by the tornado that struck the region. “We’ve hosted large RV rallies here,” Chiecko said. “If a cattle guy breaks down on 91, they might come here.”

So there’s a community impact in addition to the economic impact to the region — more than a half-billion dollars a year, he noted, with only part of that generated by the 17-day Big E. “Year-round operations play a big role.”

He believes its impact will only grow now that MGM Springfield has opened across the river.

“I think we have a good partnership,” he said, one that extends beyond parking cars for MGM during its first week of operation last summer. “They bring large conventions to town, which utilize rooms and banquet spaces downtown — well, we have 355,000 square feet of exhibit space. We’re hoping to see more city-wide conventions. It’s a tight-knit community here.”

Dog shows have become a surprisingly robust source of bookings for the ESE.

Dog shows have become a surprisingly robust source of bookings for the ESE.

For convention goers and people who attend events at Eastern States, MGM is another activity to take in while visiting Springfield, he added, while people who come to Springfield mainly for the casino might also take in an event at the fairgrounds — and everyone benefits.

“Because of the advertising campaign MGM launched, it put Springfield on the map in a bigger way, and I think our fair benefited from that,” Cassidy said of last year’s record attendance at the Big E, which took place a few weeks after MGM opened. “My hope is that, with the synergies we’ve developed in partnership with MGM, we can help bring more commerce to the city of Springfield in the form of non-fair events: trade shows, professional shows, manufacturing shows.”

With that in mind, he keeps plugging away at that year-round mission — because, simply put, the Eastern States Exposition is more than a center for events of all kinds. It’s a critical piece of the region’s tourism and economic picture.

“If this place ever went away, the impact on our economy would be devastating,” he said.

Which is why he doesn’t intend to let the ESE go to the dogs — well, except on those weekends when it does.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Meetings & Conventions

Meeting Expectations

Rendering of the event spaces at MGM Springfield.

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

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

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

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

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

Monique Messier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Space Exploration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bottom Line

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

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

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

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

Meetings & Conventions Sections

Inspiration Point

Vitek Kruta stands in the Hub at GCA, which hosts concerts almost weekly.

Vitek Kruta stands in the Hub at GCA, which hosts concerts almost weekly.

Gateway City Arts touts itself as “a venue for events, entertainment, dining, art making, teaching, and learning.” That’s quite a mouthful, but the sprawling complex in Holyoke’s growing innovation district, beside its historic canals, has certainly become all that and more. It’s a model, co-owner Vitek Kruta says, that not only raises the profile of local artists and startups, but boosts tourism and raises the city’s economic profile.

Today, the complex known as Gateway City Arts houses artist studios, operates a restaurant, presents concerts on a regular basis, and hosts events of all kinds. But Vitek Kruta says its origins were much more humble than that.

“The whole thing started because I was looking for my studio,” said Kruta, an artist himself, who, along with business partner Lori Divine, bought the facility on Race Street in Holyoke five years ago. “We stumbled upon this space, and we loved the building. Then it took several months to negotiate to get it. Once we did, we asked, ‘now what do we do with all this space?’”

All they knew for sure was that they saw something unique in the empty warehouse along the city’s canals. Now, the facility functions as a co-working space for artists and others during the day and an event space on nights and weekends, one with a decidedly funky vibe.

Kruta and Divine were no strangers to the area arts scene. He had been involved in New City Art in Northampton, and she with the Guild Studio School in Northampton, among other roles. “We were both always interested in building community around art, providing space for artists’ classes and concerts and the interaction of all these disciplines. Now we had this huge building, so what can we do with it?”

Besides housing his own studio — he restores fine art — in the complex as planned, Kruta and Divine slowly began the process of cleaning up the building and making it available for studios and classes — and, eventually, performances, meetings, and events.

“Little by little, we had to find out how can we utilize this place and follow our dream, because we always dreamed about creating a community-based place for artists and musicians,” he explained. His daughter, a tango dancer, brought her group of dancers in house, and they volunteered to help with renovating the rooms and sanding the floors.

The restoration of a large room called the Judd Paper Hall attracted other dance and yoga groups, even while the complex’s future bistro area, where BusinessWest recently sat with Kruta, was still a dark, boarded-up storage area, with two loading docks where big trucks carried away loads of debris throughout the day. Meanwhile, the current concert venue, known as the Hub at GCA, was just a temporary stage, but was selling out shows early on.

“Now it’s growing to the point where we’re starting to attract bigger players in the game,” he noted. The next phase was renovating the upper floors — he eventually moved his studio and office up there — and making the first floor accessible for public use. “Little by little, we started to develop the second-floor cubicles, which is now the maker space.”

Those artists and makers include puppeteers, painters, costume designers, writers, jewelry makers, three nonprofits, a property-management startup, and, soon, a microbrewery. Four tenants are graduates of SPARK, Holyoke’s entrepreneurship-education and mentorship program. Gateway also houses a fully equipped woodworking shop and ceramics studio in the basement, which can be rented to whomever needs them.

The facility’s bistro

The facility’s bistro serves lunch and dinner throughout the week and a popular brunch on Sundays.

“This whole facility is about resources,” he said. “We have an instrument builder who makes guitars downstairs. There was a guy who built 500 beehives. There are small projects — if somebody just needs to come drill some holes, and they need some special piece of equipment, it’s there.”

There’s plenty of ‘there’ at Gateway, and more to come, as Kruta and Divine continue to hone their vision of the facility as a resource not only for its tenants, but for the community as a whole.

Food for Thought

A major step toward fulfilling that vision has been the creation of a fully functional commercial kitchen, which enables Gateway to prepare much more food than before, when Kruta had access only to a tiny kitchen space.

That means the events people book in one of the three large meeting areas — which include weddings, fund-raisers, concerts, bar mitzvahs, birthday parties, memorial services, and corporate trainings — now have food service to match. Meanwhile, a restaurant on the site called Gateway City Bistro serves lunch and dinner most days, and a popular brunch on Sundays.

“We realized that, when we have concerts, we need to provide some kind of food,” Kruta said, but the kitchen benefits Gateway in other ways, too. While artist tenants thrive through shared resources and networking, food-related startups can use the kitchen to develop their own enterprises — such as Holyoke Hummus Co., which started at Gateway but now has its own location on High Street.

Race Street warehouse

Vitek Kruta and Lori Divine saw plenty of potential in this Race Street warehouse that has now become a mecca for the arts, performances, and events.

The possibilities are endless, he continued, whether a startup is baking cookies, packaging spices, selling dumplings from a food truck, or launching a microbrewery. But the key word is ‘startup.’

“That’s the whole idea — this is a startup place for everybody. Once you become established or test your product or you can actually take it to the next level, you move out and find some other place.”

It’s often a small step from having a great idea to developing the prototype, he added, arguing that there’s no place quite like Gateway that provides that opportunity to such a wide range of entities.

Meanwhile, the concert venue, which obviously benefits from the expanded food service, now boasts a fully equipped stage with state-of-the-art lighting. A few steps away, an outdoor patio beer garden and grill area provides an opportunity to host events outdoors. And all of it takes place in a complex with a specific vibe that appeals to party bookers looking for something a little different. “Really, anything that you need space for, you can find here,” Kruta said.

