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Nothing but Net

John Doleva, left, and Eugene Cassidy say Hooplandia could have a huge economic impact on the Greater Springfield region.

One observer referred to Hoopfest, the giant 3-on-3 basketball tournament in Spokane, Wash., as a ‘phenomenon,’ and the adjective fits. The event consumes 40 blocks in the downtown and literally takes over the city each June. Inspired, a group of organizers are looking to do something similar — although Springfield won’t be taken over — in just four months. The event is called Hooplandia, and it’s already being hailed as a slam dunk for the region.

Mark Rivers called it “an a-ha moment.’ Then he quickly amended the phrase in a poignant manner.

“It was an ‘aha/duh!’ moment.”

He was referring to his visit last summer to the giant 3-on-3 basketball tournament in downtown Spokane, Wash., called Hoopfest. And by giant, we mean giant. Indeed, it is billed as the largest event of its kind in the world, and no one doubts that claim. It annually draws more than 7,000 teams, or 28,000 participants (four people to a team on average), and total visitation for the tournament, staged the final weekend in June, approaches 200,000‚ which is roughly the city’s population.

While taking in Hoopfest and marveling at its size and the manner in which it has become synonymous with Spokane, Rivers, an event promoter by trade who has developed strong ties to both the Basketball Hall of Fame and the Big E, had that aforementioned ‘moment,’ during which he concluded that this event, or something like it, would be an even more natural fit in the birthplace of basketball.

“I was thinking, ‘why isn’t there an event like this in Springfield?’”

“I was thinking, ‘why isn’t there an event like this in Springfield?’” he recalled, adding that not only is the city home to the Hall of Fame, it’s located in the heavily populated Northeast, whereas Spokane is in decidedly rural Central Washington.

“It just seemed to make a whole lot of sense,” he went on, adding that what also made sense was to stage the event in the wide-open spaces of the Big E, which has all the needed infrastructure, and also at the Hall of Fame and its Center Court, which would be a special place to play games and act as a magnet for teams around the world.

Fast-forward eight months or so, and Hooplandia, the name chosen for this event, is moving on a fast train toward its June 26-28 debut. Such speed is attainable because of the partners involved — especially the Big E, where most of the games will be staged, and the Hall of Game, which is, indeed, proving to be a strong selling point.

Mark Rivers, seen here at a recent press event announcing Hooplandia, says the gathering has the potential to be a legacy event for the region.

“I’ve already had inquiries from teams in Russia, Belgium, Slovakia, Latvia, Poland, and Brazil,” Rivers explained. “I don’t know if we’ll get teams from all those countries, but we’ve had inquiries — a lot of these teams have expressed an interest in playing in the hometown of basketball and increasing their profile with games in the U.S.”

The goals for this first edition of Hooplandia — and specifically the one for participation (2,500 teams) — are ambitious, said Eugene Cassidy, president and CEO of the Big E, but they are also attainable — and sustainable.

“I firmly believe that, first year out of the box, we can be the second-largest 3-on-3 in the country,” said Cassidy, who experienced Hoopfest while visiting Spokane for a fair-association meeting a few years ago and had the same reaction as Rivers. “And my goal is to supersede Spokane within three to five years.”

Even if the first-year goals are met, or even approached, then Hooplandia could well wind up being one of the biggest single events (the 16-day Big E aside, obviously) the region has seen.

That becomes apparent in the projections for overall economic impact, a formula with a number of factors, including hotel stays, restaurant meals, rental cars, and many others, that Mary Kay Wydra, executive director of the Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau, describes this way:

“It’s an industry standard, and we use it for all our conventions. We populate different data fields, like the average daily rate they’ll pay, how many people are coming, how many rooms they’ll be utilizing … we put that into the calculator, and it spits out a number for us.”

However the number is derived, for this first edition of Hooplandia, the projected total is roughly $7.3 million. For some perspective, the recently staged Red Sox Winter Weekend, which brought a host of star players, past and present, fans from across the broad Red Sox nation, and a horde of media, was projected to bring in $2 million (the final numbers are still being tabulated). Meanwhile, the AHL All-Star Classic weekend, staged just over a year ago, brought in $2.8 million, according to Wydra, and the much-publicized square-dancing convention in 2015 that brought 4,000 people to Springfield for eight days brought in $2.3 million.

“I firmly believe that, first year out of the box, we can be the second-largest 3-on-3 in the country. And my goal is to supersede Spokane within three to five years.”

“This is certainly about basketball, but it’s also about economic development and tourism,” said John Doleva, president and CEO of the Hall of Fame. “It’s about filling hotel rooms and having people come to the Hall and the Seuss museum and the Armory and local restaurants … this is a multi-day event, and people will stay for the duration and perhaps longer.”

For this issue and its focus on meetings and conventions, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Hooplandia, what it can become, and what it might mean to the region.

Court of Opinion

Rivers calls it “getting the plane off the ground.”

That’s an industry phrase of sorts for launching an event of this magnitude. It’s never easy, he said, but with Hooplandia, there are a number of factors contributing to make it somewhat easier.

Especially the ability to stage this huge event at the Big E, a place — and a business — that’s well-versed in hosting large events, everything from the fair itself to a wide range of shows and competitions that fill the calendar.

To help explain, Rivers first referenced Hoopfest, which, essentially takes over downtown Spokane for three days, shutting down roughly 40 blocks in the heart of the city, a logistically difficult and expensive undertaking.

“Typically, when an event like this comes together, you do have a hard time getting the plane off the ground because your first expenses are renting port-a-potties, tents and road barricades, permits, shutting down streets, and doing all those things,” he went on. “You won’t have to do any of those at the fairgrounds, so it just seemed like a natural fit.”

Indeed, the majority of Hooplandia’s thousands of individual games will take place on the roads within the Big E’s 39 acres, although some will be played in its historic Coliseum, said Cassidy, adding that there is infrastructure in place to effectively handle the teams, spectators, media, and anyone else who descends on the area.

“We can handle large numbers of people; we have the capacity to host huge events — it’s what we do,” he said, adding that he has always viewed the Big E as an economic driver for the region — again, not just with the annual fair but all the events staged there — and Hooplandia provides another opportunity to build upon that role.

At the same time, the event provides an opportunity to further leverage basketball for the benefit of the region’s economy.

“It occurred to me that basketball should be an economic growth industry for Springfield,” he noted. “Hooplandia can help drive attendance to the Hall, drive awareness, and build the brand of basketball in the city where it was invented.”

Planning continues for the event, which, as noted earlier, has the ambitious goal of attracting 2,500 teams. And these teams will cover a broad spectrum, said all those we spoke with, adding that this will differentiate this tourney and festival from some others like it and add to its already strong drawing power.

Mark Rivers says the Big E’s vast spaces and deep infrastructure will help ‘get the plane off the ground’ when it comes to Hooplandia.

Indeed, there will be divisions for youths, high-school and college players, professionals, first responders, veterans, military, wheelchair, Special Olympics, and more, said Rivers.

There will also be an under-8, or U8, division, for which entrance fees will be waived in honor of the late Kobe Bryant, the former NBA superstar who died in a recent helicopter crash (and wore number 8 in his playing days).

In addition to the hoop tournaments, a number of other activities are on the agenda, many to take place the Friday night before the playing starts in the Coliseum, said Doleva. These include slam dunk, 3-point shot, free throw, full-court shot, dribble course, and vertical jump competitions.

To date, several partners have signed on, including Chevrolet, the first national-level sponsor, as well as USA Basketball, Springfield College, and Boys & Girls Clubs, which Hooplandia has designated as its charitable partner, offering financial support and playing opportunities for boys and girls in the region. For more information, visit www.hooplandia.com.

Overall, in the opinion of those now planning it, this is the right event at the right time, and the right city (or region), and we’ll address each of those in turn.

Actually, the first two go together. The event is 3-on-3 basketball, and the timing could not be better, because the sport — already described as the largest urban team sport in the world in one study — is enjoying a surge in popularity, said Doleva, with new leagues such as Big3, a league founded by Ice Cube featuring mostly former NBA stars.

And it will almost certainly enjoy another growth spurt after the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, where 3-on-3 basketball will make its debut as an Olympic sport.

“3-on-3 has become sort of the hot segment of the sport, and for a bunch of reasons,” said Rivers. “The Olympics is part of it, but beyond that, 3-on-3 makes the sport more accessible because you only need six players, and you only need half a court; it’s particularly hot in Europe, and many of the best teams come from former Soviet Bloc countries — that’s where a lot of the great ball is being played.”

As for the place, as Rivers and others noted, Springfield, and in this case Greater Springfield (the Big E is across the river), is a natural location.

Not only it is the home of the game and its Hall of Fame, but it’s located in the Northeast, two hours from New York, 90 minutes from Boston, and well within reach of a number of large metropolitan areas.

And, as noted, some of those great teams from Europe — and individuals from across the country — are already expressing interest in playing on what could truly be called the sport’s home court.

A Slam Dunk

This brings us back to those projections about overall economic impact. The numbers are still being crunched and there are a number of factors that go into the final projection, said Wydra, but at the moment, the number is $7 million.

That’s based on the assumption that, while many participating teams will be local, meaning they will drive to and from the Big E each day to compete, a good number — again, just how many is not yet known — will have to travel into the region and stay a few nights.

At the moment, the projected number of hotel-room nights is 1,500, said Wydra. Again, to put things in perspective, there were 840 room nights for Red Sox Winter Weekend and 4,666 for the square-dance convention, and for Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, the number varies depending on who is being inducted, but the 2019 edition had 850.

And for Hooplandia, these room nights will be coming at an important time for the region’s hospitality-related businesses, she went on, adding that the college-graduation season will have ended, but summer won’t be in highest gear.

“I love the timing — school is just out, and people have the ability to travel,” she said. “The other good thing about the June weekend is that Six Flags is up and running, and we have a lot of things for people to do when they’re not at the event. You bring people in for specific purpose, but if we can expose them to other things, we have the ability to bring them back again as a leisure visitor, and that’s very important.”

Wydra said that a now-former member of her team had a chance to observe and absorb Hoopfest first-hand — and somewhat by accident.

Coincidentally, Spokane was hosting the square-dance convention mentioned earlier the year before Springfield was scheduled to do so — and on the same weekend as Hoopfest. The GSCVB had someone on hand to observe the dance gathering and promote the following year’s edition.

But while doing so, she got a good taste of the reach — and the deep impact — of the 3-on-3 festival.

“I remember her calling in and us asking about the square-dance event, and she said, ‘the city’s been taken over by this massive basketball event, and everywhere you look there’s basketball courts, traffic’s been rerouted … it’s huge.”

It won’t be quite like that in Greater Springfield because the event will mostly take place at the Big E. But the impact will be significant, and the region — and especially its hospitality sector — will know that there are thousands of people in the area to play 3-on-3 basketball.

And organizers say it has the potential to not only reach the size of Hoopfest in terms of teams and visitation, but perhaps match it in terms of impact and providing an identity for the region — which would be saying something given what the Spokane event has become.

“Hoopfest is truly part of the culture of that community,” said Rivers. “Hoopfest is to Spokane what the Tournament of Roses is to Pasadena — it’s the fair-haired community phenomenon of that region, and it’s wonderfully done.

“With Hooplandia, I believe we have the makings of a true legacy event, something that could last for decades, much like Hoopfest,” he went on. “I think it will have meaningful, long-lasting economic impact, and I also think that, over the years, it will become a week in June that will be about more than basketball — it will be a week-long celebration of the sport.”

Cassidy agreed. While in Spokane, he saw and heard that the city referred to itself as ‘Hoop Town USA,’ and has trademarked that brand. “Quite honestly, I was offended by that,” he told BusinessWest, noting that Springfield should have that designation. With Hooplandia, hopefully it will — trademark aside.

Getting a Bounce

Returning to Spokane one last time, figuratively, anyway, Rivers described it as a “phenomenon.”

“It’s unbelievable … you can’t get a hotel room, you can’t get a rental car, you can’t get a dinner reservation,” he said. “It’s exciting, and it’s fun.”

Whether Hooplandia can approach that same kind of impact remains to be seen, but all those involved believe it has the potential to be, as they say in this sport, a slam dunk.

Or, as Rivers and others said, a legacy event for this region.

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

Meetings & Conventions

Making a Match

Mary Kay Wydra (left) and Alicia Szenda say the region’s recent momentum and new attractions have made it a stronger sell to event and convention planners.

Conventions are good business for a city like Springfield. But they don’t exist in a vacuum.

“We’ll ask if they have time for things outside their program,” said Mary Kay Wydra, president of the Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau (GSCVB). “Are they bringing spouses? Will they have time, either pre-event or post-event, to go to Yankee Candle, or Six Flags, or the Seuss museum?”

“That’s part of their convention experience as well,” added Alicia Szenda, the GSVCB’s director of Sales. “They might be at the MassMutual Center for three or four days, but they might do a couple off-site events, too. We can help them — ‘OK, do you want to do the Springfield Museums? The Hall of Fame? What is it that your group is interested in?’ Because we do want them to have a good experience and feel welcome.”

