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Sports & Leisure

Raising Their Game

Team President Nathan Costa

When the Springfield Thunderbirds hit the ice for the first time three years ago, its management team heard plenty of skepticism about whether hockey could truly thrive and grow beyond a certain ceiling in the city. While there’s still plenty of room for growth in ticket sales, attendance surged last season to a two-decade high, with Saturday nights in particular routinely selling out. In short, there’s a lot of optimism inside the Thunderbirds offices — and a refusal to get complacent.

If Springfield is in the midst of a renaissance, Nathan Costa says, the Springfield Thunderbirds are a large part of the reason — even if not everyone thought they could be.

“I told the staff recently, ‘I think we’ve been able to do this because we came in with a chip on our shoulder.’ We wanted to prove we could do it here and that, if we did it the right way, it could work,” said Costa, the team’s president. “When we first came in, a lot of people said, ‘teams haven’t always had success here — what’s different about you guys?’”

At the start of their fourth season in Springfield, the Thunderbirds — the American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate of the Florida Panthers — have slowly raised what was, in some eyes, a low bar when Costa and a team of local investors brought hockey back to Springfield in 2016 following the departure of the Falcons.

Perhaps most strikingly, the team averaged more than 5,000 fans per night last season — a number no Springfield hockey team had achieved in more than two decades.

“At first, there were low expectations for the marketplace, and it was easier to meet those expectations,” Costa told BusinessWest two weeks before the team begins its 2019-20 home campaign on Oct. 5. “Now we’ve set a high bar. We need to work with the same urgency we’ve always had to keep this moving forward.”

This year’s squad hits the ice for a practice session last week.

Above Costa’s office door is painted the number 6,793. That’s the sellout number at the MassMutual Center, and it’s a number the team reached on about a dozen occasions last season, mostly Saturday nights. With a friendlier home schedule this year (more on that in a bit), the goal is to record even more sellouts and get that average attendance closer to 6,000 than 5,000 — and Costa thinks it’s reachable.

“In the past, you could always walk up and buy a ticket here. Now, if you don’t get a package, or you don’t get a ticket early on, especially for those Saturday nights in the second half of the season, you can’t find a ticket. And that’s what we wanted to create,” he said. “But it’s not easy to do.”

Last year, preparations to host the AHL All-Star Classic (a significant feather in the franchise’s cap) knocked out home games the weekend before, traditionally one of the league’s busier weekends, cutting down the total number of weekend dates. But for the 2019-20 season, the Thunderbirds will host 15 Saturday-night and 14 Friday-night tilts, as well as four Sunday-afternoon games, in all accounting for 33 of the schedule’s 38 home games.

“At first, there were low expectations for the marketplace, and it was easier to meet those expectations. Now we’ve set a high bar. We need to work with the same urgency we’ve always had to keep this moving forward.”

Still, “we’re continuing to put an emphasis on getting to the point where we’re filling the building every single night,” Costa said, adding that season-ticket sales have increased every year. So have the team’s fortunes on the ice, as it posted a winning record last year, although it has missed the playoffs all three years.

“The Panthers had quite a few injuries, so they called up a number of our players around the all-star break, which was challenging on the hockey side,” he explained. “But on the business side, we continue to do what we’ve talked about from the very beginning, which is focus on the family-fun, entertainment aspects of coming to games.

“People want to see a winning product, obviously — especially in this market, where people are spoiled with winning teams,” he went on. “So we’re hoping that comes with time. But we’re also trying to lay a foundation where we’re providing a professional, awesome experience here in the arena, and I think we’re doing that and creating events and promotions people are connecting with.”

From the start, Costa and his team tackled some common gripes from the Falcons’ tenure, including lowering concession prices, negotiating a deal for free parking in the neighboring garage, building a richer schedule of promotions — even ramping up video production to make sure season-ticket holders are watching fresh videos on the big screens as the season moves along.

Being granted last year’s all-star events was a signal, he said, that the AHL recognized what was happening and how fans were responding. So were a series of league awards last year, from Costa being named outstanding executive to honors for the team’s digital-media presence and marketing efforts.

“The All-Star Classic was an absolute home run — it raised our profile locally and within the AHL,” Costa said. “Springfield wasn’t necessarily viewed as a place where you could see best practices or have a full building, but now, we’ve changed the perception of Western Mass. among the AHL board and really rejuvenated the city from their perspective.”

And the perspective of others as well — about 5,000 a night.

Lacing ’em Up

When the Portland Pirates left Maine for Springfield three years ago, the City of Homes was no doubt on the rise, but pieces were still falling into place downtown, and the MGM Springfield casino was still more than two years from opening.

“That was a challenge, when there wasn’t as much life and things going on,” Costa said. “We really wanted to face a lot of the hurdles that we heard about head-on, much of which was parking, safety, or that it costs too much to come to a game. We were trying to bring people downtown.”

Some of those concerns were more reputation than reality, he added. “I’ve worked downtown more than 10 years, and I’ve never not felt safe. And I think that perception is gone now. We don’t hear it at all anymore. It is a testament to the city.”

Part of that change is the simple fact of more feet on the street, especially at night.

“There’s a lot more going on. Restaurants are buzzing. People are walking around. There’s life, there’s energy. The city was primed for that,” he said, crediting entities like MGM and the Springfield Business Improvement District and efforts in the realms of public safety and downtown beautification.

Still, selling a new team to the public after the Falcons took flight was a challenge initially. “But we were confident in our business plan and stuck to what worked in other AHL cities; we stuck to providing value to ticket holders and in the arena. The league started feeling good about us, and it’s steadily grown over three years.”