Gateway’s many spaces have been used for fund-raisers as well, and some of the artistic endeavors are intended to reflect relavant civic concerns, such as an upcoming exhibit — timed for Black History Month — of 35 paintings by Robert Templeton, known for his presential portraits as well as his civil-rights-themed pieces, including a massive portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. that will be on display for the month. The art show will be complemented by concerts, panels, and discussions centered on social justice.

“This is a tool to move the community forward and address certain issues,” Kruta said. “It is very exciting. When you start to get a little understanding of the complexity of this place … it’s hard to explain, but anything is possible.”

Art and Parcel

Since they purchased the building that would become Gateway City Arts, Kruta and Divine have expanded their team to 20 employees. One of them, Cait Simpson, first arrived as an artist using the space, and now serves as the facility’s director of marketing.

“The environment they set up is so community-based and so devoted to the arts,” she said, “and as an artist coming to work here, you feel that, and you’re inspired to do more here.”

The connections that form among the artists are also valuable, Kruta noted, as they often help each other understand the entrepreneurial aspects of their trades and learn how to make a living selling their work. In return, the artists often take part in events that raise Gateway’s profile while also giving them valuable exposure. “We are fostering and developing these relationships that will only multiply the creative possibilities. That’s the idea of this place.”

In short, Kruta loves the energy he feels when he walks around the building.

“We love Holyoke, and that’s why we’re here,” he said. “You look around, and it’s incredible. We’re bringing 30,000 people here a year. We have concerts almost every week. People come here for a one-of-a-kind experience, and I think that’s what we’ve accomplished.”

Admittedly, plenty of area facilities offer, as Gateway does, a catering program, multiple halls people can rent for weddings and corporate meetings, and state-of-the-art sound equipment. “But we have a specific vibe here,” Kruta told BusinessWest. “We are artists, and we can afford to be quirky, and we want to be. We want people to come here and be like, ‘oh, look at those bricks.’

“That’s the reaction now,” he concluded. “There’s always this factor of ‘wow, I’ve never seen anything like this,’ and they walk away feeling inspired.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Meetings & Conventions Sections

Brick by Brick

Erin Witmer says her goal was to preserve the history of the Keystone building while creating flexible spaces that can be crafted to the mood of each event.

Erin Witmer says her goal was to preserve the history of the Keystone building while creating flexible spaces that can be crafted to the mood of each event.

It’s a different wedding photo, to be sure.

Their names are Kyle and Liz, and they’re standing, decked out in formal clothes, in front of a 110-year-old mill, with boarded-up windows on the top floor and chipped bricks at their feet. It’s a striking scene, and it’s not for everyone, Erin Witmer said.

“It is part of the charm here,” she said of the environs of the Boylston Rooms, her new event space located in the Keystone building on Pleasant Street in Easthampton, next to another notable restored mill, Eastworks. “If you’re looking for a ‘perfect,’ new kind of space, you’re probably not going to look here. We definitely have some of the charm and character of the original space.”

The engaged couples and others who book the venue for a broad variety of events, however, immediately ‘get’ it, she added.

“Last year was pretty tremendous. The first couples that booked their weddings here, they looked at it when it was just an empty warehouse space, and were able to see what it could be. And it’s been incredibly positive since then.”

Witmer and her husband bought the historic Keystone building in 2015 with the goal of opening an event space that offered something memorable and different from more traditional venues, she told BusinessWest.

“I first started in events at the Inn at Northampton, before it was the Clarion, doing banquet and event work there,” she recalled. “It was a very traditional banquet hall, and it got me thinking about what I valued in an event space and what I’d like for my own event space. I really wanted a space where people could personalize it, a blank canvas where people can bring in their own ideas and dreams and design thoughts, and could create whatever space they’d like to create. It’s a very flexible place, and you can make it whatever you want it to be.”

The venue includes two main areas — the 3,800-square-foot West Room, which can accommodate 300 seated guests or 600 standing, and can be divided into two smaller spaces; and the 2,700-square-foot East Room, with space for 200 seated or 500 standing — as well as an outdoor patio. Weddings often use all of it, with perhaps a ceremony in one of the two large rooms and a reception in the other.

Event bookers, like Kyle and Liz

Event bookers, like Kyle and Liz, appreciate the quirky photos and unique memories the Boylston Rooms provide.
West On Jade Photography

Since opening in September, Witmer said, the Boylston Rooms have hosted many weddings, with plenty of positive response from the couples and guests alike, and bookings for 2018 are pouring in even faster. “We’re super blessed interms of response from the community.”

But the space accommodates many other events as well, from the inaugural ball for Easthampton’s new mayor to a fund-raiser for the town’s Fire Department; from a TEDx talk in November to upcoming events like an awards banquet and a play reading — all of them surrounded by the original wood columns, exposed brick, and visible ductwork that gives the building, as Witmer said, its considerable charm.

History Lesson

The Keystone building traces its history to the turn of the 20th century, when the West Boylston Co., a textile manufacturer incorporated in 1814, was forced to leave its namesake town when the Wachusett reservoir, which would have completely submerged the mill site, was in its planning stages.

In 1899, the company decided to dismantle the mill brick by brick and send it by train to Easthampton, where those same bricks were used to build Eastworks in 1908, and Keystone between 1907 and 1912.

“People enjoy the sense of history here, and we tried to keep as many historical elements of the space intact,” Witmer said. “When we purchased it, this was a gigantic, empty warehouse.”

But there was plenty of potential in the hardwood floors, the floor-to-ceiling windows, and the views of the Holyoke Range outdoors. She purposely kept her restoration plan simple, from incorporation of original fixtures as much as possible to the white-centric color design, which complements whatever palette each event booker wants to incorporate.

Parties have used string lights, LED uplighting, and other touches. “And you can hang things from the beams,” Witmer said. “We had a bride who made wreaths, which are amazing. Another bride made hundreds of paper cranes, which we hung from the beams; they were really spectacular, and something I never would have thought of. People can bring in their own ideas and their own dreams for the space, and we can make it happen.”

Meanwhile, Keystone is bustling with other activity, with its east wing fully tenanted by a range of businesses, its west wing quickly approaching full capacity, and plans to develop residential units on the third floor starting this spring. “So there’s a lot happening,” she added.

So it’s a busy time in the old mill, but not so much that service suffers; Witmer likes being a hands-on partner to groups that rent the Boylston Rooms, and has a special place in her heart for weddings.

“It’s a really special day, and on a very simple level, I love being able to make people happy — even in the smallest things, from having complementary champagne to making sure the DJ is playing the music they want to hear, or that every hanging thing is perfect, or that they’ve got all their gifts in the car at the end of the night,” she explained.

“A lot of times, the bride will turn to me before coming in — ‘do I look OK?’ And I can say, ‘yes, you look beautiful, and straighten their necklace, and they go in. Those little moments are incredibly important and special.”

The Big Day

‘Special’ is what Witmer was looking for when she and her husband invested in a run-down building that has become an economic engine on Pleasant Street — and a place where people can celebrate events large and small in a space that’s anything but the same old venue. People like Kyle and Liz.