Both Wydra and Szenda share a philosophy that, while conventions and major sporting events positively impact the region during the weekend or week they’re around, they also pose an opportunity to draw convention-goers back in the future — either as a group for future events, or individually, as leisure travelers.

That’s why attracting convention business focuses not just on the venue, lodging, and amenities involved in the event itself, but on the entire region.

“Our goal is always to expose them to more of what we have to offer,” Wydra told BusinessWest. “Sometimes we whet their appetite, and they come back as a leisure visitor. That’s a goal. If we do our job right, they’ll come back again.”

And when they’re here, they’ll spend money, from hotels and restaurants to gas stations and recreation destinations, Szenda added. “We’re really lucky we have great attractions, and that’s enough to keep people entertained while they’re here and get them to come back.”

The convention and event mix in 2020 is a diverse agenda, one featuring newcomers and repeat business alike. The city recently hosted the New England Fence Assoc., which the GSCVB had been trying to bring in for years, as well as the New England Region Volleyball Assoc. (NERVA). In its sixth straight year here, the latter event filled 2,000 hotel-room nights over the course of a weekend.

The city will also host the Amateur Athletic Union volleyball super-regional in March — partly because someone who took part in the NERVA event liked what he saw from the city. “We’re hoping that becomes annual as well,” Szenda said.

Other upcoming events include the largest collegiate fencing competition in the country and a First Robotics event at the Eastern States Exposition, both in April; a gathering of the National Assoc. of Basketball Coaches in May; and Hooplandia in June. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

In all cases, Szenda said, the goal is to match what an organization needs with what a venue — and the city and region — have to offer. Take the International Jugglers’ Assoc., which convened in Springfield last year.

“This group was looking to go anywhere in the country, so we looked at their parameters and put together a proposal. They needed a convention center, two full-service hotels within walking distance, a historic theater, and a fun kind of bar atmosphere with a stage. I read that and was like, ‘that fits perfectly here,’” she recalled, noting that Symphony Hall was an ideal theater, and Theodores’ fit the bill for the bar.

Our goal is always to expose them to more of what we have to offer. Sometimes we whet their appetite, and they come back as a leisure visitor. That’s a goal. If we do our job right, they’ll come back again.”

The GSCVB will also suggest gathering options that planners might not know about — perhaps a cruise outing on the Lady Bea, or an outdoor reception at the Springfield Museums. “You can have a unique dinner event on Center Court at the Basketball Hall of Fame. Nowhere else in the world can you do that event. We try to be creative, and try to really hype the assets we have.”

Rising Interest

The GSCVB has seen an uptick in conventions in recent years, and Szenda is constantly talking with hotels, asking them to quote rates and block off a certain inventory of rooms, sometimes three years out. Then she gets to work finding the aforementioned local connections, setting up reasonably priced hotel options and assembling tourism information about the region.

The bureau also boasts a hospitality program that many similar-sized cities don’t offer, which includes everything from airport pickups and hotel greeters to downtown maps and goodie bags.

“At the end of the day, it’s about sales,” she said. “We go to trade shows, but we also get leads from locals who live around here who might be part of national associations or hobby groups or special-interest groups who want to bring the event they travel to every year here. Once we make that initial contact, the process becomes pretty streamlined. We want to get all the information we can from them — how many room nights do they need? What kind of venue do they need?”

Organizations based in New England already see Greater Springfield as a convenient location, with interstates 90 and 91 intersecting here, and they might be aware of its recreational and hospitality options. Those from far away, though, may need some convincing, and that’s what Szenda does when she attends those industry trade shows, where she may schedule appointments with up to 30 meeting planners or sporting-event organzers to talk about how this region suits their needs.

“We’re Western Mass. — we don’t have the cachet of a first-tier city, like Boston or Chicago,” Wydra said. “With national groups, a lot of times, that’s where a local person comes into play.”

For instance, the National Square Dance Convention, a national gathering of Daughters of the Nile, and a large insurance convention all landed in Springfield in recent years because a local member got the ball rolling. “I think the local tie to national groups is a really important and powerful one for us.”

One selling point is that national groups that hold conventions in the Pioneer Valley get plenty of local attention — everyone knows they’re here, and are often excited about it.

“We tell the event planner, ‘you’re going to be a big fish in a little pond,’” Wydra said, noting that Daughters of the Nile held its convention in Orlando the year before coming to Springfield. “I don’t know if the local people knew they were in Orlando. But when they came to Springfield, there was a story or photograph in our mainstream media, talking about this group, every day they were here. You kind of take over our city, our region.”

Another plus? Springfield is a different city than it was five years ago, with MGM Springfield, the Seuss museum, and ongoing Basketball Hall of Fame renovations among the recent major stories.

“I go to these trade shows, and all they want to know is what’s new,” Szenda said. “With some cities, they sit there and say, ‘we’ve got the same stuff,’ but we’ve been able to go every year and say ‘this is what’s new, this is what’s new.’”

Wydra agreed. “That makes our job so much easier and more exciting. The sell is easier when we can say we’ve added these things.”

Key Connections

‘It takes a village’ is a bit of a cliché, Wydra admitted, but in the GSCVB’s case, it really is true, especially when it comes to booking events and providing the kind of experience that will bring people back.

“It does take a village to host a group of people. Everyone’s got to work together,” she said, adding that the region is fortunate to have assets like Eastern States, a campus-like setting with plenty of parking and room for large equipment, not to mention a modern convention center in the heart of Springfield and a couple of anchor hotels downtown complemented by a growing roster of lodging options around the region.

“Anyone who lives here and belongs to a group or goes to an event they want to host, they should contact me,” Szenda said, putting that sales hat back on for a moment. “If we get the site visit, we have a better shot of landing that event.”

“We do the work for them,” Wydra added. “We try to make it as easy as possible, but those local leads are so important.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Meetings & Conventions

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]

Meetings & Conventions Sections
Smith College Conference Center Offers a Slice of Paradise

Smith College Conference CenterAddie MacDonald was offering a quick tour of the Smith College Conference Center.

He started in the front lobby and quickly moved on to the main meeting room, ticking off its various amenities — including a host of seating possibilities, state-of-the-art audio-visual systems, ample parking, and a slew of catering options — as he walked.

“And then … there’s that,” he said, gesturing out the huge windows covering one side of room.

‘That,’ of course, is Paradise Pond and the many views of it and the surrounding grounds that are perhaps the best selling point of this relatively new entry into the highly competitive local market for meetings and conventions.

Intriguing even in winter, the pond area is exceptionally beautiful in the spring and fall, said MacDonald, manager of the conference center, adding that the views — from the Paradise Room, as that aforementioned main meeting facility is called, to the deck nearby and many of the other rooms in this complex — certainly help explain why this facility has become an attractive option for groups of several sizes since it opened to the public only four years ago.

But there is more to this venue than what’s visible out the windows, or experienced up close if one chooses to venture outside during a break in the proceedings in question — which almost everyone does, said MacDonald.

There’s the location — downtown Northampton and, more specifically, the Smith campus, which boasts everything from century-old buildings to its famous botanical garden (designed by the firm headed by Frederick Law Olmstead, who also conceptualized Central Park), to the pond and its waterfall — which is something decidedly different among meeting venues. There are also the many catering options available, said MacDonald, adding that the facility’s kitchens have been used by many of the city’s renowned restaurants to prepare meals for clients.

Addie MacDonald

Addie MacDonald says the Smith College Conference Center is off to a good start because of its mix of scenery and amenities.

Addie MacDonald says the Smith College Conference Center is off to a good start because of its mix of scenery and amenities.
[/caption]Until very recently, these views and amenities could be enjoyed only by Smith faculty and invited guests. Indeed, the conference center, or at least the main building in the complex, was once the Faculty Club and then the College Club, said MacDonald, meaning it was open only to faculty and staff and was, as he put it, the “social epicenter for the academic mission of Smith.”

“For years, there is where faculty would come to wine and dine and entertain lecturers who would come from out of town, or interview potential candidates,” he explained, adding that the conference center is comprised of two buildings — the 1950s-era former Faculty Club, and a century-old building eventually acquired by the college that was believed to be the home of a buggy-whip manufacturing facility. “And this was ultimately a place where they could freely speak, exchange ideas, develop coursework, and invite other professors from local colleges.

“Over the years, it became more and more popular, and the college decided to open it up to the Northampton general public — and then well beyond,” he continued.

Mostly through word-of-mouth referrals, it quickly became the site for a wide array of functions — from weddings to corporate retreats; from holiday parties to meetings of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

“They do retreats, and once or twice a year they might meet here to discuss policy — I think they like looking at our pond because they can identify the various ducks that are coming and going from there,” MacDonald joked, referencing the fish and wildlife agency.

He told BusinessWest that Smith has become more aggressive in its marketing of the conference center in recent months, and it can certainly no longer be considered a hidden gem or best-kept secret.

It now stages more than 25 weddings a year, and the calendar, especially for those warmer months, fills up quickly.

“In many respects, this is like a classic startup business with a great infrastructure behind it,” he said of the venture. “And it’s gone well — we’ve picked up business even faster than we anticipated; the location has really attracted a number of people.”

For this issue and its focus on meetings and conventions, BusinessWest takes in the views at the Smith College Conference Center and examines why it has quickly become a venue of choice for many different types of groups.

Setting the Stage

MacDonald brings an intriguing background to his role as manager of the conference center.

Indeed, the Vermont native eventually settled in New York City, where he worked for years for the Directors Guild of America, handling a number of screenings and movie premieres in Gotham.

“It was the classic New York job in many ways — a lot of late nights and meeting many interesting people,” he explained, adding that there were several factors that motivated him to come back to New England and get this startup successfully off the ground.

The deck, with its views of Paradise Pond

The deck, with its views of Paradise Pond and the many forms of wildlife that inhabit it, has become a popular spot at the Smith College Conference Center.

“New England is in my blood, and my wife and I really knew that we wanted to find a place to settle down and find a community,” he explained. “We found all that in Northampton and Smith.”

But there are still quite a few of those late nights that he was in many ways hoping to leave behind, he went on, adding quickly that this is a good thing because it’s a clear sign that the conference center is off to a strong start in its bid to become a player in the region’s meeting and conventions market.

“We hit the ground running, because part of my charge here was to bring in new business, and people from Northampton and beyond, across Western Massachusetts, have always been eager to come to campus, utilize our facilities, and take advantage of the many resources we have here — and, quite frankly, impress their clients, because the view and this location are unparalleled.”

As MacDonald mentioned, the conference center, which was given a facelift in early 2014 — one that opened up the lobby area and gave it a new façade — is more than one room with a great view. Offering a more elaborate tour, he and Merrilyn Lewis, associate director of the Events Management Office at Smith, stopped at a number of smaller rooms that are appropriate for a number of different types of events.

There’s the Oak Room, which can accommodate 75 for a reception, 100 for theater-style seating, and 55 for a seated dinner. There’s the adjacent lounge, which can host 50 for a reception, said Lewis, adding that clients can book both rooms for a slightly larger event.

There’s also the so-called Directors Room, which can seat 15 for meetings, and Meeting Rooms B and C, which can accommodate six and 15 people, respectively. Meanwhile, the lobby and adjoining deck, which can accommodate 75 for a reception, has become a popular alternative, in part because it brings guests even closer to the beautiful surroundings and allows more of the senses to get some exercise.

“Everyone likes it out here, and it’s part of the attraction; not many venues have an outdoor location that’s this convenient,” said MacDonald as he stepped onto the deck, noting that various forms of wildlife often come into view, including some otters that recently established residence nearby and have put on some good shows for guests.

the conference center at Smith

Addie MacDonald says the conference center at Smith is much more than a room with a view.

The venue is a natural for weddings because of the facilities and surroundings, said MacDonald, adding that the center has booked several, some involving individuals, especially students, who have connections to Smith, but also many others who don’t.

And already, a number of businesses, nonprofit groups, and even government agencies have discovered the conference center, said Lewis, noting that Yankee Candle, headquartered in nearby Deerfield, has hosted a number of events there, as has Baystate Health, the Northampton School District, United Way of Hampshire County, and others. Some of those groups are based a few blocks or a few miles from the campus, but many others are headquartered in Springfield and points further south and east.

“Sometimes, when you’re staging a company retreat, it’s nice to hold it away from the office in a completely different setting, which frees up thinking,” Lewis explained. “And that sentiment has brought a lot of people here.”

And while the spring, summer, and early fall are easily the busiest months, the center books a number of corporate outings and annual meetings in the winter, and the venue has hosted a number of smaller holiday parties as well.

View to the Future

Looking ahead, the conference center’s obvious goal is to add more events to its calendar, said MacDonald, who told BusinessWest that he expects this will happen as more individuals and groups come to the facility for the first time.

This will lead to more word-of-mouth referrals, he noted, as well as repeat business — and there has already been a good amount of that.

“We’ve been very fortunate to have a number of repeat clients because of the convenience, location, and simplicity of it all,” he said, adding that a number of businesses and nonprofits have returned several times.