The franchise is always feeling out new promotions, although a few have become regular events, including 3-2-1 Fridays ($3 beers, $2 hot dogs, and $1 sodas) and a Friday-night concert series; March’s Pink in the Rink event to celebrate breast-cancer survivors and raise funds for treatment and research; and December’s Teddy Bear Toss, where fans bring stuffed animals and throw them on the ice after the home team’s first goal, to be collected and donated to underprivileged children.

Visits from David Ortiz and Pedro Martinez have proven hugely popular as well, and while the team doesn’t have someone of quite that stature stopping by this year, it has planned four guest appearances, including former Florida Panther goalie Roberto Luongo in November; Mike Eruzione from the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team in February, marking the 40th anniversary of the Miracle on Ice; and Brian Scalabrine from the Celtics’ 2008 NBA championship team in March.

The fourth guest is a little more outside the box: actor Leslie David Baker, who played Stanley Hudson in the hit TV show The Office, will visit in December for what the team is labeling its Office Holiday Party, inviting local businesses to basically celebrate the season at the MassMutual Center, watch a game, and meet Baker.

“We’re trying to provide more value to ticket holders, and letting them know we continue to invest in the game experience,” Costa said.

Another returning promotion is a Blast from the Past night in January, when the team reverts to 1990-era Springfield Indians jerseys, celebrating the 30th anniversary of that team’s Calder Cup win.

“We’re trying to tap into that old nostalgia; that’s a fun part of what we do,” Costa said, noting that the team still owns the Springfield Indians trademark. “We made the decision not to rebrand to that when we purchased the franchise. But using it here once in a while is fun, and we can create an event around it that people look forward to.

“I think we’ve done a good job of recognizing the past but also creating our own brand,” he went on. “We obviously still hear about the Indians quite a bit — there’s a lot of romanticizing around the Indians, and obviously they had some really good, successful years — but it wasn’t all roses during that time. They had their ups and downs.”

The goal with the Thunderbirds, obviously, is to have far more of the former than the latter.

“There’s been a tendency in the past to have a negative viewpoint about downtown Springfield,” he told BusinessWest. “We want create a positive experience. It’s a perfect size city for AHL franchise. Now we have to keep that trajectory moving forward and continue to sell tickets and show value. The minute we take our foot off the gas, our business is going to suffer.”

Community Goals

The Thunderbirds have been equally aggressive about community involvement, Costa said, with Boomer, the team’s mascot, making more than 200 appearances a year at businesses, schools, and organizations, and each player making at least three appearances as well, in addition to team events. The franchise has also developed a charitable foundation and youth-oriented outreaches like a reading program, a kids club, and a partnership that creates positive connections between area youth and the Springfield Police.

“Being here in this marketplace, there’s a duty for us to give back and truly be a part of the community,” Costa said. “So a lot of this stuff is focused on giving back and doing the right thing by our community in general.”

He’s gratified by the growth of the brand and the deepening of its civic roots, but admits he’s driven somewhat by anxiety and fear of failure, and still carries that chip on his shoulder from the early days. He also credits a hardworking staff willing to roll up their sleeves, hit the phones and the streets, and do the often-tedious work it takes to increase ticket sales and awareness of what’s happening on the ice.

“It’s awesome to see how the community has surrounded us and supported what we’re trying to do,” he said. “But we’ve never said, ‘hey, let’s just open the arena and see who comes out.’ We’ve always been proactive about getting out and telling our story. Now, we’re so well-positioned that, if the team has some success on the ice, it’s ready to take off. It’s palpable. If you come on a Saturday night, you can feel the energy.”

With so many entertainment options available — and a deep mesh of TV programming that makes it easier for families to just stay home — Costa and his team certainly aren’t letting up on the gas. In short, that number 6,793 continues to drive them.

“There’s nowhere else to go but up,” he said. “If we keep doing the things we’re doing, it will happen, and I think we’re seeing that now — that doing the right thing and working hard will lead to success.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sports & Leisure

Striking a Chord

Ruth Griggs’ passion for jazz music and a desire to give back to the community is what inspired her to reboot the festival.

One of the many things that is most loved about the city of Northampton is its walkability, allowing both residents and visitors to appreciate the uniqueness of this eclectic community with ease. On Oct. 4, jazz music will radiate from several corners of the city, signaling the start of the annual Northampton Jazz Festival.

Founded in 2011, the festival was conceived by five people who wanted to find a way to combine their passion for jazz with their love for Northampton. So they put together an event complete with food trucks, vendors, and, of course, lots of jazz.

But their operating model became too expensive to maintain, so the festival was discontinued after its 2015 show.

After a two-year hiatus, however, a team of dedicated individuals determined to bring it back, and thus, the Northampton Jazz Festival 2.0 was born.

Thanks to the hard work of a small but dedicated team, a beloved event is back and better than ever, they say, and in a more sustainable way to make sure the festival is here to stay.

“We came up with a new model which is less expensive and is much more inclusive of as many different constituents downtown as possible.”

Indeed, when Amy Cahillane, director of the Downtown Northampton Assoc., approached Ruth Griggs about bringing the festival back, Griggs considered the proprosition a no-brainer. Now president of the festival, Griggs said Cahillane presented a model that offered everything that was lacking before, including strong relationships downtown and with city government.

When Cahillane told her she could help with these missing pieces, Griggs recalled, she said, “you’ve got yourself a deal.”

“I knew one of the things that was lacking in the former iteration of the jazz festival was the kind of support they needed to make this viable,” Griggs told BusinessWest. “We came up with a new model which is less expensive and is much more inclusive of as many different constituents downtown as possible.”

She said the idea for this new model is for people to enjoy Northampton and encourage those attending the concerts to stop at the shops downtown.