“I love being a part of somebody’s wedding day,” Witmer said. “Every time the doors open and I see a bride and her father walking in, I tear up — every single time. It’s such an important day in someone’s life, and to be a part of it is such an honor.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Meetings & Conventions Sections

Meeting Expectations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alex Dixon

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

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

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

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

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

Dates with Destiny

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gathering Momentum

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

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

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

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

MassMutual Center employees celebrate their entry into the MGM family.

MassMutual Center employees celebrate their entry into the MGM family.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conventional Thinking

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

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

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

As Dixon said, ‘welcome to the show.’

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

Meetings & Conventions Sections

Echoes from the Past

John Aubin

John Aubin says the space in Mill 1 at Open Square is modern, but also comfortable.

It’s called ‘industrial modern.’

That’s the phrase attached to a genre of interior design, one that takes cues from old factories and industrial spaces — or uses such facilities themselves — and blends them with modern fixtures and furniture to create a unique working and playing environment that blends the past with the present.

That look and feel — which John Aubin, owner, developer, and chief designer at Open Square in Holyoke, also described with the phrases ‘accessible modern’ and ‘comfortable modern’ — are becoming increasingly popular with a host of constituencies. They include people in business, and especially those involved in creative work, who find such spaces inspiring and conducive to imagination and forward thinking.

And Aubin believes this helps explain why Mill 1 at Open Square, the meeting and event space he carved out of one of oldest mill buildings in Holyoke, has become popular not only as a wedding-reception site — there are 40 to 50 of those a year — but also as a place for strategic-planning sessions and other types of corporate gatherings.

“A number of major corporations have rented this space for brainstorming,” he explained. “They’ll rent it for anywhere from one to three days, and sometimes it’s as few as 10 people. They find it a very creative space; they’ll set up whiteboards and displays, and they’ll just brainstorm.”

Indeed, over the past several years, several regional and national corporations, including Hasbro, PepsiCo, and the New York City-based global design firm IDEO, have found Mill 1, said Aubin, who put extra emphasis on the word found. That’s because there hasn’t been much, if any, direct marketing of this space to the business community, and many who have chosen it have done so after Internet searches of unique meeting facilities.

A number of major corporations have rented this space for brainstorming. They’ll rent it for anywhere from one to three days, and sometimes it’s as few as 10 people. They find it a very creative space; they’ll set up whiteboards and displays, and they’ll just brainstorm.”

Overall, the Mill 1 space, which came online roughly at this start of this decade, has shown itself to be quite versatile, hosting everything from performances of the Enchanted Circle Theatre to Common Capital’s annual meeting; from the EDC’s announcement of the new branding slogan for the region (‘Western Mass’), to induction ceremonies hosted by the Volleyball Hall of Fame, headquartered just a few blocks away. Deerfield-based Yankee Candle has even used it as a staging area for a photo shoot involving its products.

“Around this time of year, late July, they shot their Christmas catalog here,” said Maggie Bergin, communications director for Open Square Properties. “It was weird … you walked in, and there was a living room and a den; they created little scenes, and they had actors and models come in, and they’d shoot people enjoying Yankee Candle products.”

This versatility is due to the fact that the space is, in many ways, like a blank canvas to be filled in by those who rent it out for a day, or two, or for just a few hours. In fact, there is an actual blank canvas in the form of a white wall, 11 feet by 40, at one end of the room. Companies have used it to project images such as charts with sales projections, and marrying couples have used it to post pictures that tell the stories of their lives.

The International Volleyball Hall of Fame’s induction ceremonies

The International Volleyball Hall of Fame’s induction ceremonies have been one of many events and meetings staged at Mill 1.

“It’s a neutral canvas onto which people can apply their vision,” said Bergin. “Sometimes, a country-club feeling or something traditional works for businesses when it comes to conferences and social gatherings, but others want a more modern feel or something that isn’t already stamped with a particular look or feel. And I think that’s why we’ve had companies coming here for creative work with their staff.”

For this issue and its focus on meetings and conventions, BusinessWest paid a visit to the blank canvas that is Mill 1 to learn about the many ways that clients, and especially businesses, are coloring things in and thus bringing a new dimension to their corporate outings.

Weaving in Some History

When asked about the history of Mill 1 and, specifically, the space converted into a meeting and event facility, Aubin started by pointing to the floor — the one painstakingly refurbished and brought to an admired luster with the application of four coats of industrial-strength polyurethane.

“This was called the loom room; there were two holes in the floor where a belt looped through,” he explained. “And there were holes in the beam in the ceiling that held pulleys; the belts would loop up and back and connect to looms.

“There’s a loom room in Lowell that’s still active,” he went on, referring to the industrial city north and west of Boston that, like Holyoke, was a textile-manufacturing hub (paper making came later in Holyoke). “They have these massive machines with the original belts spinning; they give you earplugs, and the noise is deafening with earplugs — I don’t know how anyone could work there without them.”

The loom room at Mill 1 is quiet now, obviously, except during events, but there are echoes from the past that can be seen and felt. The brick walls, a foundation of the ‘industrial modern’ look, are obviously prevalent, and the many windows present views of today’s Holyoke, but also, and especially, its past, with mill buildings, canals, and the bridges over them coming into focus.

We chose Mill 1 at Open Square because it was a true taste of Holyoke’s history and a glimpse into what life was like back in the 1890s when Holyoke was heavy into manufacturing and volleyball just invented.”

The views at Mill 1 are a selling point, but it’s the interior space itself that draws clients, especially businesses like Pepsi and institutions like the Volleball Hall of Fame, said Aubin, adding that those two words, ‘industrial’ and ‘modern,’ coupled with the history that is so palpable, create a unique venue.

Consider these comments from George Mulry, executive director of the Volleyball Hall of Fame: “We chose Mill 1 at Open Square because it was a true taste of Holyoke’s history and a glimpse into what life was like back in the 1890s when Holyoke was heavy into manufacturing and volleyball just invented.”

This is what Aubin had in mind when he set about creating this space. Well, sort of.

The space inside what’s known as Mill 1 — then wide-open, not finished or polished — was being rented out on an occasional, informal basis, mostly for community-based endeavors and events, said Aubin. From these events, the team at Open Square saw considerable potential for a far more refined space that could host weddings and other gatherings and become an important revenue stream for the larger mill-redevelopment initiative.

Mill 1, with its ‘industrial modern’ look

Mill 1, with its ‘industrial modern’ look, has become a popular site for companies looking to do some brainstorming.

“But we knew we needed to make a considerable investment in that space,” said Aubin, adding that one was made, and it has certainly given the facility that ‘industrial modern,’ ‘blank canvas’ look and feel.

Work was undertaken including refurbished floors, new glass in the windows, construction of an accompanying kitchen, and other facilities, such as a bar (designed by Aubin) that was fashioned from cypress wood used to make a water tower that once sat atop one of the mills in the complex.

Like the bar, the Mill 1 space blends old with modern to create an environment that resonates with people, said Aubin.

“It’s modern materials and a modern look, but it’s very comfortable to be in,” he told BusinessWest. “A lot of modern stuff looks great in pictures, but then people think, ‘if I sat in there, I’d feel like I was from outer space.”