They obviously liked what they saw — both literally and figuratively.


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

Meetings & Conventions Sections
Entrepreneur Resurrects Chicopee’s Fabled Kielbasa Festival

kielbasa is king at the K-Fest

In the event’s revitalized form — as it was in the ’70s and ’80s — kielbasa is king at the K-Fest.

Rich Kos says it was sometime in the early ’80s; he doesn’t remember the specific year.

What he does remember is meeting the professional wrestler Ivan Putski — known then, and probably still, as the “Polish Power” and “Polish Hammer” — as he made the rounds during Chicopee’s annual Kielbasa Festival.

“He was quite the hit as he walked around the grounds — kids, and grown-ups, kept running up to him,” said Kos, who was city solicitor then, and is now in his second go-around as mayor. “That’s just one of many memories I have from the old days.”

Seemingly everyone from Chicopee has a mental photo album crammed with snapshots from the festival and those ‘old days,’ meaning the ’70s and ’80s, when the K-Fest, as it was called, would draw north of 80,000 people to the rear parking lot of the old Fairfield Mall for its annual four-day run in September.

License plates from states half a continent away would dot the parking lot, and national and even international acts, including some of polka’s greatest legends, would entertain the throngs. There were rides, attractions, and the ‘world’s largest kielbasa’ contest, with the winner weighing in at several hundred pounds.

Alas, the old days eventually became solely the stuff of memories, as the K-Fest succumbed to many ills (more on all that later) in the mid-’90s and was discontinued.

And it might have remained a part of the city’s past if Tom Kielbania Jr. didn’t set about to create some new old days more than 18 months ago.

That’s when this serial entrepreneur of sorts — he’s been involved with everything from music (as drummer for the ’80s dance band Orange Crush) to real estate — decided the K-Fest could be revived, and it could succeed as a for-profit venture, even if there was no shortage of people telling him that was flawed thinking.

“There were a lot of doubters — some people told me I was crazy,” he told BusinessWest as he recalled how he brought back the festival roughly a year ago at Szot Park. He believes more than 16,000 attended that rain-bothered event, which did well enough in his estimation to convince him that he had made the right decision.

Year two of the ‘new’ Kielbasa Festival is set for Memorial Day weekend. Kielbania is expecting perhaps 40,000 people if the weather cooperates. They’ll be treated to a wide array of entertainment, including a host of polka banks and, yes, Orange Crush. There will be a wide assortment of kielbasa, Polish food, barbecue, and other menu options, as well as rides and other attractions.

“This will be a family event, like it was all those years ago,” he said, adding that now, as it was then, the K-fest will be a celebration of Chicopee as much as it is a celebration of Polish food and traditions.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Kielbania about why and how he resurrected this event once synonymous with Chicopee, and with others about what it all means for this community.

Spicing Things Up

The ‘new’ Kielbasa Festival, or K-Fest

The ‘new’ Kielbasa Festival, or K-Fest, as it’s called locally, drew solid crowds its first year, despite some inclement weather.

Steve Jendrysik is considered Chicopee’s unofficial historian. Thus, the retired social-studies supervisor at Chicopee Comprehensive High School can easily recite the life and times of the K-Fest, and has done so in many ways, including a regular column on Chicopee history he has written for the Republican since 1998 and as a major contributor to several of the Arcadia Publishing books on the city.

He told BusinessWest that, ironically, the festival was started not by a member of the city’s large Polish population, but rather by an Irishman, Neil O’Leary.

He owned a dry-cleaning business down the street from the main entrance to Westover Air Reserve Base, said Jendrysik, adding that it was O’Leary’s idea to create a community event centered around what was arguably Chicopee’s signature product. There were several shops producing kielbasa at that time, including Chicopee Provision Co., makers of the Blue Seal label for more than a century.

He pitched the idea to the Chamber of Commerce, and it eventually became the purview of that agency’s fund-raising arms, known as the Fireball Club (a men’s group) and the Super Cs (for women).

“This was a product of that era — in the ’70s, festivals were very big,” said Jendrysik, citing Wilbraham’s Peach Festival and the myriad ‘Tastes’ that became popular in the ’80s as other examples.

The festival started small, as a larger version of an event run by St. Stanislaus’ parish, he said, but eventually gained momentum — and much larger crowds — through the participation of big-name polka bands from around the country — including Jimmy Sturr’s Orchestra, Lenny Gomulka and the Chicago Push, and others.

The K-Fest, staged the week before the Big E and often featuring many of the same rides and attractions as the fair, enjoyed a mostly healthy 20-year-run, said Jendrysik, adding that there were several factors that eventually led to its demise in 1994.

Chief among them was simply fatigue on the part of organizers, he noted, adding that this was a volunteer-led effort, and there was quite a workload. But rising insurance costs also played a part, as did a lawsuit (one that threatened to push those rates considerably higher) stemming from an altercation during the festival and near one of its parking areas.

Over the ensuing years, there were some minor efforts to resuscitate the festival and some much smaller events launched in its wake, including something known as the Festiv-All. But there were seemingly too many obstacles standing in the way of a comeback.

Enter Kielbania, who by that time was looking for a new, additional outlet for his considerable entrepreneurial energy.

Orange Crush, which started performing as an R.E.M. tribute band in 1996, was and still is immensely popular — it has played at more than 250 colleges and in more than 20 states, and a few years ago it released an original album — but music is a difficult business and, in this case, not as lucrative as it once was.

Tom Kielbania

Tom Kielbania says the K-Fest has a great legacy in Chicopee, and he fully expects that the event will return to its past glory.

A Chicopee native, Kielbana knew of the K-Fest’s history and success decades ago, and began talking with friends and people in the promotions business about turning back the clock, figuratively speaking.

As he mentioned, the idea met with skepticism from those who knew of the event, its rise and fall, and with question marks from those who understood none of the above.

“My wife is from Northfield,” he noted. “When I got the rights to the festival, I was ecstatic — I knew about all the possibilities; I knew what it could be as a business — but she didn’t get it, because she didn’t know the history.”

Music to His Ears

After several long and quite stressful months of planning — Kielbania says he lost 30 pounds while putting it all together — the inaugural version of the reinvented festival was staged the week before Memorial Day to avoid the considerable competition that dominates the summer weekends.

Attendance was roughly 12,000 paid — young children are admitted free, he said, adding that the four-day festival itself was profitable, and the year-round venture as a whole broke even, a solid performance for events of this kind.

“For a new event, usually it takes five years to become profitable,” he said. “The fact that my event was profitable in the first year … no one expected that; all my promoter friends told me I was going to lose or, at best, break even. We did way better than break even.”

He’s taken that first year’s success and the momentum it generated to create a show for 2015 that will be bigger in every respect, in large part because that first year convinced people that Kielbania was serious and, more importantly, capable of pulling off an event worthy of its name.

“I had a lot of people who didn’t think it was going to happen, and I had a lot of people who didn’t think this was going to work, because they remember the old days,” he said, adding that many didn’t believe he could properly honor the event’s legacy. “They didn’t realize that there’s new blood in the mix. We’re a different generation; we get things done, and we can get it done.”

That first year’s performance has also led to more support from some of the players in the business community — an outcome resulting in part from Kielbania’s efforts to convince business owners that, despite the event’s for-profit nature, it gives back to the community.

“This year, I’m hoping to put $20,000 back into the schools’ coffers, to the PTOs, and several nonprofits,” he said, adding that, as in those often-mentioned old days, those groups are involved with the operation of the event.

“I’m not trying to push the event or stress why people should go to it,” he said in reference to his formal and informal marketing efforts. “Instead, I’m focused on how we can benefit the city and how we can get the city to help run it, using the nonprofit organizations.”

Chicopee Savings Bank is one of those businesses that has stepped up to sponsor the event. Its president, Bill Wagner, remembers the old days, and believes Kielbania has shown that he can potentially replicate them.

“It rained for two days last year, and they still had a lot of people there — I was surprised at how well they did,” Wagner said, adding that the bank has gone to a higher sponsorship level this year. “I never thought he’d make it work, but he did, and you’ve got to give credit where credit’s due.”

Kos, who regained the corner office a few months before the 2014 event, agreed. He said Kielbania talked with him about his plans and impressed him with his resolve.

“We talked about how this was quite an endeavor, and he said he was up for it,” the mayor recalled. “He showed that he was.”

Ivan Putski will not be making an appearance at this year’s K-Fest, but there will be plenty of star power in other forms. The entertainment list includes a host of polka bands, including the Chardon Polka Band from Ohio and the Chris & Ronnie Polka Band from New Jersey, as well as many other acts, from A Ray of Elvis to a slew of tribute bands.

Meanwhile, Kielbania says he’s addressed the three main complaints from last year — lack of a dance floor, a shortage of Polish food, and not enough options when it came to kielbasa — and especially that last one.

“I have my own ‘Tour of Kielbasa’ tent, where I’m bringing in different kielbasas from Poland, Chicago, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, and lots of local guys,” he told BusinessWest. “I’m making it a kielbasa festival — I’m celebrating kielbasa.”

Food for Thought

Looking down the road, and not far down, Kielbania expects to take this business — meaning the staging of festivals and like events — to the next level.

He’s talking with a potential partner and is already mulling options for more events in Chicopee and well beyond, including a Kielbasa festival in the Berkshires and maybe another on the Cape.

At the moment, though, most of his energy is focused on bringing an end, or at least a sharp reduction, to talk about the old days and heightening attention on the present day.

And he’s already well on his way to doing just that.

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

Meetings & Conventions Sections
Great New England Air Show Set for May 16-17 at Westover

The U.S. Navy’s precision flying team, the Blue Angels

The U.S. Navy’s precision flying team, the Blue Angels, will be one of many star attractions at the Great New England Air Show later this month at Westover.

As he talked about the Great New England Air Show set for later this month, his expectations for large crowds, and even the clock that counts down the days, hours, minutes, and seconds until the show on its official website, Bud Shuback came back repeatedly to the phrase ‘pent-up demand.’

It explains quite a bit in a very succinct way, he noted, adding that there hasn’t been a major air show in this region for several years.

And by ‘major,’ he means a show featuring one of the military precision flying teams that have captivated audiences over the past several decades. Those demonstration teams were essentially grounded — at least for civilian shows such as this one — by federal budget sequestration in 2012. And there were other factors that kept such teams from performing regionally, such as a major runway reconstruction project at Barnes Municipal Airport, which has hosted an air show on even-numbered years for some time.

“We haven’t had one of those teams at Westover since 2008,” said Shuback, president of the Galaxy Community Council, which stages the Great New England Air Show, adding that the 2015 edition, which will help mark the 75th anniversary of Westover, will more than make up for lost time.

Indeed, the show will feature both the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels and the Royal Canadian Air Force’s Snowbirds, as well as a host of other acts, in addition to traveling warbirds, including a B-17 Flying Fortress and an original, World War II-era C-47 transport plane, and a number of static displays.

“We’re expecting some very large crowds if the weather cooperates,” said Shuback. “We haven’t had a show like this in a while; we have quite a lineup, and people are very excited about this show.

“The demonstration acts were halted by federal budget cuts,” he went on, “but they’re back in full force again to inspire the next generation of aviation enthusiasts — and show what the taxpayers are spending their money on.”

The Blue Angels were scheduled to be in Rhode Island in early May, said Shuback, and the group placed a call to the Great New England Air Show organizers to see if they could perform in Chicopee the following week.

That opportunity prompted organizers to move the show from its traditional late-summer date, said Shuback, adding that the May weekend comes complete with a host of challenges — there are several college graduations slated, and hotel rooms are scarce — but the opportunity to book the Blue Angels was too attractive to pass up.

The air show will officially kick off with a breakfast on May 15 at Westover that raises funds to offset the cost of the event. Expected to draw 600 to 700 people, the breakfast will feature a salute to Korean War veterans and retired Air Force Col. Charles Brown as keynote speaker. A former B-52 pilot who was a prisoner of war after being shot down in North Vietnam, Brown completed his military career at Westover, where he served as logistics group commander for the 439th Airlift Wing before his retirement.

Breakfast attendees will have the opportunity to meet some of the military and civilians scheduled to fly over the weekend and also watch arriving aircraft and practicing teams until noon. Tickets are $30, and may be purchased in advance by visiting the show’s website, www.greatnewenglandairshow.com.

Those who choose to stay at the base following the breakfast might get an intriguing preview to the main event as the planes continue to arrive. The lineup features aircraft that cover several decades of aviation history, including:

• The C-47, named “Second Chance,” which was transferred to the Royal Air Force prior to D-Day and saw action in both Operation Overlord (the Normany invasion) and Operation Market Garden in the Netherlands. Show organizers are raffling off a flight on the plane;
• The B-17, one of the later models of that famous bomber, named “Yankee Lady”;
• The B-25 bomber named “Miss Hap,” one of the oldest of the surviving medium bombers used before and during World War II; and
• Other World War II-era aircraft, including an FG-1D Corsair, a TBF Avenger, a P-51 Mustang, and others.