The Jeremy Turgeon Quintet performs at the Jazz Strut. (Photo by Bobby Davis)

What remains from the old model, however, is the core goal that was established when the festival began: to expose people of all generations, ethnicities, and orientations to jazz music, while also bringing more visitors to the city.

“We want people to walk from concert to concert and get a cup of coffee at the Roost or have lunch at Paul and Elizabeth’s or one of the many restaurants in town,” Griggs said. “We want them to enjoy Northampton and enjoy the jazz.”

More than 2,000 people took in the 2018 festival, coming from across Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, and Connecticut to see locally, regionally, and nationally recognized musicians perform. Twenty jazz performances took place at 17 different venues around downtown Northampton over the course of four days, another twist on the new version of the festival. Previously, the event was staged behind Thornes Marketplace in a parking lot, but Griggs said the new model encourages people to explore the city and gives them a chance to patronize all the shops and restaurants.

With the opening of MGM Springfield in August 2018, one of the stated goals of the festival was to help mitigate the impact of the casino on Northampton, which has, for four decades now, boasted the region’s most vibrant downtown.

In 2018, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission allocated $100,000 to the city to develop and implement marketing strategies to keep Northampton a well-known and popular destination for arts and entertainment, shopping, and dining.

“One of the challenges that merchants are facing all around the country is a lack of foot traffic because people are shopping online,” Griggs said. “There’s nothing that’s more important to a retailer than people walking by their store.”

This is especially true for many of the mom-and-pop shops that rely on local business to stay open. Griggs maintains that jazz music lifts people’s spirits and often encourages them to go into a store.

“When you either have music playing in the store or right outside the store, it makes people stop and look and listen and walk into the store in many cases,” she said. “I’ve seen that with my own eyes.”

She also said merchants were happy with the festival last year and thought the festival brought business to the downtown area.

“It exposes Northampton to people that may not have otherwise known about the town, and it reinforces for the community downtown how wonderful it is to be there,” Griggs said. “It’s walkable, it’s friendly, it’s accessible, it’s beautiful. It reinforces what is unique about Northampton.”

Indeed, the show is carefully orchestrated to do just that. Organizers deliberately leave time in between each set of acts so people have an opportunity to walk around and enjoy the city. Beginning with the Jazz Strut on Friday, Oct. 4, free jazz performances will be staged from 5 to 10:30 p.m. at seven Northampton restaurants, bars, and pubs. Each performance lasts two hours and starts at half-hour intervals so festival-goers can walk a short distance and see all the acts if they choose.

“We want people to have an hour to kill in Northampton,” said Griggs. “We build that into the schedule.”

Saturday features jazz musicians at several different venues across town beginning at noon and ending at 6:30 p.m. The headliner, the Kurt Elling Quintet, will perform from 7:30 to 9 p.m. at the Academy of Music to close out the performances.

Sunday is reserved for the Jazz Brunch at the Delaney House in Holyoke, which serves as a fundraiser for the Jazz Artists in the Schools Program at JFK Middle School.

All this planning is conducted by a team of locals with a passion for jazz. Griggs and Cahillane are joined by Al Blankenship, Mary Lou Rup, Kathy Service, Carol Abbe Smith, Paul Arslanian, Frank Newton, George Kaye, and a dedicated group of volunteers to get the new show on the road.

And since the inaugural run of the new festival went so well last year, Griggs said there was no need to rethink it in any kind of major way.

“I like this festival for Northampton because it’s doable … it’s not too huge, it’s not too complicated, it’s not too expensive,” she said. “I think it’s more important to have a festival that is right-sized for the community so that it can be sustained, rather than having something that’s growing and getting more complicated and this and that. Before you know it, it becomes top-heavy, and you can’t handle it anymore.”

With overwhelmingly positive feedback from last year’s festival, there is little doubt that the 2019 festival will once again prove to be an outstanding event for this unique city.

“That combination of the good feelings that music can engender, combined with being in a town like Northampton … that ultimately has an economic impact,” Griggs said. “You’re setting the stage for success.”

— Kayla Ebner

Sports & Leisure

The Real Dirt

Keith Johnson (left, with Rick Johnson)

Keith Johnson (left, with Rick Johnson) says his passion for the Wick 338 stems from his own participation in the sport of motocross.

Motocross in Southwick is nearly a half-century-old tradition. It’s also a business and a well-tuned economic engine. Like the sport itself, this local enterprise has endured some ups and downs, twists and turns, but, thanks to a father-son team, it is now hitting on all cylinders.

When Rick Johnson relates the history of the Wick 338 motocross track in Southwick, he notes that he never thought he’d be managing the production of a national championship — let alone four of them.

But that’s what has transpired in what can only be called the latest chapter in the story of motocross in this town, perhaps best known for other forms of recreation, specifically those involving the Congamond Lakes, which give the community so much of its character.

It’s a story that, like the sport itself, features a number of twists and turns, ups and downs. With that, Johnson, track manager for the facility, flashes back almost a half-century, to 1972. That’s when the very first Southwick motocross race was held, just a few miles from the location of the Wick 338 track on Legion Road in Southwick, as in American Legion Post 338. Hosted by the New England Sports Committee (NESC), the race was held to benefit the Jimmy Fund and other town charities.

“Obviously there’s an economic spinoff, especially when you have a national race where you’re bringing thousands of people into town.”

The event was a huge success, and members of the Legion quickly developed an appetite for more motocross.

Fathers of NESC racers set their minds on building a track of their own and constructed the first version of what now stands at the Wick 338. Led by Bernie Yelin, Pat Smith, Ray Peebles, Dante Molta, Clovis Goyette, and many more, the Wick, as it would come to be called, would bring races, and then a national championship, the first in 1976, to the community. But it also brought much more, including large crowds of people and support for many kinds of businesses, especially those in the hospitality sector.