The venue has certainly become popular with marrying couples — Mill 1 made BuzzFeed’s list of the 15 best wedding venues in the country for under $3,000 in 2015 — but, as noted, the business community is finding it as well.

And, moving forward, Aubin says there are a number of factors that should inspire more corporate business.

They include affordability and the uniqueness of the space, he noted, but also Open Square’s status as a zero-net-energy venue (actually, it produces more energy than it consumes through use of hydroelectric generators), a character trait that may resonate with environmentally conscious businesses and business owners.

And then, there’s accessibility, in the form of the train service that has returned to Holyoke after being absent for several decades. The Vermonter, a north-south line, stops in the town once a day, and the city’s new train station is only a few hundred yards from Open Square.

The service is limited, although it is due to be expanded in 2018, Aubin noted, adding that the train does make Holyoke and Mill 1 more accessible to companies in the Northeast corridor, including those in New York.

“We’ve already had some companies come up to do some photo shoots — it’s much less expensive to do that here than in New York,” he explained. “And we’re hoping that the train makes it easier for people to get to us.”

Looming Large

Aubin and Bergin both noted that there are many unique spots within the broad Open Square complex for wedding photos. These include the bridges and canals, the wide-open hallways on the office floors in nearby Mill 4, the brightly painted doors on some of the mills, the stairwells in those facilities, and many more.

And not only do marrying couples and their bridal parties find all of them, but they identify new ones seemingly with every ceremony.

This is what happens when the past and the present come together in ways that inspire optimism about the future and foster determination to turn dreams into reality.

It works for couples on their proverbial big day, and, increasingly, it works for companies of all sizes trying to generate some creative thinking.

This is the power of ‘industrial modern,’ and it certainly bodes well for Mill 1 at Open Square.

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

Meetings & Conventions Sections

Betting on Opportunity

MGM Springfield

MGM Springfield, seen above in a rendering and below in its current state of early construction on Main Street, promises to attract new visitors to the region, which may benefit other hospitality venues.

casinoconstructionmainst-0117

As the most significant development in Springfield’s recent history, the MGM casino set to open in 2018 is sure to be a tantalizing attraction for meeting and convention planners. That poses a new competitive threat for the region’s many established hospitality facilities, but some of the larger players don’t see it that way. Instead, they believe the additional traffic MGM brings to Springfield will raise all boats, bringing opportunity to venues that are prepared to leverage it by doubling down on what makes them unique.

John Doleva has heard the projections of MGM Springfield drawing between 600,000 and 800,000 people to the city annually.

“I’ve often joked that if 5% of those guests get lost coming out of the parking garage, that’s 40,000 people that could end up in our parking lot instead,” said Doleva, president and CEO of the Basketball Hall of Fame, which sits just a few blocks from where MGM Springfield will open in 2018.

He was joking, of course, but was serious about the rush of expected casino-goers. “I can’t imagine an instance where it won’t be seen as a positive when that many people flock to our region,” he told BusinessWest.

“Maybe the profile of the casino customer doesn’t match up with the basketball fan or someone visiting the Hall of Fame, but there would certainly be some crossover,” he went on. “MGM will want people to stay an extra night, and maybe the Hall of Fame, as an asset in the community, would be a good reason to stay a second night. You could bring the whole family to an MGM event, and the second day come to the Hall of Fame.”

That’s how some of the big players in the region’s meeting and hospitality business choose to view the $900 million MGM project taking shape in downtown Springfield — one which, technically speaking, will compete with them for events and ohetr forms of business, but may bring opportunities as well.

One way to look at the casino is that it will be employing some 3,000 people, and many might be new to the area, and looking to take advantage of Valley attractions, said Peter Rosskothen, owner of the Log Cabin, Delaney House, and D. Hotel & Suites in Holyoke, among other properties.

“I’m hoping some of those employees leave Springfield and visit other venues around us,” he said. “There’s something to be said for the casino giving everyone a proverbial lift, and that’s what we’re hoping for — that everyone gains something.”

Mary Kay Wydra

Mary Kay Wydra says MGM will be a strong competitor for meeting and convention business, but overall a net asset to the region’s entire hospitality and tourism industry.

The MassMutual Center — the closest hospitality-sector player, geographically, to MGM Springfield — is in a different position than other entities, having recently announced a partnership with the casino. MGM Springfield and Comcast Spectacor jointly bid last spring on a five-year contract to operate the MassMutual Center, with MGM serving as the venue management company and Spectra providing food and beverage services.

The partnership creates cross-marketing opportunities for events, the coordination of job and customer-service training, more efficient purchasing of goods and services, and a broader, more coordinated presence at trade shows and conventions, the partners noted in a statement. Additionally, MGM Springfield will manage the long-term event calendar, with an eye toward leveraging its entertainment-programming experience to attract even more visitors to the MassMutual Center.

“This market has unique offerings for convention-goers and local residents alike, and the MassMutual Center should continue to be an integral part of what attracts visitors to downtown,” Michael Mathis, president and chief operating officer for MGM Springfield, said when the bid was announced.

How, exactly, that will play out — for both the MassMutual Center and other facilities that will compete directly with MGM — is still to be seen, said Nate Harris, director of Marketing at the MassMutual Center.

“But in terms of how people are feeling,” he noted, “it’s definitely a benefit to have an attraction like this. It’s another element of what Springfield can offer, in addition to the Hall of Fame, the museums, and other entities. People feel like this will bring more people to the city and bring significant economic impact to Springfield. They see it as a benefit.”

One that area meeting and banquet facility owners are keeping a keen eye on, hoping a rising tide of attention on MGM Springfield will allow them to shine as well.


List of area Meeting & Convention Facilities


Selling Uniqueness

Mary Kay Wydra, president of the Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB), is pleased to hear venue operators looking at the benefits MGM will bring to the city in terms of awareness and new business.

“From the get-go, ever since the subject of gaming was raised, we felt it was something that could benefit our industry,” she told BusinessWest. “It’s always scary when new competition comes into the marketplace, but what our members — and members of the regional tourism industry — see is a powerful brand, and what it will do in terms of bringing people here. And our hope is that they come for MGM but stay for other things, experience other attractions.”

Wydra said any convention business MGM attracts will be a net positive for the region’s hospitality industry as a whole.

“From a convention standpoint, we’re super excited about what the development will do to downtown in terms of adding to the inventory we have — 250 brand-new hotel rooms; retail, which is lacking downtown; entertainment options like bowling and movies, all right on Main Street and walkable,” she said. “That’s very exciting for us, and it enhances the package we sell as a city. These are things other areas are eager for.”

Basketball Hall of Fame President

Basketball Hall of Fame President and CEO John Doleva says MGM, which lies right across the highway, has been a “terrific neighbor” so far, and promises to boost business for many Springfield-area venues.

Doleva said the Hall of Fame is well-suited — as are the CVB and MGM itself — to attract conventions and large groups to the city, and it can be an asset to large groups that come in for special events, even for those that come specifically for the casino.

“The Hall of Fame is a unique venue, something special. It’s not just four walls, not the same old place, but a place to be inspired, to come out and have a nice dinner in a unique venue and be able to partake in the many activities in the museum,” he explained. “I don’t see that we’ll be in heavy competition with MGM for the kinds of things we do now. As for the new business coming to the community, we’ll compete for that with great food and great service.”