The performing acts include the Blue Angels, who will be making their first trip to Westover, and the Canadian Snowbirds, precision teams that perform a host of maneuvers with the jets only inches apart; the U.S. Army parachute team the Golden Knights; a demonstration of the F-22 Raptor, the U.S. Air Force’s newest fighter aircraft; a demonstration of the Canadian CF-18 fighter; the GEICO skytypers airshow team; a flight squadron of six World War II-vintage U.S. Navy SNJ trainers; and the Sean D. Tucker & Team Oracle stunt flyers; Tucker has been named one of the Living Legends of Aviation.

There will also be several planes on static display, including a B-52 Stratofortress, a C-17 Globemaster, an A-10 Thunderbolt, a C-5 Galaxy, an F-15 Eagle, a C-130 Hercules, and others.

The event is made possible by a host of sponsors who help underwrite the costs of bringing the teams and displays to Chicopee, said Shuback. The sponsors of the 2015 show include Big Y, GE Aviation, Pratt & Whitney, and a host of local companies.

Admission to the air show is free. For more information, visit www.greatnewenglandairshow.com.


— George O’Brien

Meetings & Conventions Sections
Hotel Northampton Blends Location, History, and Amenities

Mansour Ghalibaf

Mansour Ghalibaf says the key to his success at the Hotel Northampton is listening to guests and always striving to meet their needs.

The recipe for success at the Hotel Northampton, which hosts about 1,000 meetings and conventions every year, contains ingredients that are difficult to replicate.
First, there is the old-fashioned historic charm of the hotel itself, which was built in 1927 with great attention to detail and an elegant ballroom designed for formal affairs. Next is the advanced technology available to meeting planners, including state-of-the-art sound systems and audio-visual equipment.
Then there’s a third fundamental — the hotel’s location.
It is set in the heart of Northampton’s thriving downtown, which allows people who attend business retreats, meetings, and conferences to season their stay with visits to eclectic shops, restaurants, museums, and art and entertainment venues.
But perhaps the most critical ingredient is owner Mansour Ghalibaf’s belief about the importance of catering to clients and surpassing their expectations.
“Everything we do is for our guests,” said Ghalibaf, who has 33 years of experience in the hotel business, began working at Hotel Northampton in 1990, and purchased it in 2006. “We listen to our customers, and whatever they want … they get.”
That extends to unusual ethnic foods. “We have had people who are planning weddings ask for foods that are not on our menu. Our chef has gotten recipes from them, and we have prepared the food under their guidance and had them taste it to be sure we got it right,” he told BusinessWest.
He added that many people who come to the hotel to stage a social event such as a retirement party need help with the planning process. “We know it’s something people don’t do often, and we want their event to be successful, so our staff members act as consultants and advise them on what they need to do,” he said. “We want them to be happy.”
In fact, Hotel Northampton’s service and amenities have caused it to be featured in more than one edition of Yankee magazine, and the hotel and Ghalibaf have also won a number of awards.
But he doesn’t seek that type of publicity. He prefers to go about his business quietly, showing due respect to guests and conference planners whose events range from meetings that take half of a day to itineraries that last up to a week.
“Every group needs a different type of setup, and we have a lot of repeat business from groups who come here and appreciate the high quality of our food as well as the service,” he said. “We conduct a follow-up survey which is sent to all of the managers who attend a conference, then review the results. It’s important to listen to your customers, and it’s something we have done for a long time.”

Staying Power
The hotel has 6,000 square feet of meeting space for event planners to choose from, with offerings that range from the formal to the informal. There are also 196 rooms for overnight stays, which include a cottage with two suites and two large rooms.
The hotel’s insider boardroom, which Ghalibaf describes as “elegant,” is often used for meetings of 18 people or fewer, while the executive boardroom can hold up to 20.
The T.K. Room is larger and can accommodate up to 45 meeting participants, while the Northampton Room holds 50 to 55. “It has windows on three sides and is a very bright room,” he said.
The Hampshire Room holds up 80 people, but large groups often prefer to stage meetings in the ballroom, where tables and audio-visual equipment are set up according to need.
MeetingsNoHoHotelart“The hotel has a lot of the technological equipment that groups need, and we also work with a local company, so we are able to provide everything from lighting to a closed-circuit camera,” Ghalibaf noted. In addition, wireless and wired Internet access is available throughout the hotel.
Meeting planners also have their choice of two award-winning restaurants on the premises — the historic Wiggins Tavern and Coolidge Park Café, which offers seasonal outdoor dining.
But there is a wide variety of other eateries within walking distance, and the hotel’s location definitely adds to its appeal.
“Northampton is a vibrant city with theaters, restaurants, and shops with welcoming merchants, which helps to make our hotel exclusive and very unique,” said Ghalibaf, adding that many firms that host retreats for their managerial staff look for a place where they can enjoy local comedy, restaurants, and other attractions, and Hotel Northampton gives them that option. “We’ve had groups that also schedule activities such as whitewater rafting or golf; the atmosphere and number of things to do here allows participants to enjoy each other’s company and build camaraderie.”
The food is also a source of pride, and Ghalibaf said the hotel has received an untold number of letters from guests who rave about the cuisine. “Most of our ingredients are fresh. We don’t try to save money on food.”
The menu is enhanced by the fact that he is serving his second term as chair of the Mass. Restaurant Assoc., which gives him access to a variety of chefs. “The hospitality community is close-knit, and everyone helps each other,” said Ghalibaf, adding that restaurants in Northampton have borrowed food from other nearby eateries if they run out of an item. “These things all make a difference, and our guests reap the benefits.”

On Location
The Hotel Northampton was built in 1927, thanks to funding by the chamber of commerce and local businesses that felt the city needed an upscale place for guests to stay.
Three years later, entrepreneur Lewis Wiggins moved the Wiggins Restaurant from Hopkinton, N.H. to Northampton, where it was attached to the hotel’s lower level. The tavern had been built in 1786 by his grandfather, Benjamin Wiggins, and the move was tricky.
In order to accomplish it, the building had to be disassembled, then carefully reconstructed, using the carved paneling, hand-hewn beams, and stone and brick hearths brought to the site from New Hampshire.
When the restoration was complete, Lewis, who was a renowned antique collector, filled the tavern with antiques from the original building as well as others purchased throughout New England.
He continued to add to the collection, and by 1937, two staff members were assigned to mingle with guests and discuss the hotel and its antiques. Many of these pieces still grace the hallways, restaurants, and lobby of the hotel, which went through a number of owners over the years.
Ghalibaf was hired in 1990 to handle the hotel’s operations and budget, and in 2006, he purchased it with partner and hotelier Tony Murquett from the United Kingdom. Since that time, Ghalibaf has worked to improve the property and provide noteworthy service in the historic setting, which appeals to wedding planners as well as conference planners.
In fact, the hotel hosts about 75 weddings each year, and many are held in the ballroom. “Discriminating couples appreciate its atmosphere. There is nothing like it in Massachusetts — it’s very elegant and was designed for balls,” said Ghalibaf, as he talked about the room’s arched windows and historic charm.

The Hotel Northampton

The Hotel Northampton hosts about 75 weddings per year, many of them in its sumptuous ballroom.

However, he allows only one wedding a day to take place on the property. “We give the space exclusively to the bride and groom. It’s their day,” he explained, adding that the hotel works with local businesses that provide wedding cakes, photography, and horse-and-buggy rides.
Event planners also find the space attractive, and in some instances, classroom-style tables are set up for a morning or afternoon meeting. When it ends, participants are given a break, while employees, including members of the management staff, rush to replace the long tables with round ones so lunch or dinner can be enjoyed beneath the enormous crystal chandelier in the room’s unusual setting. However, some groups choose to eat in Wiggins Tavern, while others dine downtown.
“The ability to enjoy downtown Northampton also makes our hotel exclusive and very unique,” said Ghalibaf. “But the bottom line is that, if people have a good experience, they will come back.”
This pattern extends to Hollywood actors and actresses. Indeed, Ghalibaf noted an instance where word of mouth, which has increased the hotel’s business exponentially, made a difference.
It occurred when actor Michael Caine was staying at Hotel Northampton during the filming of the movie The Cider House Rules — several scenes were shot on the grounds of the former Northampton State Hospital.
“He was in our cottage for two weeks and no one knew it,” said Ghalibaf. “The staff kept it quiet, and we did a lot of work behind the scenes because we wanted to respect his time and privacy. As a result, he was able to put on a hat and sit in the café without anyone bothering him.”
When Caine returned to Hollywood, he told his peers about the experience, and later, actor Mel Gibson stayed at the hotel during the filming of Edge of Darkness.
Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman also stayed there during the first days of the filming of Malice. In addition, the Dalai Lama was a guest at the hotel in 2007 when he came to the city to speak at Smith College. Ghalibaf said his hotel stay required unusual security measures, but everything possible was done to secure his privacy. “We try our best to provide comfort and relaxation and fill every need.”

Landmark Decision
Other factors play into the success of the hotel, which is listed in the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Historic Hotels of America. They include the fact that General Manager Essie Motameni has more than 40 years of experience in the hotel business, as well as frequent upgrades to the property, such as new locks installed last month that work when a guest holds an electronically programmed card in front of the door of their room.
“We take care of our guests and all of their needs and provide 21st-century technology and convenience with the charm of yesteryear,” said Ghalibaf, recounting ingredients in the recipe that is responsible for the Hotel Northampton’s award-winning success.

Meetings & Conventions Sections
Convention & Visitors Bureau Sees Regional Potential in Casino

Mary Kay Wydra

Mary Kay Wydra says a casino will draw people to downtown Springfield, but will also boost tourism across the entire region.

Mary Kay Wydra says she understands how some tourism-based businesses might not like the idea of a major casino company setting up shop in downtown Springfield.

“We have 260 members, and not all of them are for it,” said Wydra, president of the Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau (GSCVB). “Big brands like Six Flags and Yankee Candle are very much for it, but among the smaller businesses, many of them remain concerned about what a casino will do to business.”

However, well before MGM Resorts International staked its claim with the only viable, community-supported casino proposal remaining in Western Mass., Wydra and her bureau were enthusiastically on board, choosing to focus on what MGM could do for the region’s tourism, convention, and entertainment industry, not to it.

“The Convention & Visitors Bureau has been looking at the whole gaming issue for years, watching it and seeing how things would unfold, and we were really proactive in making sure that any of the applicants being considered for Western Mass. were willing to work collaboratively with the bureau,” she told BusinessWest. “We’re thrilled that MGM is the last man standing, if you will, because we see the value of their brand coming into our region.”

The two parties recently formalized this sense of optimism by entering into a marketing partnership. Essentially, both the GSCVB and MGM Springfield have hammered out a written agreement aimed at bolstering tourism-related businesses across the Pioneer Valley.

“This is an incredibly exciting time for tourism in the Pioneer Valley,” Wydra said. “A partner with the brand recognition and resources of MGM can really help change the landscape when it comes to tourism promotion in our region. We’re delighted to have them as partners; the MGM team has been extremely professional and clearly dedicated to establishing a working relationship that is mutually beneficial. It’s going to be a powerful, productive partnership, and we’re eager to get started.”

Mike Mathis, president of MGM Springfield, was equally enthusiastic. “This is an organic partnership between entities that understand each other,” he noted. “The GSCVB drives tourism throughout the Pioneer Valley, and MGM Springfield is primed to be an anchor attraction in the region’s urban core.”

While it’s not a done deal — the state Gaming Commission is expected to approve MGM’s license this month, but casino opponents are waging a fight to overturn the state’s casino law in a November referendum — the probability of a Springfield casino has Wydra and her team excited, and MGM’s willingness to establish a partnership with the bureau is just another positive development.

Inside Out

Early in the game, the GSCVB reached out to all four casino developers that proposed detailed projects in Western Mass. However, a proposal by Penn National Gaming for Springfield’s North End died when Mayor Domenic Sarno backed MGM’s South End development, and Hard Rock International’s West Springfield proposal and Mohegan Sun’s plan for a Palmer casino were both killed in voter referendums last fall.

Wydra said she was delighted that MGM was the sole remaining player, due partly to its basic concept, which has been referred to as an ‘inside-out’ or ‘outward-facing’ casino.

Mike Mathis

Mike Mathis says MGM’s marketing partnership with the GSCVB makes sense because they share a goal of drawing visitors to the region.

As Mathis has described it countless times, a traditional casino has a couple of points of entry, and the operation is heavily driven by gaming, with other amenities, like entertainment, dining, and retail, typically buried within the facility, forcing the traffic through the casinos to get to those amenities.

The Springfield model — a smaller version of MGM’s successful City Center flagship property in Las Vegas, which is especially popular with families — puts the amenities around the gaming floor, with multiple points of entry, and will tie in neighboring venues like Symphony Hall and the MassMutual Center, so that casino visitors can enjoy the restaurants and entertainment without having to enter the actual gaming hall.

“What we like about the MGM product is that inside-out casino, and we like their brand,” Wydra said, even though she needed to learn about it first. “When I first heard MGM was coming into the market, I didn’t know they were a casino company. I thought they were an entertainment company.”