Then came some of those twists, turns, and dips. Indeed, after the 2012 national championship, the race was taken from the Wick because the track’s condition had deteriorated. Soon, the entire operation was in danger of being closed.

That’s when Mike Grondahl stepped into the picture; he worked out a lease with the American Legion to put it back in business.

The former Planet Fitness CEO had a great love for the sport of motocross, but due to a business investment he made prior to his deal with the track, he did not have the time to maintain it properly, and the track lay dormant.

Luckily for him, he knew a family who also loved the sport.

“He called me, and we agreed to do it — but not with the intent of having a national championship here,” Johnson told BusinessWest. “We just wanted to build the best track for the Northeast.”

Chris Canning (center) is the reigning motocross champion in the Northeast.

Chris Canning (center) is the reigning motocross champion in the Northeast.

While Grondahl originally reached out to Johnson’s son, Keith, now president of the Wick 338 Promotions LLC, the father-and-son duo agreed that the best way to maintain the track was to work together. Rick would help with the business plan and work with the town, acting as the front man, and Keith would take care of things at the track.

Together, their goal was to bring the track — and the business — back to the high level of success enjoyed decades ago. And, generally speaking, they’ve succeeded in those goals, as evidenced by the national championship staged there just over a week ago. The seventh round of the 2019 Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship put an exclamation point on what would have to be called a comeback for motocross racing in Southwick.

For this issue and its focus on sports and leisure, BusinessWest talked with the Johnsons and others within the community, and learned that motocross is more than a popular spectator sport; it’s also a driving force when it comes to economic vibrancy in Southwick.

Beyond the Track

The national race at the Wick 338 proves to be one of the most physically grueling races for those competing, each twist and turn more challenging than the last.

But this is not the only event that happens at the track.

Rick Johnson said the site hosts more than 40 events throughout the year, each one bringing between 500 and 3,000 people to town.

“It’s great for the town, not just because of the national, although it brings in 15,000 people in that one day,” said Keith. “For the most part, the town is a huge supporter of the entire facility.”

He noted that many business owners even plan around the track’s events.

“When I give my presentation to the town and give them my schedule, there are so many local shop owners there to learn what the schedule is all about so they can plan,” he told BusinessWest.

Southwick Selectman Joe Deedy can attest to this, and said the town simply wasn’t as vibrant when motocross races weren’t staged for a few years. “When motocross went away a couple years back, you could see a ton of people were so disappointed overall.”

Deedy also recalled that, in the old days, competitors would just show up and enjoy the race. Now, a race team might have five or six promoters they are dealing with, bringing in even more business to the local community.

“Every local little mom-and-pop business or even bigger facility that does catering, chances are, they are there catering to one race team or another,” he said.

Deedy and other town selectmen, Doug Moglin and Russ Fox, spoke highly about the track and the effect it has on Southwick, noting that everything from gas stations to breakfast shops do better business when there is a race in town.

“Obviously there’s an economic spinoff, especially when you have a national race where you’re bringing thousands of people into town,” said Fox, who has been a selectman, off and on, for nearly 40 years.

Among those people who came to town for this year’s national was a large crew from NBC, which broadcast the race nationally. This exposure, said Fox, helps bring in more people and shines a light on Southwick, home to about 10,000 people.

The Wick 338

The Wick 338 hosts more than 40 events throughout the year, from small races to the recent national event that brought 15,000 people to town.

A national race like the one on June 29 brings in a crowd larger than the community’s population, drawing some traffic and maybe a few headaches, but any negatives are far outweighed by the positives, said those we spoke with.

Indeed, Moglin said, even during an event like the national, someone passing through Southwick wouldn’t know the event was going on, making the track a good neighbor.

Because the town has hosted the event several times before, the accumulated experience helps all those involved put on an event with minimal negative impact within the community, Moglin said, noting that the hour before the event and when it finishes are the only times traffic gets backed up, and additional law-enforcement services are not needed on the streets to help manage the crowds.

More Than Moto

While things may be quiet on the road, the track is always bustling.

Referred to as the Fenway Park of motocross, the Wick 338 hosts everything from open practices to Rugged Maniacs to an event known as Southwick Day. Track managers even volunteer their starting line to light off fireworks on the Fourth of July.

Before Rick and Keith hosted their first national event, they knew they needed to upgrade the track in order to make it the best of the best. This included installing new tunnels under the track, trimming trees to make the facility more viewer-friendly, close to 3,000 feet of fencing, a new irrigation system, a brand-new scoring and announcing tower, and more. Four days before the 2019 national, 20 truckloads of dirt were brought in.

These are just a few of the things it takes to run a successful track — and they aren’t cheap. Rick said he knew that, if the Wick charged for general admission only, it would be difficult to generate the revenue needed to pay for the upkeep of the track.

That’s why he got creative and introduced VIP seating.

“We looked and found areas of the track that weren’t being utilized, and we invested in those areas to create VIP sections,” he said, adding that these areas around the track allow ticket holders to get a whole new experience and greatly increase revenues; VIP tickets range from $90 to $375 compared to the general-admission price of $45.

All these investments have led to a four-year run of nationals for the father-and-son duo.

Before Rick and Keith took over at the Wick 338, chain-link fences stood six feet high, and tall trees made it difficult for viewers to truly feel like they were a part of the action. Now, motocross fans have the opportunity to see the dirt flying up-close and personal.

“Those were the things that we felt took away from the character of the New England track,” said Rick. “It was our intent to bring it back as it was back in the ’70s that everybody loved so much, and make it safe.”

They’ve succeeded in that mission, and in the process, they’ve helped rev up the local economy — literally and figuratively.