Rosskothen told BusinessWest that it’s difficult to predict MGM’s impact on hospitality businesses outside Springfield, noting that his company provides catering services for the Barney Estate in Forest Park but its signature facilities are located in Holyoke.

“It’s hard to know what will happen,” he went on. “I do know we’re stronger now than we’ve ever been, so the challenge for us is, how do we continue to distinguish ourselves as a unique, locally owned product? The word ‘unique’ is pretty important to us; we’re always trying to find ways to keep our product relevant.”

That said, he went on, competition drives the Log Cabin, with its sweeping, scenic views, and the Delaney House, with its attached hotel, to be better, casino or no casino.

“There’s no arguing that. To me, it’s all about the qualities we offer — the amazing locations, the incredible views, how we use those assets and continue to be as unique as we can to attract people.”

Another asset Rosskothen, and other well-established venues, can lean on is their deep roots in Western Mass., which counts for something, he said.

“I think one of the strengths of the Valley is that people are pretty passionate about local businesses, and the fact that we’re locally owned and locally operated gives us a competitive advantage against that casino,” he noted. “There’s something to be said for that in this day and age, and it’s a strength of ours.”

Mike McKenna, director of Dining & Event Services Hampshire College, had the same take regarding business at the college’s Red Barn banquet facility (see story, page 34).

“I don’t believe the casino will be a competitor for us,” he said. “We provide a uniquely different experience for our clients, and I do not see that changing after the casino opens.”

Game On

Wydra reiterated that, while attractions like Six Flags, the Hall of Fame, and Springfield Museums stand to benefit more obviously from convention bookings at MGM Springfield, other area meeting facilities should still see the development as a net positive.

“We’re very bullish on MGM and excited for them to be added to the mix here,” she said. “Those who will do well are those who are embracing it, finding ways to work with them and get the word out.”

So, while he probably can’t count on 40,000 motorists arriving at the Hall of Fame by accident, Doleva is on board with the feeling that venues that have something different to offer will continue to stand out even after MGM opens its doors in Springfield’s South End.

“Any place that has something very unique — that breaks out of the mainstream four walls, that promises a special experience — is going to do very well,” he said. “We certainly look forward to working with MGM; they’ve been terrific neighbors so far, very communicative and very supportive of the Hall of Fame. I can only see business increasing with more people coming to the city and discovering what the region has to offer.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Meetings & Conventions Sections

Rustic Retreat

 

The Red Barn’s outdoor deck

The Red Barn’s outdoor deck, overlooking the scenic grounds, is a draw for events of all kinds.

The first thing guests of the Red Barn at Hampshire College notice is that, well, they’re in a barn.

It’s what the college has done with that barn that sets the facility apart, said Mike McKenna, director of Dining & Event Services at Hampshire College.

The Red Barn has existed in some form for almost 200 years, but for most of that time, it was a simple post-and-beam structure designed to house livestock and farm equipment, with hay storage in the loft. The barn was originally built in 1820 in conjunction with Stiles House, which is now the college’s Alumni House.

The transformation from that space to what exists today began as a student project in the spring of 1971, the first year Hampshire College was open, when a group of students in the Humanities and Arts course, along with their professor, Norton Juster, undertook a design for the barn’s renovation.

“They surveyed the site and existing structure, conducted a survey of the Hampshire community to determine its preferences for use of the building, and made plans for its renovation,” McKenna said. “The students decided that the college needed a community center, and proposed to use this building to create one.”

The students found that the basic structure was sound, he explained, and the space within it appealing. “The plans attempted to maintain the character of the space, while opening it up with many large windows. In addition, plans were made for plumbing, heating, insulation, and electricity, as well as ensuring compliance with building codes.”

Several trustees, impressed with the project concept, funded its construction, McKenna noted. A professional construction supervisor was hired to work with student labor, mostly during the summers, and outside subcontractors were brought on for the utility work. The project was finally completed in 1974, establishing a multi-purpose space that has been in use by the Hampshire community ever since.

Since the renovation, the Red Barn has hosted a variety of college-sponsored meetings, events, and banquets throughout each academic year. Students frequently hold dances and concerts there, and a number of big-name acts have performed in the space. But the Red Barn is open to any group, not just Hampshire students and alumni.

What draws party and meeting planners, McKenna said, is the facility’s unique blend of old and new, rustic and high-tech. While the space has become widely known as a destination for weddings and receptions, the most recent growth has been in the realm of corporate meetings, trainings, conferences, and special events throughout the year.

“This end of our business has increased considerably since the installation of high-end audio/video equipment in 2014,” McKenna noted, adding that the Red Barn now offers full-service audio-visual support with equipment and services including wi-fi, a video projector with a drop-down screen, a built-in sound system, and videoconferencing capabilities.

For this issue’s focus on meetings and conventions, BusinessWest takes a look inside the Red Barn and explores why this building with a long, rural past is looking toward a promising future.

Business and Pleasure

It’s not all business at the Red Barn, which hosts events ranging from showers and bar and bat mitzvahs to memorials, anniversaries, and birthday parties.  The facility also hosts annual events for local nonprofits, including the Amherst Ballet, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, and the United Way.

Still, weddings (typically 65 to 70 annually) remain the Red Barn’s bread and butter, and one look around the expansive grounds — particularly a massive oak tree under which many couples have been hitched — shows why.

“We’ve seen significant growth in our wedding business in the past three years, increasing bookings by 170%,” McKenna said, before reeling off a raft of accolades: Best of Amherst Small Business 2016, Best of Weddings three years running from the Knot, Couple’s Choice 2016 and Editor’s Pick 2015 from Wedding Wire, and Best Farm-to-Table Catering 2015 from Unique Venues.

Those plaudits are no accident, McKenna said, but the result of long-term planning to create a spacious, versatile facility that draws on the past while taking advantage of technologically modern amenities.

The renovation of the early-19th-century barn, completed in 1974

The renovation of the early-19th-century barn, completed in 1974, maintained its original post-and-beam structure and floors.

The physical space features the original wide-panel flooring inside the original post-and-beam structure, with the large windows, a highlight of the 1970s remodel, offering scenic views of the Mount Holyoke Range. The back deck provides similar vistas and is ideal for barbecues, picnics, and group outings. Meanwhile, McKenna added, proximity to major highways, hotels, and bus lines offer ease of accessibility.

McKenna said the food service is another draw to the Red Barn, adopting a farm-to-table philosophy centered around local ingredients whenever possible. “We proudly support the Hampshire College Farm Center and local farmers to provide guests with the freshest products available from the Pioneer Valley.”

Notable entrees include pan-seared beef tenderloin with zinfandel balsamic or red wine demi-glaze, chicken roulade stuffed with spinach and fontina cheese, local striped bass with a fennel and apple slaw, and butternut squash ravioli. Favorite appetizers range from risotto arrancini to mini crabcakes with remoulade; from an herbed cheese, prosciutto, and asparagus roll to a Mediterranean display, featuring tabbouleh, hummus, stuffed grape leaves, assorted olives, roasted red peppers, marinated mushrooms, pita chips, and rosemary focaccia triangles.