The more she learned, the more intrigued she was, and she preferred a Springfield location to a casino in Palmer. “The fact that it’s right in the heart of our service area is very appealing,” she said. “Palmer is a bit more removed and more of a trek to get there.”

But a Springfield-based casino, even one that actively tries to connect with its downtown community, isn’t an end in itself, she told BusinessWest, which is why the bureau forged a marketing agreement with MGM, in an effort to raise all boats in the local tourism industry. Included in that agreement are:

• Cross-promotion. MGM has committed to marketing efforts coordinated through the GSCVB that will identify and promote other Pioneer Valley tourism entities via on-site signage, exposure on social media, newsletter mentions, reciprocal home-page web links, and more.

“Honestly, we see a casino coming here as a way to extend people’s stay,” Wydra said. “If they’re coming for two or three days, maybe they can stay three or four, and see other things the area has to offer.”

• Additional circulation of a visitor guide. MGM will undertake the costs of printing thousands of additional copies of the bureau-produced Guide to the Pioneer Valley for placement in its hotel rooms, concierge desks, and other key locations.

“It’s a 110-page publication that lists other attractions, hotels, restaurants, and a calendar of events,” she said. “So we’ll be working with them to let their visitors know what else there is to do.”

• Enhanced marketing efforts. MGM has agreed to provide resources dedicated to promoting Springfield and the overall region through active participation on ‘TEAM Springfield,’ a cooperative convention-sales effort with the MassMutual Center.

“We meet every two to three weeks, trying to get meetings and conventions to come into the region,” Wydra explained. “I really see a tremendous benefit to bringing MGM into that equation. They dominate the convention market in Vegas; they’re attracting national conventions there based on the infrastructure they have.” Ideally, she added, TEAM Springfield could tap into that database and connect with the New England or northeast affiliates of those organizations.

Just the Start

In short, Wydra said, “we see great opportunity to co-promote and leverage their brand and marketing assets to benefit the Pioneer Valley’s entire hospitality industry, especially our many small businesses.”

Handled correctly, she added, the region should see an influx of new visitors, who will come here to do more than just gamble. And all four of the bureau’s areas of emphasis — leisure, conventions, tour operators, and sports — could share that benefit.

Take tour groups, for example. “Casinos are ideal for the group tour market, so we’re very confident we can sell MGM to that market.” As for sports, casinos often host billiards and darts tournaments, boxing matches, and other competitions.

The partnership agreement — which was hatched out in a series of meetings between MGM Springfield officials and the GSCVB’s gaming subcommittee — will take effect one year prior to the casino’s formal opening, and lays out only the bare bones of marketing possibilities, said Wydra, who said the parties will also consider some kind of regional shuttle service between attractions if they see potential in such an effort.

“Really, the agreement we put in place is the minimum,” she told BusinessWest. “As we start working together and determine the demand and demographics coming in, new opportunities will unfold.”

Some of those opportunities may be difficult to predict now; dropping an $800 million development onto 14.5 acres in downtown Springfield will certainly open some unexpected doors. And Wydra is confident that the entire Pioneer Valley will benefit from opening them.

“From the meetings I’ve had with them, I know they’re savvy professionals and dedicated people, and we’re looking forward to having the opportunity to work closely with them,” she said.

While it’s natural for some tourism businesses to be anxious about the project, she said, the bureau has long looked at it simply as a new attraction — albeit a significant one. She sees MGM as much more than that now, thanks to its cross-promotion potential and national convention clout.

“A lot of people, when this thing didn’t move through the Statehouse quickly, got negative about it,” she added. “But I think the legislators did a great job creating the legislation, and this will work for all businesses in the region, encouraging the casinos to have deals with other entertainment venues.”

Those connections are critical, Wydra said, if a region wants a casino to be a regional tourism engine, and not just a gaming island to itself.

“I presented at a Mass. Gaming Commission meeting when there were still three applicants in the Western Mass. area,” she said. “While all that was getting figured out — the host community agreements, the referendum questions — we were also talking to the Gaming Commission make sure tourism was a priority when they were evaluating all the proposals.”

Even then, she liked what she was hearing from MGM. “We know tourism is important to this developer. And we really do believe they’re going to reach into the community and the whole region.”

Joseph Bednar may be reached at [email protected]

Meetings & Conventions Sections
Sheraton Springfield Excels at Helping Groups Get Down to Business

Ernie Taddei, left, and Paul Marcelina

Ernie Taddei, left, and Paul Marcelina say business travelers appreciate the 18,000-square-foot 4 Fitness Health Club at the Sheraton Springfield.

The Sheraton Springfield Monarch Place Hotel is the largest hotel in the area, with 325 rooms. It has recently undergone more than $7 million in renovations and features unusual architecture and amenities, which include a 12-story atrium, two restaurants, and 24 areas where meetings or conventions can be held.

But general manager Paul Marcelina says that what sets its apart from its competitors is the fact that every hotel associate is steeped in the “five human truths,” which allow them to meet the basic emotional needs that all human beings share.

“Our goal is to create an emotional connection with our guests. We all want to belong, feel special, be understood, reach our fullest potential, and be in control,” said Marcelina, citing the results of a study conducted by Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide in 2009 that changed the hotel’s culture.

“We consider ourselves to be friends of our guests, which is reflected back to us every day in our guest-comment cards. Every guest and every trip is different, and we are aware of the needs and time constraints of weekday business travelers as well as the needs of social travelers here on weekends,” he added.

Although the hotel has its share of tourists, about 60% of its annual revenue comes from business groups, whose members travel from throughout New England and beyond. “We’re the largest hotel west of Boston, north of New Haven, and south of Montreal,” said Peter Picknelly, president of Monarch Enterprises and owner of the Sheraton Springfield.

The hotel is part of the Monarch Place complex, which includes a 25-story tower that contains 400,000 square feet of office space as well as a parking garage for 200 vehicles. “It adds to our appeal,” said Ernie Taddei, regional director of sales and marketing for the hotel, explaining that many business travelers who stay at the Sheraton have meetings scheduled in Monarch Place.

But there are other features that make the hotel a sought-after location for business gatherings. “We have 30,000 square feet of meeting space, and everything a business needs is under one roof, which is difficult to find outside of Boston or New York City,” Marcelina said. “We know we are competing with hotels in Hartford, Boston, and Philadelphia, so we spend time figuring out how to attract businesses to Springfield and this hotel.”

He told BusinessWest that meetings can be held concurrently in spaces that can accommodate from two to 1,000 people, or 100 8×10 pipe-and-drape booths. In addition, the Grand Ballroom can serve dinner to 1,000 people at one time, while cocktail hours for up to 2,100 people can be held on the first three floors of the atrium.

Other perks include state-of-the-art audio-visual equipment, as well as LCD projectors and specialty AV items available from hotel vendors. “Our vendors stay on the property during the entire convention, to make sure everything is done correctly,” Taddei said, adding that the hotel’s recently upgraded sound system “allows people to hear perfectly from one end of a convention space to the other.”

The Sheraton has also developed close relationships with many local attractions, which allows guests to purchase discounted tickets to basketball games or other events, and Taddei said these tickets are often made available to people staying there for several nights.

“It’s not just about the rate and meeting room, it’s about what we can do to make a stay more enjoyable,” he said. “We don’t want our guests to be bored.”

In addition, the hotel’s full banquet kitchen allows event planners to customize menus and match the décor of the dining room to a chosen theme. Food offerings are also frequently expanded, and hotel salespeople sample dishes on the menu and provide input. For example, after a recent sampling of hors d’oeuvres created for a wedding party, officials decided to offer them to business groups.

The Sheraton, which averages about 200,000 guests per year, has also made major upgrades to its Internet technology, which allows guests to operate several devices at the same time in their rooms. There is also ‘the Link,’ an area found in all Sheraton hotels that offers guests computer use and a copier and printer at no cost in a comfortable setting.

Staying Power

Bartender Carmine Capuano

Bartender Carmine Capuano says cocktail hours for up to 2,100 guests can be held on the first three floors of the Sheraton Springfield’s atrium.

Marcelina said there have been a number of renovations completed at the Sheraton over the past few years. Upgrades include new furniture, wall coverings, artwork, carpeting, drapery, bathrooms, lighting, and sound systems.

But due to its architectural design, changing the environment was no easy feat.

“Our atrium is visible from all floors, and it was very challenging to complete the renovations without bothering our guests,” Marcelina said, explaining that scaffolding had to be built from the second to 12th floors.

But today, people delight in looking up to the top of the glass ceiling or down to the lower floors, depending on where their room is located. The view is enhanced by special lighting along the outer wall of every floor, which is programmed to change colors every few seconds.

“It’s a special visual effect, and large conventions or parties can select colors that match the theme of their convention,” Taddei said. “Lighting is important, and we can also splash colors on the ballroom floor to match a business’ taste, which is nice for a company meeting and also nice for social functions such as a wedding.”

Another bonus is the hotel’s 18,000-square-foot 4 Fitness health center. “It’s the largest hotel health center in Massachusetts and has state-of-the-art equipment, a sauna, racquetball courts, and spinning classes,” Taddei said.

A large swimming pool beneath a domed glass ceiling and adjacent outdoor sunbathing area add to the appeal, and as a result, the hotel also caters to annual meetings and events held by religious groups, sports groups, youth groups, and other groups that often take part in competitions at the nearby MassMutual Center.

But despite outstanding physical amenities and a good location, hotel officials say what separates them from their competition, and results in repeat business, goes back to their focus on “human truths” and the behavior of hotel associates.

“We can say that we have nicer artwork or a warmer pool, but that is not going to make the difference between a good or exceptional experience,” Picknelly said. “What we do starts from the time a person arrives at the front desk and continues until they leave. But getting to that point is not an easy task. It takes a collaborative effort by all of our associates.”

To that end, great attention is paid to detail. Each employee’s name tag includes a hobby or interest, which often sparks conversations with guests. And associates are schooled to notice things such as a guest wearing a Red Sox cap and ask questions related to such items.

“We don’t consider the check-in process part of a transaction; it’s a welcome service that is all about engagement and interaction and is part of the warmth connected to our core values,” said Marcelina, adding that, when guests leave, they are asked about their stay and invited to return. “The connection we make is what separates us from our competition.”

Employees are also trained to take notice of details in guest rooms. For example, Marcelina said, if someone from the cleaning staff notices a guest has an empty Diet Coke in their trash can or an empty Hershey’s candy wrapper, he or she can replace the items with a note that tells the guest to enjoy them and their stay.

Taddei has been with the hotel since 2009 and said many guests come to Springfield to enjoy local attractions, which range from the Basketball Hall of Fame to Six Flags New England and the Big E.

“We are lucky to have them in our backyard,” Picknelly agreed.

But the atmosphere in the hotel changes in response to the day of the week and who is staying there. In fact, Picknelly likens it to a transformer.

“Monday through Friday, we cater to a business clientele,” he explained. “But on Friday afternoon, we transform into a leisure hotel, which means we adopt a different culture.”

That includes offering breakfast later in the morning for guests who want to sleep in, longer pool hours with more attendants on duty, and other measures designed to make hotel stays memorable and relaxing for guests of all ages.

Picknelly said small things are important and uses the example of newspapers to make his point. “My son gets all of his news from the Internet, while I prefer a real newspaper,” he said. So, newspapers are delivered to each guest’s room early each morning.

The hotel’s theme is the fall season in New England. “The artwork was commissioned, and every guest room has a piece twice the size that you would normally find in a hotel room,” Picknelly said. There is also a large mural over the main entrance to the grand ballroom depicting three scenes that reflect Springfield’s history and attractions.

But hotel executives stress that the reason people choose the Sheraton and return there is because of the service, and all new associates participate in the Sheraton Service Culture Training.

“It allows our associates to understand the diverse needs of our guests and also allows them to exceed their expectations,” said Marcelina. “We listen to the people who stay here because we want them to feel they belong, which goes back to the human truths.”

For example, when the hotel stopped serving dinner in the sports lounge, it was quickly reinstated due to demand, as was popcorn in the bar when another snack was substituted.

Meaningful Interactions

Marcelina said people have many choices when it comes to choosing a hotel. “But when you know the person behind the desk cares about you and looks forward to seeing you again, it makes a difference. And we feel this way about everyone who stays here.”

Indeed, the culture, combined with recent upgrades, have proven to be a recipe for success. “A lot of our conventions are repeat business, and we are already holding space as far out as 2017,” Taddei said. “We are selected over other places even when our location isn’t as convenient. People choose us because of our consistency and because our staff is trained to make sure they have a memorable experience.”

Marcelina said the formula is simple. “It goes back to the human truths,” meaning every guest leaves feeling special and cared about.