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Sports & Leisure

The Shape of Things

Anna Dichner and Steve Tryon

Anna Dichner and Steve Tryon are currently the only two trainers at Body Fit Warehouse, teaching about 40 classes a week, focusing on body-weight exercises.

When a person thinks of ‘working out,’ what typically comes to mind first are the grueling physical challenges the body goes through.

However, Steve Tryon says many personal trainers at gyms today are missing a key piece of the puzzle: the mental and spiritual side of training.

This is what he and co-owner Anna Dichner try to bring to Body Fit Warehouse, a holistic lifestyle and fitness gym in Southwick.

When Tryon first started working at the gym years ago, he had no idea he would one day be buying and co-owning the facility with Dichner, his girlfriend he met seven years ago. The two have since completely transformed their own values, which they remember every day in order to give members the best training possible.

“We rebuilt the whole foundation from scratch to show people that it’s not about how you look, it’s not about how strong you are… it’s about everything else you’re able to do in the rest of your life,” said Tryon, adding that, when the couple bought the gym in February 2018, there were a lot of things that needed to be changed. “The trainers and other practitioners that were here, they weren’t looking at things from a holistic standpoint.”

He’s talking about the importance of addressing what is going on inside people’s minds before the body gets to work.

Dichner added that a key element to how successful they have been with the business so far is how they approach identifying what may be going on in a person’s life outside of the gym, and how they can help fix the problem.

“I always ask every one of my clients, ‘how was your day?’ or ‘how are you feeling?’ because that will dictate the workout and the type of session we’re going to have,” she said.

Tryon and Dichner are the only two trainers in the gym, with 130 regular members paying a monthly fee and 40 to 50 people going through classes each week. Even with this high volume, the two manage to spend one-on-one time with a significant number of their members, while still keeping their focus on supporting a holistic lifestyle for each individual who walks through the door.

More Than Muscle Power

Using an individual approach like the one Tryon and Dichner describe sounds like it might break the bank, but the gym gives members and visitors plenty of options when it comes to finding the right fit for them.

“When we came in, we established right off the bat that we’re going to bring a loving atmosphere to the place to show people that we’re about growth,” said Tryon, adding that he will custom-match anyone who comes through the door. “If you have $5, I’ll train you for $5. We don’t care about how much money you pay, we don’t care about how much you’re capable of or this or that. We just want to show you that we want to grow with you, not just train you and make money from you.”

The 24/7 facility offers a no-contract membership, which means people can pay on a month-to-month basis for a rate of $24.95. The gym also allows drop-ins for $10 a class, and $5 simply to use the facility. The two run about 20 group training sessions a week, and these are not your average gym classes.

Dichner says how many people show up and what kind of energy they give off during the warm-up dictates the type of movements they will do for the day, adding that it is very difficult to plan workouts in advance when she doesn’t know how members will be feeling when they walk through the door.

“We don’t stick to any strict guidelines,” she said. “The holistic practice is, we have to take everything into consideration. If one thing is off, everything is off.”

This “structureless” system, as Tryon calls it, allows the trainers to assess how someone is feeling right off the bat, giving them the ability to create the best training session as possible.

And he says the results are astounding.

The two explained that they have completely different training styles, giving members more options when it comes to choosing how they want to approach a workout.

Both Dichner and Tryon are certified personal trainers, but they credit their ability to get results not to their certifications, but to the experiences they’ve gained throughout their lives. In fact, Dichner says she hardly remembers anything from her certification.

“Once I started training myself and going through trial and error, that’s when I learned the most,” she said. “There’s so much that you learn through hands-on experience.”

Attribute Adjustment

This experience has led to a facility with a completely different mindset about fitness, and Dichner and Tryon have big plans for the future.

“We want to bring it to its full potential,” said Dichner, adding that she hopes they can one day open a much bigger facility with fields and other elements. “The vision keeps changing.”

For now, the couple say helping people grow is the best part of their business. The excitement of not knowing what’s going to happen next helps them stick to their values and continue to give people the best training possible.

“I love seeing people’s attitudes and mindsets change through the training and me helping them,” said Dichner.

“We’re really just enjoying the ride, without a doubt,” added Tryon. “We took it from a gym to a garden.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Sports & Leisure

Star Power

They’re calling it a “pairing party.”

And, as that name suggests, this is a party at which the pairings for the MGM Springfield Basketball Hall of Fame Golf Classic Hosted by Ray Allen!, will be announced.

Most golf tournaments in this region, and there are a great many of them, don’t have a pairing party. This one does, and for a good reason — players are being paired with Hall of Famers and legends of the game. The list of those signed on to participate include players such as Allen, Dominique Wilkins, Gary Payton, Dave Cowens, Rick Barry, Bernard King, Muggsy Bogues, and Alex English. And there are others coming, such as ESPN personality Jackie MacMullan.

The opportunity to play with one of these stars is just one of the intriguing aspects of this tournament, which will benefit both the Hall of Fame and local schools, said Jason Fiddler, vice president of Sales & Marketing for the Hall.

Others include the fact that this is a two-day event, with day one being the pairings party at MGM Springfield, and the second day being all golf — at the Ranch in Southwick, one of the region’s premier courses, and also the fact that, the higher the participation level, the more a group gets to choose the star they’ll play golf with.

The tournament, slated for July 25 and 26, is actually a rebirth of a fundraising tournament staged by the Hall of Fame roughly a decade ago, one that was staged in conjunction with enshrinement weekend in September, said Fiddler, adding that it is now one of three golf events the shrine conducts over the course of a year. The others are in Los Angeles in the fall, and in Phoenix in the spring.