And don’t forget the Red Barn’s signature drink, McKenna noted, known as the Barn Brew: a spiced apple cocktail with fresh pressed cider, apple liquor, and vodka, garnished with a cinnamon stick. Meanwhile, party planners can choose from several open- and cash-bar beverage options.

“Our staff works with our clients to customize menus that meet the specific needs of their guests,” he added. “Our culinary team is well-versed with preparing vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free menu items.  Menus can be as elegant or as informal as a client wishes, with plated service or buffet options for guests.”

Contemporary Touches

Whatever the event, McKenna said, the staff assists clients with the coordination of all details and on-site event management. Aiming to be a one-stop shop for event coordination, services include room setups, AV, catering, equipment rentals, linens, floral arrangements, signage, and parking. The full-service AV equipment includes complimentary wi-fi.

He noted that many of the Red Barn’s offerings reflect elements that today’s party and meeting planners are looking for — particularly versatility and flexibility in room setups and décor; a variety of table and chair options to suit the style of the event; fresh, innovative, and sustainable catering options; menu customization and dietary accommodations; easy-to-use ‘plug-and-play’ AV equipment; and attractive surroundings to provide both indoor and outdoor amenities to guests — and sets these modern trends inside a decidedly 19th-century aesthetic framework.

The result, he added, has been significant growth in not only wedding business, but in corporate bookings over the past couple of years — growth that has been enhanced by increasing corporate-meeting business across the industry over the past several years as the economy has improved.

“I believe companies are increasing the number of meetings and events they are hosting off-site, but are mindful of the overall cost of such events,” McKenna told BusinessWest. “Our staff works with the client to ensure meetings and events come within budget at the greatest value to the client.”

And it all starts with booking an event in a barn.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Meetings & Conventions Sections

Meeting Expectations

Mary Kay Wydra

Mary Kay Wydra

As news circulates concerning construction of MGM’s $950 million casino in Springfield’s South End, the region is finding itself a player in many more of the spirited competitions taking place to host meetings and conventions. That’s no coincidence, said area tourism officials, as well as those who plan such events. Because of the casino and other visible forms of progress, they note, the city is now in a different, higher bracket for such gatherings.

The planned gathering of the Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers of America — the so-called ‘Big I’ — in August 2018 certainly won’t be the biggest convention ever to come to Greater Springfield.

In fact, with 600 to 800 members of that group expected, this event will be roughly one-sixth the size of the 64th National Square Dance Convention, staged in the City of Homes in 2015. It won’t be a hugely visible group, either — again, unlike those square dancers.

Resplendent in their colorful, often handmade outfits, the dancers were easy to spot as they walked to and from various downtown venues. Dressed in civilian clothes, the insurance agents will blend in; most people visiting or working in the downtown won’t even know they’re here, unless they’re wearing nametags.

Still, the announcement that the insurance agents are coming to Springfield was a significant one for this region and its tourism industry as they enter what would have to be called the ‘casino era’ —for many reasons. They range from the list of cities Springfield beat out for the honor — tier-one stalwarts such as Atlanta, New Orleans, and Austin, as well as neighboring rival Hartford — to the comments made by those who compiled a list of finalists and eventually chose Springfield.

Indeed, consider these remarks made to BusinessWest by Jeff Etzkin, an event planner hired by the Big I to scout and then recommend sites for the 2018 show.

“The casino was definitely a factor in this decision — in fact, if it wasn’t for the casino, Springfield would not have been a consideration,” said Etzkin, president of Etzkin Events, adding that there was sentiment to bring the 2018 event to the Northeast, and Springfield emerged as the best, most reasonable option.

There was more from Etzkin. “It’s not just the casino, though,” he explained. “It really helps that Springfield is changing certain aspects of its downtown to be more amenable to events like this. It’s the restaurants, the tourist activities … the whole package.”


Go HERE for a list of Meeting & Convention Facilities in Western Mass.


And there was still more. “We looked at this as an opportunity to get there before everyone discovers Springfield and the prices go up,” said Etzkin, adding that, while there was a tinge of humor in his voice, he was dead serious with that comment.

When — and even whether — event planners really start discovering Springfield and the prices do start to rise in dramatic fashion remains to be seen. But there are some strong signs that Springfield is emerging as a more desirable destination for gatherings of various types and sizes — from jugglers to Scrabble players; rowing coaches to women Indian Motorcycle riders (all scheduled to come here over the next 24 months), and that news of the city’s progress, not just with the casino, will prompt more groups to put Springfield and this region in the mix.

“I think people are going to be giving Springfield a harder look given the fact that we’re going to have this massive new attraction right smack in the middle of downtown that’s getting a lot of press, be it the parking garage going up or the Gaming Commission coming to town, or churches being moved,” said Mary Kay Wydra, director of the Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau (GSCVB). “The press is shedding a lot of light on the city, and as these groups make decisions, many are going to be saying, ‘this is a really cool city to check out now.’”

MGM’s planned opening in the summer of 2018

MGM’s planned opening in the summer of 2018 played a key role in the decision of ‘Big I’ officials to bring their convention to Springfield.

Wydra said this region has always had — and always sold — what the bureau calls the three ‘A’s. These would be ‘affordability,’ ‘accessibility,’ and either ‘abundant attractions’ or ‘all those attractions,’ depending on who’s doing the talking. Now, it can add a ‘C’ for MGM’s $950 million casino and perhaps a ‘V’ for vibrancy.

And all those letters should put the city in a different bracket when it comes to competing for events.

“We usually compete against Des Moines or Little Rock or other third-tier cities if we’re talking about a national search,” she explained. “Now, we’re going head-to-head with Chicago and Atlanta; how great is that?”

For this issue and its focus on meetings and conventions, BusinessWest takes a look at some of those events on the books for Greater Springfield, and also at why all signs are pointing to much more of the same.

Show Time

Mike Sullivan says the International Jugglers’ Assoc. (IJA), which he currently serves as a site consultant, generally has no problem finding cities that have the various facilities and amenities it requires for its annual festival, including a large performance venue — the group prefers grand, Vaudeville-era halls, like the historic, 90-year-old Plaza Theatre in El Paso, site of this year’s festival. Likewise, it can easily find cities that would fit the broad description of ‘affordable.’

What is has long struggled with, however, is finding locales that can effectively check both boxes. But Springfield can, and that pretty much sums up why between 500 and 750 jugglers — professionals and hobbyists alike — will be descending on the City of Homes on July 18, 2018, although there is certainly more to the story.

Indeed, instead of the jugglers finding Greater Springfield, this region (and, in this case, the GSCVB) essentially found the jugglers. It did so as part of a broader effort to bring more sports-related groups and events to the area. (That initiative also explains why the U.S. Rowing Convention is coming to Springfield in December.)

As Sullivan relates the story, the IJA, as a member of the National Assoc. of Sports Commissions, posted its festival requirements to that group’s website. Sullivan also staged a webinar, during which he explained what it would take for a city to host the festival. Among those who took it in was Alicia Szenda, director of sales for the GSCVB, who quickly noted that Springfield fit the bill; she crafted a proposal that eventually became the winning bid.

