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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]