“We wanted to bring a premier event back to Springfield — that was one of our primary missions,” he said, noting that Springfield is the birthplace of the sport and home to its Hall of Fame. “We wanted to do something that would bring our Hall of Fame talent back to Springfield on a regular basis.

“We had long conversations with various Hall of Famers to see who we could get engaged,” he went on, “and then had various conversations with local and regional parties to get a title partner involved in the event, and both kind of came together on the same day.”

Elaborating, he said MGM showed great interest in putting its name on the event, and Ray Allen, the former UConn great and key player in the Boston Celtics 2008 championship run, communicated the same level of interest in doing the same — hence the first annual MGM Springfield Basketball Hall of Fame Golf Classic Hosted by Ray Allen!, complete with exclamation point.

In addition to raising funds for the Hall of Fame, proceeds will, through Ray Allen Charities, be channeled to a Springfield-based school to be determined later.

“We’re trying to raise enough funds to revamp a computer room or robotics program here in the city,” said Fiddler, adding that $40,000 has been earmarked for such a project. “Everyone’s working behind the scenes to select an appropriate school.”

This latest addition to the Hall of Fame golf portfolio will be like the others in that it will enable participating golfers to play with a legend, said Fiddler, adding that there has been a good deal of positive response to the tournament, although there are still a few foursomes to be filled.

Foursomes cost $2,500, and, as noted, there are higher participations levels and other ways to support the endeavor. Sponsorships opportunities are also available. For more information, visit www.hoophall.com/events/mgm-springfield-hall-of-fame-golf-classic/schedule-of-events.

—George O’Brien

Sports & Leisure

Diversity, Revenue Streams Are Key to Clubs’ Success

Attilio Cardaropoli displays one of the new four-passenger carts

Attilio Cardaropoli displays one of the new four-passenger carts at Twin Hills Country Club, one of many steps taken to make the game more enjoyable.

The golf business has never been entirely about golf. There has always been a need a diversity in the form of food and beverage, weddings and other events, and even cross-country skiing in the winter. But at a time when clubs are being challenged by declining play and rising expenses, the need to create revenue streams and put all their facilities to use has never been greater.

The ‘10-year challenge.’

That was the social-media phenomenon that started in early January and fizzled out … maybe in mid-January. You remember. Everyone was posting photos of themselves from then and now in an effort to judge who fared best over the ensuing decade.

People did it. Internet companies did it. If Twin Hills Country Club in Longmeadow did it, it would certainly have fared well against like facilities. Indeed, a decade ago, it was almost a casualty of a changing golf business and a new subdivision in a town that hadn’t seen one built in decades.

But Attilio Cardaropoli, a Twin Hills member who thought the club’s day hadn’t yet come, bought it and commenced writing a remarkable turnaround story. There were 85 members when he acquired it; now there are north of 300, and the number is holding steady. Back then, the course was tired and needed a facelift; same for the clubhouse. He’s done all that work and continues to make improvements every year inside and out, a formula that is certainly working.

“We keep making improvements — every year, we designate some area that needs some attention and improvement, and we continue to do that,” he explained. “Our members like to come in every season and see something new that’s been added on. It’s been a big factor in our success.”

But not many golf operations would have fared nearly as well with the 10-year challenge. The past decade has been a continuation of challenging times that peaked with the Great Recession and improved only slightly in the intervening years.

The story has been told many times. It’s about a falling level of interest in the game, especially among young people, families putting their time and money into avenues that don’t include the local country club, some closures among the area’s large roster of courses, and intense competition among the courses that remain for a shrinking pool of golfers.

And then, in the summer and fall of 2018, the story got even worse, as seemingly relentless rain, a lot of it coming on all-important weekends, erased days from the calendar, robbing clubs of revenue they couldn’t recover.

Dave DiRico, seen here with his son-in-law, Drew Michael

Dave DiRico, seen here with his son-in-law, Drew Michael, says both public and private courses must be diverse operations with a number of revenue streams.

“We had nine rainouts on Tuesdays, and it rained quite a few Saturdays and Sundays, too,” said Ryan Hall, head pro at Springfield’s two municipal courses, Franconia and Veterans, referring to both leagues and daily-fee golf. And with such washouts, a club loses more than greens fees — there’s also cart rentals and food and beverage.

“And people aren’t going to go out and play twice as much the next week,” said Hall, adding that this revenue is essentially lost.

As the 2019 season commences — thankfully early for the clubs able and willing to welcome players in early April or even late March — many challenges remain, said Hall and others we spoke with, but so does a high level of determination to find solutions to the current problems in the golf industry.

Some of them don’t necessarily involve golf, although they relate back to it some ways.
Indeed, diversification and securing new revenue streams are a huge component of the success formula for any club today, public or private, said those we spoke with. This means everything from the 19th hole — many clubs are redoing them and retooling menus at the same time — to more special events, from Mother’s Day brunches to cruise nights to weddings and banquets.

Meanwhile, on the golf side, the driving forces, as always, but especially in this climate, are providing value to existing customers, generating repeat business, and trying to grow the pie by attracting new players, especially when it comes to women and young people.

In some respects, Hall said, a large number of people now in their 20s, 30s, and early 40s are not involved with the game because they were not actively introduced to it and encouraged to play it. The industry seems intent on not making this same mistake with today’s young people.

Indeed, it is being more aggressive in getting them on the course through programs like the PGA Junior League, which creates teams of young people who practice together and play against teams from other area courses in an effort to introduce them and ease them into a game they can play into their 90s.

Springfield’s municipal courses have not participated in the program to date, but Hall plans to change that because of the program’s proven success in generating enthusiasm for the game.

“We just have to get golfers out there,” he explained. “We have to get these young kids to start to understand the game a little bit; it starts at the junior level, and if we can start to develop those skills a little bit and develop a love for the game at that age, we can grow the game.”