But while strong outreach helped prompt the jugglers and rowing coaches to sign on the dotted line, it’s clear that more groups are discovering Greater Springfield — through referrals, hard research, news coverage, or some of those all-important local connections.

There were more than a few of the latter involved with the Big I and its decision, said Wydra, noting, in the interest of full disclosure, that Joseph Leahy, a principal with Springfield-based Leahy & Brown Insurance and Realty, is slated to be sworn in as chairman of the national organization at that 2018 convention.

But Leahy & Brown’s Allen Street address was certainly not enough by itself to tip the scales in favor of Springfield, said Etzkin, who returned to that ‘package’ he mentioned earlier, the broader Western Mass. region, one that offers attractive options for members who bring their families — and there are many of those.

Alicia Szenda

Alicia Szenda says many forms of progress in Springfield — from Union Station to new restaurants downtown — are making the city a more viable option for meetings and conventions.

Springfield’s ongoing efforts to revitalize its downtown helped bring the city into a discussion that usually involves much larger cities — including Chicago (where the convention will be held this year and next) and previous locations New Orleans, San Antonio, and Minneapolis — although smaller destinations, such as Savannah for 2019, have also been chosen.

But he made it clear that the casino was a huge factor in the decision, as evidenced by those earlier comments as well as his unique insight into the probable schedule for the casino’s opening (nothing approaching what would be considered official has been announced), which is very close to the chosen date for the start of the 2018 convention.

“There’s been talk of a soft opening and also a date for a hard opening,” he said, adding that all indications are the casino will be open when the Big I arrives on Aug. 22. “They were talking about September, but from what I understand, everything is moving along a little quicker.”

It Wasn’t a Toss-up

The casino did not play any significant role in the IJA’s decision to come to Springfield, said Sullivan, adding that, while his group was aware the city was soon to be home to such a facility and that it might be ready by the time they arrived, it did not really enter into the decision-making process.

What did, however, were some or all of those 3 ‘A’s Wydra mentioned, and especially the one that stands for affordability.

“No one gets paid to go to a juggling convention — everyone is spending their own money,” he explained. “We’re looking for very reasonable hotel-room rates, and we’re looking for rental rates on performance venues that would also be reasonable. A lot of cities that would be perfect for us, that have perfect facilities, and are very reachable by air, would also be perfect for lots of other groups, which means they’re busy, their rates are high, and we can’t afford them.

“We’re happiest when we’re in small cities where there’s a nice, small downtown with all the ingredients,” he went on, adding that, while the festival has been to large cities such Portland, Ore., Quebec City, and even Los Angeles, the IJA clearly prefers smaller communities such as Winston-Salem, N.C.

But the facilities certainly played a role in the decision, noted Sullivan, adding that Springfield Symphony Hall, similar in age and size to El Paso’s Plaza Theatre, fits the bill for the Las Vegas-style shows that are staged nightly during the festival/convention and are a big part of the gathering.

There are also seminars, open juggling 24 hours a day, competitions (attendees vie for the coveted gold medal and the accompanying $10,000 prize), and workshops, at which beginners and so-called hobbyists can learn from some of the most celebrated names in this entertainment genre.

“It would be like going to basketball camp and getting tips on your jump shot from Michael Jordan and Larry Bird,” said Sullivan, who has been attending the festival for a quarter-century now, adding that there are typically more than 100 of these workshops during the course of the event, some running several hours in length.

Wydra noted that the combination of attractive venues and affordability is a potent mix, one that, with the addition of the casino, should help Springfield turn more heads, especially those on event planners and convention schedulers looking to bring an event to the Northeast.

Both Sullivan and Etzkin said the groups they represented were definitely leaning in that direction, and as they mulled options in that geographic quadrant, Springfield emerged as an attractive option.

“We like to work the event into a location that’s convenient for people who want to attend the conference from a particular volunteer’s location,” said Etzkin, referring, in this case, to Leahy.

“Boston is a very expensive location, and Hartford, while it’s good from a flight perspective, it’s not exactly a great site for a conference,” he went on, using language that certainly bodes well for this region moving forward.

The Latest Word

Melissa Brown acknowledged that Scrabble is not exactly a spectator sport.

“It’s kind of like watching paint dry — some people will sit in on a match for a little while, but then they’ll get bored and leave,” she said, speaking, quite obviously, from experience gathered as a participant in events staged by the World Game Players Organization (WGPA).

The group will be taking its so-called Word Cup (yes, that is indeed a play on words) to Springfield in roughly 13 months, and while there won’t be many on hand at the Sheraton Springfield to watch, the competition, involving an anticipated 100 players, will be keen.

As was, in many ways, the contest for the right to stage this event, said Brown, a long-time member of that group and its current member liaison, who relocated to Wilbraham from the Midwest several years ago and was part of the team that chose Springfield to join cities such as Reno, Denver, and Phoenix (this year) as hosts for the event.

She said organizers were looking for some specific amenities — quiet spaces for the games and playing areas close to restrooms, because every minute counts (yes, players are on the clock for these games). But mostly, it was looking for a site in the Northeast as a way to help build membership there, and a location that was reasonably priced.

“We’ve had some smaller events in the Northeast, but this is the first time we’ve taken the Word Cup there,” she said, adding that she was the one who compiled the research given to those who made the final decision and chose Springfield over Detroit, Charlotte, and other contenders.

When asked what put the city over the top, she said it was a combination of factors, including everything from the cooperation of the GSCVB to the amenities at the Sheraton. “All around, it just seemed like the best option.”
It is the unofficial goal of the bureau to convince more groups to think in those terms, said Szenda, adding that a variety of forces are coming together to make this task easier.

These include more hotel rooms — new facilities have opened in Springfield and Northampton recently, pushing the number of ‘room nights,’ as they’re called, to 1,125 in Springfield and 4,000 in the region— as well as the casino and recognized progress in the region.

Together, these forces are getting Greater Springfield more looks, as they say in this business.

“The insurance group said they might not have looked at Springfield five years ago, and they’re not alone in that sentiment,” she said. “But because of what’s happening, not just with the casino, but with Union Station and the Chinese subway-car manufacturer and other things that happening, they are looking.”

Etzkin confirmed those observations, noting that, while Springfield still has a ways to go when it comes to having an A-list reputation within the galaxy of meeting and convention planners, perceptions of the city and region are certainly changing for the better.

“I was serious about getting there before the area gets too well-known and the prices go up,” he told BusinessWest. “That part of Massachusetts is beautiful, and people are going to want to go there.”

Staying Power

Despite Etzkin’s expectation that prices in Springfield may soon start to rise, Wydra believes that, for the foreseeable future, anyway, the city and region will be able to boast all three of those aforementioned ‘A’s.

And with the addition of MGM’s casino and growing vibrancy in Springfield’s downtown, the package that attracted insurance agents, jugglers, and Scrabble players should appeal to more of those who plan and stage events.

It won’t happen overnight, but it appears certain there will be, well, more overnights in the area’s future. And that means a new day is dawning for the region and its tourism and hospitality sectors.