Meetings & Conventions Sections
Tourism Officials Ratchet Up Efforts to Draw Sporting Events

SportsInWMassDPartJohn Heaps says the Greater Springfield region has done quite well when it comes to hosting sporting events in recent years — everything from the MAAC (Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference) basketball tournament in recent years to the 2004 U.S. Women’s Open golf championship, staged at the Orchards in South Hadley.
And it’s done this without any real level of organization or a strategic plan for selling the area to those who stage such events, said Heaps, president and CEO of Florence Savings Bank, who told BusinessWest that he and others often wondered out loud what this region could accomplish in this realm if it put its collective mind to it.
And that’s probably the best way to sum up the creation of what’s called the Western MA Sports Commission, which Heaps now chairs.
It represents a concerted effort to research and then target sporting events that could take place across the four-county area, said Heaps, noting that this region is joining others across the country in recognizing the vast potential of sporting events to bolster an area’s tourism and hospitality sectors — and creating sports commissions to bring organization and sophistication to the assignment of attracting events.
John Heaps says the Western MA Sports Commission will work aggressively toward attracting events that are high-profile, high-impact, or, in the best-case scenario, both.
[/caption]“Communities large and small are coming to understand the scope of opportunities that sports represents,” he said, noting that even Chicago is making a more concerted effort to attract events through creation of a commission. “Sports can have a definite impact on our local economy, and we’re going to work aggressively to bring more events here.”
Mary Kay Wydra, exective director of the Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau, agreed. She told BusinessWest that the bureau, which was in what she called “survival mode” during and just after the Great Recession, when visitorship was down and the state was cutting back its contributions to such organizations, is now being much more aggressive in pursuit of conventions, meetings, and events — and sports can and should be a big part of that equation.
“When you look at how we can go about increasing tourism in our region and driving visitorship, sports is a niche we must explore,” she explained. “When we looked at what we can offer in terms of product, it seemed like a natural fit.”
Before elaborating on what the commission is all about, Heaps stated definitively what it isn’t about: simply bringing more basketball games and tournaments to the MassMutual Center in Springfield — although it may do that, too.
Instead, the commission will focus on the broad spectrum of youth, collegiate, amateur, and professional sports, and consider possibilities that range from rowing to ultimate Frisbee; from cycling and motocross to gymnastics; from badminton to Pop Warner football.
And as it does so, it will have several competitive advantages, said Steve McKelvey, associate professor and Graduate Program director of the Mark H. McCormack Department of Sport Management at UMass Amherst, and member of the commission. These include everything from affordability — Springfield and this region as a whole are considered a tertiary market, with hotel-room rates and other costs that are attractive to event planners on a budget — to the 17 colleges in the area and their collective sports facilities, to a line item that might simply be called ‘other things to do.’
“We have a lot of things that people can do while they’re here for a sporting event,” he noted, listing the basketball and volleyball halls of fame, area museums, Yankee Candle, and Six Flags New England, among many others. “We’re not in the middle of Oklahoma, where there’s nothing to do.”
Overall, those we spoke with said the Western Mass. region has vast potential as a host area for sporting events of varying sizes and shapes, but those tasked with putting more games and tournaments on the calendar will have to be selective with what they bring to the 413 area code, said Heaps, adding the phrases ‘high-profile’ and ‘high-impact’ to describe the types of events the commission will pursue.
For this issue and its focus on meetings and conventions, BusinessWest looks at the track soon to be laid by the sports commission, and how this group could significantly increase visitorship to the region through a host of games and tournaments.

Winning Attitude

John Heaps says the Western MA Sports Commission will work aggressively toward attracting events that

John Heaps says the Western MA Sports Commission will work aggressively toward attracting events that are high-profile, high-impact, or, in the best-case scenario, both.

When asked how he became involved with the sports commission, Heaps gestured toward the many sports-related items on the walls and shelves of his office at the bank.
They include a framed photo of the 17th hole at the famed Pinehurst No. 2, which he aced during one of many visits to the North Carolina golf complex, this one for a convention of investment bankers. There are also several soccer balls given to him by his son, Jay, coach of the New England Revolution, and other golf memorabilia including a board that helps him keep track of how many of Golf Digest’s top 100 courses in the world that he has played. In short, quite a few.
“I enjoy being around sports, and I look at this effort we’re making as being a real challenge, one I wanted to be part of,” he told BusinessWest. “There’s never been a commission in Western Mass. — there’s a state commission, but this is the first one here, and I think it makes sense that we have one.”
With the creation of this body, Western Mass. is becoming part of a growing trend, said McKelvey, noting that there are perhaps 300 such groups now operating across the country — they are members of the National Assoc. of Sports Commissions — and, from his reading of regional and national sports journals, he knows that more are being formed seemingly every month.
And the motivation is obvious. Sports are a huge part of society, and they also represent big business on a number of levels, including visitorship generated by the myriad forms of competition taking place today. The National Collegiate Athletic Assoc. (NCAA) alone will put more than 500 events out to bid between now and September, he told BusinessWest, noting that collegiate tournaments and championships represent only a small portion of the events this region could compete for.
“We’ve never made a concerted effort to bid for these events,” said McKelvey, echoing Heaps and Wydra when he said the commission takes the matter of competing for games and tournaments to an exponentially higher level. “This allows us to take a look at the whole spectrum; we’ve never thought about maybe bidding for a crew competition on the Connecticut River, but now we are, and that’s just one example of how we should be thinking.”
And he told BusinessWest that those who might be tempted to say ‘why should event organizers think about Western Mass.?’ need to adjust their thinking.
Indeed, while popular theory holds that event organizers want popular or exotic locales (e.g. the Maui Invitational, the basketball tournament staged in Hawaii each December), most are actually looking for affordability, accessibility (for both teams and potential spectators), and, most of all, value.
And he believes this region can deliver all of the above.
“We have a good story to tell,” McKelvey said, using that collective to describe the four-county area, not simply Springfield. “We have a location that’s fairly easy to get to, we have a location that has a lot of other ancillary attractions, and we’re affordable.”
Wydra said the selling platform, or “product,” for sporting events is the same one being used to attract meetings and conventions, and it has proven effective in bringing a wide array of groups — from religious organizations to youth dance and cheerleading competitions, to an association of beer-memorabilia collectors — to Greater Springfield.
“We’re convenient, we offer good value, and there’s a lot to do when you’re not competing,” she said. “We’re a good deal.”

Scoring Results
One of the first steps in the process of pursuing events was to effectively inventory the region’s assets, meaning the venues that could host sporting events, said Heaps, adding that this is a deeper portfolio than most might realize.
It includes arenas such as the MassMutual Center and the Mullins Center on the UMass campus, but also the Connecticut and Westfield rivers, among other waterways, that may be suitable for many boating or waterskiing competitions; bicycle and motocross venues (there’s one of the former in Westfield and one of the latter in Southwick); and facilities at those aforementioned 17 colleges, suitable for hosting events involving everything from tennis to lacrosse to field hockey.
“It’s important for us to understand that inventory, and no one’s really done that before,” said Heaps, adding that knowing all the region’s assets will bring into focus the broad spectrum of possibilities.
Moving forward, the commission’s immediate challenges are to begin marketing these assets and forming an infrastructure for exploring opportunities and deciding which ones to pursue, said Wydra. She noted that the organizational structure will include the GSCVB and its board of directors, the sports commission, a sports advisory council (to be made up of representatives of several sectors, including sports venues, restaurants, attractions, area colleges, and hotels), and, when needed, local organizing committees for specific events.
The Mass. Convention Center Authority, the state Office of Travel & Tourism, and MassMutual (through a grant) have made three-year financial commitments to the commission totaling $130,000, she said, adding that these funds will be used primarily to hire staff, create promotional materials touting the region’s assets, and handle the costs of meeting with event planners and introducing them to the region.
Goals are being established, said Heaps, adding that, for now, the commission would like to target 25 to 30 events of various sizes and exposure levels and bring perhaps five or six to Western Mass. each year.
“We’re trying to create a buzz for this region,” he explained, “and our goal is to identify the best 25 within the framework of high economic impact and profile. We want to pursue what fits best and what works geographically; we’re not going to be focused on just Hampden and Hampshire counties, but Franklin and Berkshire as well.
“Rather than have them come to us, we’re going to go at them,” he said of the chosen events. “And we’ll be aggressive.”
The twin goals when determining which events to pursue are media exposure, especially through television, and business opportunities, such as hotel-room stays, said Heaps, adding that some events may provide both, and while these are prized, they are also the ones that draw the most competition.
And gauging the overall worth of an event can be a tricky proposition, he said, citing that 2004 U.S. Open as an example.
While the region did get some exposure from the four days of coverage on NBC and the Golf Channel — the name South Hadley was repeated often, and there were blimp shots of the Western Mass. landscape beamed to millions of viewers — the direct benefits were far fewer than many were projecting.
Indeed, most spectators were bused to the event from large parking areas and then returned to their cars at day’s end, with little business spread to other hospitality-related businesses. Meanwhile, most all players rented homes for the week, limiting the number of hotel stays.
McKelvey said a less high-profile event, such as an NCAA Division I field hockey championship, for example, would give the region some exposure — it would likely be carried on ESPNU — and perhaps several hundred hotel-room stays. And this area could host such an event at Warren McGuirk Alumni Stadium at UMass, to name one potential site.
“For an event like that, you’ll bring in all the teams, as well as the people who travel with them, and their parents,” he noted. “And, if you market it well enough, you’ll attract people from this area who follow women’s field hockey. You just have to do the math when evaluating these opportunities and look at how many people we’re talking about; if it will be on ESPNU, and whether that’s important; does it fit into the timetable; and are we giving up something else to get this?
“The perfect mix would be an event that has some television exposure, like the MAAC tournament,” he went on, “but one that will also allow us to fill some room nights, bring a lot of energy downtown, and, overall, gain some positive exposure that might make it easier to attract other events.”
Obviously, the region’s colleges and universities will play a huge role in any effort to bring more sporting events to the region, said Heaps, adding that the sports commission will be reaching out to area athletic directors and school presidents to enlist support and gauge the level of interest when it comes to hosting events.

Game On
Looking back on the region’s track record with hosting sporting events in recent years, Heaps said there have been many successes, despite what he termed a “reactive” approach to the opportunities that presented themselves.
With the Western MA Sports Commission, there can be a much more proactive approach to hosting such competitions, one that has the potential to markedly increase visitorship to the four counties and generate more hospitality-related business in an area where that sector is, out of necessity, becoming more of an economic driver.
“At the end of the day, we want to be on everyone’s radar screen as the place to go,” said Heaps. “If we can do that, we can make sports a much bigger part of tourism in this region.”

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

Meetings & Conventions Sections
UMass Hotel and Conference Center Offers Diverse Menu of Options

Van Sullivan, left, Retail Dining Services Campus Center manager, and Hotel Manager David O’Connor

Van Sullivan, left, Retail Dining Services Campus Center manager, and Hotel Manager David O’Connor show off two of the international dishes available in the Blue Wall Café.

An entire wall in the lobby of the UMass Hotel and Conference Center in Amherst is dedicated to plaques and framed certificates showcasing awards, which range from accolades for green initiatives and cleanliness, to Trip Advisor’s Certificates of Excellence and a designation as the best hotel in Amherst, to being named the best college hotel in Massachusetts by Yankee magazine, as well as numerous prestigious honors for its extraordinary, world-class cuisine.
In 2012 alone, the AAA three-star-rated hotel won eight national awards for its food. In addition, Ken Toong was feted with the distinguished Silver Plate award during the International Foodservice Manufacturers Assoc. conference held last month. “Groups have chosen to come here just because our food is so good,” said Toong, executive director of Auxiliary Enterprises for UMass Amherst. “Our food has been ranked third in the country by the Princeton Review, and visitors can choose to eat at our University Club and Restaurant, in our food court, or in one of four dining commons.”
The self-supporting boutique hotel/conference center accommodates groups of fewer than 10 people or as many as 10,000, thanks to its access to apartments and rooms on campus during the summer months, as well as the Student Union Campus Center, two auditoriums which each seat 600 people; the Fine Arts Center, which seats 2,000; and the William D. Mullins Memorial Center, which seats close to 10,000. In addition, more than 200 classrooms are available during the summer.
“We are an affordable alternative with a vast number of options that people may not have considered,” said Meredith Schmidt, director of the Campus Center Student Union Complex, adding that the hotel is used by many national and international organizations and is positioned in the heart of the campus within a 400,000-square-foot complex that includes the university store, a credit union, a hair salon, and a wide variety of dining options. Sports organizations can access playing fields, and the staff works closely with the area’s five-college community as well as the Amherst Business Improvement District (BID).
Guests can also enjoy events held on campus, stroll through its miles of walkways, mix and mingle with students, and visit the student-run Franklin Permaculture Garden, an ecological center which has been formally recognized by President Obama.
The $5 million in annual revenue generated from the hotel, and 350 annual conferences held there, also helps to support the university and the Amherst BID. Each hotel guest is charged a daily $1 fee, which goes to the BID, and, like other revenue-based operations on campus, the hotel and conference center pays administrative overhead to the central UMass budget office.
“It’s a domino effect,” Toong said, as he talked about how the revenue this operation raises contributes to the economy.