For this issue and its focus on sports and leisure, BusinessWest talked with a number of area club owners and operators and pros to gauge what the 2019 season holds. In most all respects, it holds more of what’s been seen over the past decade, which means still more grinding things out.

Course of Action

As he offered BusinessWest a quick tour of Twin Hills to highlight the latest changes and improvements, Cardaropoli stopped by the first tee. There, he asked one of the attendants to bring around one of the new four-passenger golf carts the club put into operation last year.

The majority of the club’s golfers make a point of walking, he noted with a discernable dose of pride, adding quickly that, for those who want or need a lift, the new carts have proven to be quite popular, especially with young families.

“Dad can go out with two or three kids, and they can all ride together,” he said, adding that, while this was the constituency everyone had in mind when the carts were ordered, others have taken a liking to them as well.

Ryan Hall says it’s imperative for those in the golf business to grow

Ryan Hall says it’s imperative for those in the golf business to grow the market by encouraging young people to take up the game.

“Older members are saying that this is a way they can be more sociable — they like them, too,” said Cardaropoli, adding that they are also popular with some playing in the many charitable tournaments hosted by the club, especially those where pace of play is generally slow and four people driving around in the same cart hunting down golf balls won’t slow things down any further.

In many ways, these four-passenger carts are an example of how Twin Hills, and all clubs, are reacting to changing forces around them. They’re responding with strategies to perhaps bring more people into the game and also make it more enjoyable.

And it’s all necessary because, unlike 20 years ago, as Tigermania was sweeping the country and clubs merely had to open the register and point to the first tee, now they have to work at it — and work pretty hard.

Assessing the situation, Dave DiRico, owner of DiRico’s Golf & Racquet in West Springfield, a course pro for more than 30 years, and a close observer of the region’s golf market (for obvious reasons), said the laws of supply and demand have certainly caught up with the golf industry — nationally and also locally.

In short, there’s more supply than current levels of demand would dictate. That’s great for people looking for tee times, but not for course owners facing ever-climbing expenses for everything from personnel to fertilizer and an ultra-competitive market where raising prices is essentially not an option.

All this has led to a thinning of the herd. In late 2017, Southwick Country Club was sold to a residential real-estate developer, and houses are now taking shape along the old fairways. And in Amherst, Hickory Ridge Country Club has closed and will become a solar farm.

These developments certainly benefit the courses remaining in those respective areas, said DiRico, noting that Agawam’s four public courses, Wesfield’s three, and the two remaining in Southwick all picked up some business from the closure of Southwick Country Club. Likewise, remaining courses in Amherst and neighboring Belchertown stand to benefit from Hickory Ridge’s demise.

But the market is still saturated with both public and private courses, he went on, adding that, to be successful, operations must focus on the total experience and not just 18 holes — although that’s a big part of it. And they have to put all of their facilities to work generating revenue.

This is nothing new, really — it’s always been this way — but in this environment, such diversity takes on heightened importance.

“A lot of clubs are doing functions now — weddings, showers, whatever they can book,” said DiRico. “That’s a big part of supplementing their revenue; they need to do those things.

“You need food and beverage,” he went on. “That’s a big revenue center. Years ago, many of the courses didn’t have elaborate food and beverage operations; now they’re adding them because they’re so important.”

Elaborating, he said such amenities enable clubs to book more tournaments because they can handle not only the golf but the networking, dinner, and awards presentation that come after — one-stop shopping that tournament organizers desire, and often demand.

Franconia has historically lost some events and been able to handle only the golf side of many tournaments because it didn’t have a facility on site, said Hall, adding that this will change this year with the addition of a large pavilion built late last year.

It’s a simple structure that is not enclosed, but still, it will enable tournament organizers to stage a dinner on site, rather than forcing participants to drive to the nearby Elks lodge or an area restaurant. And Hall said he can already see the impact in the number of events he’s booking this offseason.

“Having that pavilion is going to help us a great deal — we’re really growing that outside tournament business already,” he told BusinessWest. “People are excited about it, and they want to take advantage of it.”

Going for the Green

Looking back on his first 10 years of ownership at Twin Hills, Cardaropoli said a number of factors have contributed to the club’s turnaround.

He listed everything from some good fortune in the form of some private clubs moving to a semi-private format (Crestview and nearby Elmcrest, for example) and some struggles at other clubs, to strict policies at Twin Hills regarding assessments (there are none) and rate structures — the only real deals are given to long-standing members.

“A lot of clubs are doing functions now — weddings, showers, whatever they can book. That’s a big part of supplementing their revenue; they need to do those things.”

But the real keys have been continuous investments in all aspects of the property, from the course itself to the banquet rooms to other facilities.

Like the pool area, which is currently being expanded to create a larger play area for children, said Cardaropoli, who pointed out the ongoing work while offering his tour.

Meanwhile, on the course, work will start soon on the second and 11th holes — drainage, bunker work, and more — following improvements made last year to the seventh and eighth holes to enlarge the greens, reposition bunkers, and remove dozens of trees, a step taken to help improve drainage and even speed up play.

“Every year, we have a course designer come in and help us renovate the golf course, and every year we end up doing complete renovations on several holes,” he explained. “This past year, we removed 225 trees from the golf course, which makes it a lot healthier and able to dry up quicker after we have rains.”

Ongoing improvements are needed to retain members and attract new ones, he went on, adding that investments in the banquet facilities have also opened the door to additional bookings of weddings and other events, key revenue generators that help enable Twin Hills to avoid the assessments that have plagued other clubs.

And while private clubs are a breed apart in the golf industry, a focus on the customer and providing value are needed at all clubs, said DiRico, who noted, again, that the equation must involve more than just golf.