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

Meetings & Conventions Sections

Thinking Outside the Box

Hadley Farms Meeting House
After-5 events, those ubiquitous get-togethers sponsored by area chambers of commerce, can get a little stale, Brenda Lee said.

“You go, and everyone eats, drinks, and talks a little, then everyone leaves,” said Lee, sales manager at Pioneer Valley Hotel Group, by way of explaining why one of the group’s properties, Hadley Farms Meeting House, is hosting a slightly different After-5 with the Greater Chicopee, Greater Westfield, and South Hadley & Granby chambers.

It’s called “A Networking Night in the Tropics,” and attendees on June 22 will enjoy theme-appropriate food like tropical beef empanadas, fried plantains stuffed with vegetables, coconut shrimp and Jamaican jerk chicken skewers, and mango avocado salad. The local steel-drum band Rum & Steel will be on hand to provide music.

“We’re telling everyone to wear luau attire; we’re going to make it fun,” said Lee, adding that she’s also looking to set up a beach scene with Adirondack chairs where chamber members can take photos with their tropical drinks.

It’s just one event, but it typifies how Lee and her team at Hadley Farms is trying to make a name for the three-year-old banquet and meeting spot by thinking outside the box.

Take, for example, Margarita Madness in March, sponsored by the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, which drew close to 500 people to sample local companies’ margarita creations. Or the Western Mass. Mineral, Jewelry & Fossil Show in April, sponsored by the Connecticut Valley Mineral Club.

Then there’s Hadley Farms’ second annual Taste of the Valley bridal show in September — the first drew about 200 brides, and Lee is hoping for more this year — which will feature plenty of food to sample and a diamond-sapphire ring giveaway from Northampton Jewelers; and a chili cookoff in February open to anyone who wants to bring the heat to attendees, with proceeds benefiting a local nonprofit.

One key element for bringing attention to any facility, Lee said, is to mix things up — to pepper unique and signature events into the usual mix of weddings, holiday parties, and business meetings. And that’s especially crucial for a less than three-year-old banquet hall playing in a fiercely competitive field in the Valley.

Brenda Lee

Brenda Lee says the facility’s size, flexibility, and indoor and outdoor amenities make it an ideal space for many different functions.

“The biggest thing is always thinking outside the box — what hasn’t been done?” she said. “You don’t want to oversaturate the area with the same, boring things; you want different ideas.”

Those ideas, plus an ambitious effort to market the facility in myriad ways, from wedding expos to chamber of commerce connections, is helping Hadley Farms build a name in the region, and positive memories for its clients.

Meeting a Need

Hadley Farms opened in September 2013 in the Hadley Village Barn Shops on Route 9, right next to Hampton Inn, owned by the Pioneer Valley Hotel Group (PVHG), whose other area properties include Comfort Inn in Hadley, La Quinta Inn & Suites in Springfield, and Holiday Inn Express in Ludlow.

Built on the site of a former Yankee Candle store, it was a direct response to demand for meeting space from people patronizing the Hampton Inn and other PVHG properties, Lee explained.

“They were getting multiple phone calls looking for venue space, meeting space, and we don’t have anything at Hampton. There is space at Comfort Inn, but smaller space —a meeting room for maybe 40 people. So they looked around Franklin County and Hampshire County, saw there wasn’t a big venue, and decided to build a big venue to facilitate larger events.”

Capacity, in fact, is a major draw for Hadley Farms, which features a 4,000-square-foot ballroom that can be trisected into smaller meeting spaces, in addition to a cozy lounge. If an event — say, a wedding party — wants to utilize the outdoor patio space as well, the facility can accommodate around 750 guests. “It gives us an advantage, especially when people are looking for a larger event with larger space, because there’s not a heck of a lot of that in this area.”

Hadley Farms hosts myriad types of events, including weddings, jack and jills, bridal and baby showers, engagement parties, fund-raisers, and business meetings. Clients range from big corporations like Yankee Candle and Baystate Health to small nonprofits.

One of the changes Lee suggested when she came on board was the establishment of on-site food service instead of the outside caterers being used exclusively at first. Today, about 90% of parties choose the in-house chef. “We have tesimonials come through on a daily basis about our facility, the staff, the food, and the events running smoothly.”

Hadley Farms Meeting House

Hadley Farms Meeting House boasts spaces ranging from a grand ballroom holding hundreds of people to intimate lounge areas.

Lee knows something about event planning, having been a DJ for the past 24 years — including 13 at Chez Josef in Agawam — and worked at weddings up and down the Eastern Seaboard. She amassed plenty of contacts with vendors over those years, which she calls on to help clients at Hadley Farms plan their events.

“I work with a lot of vendors when it comes to weddings — DJs, florists, photographers, officiants,” she said. “I try to help the wedding planning go smoothly.”

After all, all brides want a minimum of hassles on the way to their big day.

“Weddings need 100% of your focus,” she told BusinessWest. “They’re constantly e-mailing, asking questions, and you have to be on top of it. We have more than 30 weddings booked over the next year, so we’re starting to get known. People come in, see the venue, and think it’s beautiful. They love the facility, the big, bright windows, and the patio.”

Lee has been busy raising the facility’s profile at four regional wedding shows, and once she has a bride’s attention, she tries to craft something special for what they want to spend. Depending on the client’s budget, different reception packages range from a buffet to food stations to a formal plated dinner.

“Weddings are becoming huge here,” she went on. “We have outdoor space for them to have their ceremony, and we also have Hampton Inn, where we give the bride and groom an overnight stay, plus offer their guests room blocks at a discounted rate.”

This is also Hadley Farms’ biggest year yet for proms — Lee is already booking 2017 parties. Meanwhile, repeat business of all kinds is proving substantial. Take New England Public Radio’s vintage holiday event last December, featuring an orchestra and Sinatra-style music. “They rebooked with us again this year. We also did Rock 102’s Valentine party in February, and they’re booking with us for next year as well.”

Constant Contact

Lee says the success she and her team have had in building Hadley Farms’ roster of events is “all about communication,” which includes attending chamber events every week and keeping in contact with their members, both in person and through e-mail blasts.

Keeping the meeting rooms filled requires both flexibility and creativity. For example, since the cold months tend to be quieter when it comes to weddings, Hadley Farms is running a ‘winter wonderland’ wedding-package special from mid-December through mid-March, which offers brides amenities they would pay more for during June or July.

And to complement its growing holiday schedule, Hadley Farms will host what it’s calling a Big-Little Holiday Party on Dec. 9, a large gathering of small businesses that gives such companies the trappings of a big bash on a small budget. “We decided to put that together so small businesses that don’t have space to go for the holidays can come here and enjoy entertainment, appetizers, a nice buffet dinner, and dancing.”

Whatever the event, Lee said, “I enjoy meeting new people and creating a fun-filled event for them — just making people happy. I think that’s the biggest thing, making sure we’re there for them 24/7. If someone sends me an e-mail, I e-mail right back. If I don’t get back to them, they’re calling the next venue. So follow-up is really important, as is meeting with them several times before the event, making sure they’re getting what they want, helping them with creative ideas.”

Not that she does it herself. “We all work together as a team. I think being a DJ for so many years, helping to create so many events over the years, gave me a passion to be in charge of a banquet facility like this and create the events we have here.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]