Unlimited Resources

Ken Toong, executive director of Auxiliary Enterprises

Ken Toong, executive director of Auxiliary Enterprises, says the award-winning Franklin Permaculture Garden is one of many attractions on the Amherst campus that people who stay at the hotel/conference center can enjoy.

The hotel’s guests represent a wide spectrum of business opportunities. Some attend conferences, while others are there for events sponsored by the university, which include graduations, open houses, and career fairs. There are also guest lecturers, performing artists, visiting sports teams, alumni, and the general public, who find the location and hotel convenient if they are visiting the area or attending events such as Amherst’s annual craft fair.
The hotel also hosts wedding receptions, often held on the 11th floor, which features sweeping views of the campus and the Pioneer Valley.
Rooms in the state-of-the-art hotel average $135 a day for visitors. Conference rates for rooms in residence halls are much lower, however, and typically cost $25 per person per day without air conditioning, or $50 for an air-conditioned space. Three meals a day featuring award-winning cuisine can be added for an additional $30 per person per day.
Although there is lots of space available, the campus is constantly expanding, and the hotel offerings continue to grow. Commonwealth College will open a residential complex there on Aug. 13 with 1,500 beds, which will add to the number of rooms that can be reserved during the summer months.
“People can stay at the hotel or in one of our 10,000 rooms,” Toong said. “One of the big advantages we offer is a multitude of choices.”
There are also continual upgrades, and a new front entrance to the hotel with valet parking is expected to be complete within two years. “We are also putting in a new restaurant inside the hotel that will have 200 seats,” Toong said.
He told BusinessWest that employees focus on providing exceptional service, for which they have been feted, and guests as well as the student population enjoy the international cuisine, with choices such as an all-you-can-eat sushi bar. “We serve only sustainable seafood and offer students 15 food choices from around the world at every meal. We promote healthy eating, so we check the sodium content of everything we serve and use a lot of fresh herbs and fruits and vegetables,” Toong explained.
The food-service operation spends $2.3 million each year for fresh produce, and 27%, or about $600,000, is purchased from local farmers. “It’s also very important to us to buy meat from animals that have been treated humanely. Plus, we compost everything, including our plasticware and the paper coffee cups used at conferences,” he noted. “Our goal is to give our customers the best, and we want to be a leader in supporting the environment.”
During the past year, the operation has generated an additional 48 tons of compost due to an increase in recycling efforts.
Toong also cited a number of organizations the facility belongs to, such as the Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture program. “Students and guests want us to do this, and we find that, if we give people great value, they come back,” he said. And since the school has 16,000 students signed up for its full meal plan, it’s easy to accommodate groups of any size. “The hotel gets 24,000 guests each year, and large numbers don’t scare us.”

Group Offerings

About 40% of conferences held on the campus are related to academics, and professors from the university’s 200 departments often bring in key people from leading organizations they belong to.
Toong organizes the annual Taste of the World Chef Culinary Conference, which is held at UMass Amherst and attracts 300 accomplished chefs from across the nation, who engage in research and development during the week-long event. This year, they will include Robert Irvine from the television show Restaurant Impossible and Jet Tila, celebrity guest judge from the TV series Chopped.
Although he is integral to the hotel/conference center’s operation, Toong said the staff makes it easy to host events there, as they employ a one-stop-shopping approach. “We are able to be flexible, and because we are part of the UMass family, we seldom say ‘no’ to requests,” he explained.
Special needs are recognized even when there are no requests, and to exemplify this, Toong pointed to a recent conference attended by senior citizens, where food-service staff brought meals to their tables to make things easier for them, even though that had not been part of the arrangement.
“We want to create jobs for staff members and bring more business to campus; there are so many great buildings here, and we make sure people get great value in terms of food and service,” he said, adding that price is always negotiable.
Schmidt agreed. “We give people lots of options because we can,” she said.
Meredith Schmidt, director of the Campus Center Student Union complex

Meredith Schmidt, director of the Campus Center Student Union complex, says the hotel’s 116 rooms were gutted and completely renovated several years ago.

That includes technological advances. The hotel renovations have allowed the Hotel and Conference Center to keep abreast of trends, and iPod docking stations and charging areas are built into desks in each room. In addition, wireless Internet is available everywhere on campus. “And we have the best views in the Valley, especially during fall foliage season,” she said.
Toong said the center takes pride in bringing visitors to the university. “Our job is to enhance revenue, as we are self-supporting. But we also want to share this world-class university.” And there are many events that guests can enjoy on campus, such as a guest chef who is brought in to make a weekly presentation.
The award-winning Franklin Perma-culture Garden is one of the attractions. It provides a popular walking destination that hotel and conference attendees enjoy. It is shaped like a leaf and was created by student volunteers who used more than 500,000 pounds of composted food and mulch to turn a section of lawn into a sustainable ecological plot.
“Last year, we grew 1,500 pounds of vegetables there, and this year we expect to grow 2,000 pounds,” Toong said. “The garden contains more than 1,200 species of plants and herbs.”

Ongoing Mission
Toong said the future of the hotel and conference center is bright, but its administrators are aware of the need to be continuously proactive in their marketing efforts. But it’s a worthwhile task.
“This hotel and conference center is good for Western Mass.,” said Toong. “There are so many great buildings on campus, and it’s efficient and effective for us to use these resources.
“We offer a lot of options because we care — it’s the little things that make a difference,” he continued, adding that, together, they add up to a big opportunity for the university to generate revenue and gain exposure.

Meetings & Conventions Sections
Cranwell Resort Blends History, Stunning Views, and Accessibility

Cranwell Resort, Spa & Golf Club

Cranwell Resort, Spa & Golf Club offers stunning views of the Berkshires and an off-site alternative for corporate meetings.

Norma Probst, director of marketing for the Gilded Age Tudor-style mansion and grounds known as Cranwell Resort, Spa & Golf Club in Lenox, has a favorite phrase for summing up this destination.
“We’re high-end, not haughty,” she said, adding that this is a sentiment that covers the leisure market as well as the corporate market for meetings and retreats.
“‘Open to the public and year-round access’ is the overall message we put out there,” noted Probst, adding that the sign over the main entrance pretty much says it all: ‘public welcome.’
And the public heeds the sign.
Indeed, 70% of the spa services at the Spa at Cranwell, the largest such facility in the Northeast, are used by the local residents, meaning those who live in and around Lenox year-round or have second homes there. Meanwhile, Sloane’s Tavern, with its panoramic mountain views overlooking the golf course, seats 80 inside and 80 outside on the deck, and sees plenty of locals for weekly meals, including brunches and holidays.
This is not what some might expect when they visit a destination spa and resort traditionally defined by such adjectives as ‘elite’ and ‘high-end,’ but it is an operating philosophy that has served this institution well over the past 20 years, enabling it to bolster its reputation and ride out the economic downturns that can cripple such facilities.
Couple this accessibility with a down-to-earth operating style (something else one might not expect at such a prestigious address), and it’s easy to understand why Cranwell is ranked among the top 150 U.S. Resorts by Condé Nast Traveler, is a member of the Historic Hotels of America (HHA), and is a recipient of a host of other travel-industry accolades. And they also help explain, along with superb resort amenities and some different life-enriching options — Probst calls it “content of value” — why this destination overlooking the Berkshires is so unique.
Of course, the resort is perhaps best-known as a site for corporate meetings and retreats, and this side of the business has grown steadily over the years, thanks to word-of-mouth referrals, but also that brand of service that has earned high praise from guests, said Tim Paulus, director of sales, who shared some commentary.
After a managers meeting, Liberty Mutual Group responded with the following: “this year, our annual meeting was quite a success; just about every attendee had some comment about the excellent food, the uniqueness of their room, or the hospitality of your staff.”
Associated General Contractors of Massachusetts had similar comments: “facilities were excellent; staff at all levels was outstanding and extremely accommodating.”
For this issue’s focus on meetings and conventions, BusinessWest offers an up-close look at Cranwell, one that will explain how, in 20 short years, it has established itself as one of the premier destinations in the region.

History Lessons

Norma Probst and Tim Paulus

Norma Probst and Tim Paulus, in the newly renovated ballroom, credit Cranwell’s open-door policy for its continued success.

Upon entering the stunning, gateless grounds of Cranwell, one’s attention is immediately drawn to the mansion that dominates the grounds. But it quickly moves to the many other structures on the campus, built during various points of Cranwell’s 116-year history, and representing myriad architectural styles.
To understand the current campus, one needs to know its history, which is replete with multiple ownership changes and several uses, from residence to boarding school to resort, with three attempts at the latter category, the last being successful.
Both the www.cranwell.com and www.historicinns.org websites explain that, in 1853, Rev. Henry Ward Beecher — a man who had presidential aspirations and was active in the women’s suffrage and anti-slavery movements — purchased Blossom Hill, where the current Cranwell mansion now stands, for $4,500.
A scandalous affair ended Beecher’s political hopes, and his sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the famous anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, inherited the home.
Gen. John Rathbone purchased the property from Beecher in 1869 and built Wyndhurst, which was enormous by any standard of the day. But in 1894, the next owner, John Sloane, a relative of the Vanderbilts and co-owner of a furniture firm, demolished that mansion and constructed another Wyndhurst, which rivaled the enormity and elegance of the first.
It was during this grand era, the Gilded Age (1880-1920), that Sloan also commissioned Frederick Law Olmsted, famous landscape designer of New York City’s Central Park (and also Forest Park in Springfield), to design Cranwell’s grounds and original gardens. The Wyndhurst, the namesake of one of the three restaurants at Cranwell, is the mansion one sees today.
In 1925, Sloane’s daughter, Evelyn, sold the estate to a group of Florida developers who tried to run the property as the Berkshire Hunt and Country Club, but the Depression ended this first real attempt at a resort destination.
Then, in 1930, Edward Cranwell purchased the property and later deeded the estate to the Society of Jesus of New England, to be turned into a private school for boys.
A young Ted Kennedy attended for a few semesters, said Probst, noting that, after prospering for many years, the school slipped into decline, closing its doors in 1975.
The property’s current owner, Burak Investments, purchased the then-bank-owned Cranwell in 1993 after it had been a condominium development and, according to Probst, was starting to be reborn as a resort, with renovations to the mansion. But this venture languished during the tepid economic times, and the company eventually went bankrupt.
Today, Cranwell Resort, Spa & Golf Club, with much of its original grandeur restored, thrives as a premier four-season resort, offering the world-class, 35,000-square-foot Spa at Cranwell, three restaurants (the award-winning Wyndhurst, the Music Room, and Sloane’s Tavern), an 18-hole championship golf course designed by Stiles and Van Cleek, and 114 deluxe rooms and suites situated in various buildings on the campus.
These structures offer stark contrasts, from the opulence of the Gilded Age evidenced in the mansion to the utilitarian, red-brick dorms built by the boarding school, now home to 38 completely refurbished guest rooms and the administrative offices. There are also 60 privately owned condominiums, two cottages, and the elegant Carriage House.
However, the Carriage House that now stands is the second on that footprint. In December 2010, an electrical fire took the original facility, built in the late 1890s, and a new structure opened roughly a year ago, just a few yards uphill from the original to take advantage of the view from the third floor. The original architectural drawings for the Carriage House were retrieved from the Boston Public Library.
“They recreated much of the same architectural features of the original, including the turrets,” said Probst proudly. That consideration to honor architectural detail is what makes Cranwell an exemplar of the HHA.
A member since 2000, Cranwell is in the elite company of 240 other historic hotels. A member has to be at least 50 years old and listed in, or eligible for, the National Register of Historic Places. Member hotels are promoted nationally and internationally to those who prefer historic settings for their leisure and business travel.
“This, too, is what Cranwell is all about,” said Probst.

Trend Setters
After guests take in the stunning, 360-degree show of green in summer, harvest colors in the fall, or the winter’s snow-covered mountains, Cranwell offers many outdoor activities, including hiking, tennis, mountain biking, cross-country skiing, bonfires, and, of course, golf. And with Cranwell’s open-door policy, the resort caters to several markets.
“We have different sectors within each department,” Probst explained, referring specifically to golf. “For instance, we have golfers with full-season memberships, guests with golf packages, local residents who book a random tee time — so we are catering to quite a diverse group of guests.”
While the spa is also a strong local draw, and Cranwell’s overall market is global, 80% of leisure, banquets, weddings, and corporate meetings are booked from clients from Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey.
“We do about 50 weddings a year,” said Probst. “which is a lot considering we have exclusivity; we don’t have two Saturday-night weddings going on at one time.”
About four years ago, Probst started promoting winter weddings, which has added to the hundreds of single- and multi-day meetings and conferences that Cranwell hosts.
But since the Great Repression, some trends have emerged, said Probst and Paulus, noting that, while companies are still willing to spend (perhaps not quite as much as before), there is a greater emphasis on value. Meanwhile, there is an accompanying demand for facilities and operations that are ‘green,’ and Cranwell is responding accordingly in both cases.
“From a meeting standpoint, I’ve seen more meeting planners wanting more content in their events that are away from the business part of the agenda, and then they can rationalize why they need to have an off-site meeting,” explained Probst, adding that she’s noticed that meeting planners’ jobs have become more difficult.
“They’re under a lot of pressure to deliver a full and robust meeting,” she said, “and they’re under budget constraints much more now than ever before.”
Some of the content that brings value includes Scotch and wine tastings, chef-assisted culinary demonstrations, Afro-Caribbean drumming (a personal addition by Probst), and other unique, interactive group activities.
“We’re trying to engage our guests more and help them come up with something that is more life-enriching that they can take with them,” she noted.
Meanwhile, in the ‘green’ realm, Paulus told BusinessWest that more attention is being paid to sustainability, on the part of both individual guests and corporate meeting planners.
“It’s a huge decision factor when it comes to choosing certain hotels and resorts,” he noted. “In fact, in my office, the last five or six trade journals [of the meeting and convention industry] have ‘green’ on the cover.
“So we’re undertaking more strides to be green here,” he continued. “We’re putting ourselves through some certification processes, which have to do with how we recycle things, how we buy locally, and how we maintain the golf course, reuse rainwater, and deal with electric usage.”
Paulus pointed to the Cranwell meeting rooms and their conference worktables as one example; there are no more tablecloths or skirting because it’s an excessive use of a product that will have to be washed and dried using electricity.
A very welcome trend both Probst and Paulus are starting to see is corporations opening their purse strings a bit more over the past few years.
Like all hospitality-related businesses, resorts suffered through the Great Recession as businesses cut back on discretionary spending, said Probst, adding that the resort sector was also set back by the negative publicity that accompanied lavish corporate outings staged by companies, such as American International Group (AIG), that eventually had to be bailed out by the federal government.
“We actually changed our promotional focus to ‘resort meetings at inn prices,’” she went on. “We wanted people to know that our meeting prices really weren’t any different than a cookie-cutter hotel down the street.”

Welcome Mat
Guests don’t find anything typical about Cranwell — no slightly stuffy attitude, no restrictive warnings or ordinary accommodations in the 114 rooms and suites spread between the mansion and the other buildings.
The mansion, for example, built in the late 1800s, has “a different configuration than a typical hotel downtown that is all stacked and every room is the same; it doesn’t quite lay out that way.”
And that unusual layout is what makes an historic Gilded Age Mansion so unique; the room shapes and the architectural detail, along with the 17 different fireplaces and elegant furniture, all add up to a memorable experience.
And that goes for all guests at the Cranwell, from corporate CEOs to those for whom the ‘public welcome’ sign was erected.

Elizabeth Taras can be reached at [email protected]

Meetings & Conventions Sections
Eastover, a Blast from the Past, Has a New Owner and New Vision

Two inexpensive Adirondack chairs sit side by side overlooking the Mt. Greylock range and October Mountain on one of the highest points of the 550-acre Eastover Hotel & Retreat campus in Lenox. They were put there by the facility’s new owner and head chef just to grab a few minutes to relax whenever they can.

“But every time we look, guests are sitting in them, and we never get a chance,” laughed Josh Mouzakes, executive chef for the recently purchased 100-year-old Gilded Age mansion and retreat property. “We picked them up at BJ’s … it’s kind of our joke.”

The fact that these two haven’t had many opportunities to sit and enjoy the stunning view bodes well for Eastover. For starters, they haven’t had the time, because they’ve been busy with a massive restoration effort that is still a work in progress. And when they have found a few minutes, paying customers have beaten them to it.

There haven’t been any of those at Eastover for some time. Indeed, this resort with an intriguing though somewhat checkered past that included rock concerts and get-togethers for nudists (more on all that later) had fallen on hard times — make that very hard times — in recent years, and is now looking at a future dominated by vast potential but also question marks.

That’s because the new owner, Long Island resident and former software engineer Yingxing Wang, doesn’t know exactly what she wants to do with the place. She has some ideas, mostly involving education, science, and nature — her original vision was for an international student exchange and destination for teens to learn about farming and gardening —  but the vision is still coming together.

While work continues on the mansion, which Wang acquired for just under $5 million, the facility has reopened and hosted a few events, such as a fashion show — Wang and Mouzakes both call this summer a “test run” — with more on the docket, including a weekend rock festival later this month, a mini-Woodstock aptly named BerkshireStock.

After that, well, it’s probably up to the imagination of people who see and read about Eastover and imagine the possibilities, said Wang, who did essentially that, only on a much grander scale, when she first saw the mansion. Curiosity eventually led to speculation, and a rehab job she couldn’t have imagined when she signed on the dotted line.

“I was curious about what was behind the brick and iron fence on East Street,” she told BusinessWest. “But I didn’t comprehend the extent of the structural work at the time.”

The intensively private Wang, who declined to be photographed for this story, deferring to staff instead, didn’t say how much she and her husband, a partner in a computer firm, have sunk into this restoration, but hinted that it’s more than the purchase price.

From a business perspective, she’s not sure when or even if she can recover those costs, but for now she’s content to let her imagination be her guide and business partner.

For this issue and its focus on meetings and conventions, BusinessWest ventured to Lenox to chronicle the emerging next chapter in the story of Eastover. No one knows how it will unfold — not even the people writing it.

Donna Zsofka

Donna Zsofka says the Old Stable, featuring a new sound system, is spacious enough to host up to 475 guests.

Past Is Prologue

That story begins in 1910, near the end of the Gilded Age, when Harris Fahenstock, a founding member of the First National Bank of New York, built the estate as a summer cottage, one of many that were built in Lenox during that period.

Sold by Fahenstock’s heirs in the 1940s, the property was eventually acquired by Stamford, Conn. resident George Bisacca at auction for a mere $41,500. He founded Eastover Resort in 1947.

Bisacca, a former clown in the Ringling Brothers Circus (which explains the strange primary ‘clown colors’ painted all over the mansion basement walls), made his money in a tire-repair shop. According to local legend and some published reports, he was entrepreneurial, a free spirit, a forward thinker, and a partier. Blending those traits, he created a then-rare resort for singles, which thrived in the ’50s and ’60s. He later added family-oriented activities as the young Baby Boomers shifted their leisure-time needs.

A Civil War buff, Bisacca had an extensive war-memorabilia collection, and kept a herd of bison on site, which, in addition to the unique ‘lifestyle-themed’ weekends (for bikers, nudists, non-drinkers, and women only), made Eastover a one-of-a-kind destination in the Berkshires and the Northeast in general. Bisacca’s daughter and granddaughter, Dorothy “Ticki” Winsor and Betsy Kelly, respectively, continued the resort theme after his death until 2003.

Wang admitted that she knew little of this history when she first encountered Eastover, and “fell in love with the place.”

Josh Mouzakes

Josh Mouzakes brings not only culinary expertise to Eastover, but also experience opening hotels.

Actually, what she loved was its potential, the location, and the views. The mansion itself was in very tough shape following years of neglect, both before and after it ceased being a resort destination.

Indeed, while reports say the mother-daughter team that operated Eastover after Bisacca’s death proudly boasted that little had changed since the resort first opened in 1947 (which was a plus for a strong following who happily returned year after year), that phrase also applied to the 20-plus buildings and the entire infrastructure. In short, there was no upkeep.

“There really wasn’t any infrastructure,” said Wang, adding that recent, and costly, renovations include new slate roofs on the stately stable, which houses the giant dance hall, the largest of its kind in Western or Central Mass.; a water main and sewer main; fiber optics and cable TV; a completely renovated indoor pool and slate walkways; all new, ADA-required handicapped ramps and bathrooms; working exit signage; sprinkler systems; and much more.

Wang admits that most developers would have bulldozed the place and started over, but she was able to look past all the work and see the beauty and potential that was clearly there. And she thanked town officials for facilitating her efforts.

“I have to say that the board of selectmen are pro-business, and considering the amount of work that we have done over the past three years, it would be nearly impossible in this time if we didn’t have their help.”

One person she credits with a majority of that help is Lenox Building Inspector William Thornton Jr., whom she has leaned on considerably after realizing the full extent of the money pit she’d purchased.

“I joke that Bill was our most affordable consultant; he knows code by heart, and I call him on his cell phone when I have a question instead of some expensive consultant,” she said, adding that her professional association is very serious.  “Yes, he is strict, but very fair, and he is demanding of everybody.”

Thornton isn’t the only one Wang leans on as she dives into a business venture and an economic sector — hospitality — that she admittedly knows little about.

She’s also relying heavily on Mouzakes, who brings not only culinary expertise to the equation, but also experience with opening hotels.

The reason he is now the chef at Eastover is due to his connections to well-known master chefs in the New York area and Europe, and as a quasi-hotel consultant, based on his experience in opening hotels on Long Island, New York, and, most recently, the five-year, $20 million rehab of the Lord Jeffery Inn in Amherst.

He said his cuisine style is contemporary American with French-influenced techniques (picture food creatively arranged on a plate that not only offers phenomenal flavor, but looks like art).

“The easiest way to categorize it is with local, sustainable, modern ingredients,” he explained. “If we can get the best food we can get, as close as possible, and use properly rained skills, that will be our signature.”

“That’s what we treat food here like — art,” added Wang. And the fresh ingredients for  that art will soon start growing right outside the slate patio with an herbal garden on the site of the former outdoor pool area, which was in such distressed condition, it had to be filled in.

 

Looking Forward

When asked if Eastover is or will become competition for neighboring exclusive destinations such as Cranwell Resort Spa & Golf Club and Canyon Ranch, Wang paused and then offered some levity.

“The reason we have no competitors is because no idiot in this world would invest so much money in this,” she told BusinessWest before turning more serious and noting that Eastover won’t be like those resorts in many respects. “We are different; the focus on nature is what sets us apart.”

She stressed again that she doesn’t know exactly what the resort will become, but she knows what it won’t be.

“I’m not exactly sure how we will end up, but we are not a fancy hotel with room service,” she explained. “We are a retreat to enjoy nature, and if you are looking for that other type of place, then it’s not here.”

She also knows that her original vision — of a destination for foreign-exchange  students — is not economically viable. But she and her staff of nearly 30, including Mouzakes and Donna Zsofka, the event coordinator, are letting clients and potential clients help shape what Eastover can become.

Things started with a grand-opening weekend in June, which both Wang and Mouzakes say had its share of successes and small disasters. Shortly thereafter came an international fashion show that brought young people from the New York City area. On the calendar are a  fund-raiser later this month for the Berkshire Grown project, which supports local farmers and food pantries, as well as BerkshireStock.

Wang said that two-day event will present 30 local and regional bands (who are all selling tickets) and could attract several thousand concertgoers and overnight campers to the property. “We can handle up to 5,000 easily because that field is a natural amphitheater,” she noted.

“Aside from our opening weekend, people have come to us with events they want to do here,” said Mouzakes, pointing to BerkshireStock as a prime example of how the venue will likely be become popular for people looking to stage events and get-togethers that would be considered beyond the ordinary.

Now open for business, said Zsofka, is the Tally Ho Pub, which offers unique seating in the former horse stalls (10 per booth), and is open to the public Fridays and Saturdays. Weddings, family reunions, and corporate events can be booked in the wood-paneled library or two other lavish mansion rooms that can accommodate 25 to 40 people, while the light-drenched Terrace Room can seat nearly 150.

Big enough for any event, said Zsofka, the Old Stable, with its new sound system, allows seated dining for 350 guests with a total capacity of 475, and at some point, Mouzakes will be refining the plans for a fine restaurant that will draw produce from local farmers as well as that soon-to-be-added herbal garden.

In the mansion, Wang is adding high-end bathrooms to each of the large second-floor former bedrooms (all have original fireplaces), which will reduce the guest rooms from 15 to 12, but offer at least one floor of exclusive quarters.

For now, marketing has been limited and understated (there is a Facebook page), said Mouzakes, adding that word-of-mouth is helping people discover — or, in many cases, rediscover — Eastover. Both he and Wang believe curiosity on the part of many who came here decades ago is helping to fill hotel rooms, generate inquiries about future events, and, yes, fill those aforementioned Adirondack chairs.

And it is the resort’s early success in attracting young people that has Wang encouraged — and on a number of levels.

She said her many visits to Lenox have convinced her that the area needs an infusion of youth — not that aging Baby Boomers are not welcome; they certainly are — but she is also encouraged by the younger demographic’s interest in the environment and getting in touch with nature.

“I am surprised to find that the upper-middle generation is not appreciative of the environment; it’s the young people who are,” she noted. “They have been taught about nature since they were young in school, and we need to figure out how to bring more young people here.”

 

Time Will Tell

While Eastover is officially open for business, there is still considerable work to be done at what could be called a resort-in-progress.

“I tell my staff to just follow your heart — everything will follow,” said Wang. “I also tell them to appreciate the process.”

That process won’t actually end, said Wang and Mouzakes, noting that the vision for the new Eastover, if it can be called that, will probably take years to become reality.

It might just be that long before these two can actually get to sit in one of those Adirondack chairs. But they’re certainly not complaining, because that means they’re very busy, and that people are once again discovering Eastover.

 

Elizabeth Taras can be reached at [email protected]