“To be more successful, clubs have to be more universal in what they provide,” he told BusinessWest. “And that’s not just for public golf, but private golf as well. The private clubs have to do a better job of keeping the families there — they have to be value-added facilities, and by that I mean that it’s not just golf anymore.”

But golf is the foundation for most of those other revenue streams, said those we spoke with, so it’s imperative to bring new players into the game. And the obvious focal point is young people, said Hall, adding that the PGA Junior League has enjoyed a great deal of success in this realm.

“You take kids and create teams — in Springfield, we could probably have one to three teams of maybe 12 kids — and you give them practice once a week, and then we set up matches against other clubs,” he explained, adding that the team format and scramble mode of play (everyone goes to where the best shot came down and plays from there) help ease people into a game that is in many ways daunting and even scary.

“You get kids who may be intimidated by golf because they don’t want to play off their own ball or be by themselves, so you play that scramble format and as a team against other kids their age,” Hall went on. “You develop their skills that way, and this is imperative to growing the game.”

Imaginative Strokes

DiRico said that, despite all the rain last year — or maybe in part because of it — he had his best year since he opened his store eight years ago.

He theorizes that people who couldn’t play focused at least some of those energies on buying new equipment and accessories for when they could play. It’s just a theory, and he listed several more solid reasons why business was so good in 2018 and the first three months of 2019.

These include everything from the store’s fitting services — no one should play clubs off the rack anymore — to the hot new drivers that everyone wants.

Whatever the reason, that side of the golf business is apparently holding its own. The rest of it? It’s as challenging as ever, as any club taking the 10-year challenge can attest.

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

Sports & Leisure

More History to Write

From left, Charlie Arment and Elizabeth and Bob VanZandt

From left, Charlie Arment and Elizabeth and Bob VanZandt stand in the main ballroom at Wyckoff Country Club, one of its many facilities that have undergone a facelift.

None of the members of the new ownership team at Wyckoff Country Club in Holyoke had spent any time on the golf course — or in the golf business — prior to their acquisition earlier this year.

But they did know a few things about what they were getting into. Actually, more than a few.

They knew how to run a business — Bob VanZandt Sr. has operated American Tire Sales & Service in Springfield for nearly 40 years, and Charlie Arment has been at the helm of Charlie Arment Trucking in Springfield, a 65-year-old family business, since 1978.

Beyond that, well, they knew that there was still some history to be written at Wyckoff, originally known as Mount Tom Country Club, a Donald Ross design that has seen many changes over the decades and, like most all clubs, has suffered greatly in recent years as interest in the game has waned.

Most importantly, the new owners — VanZandt and his wife, Elizabeth, and Arment and his brother, William — who acquired the property from long-time owner Clarence “Clarky” Wojtowicz, understood that the golf business isn’t really the golf business anymore. Instead, it’s the entertainment and hospitality business, with golf as a big part of the equation, and they believe that Wyckoff, after some renovations and additions to the landscape, could certainly thrive in that environment.

“It’s more than the golf here — you have to diversify, which we did,” said VanZandt. “We’ll be able to make it because of the banquet facilities upstairs and downstairs, the kitchen, and the golf shop; it’s an attractive package.”

But it’s a package that needed some work, to be sure, and the new owners are supplementing their original purchase of the property — roughly 120 acres in total —with additional investments in both the course and, especially, the clubhouse, in an effort to capitalize on what they consider an attractive location (just off I-91 roughly halfway between Springfield and Northampton) and a solid foundation on which to build.

“No one wanted Wyckoff to go away. While some of the members had questions and concerns, this is what they wanted to see happen here — some improvements inside and out and attention to what the members wanted.”

Elaborating, VanZandt said the course — altered significantly by the construction of I-91 in the mid-’60s — is a hidden gem to many but certainly appreciated by members. Meanwhile, the main banquet facility is one of the largest in the region and can seat 470 for weddings and other events.

“There aren’t many rooms like that in this region — not many places where you can have a wedding or Christmas party or other event and host nearly 500 people,” he noted. “And there’s another room downstairs that holds 130 for bridal showers, brunches, and other events.”

Describing the work done inside to date, VanZandt and Arment said it involves modernizing and improving many of the facilities while also making some needed additions. Regarding the former, VanZandt started with a reference to a hallway on the lower level.

“This was all covered with green wallpaper — I think it was from the ’80s, but it might have been the ’60s; I’m not sure. Anyway, it needed to go,” he said, pointing to the bright white paint on the wall.

Meanwhile, a major renovation of the smaller, lower-level banquet room is underway, replacing wood paneling from several decades ago with a much more modern look. And just off a 19th hole that has been given a minor facelift, work is set to begin on a large patio that will be used by members and event attendees alike.

There are a number of events, said Elizabeth VanZandt, referring to everything from a recent St. Patrick’s Day dinner to planned brunches on Easter and Mother’s Day; from a Friday-night winter concert series to a tradition at Wyckoff known simply as ‘Wednesday Burger Night,’ a name that tells you all you need to know.

Bob VanZandt and Charlie Arment stand near a new patio that will soon be built at Wyckoff.

Bob VanZandt and Charlie Arment stand near a new patio that will soon be built at Wyckoff.

A sign of the times —

A sign of the times — literally; clubs like Wyckoff are now hosting a number of non-golf events to maximize revenues from their various facilities.

Meanwhile, on the course, Charlie Arment Trucking, which has done work on several area golf courses, has started on a number of projects at Wyckoff. Plans call for repairing sand traps, cleaning up ponds, renovating cart paths, clearing overgrown brush and trees, and restoring the ‘Wyckoff Country Club’ sign visible from I-91.

“The course was in pretty tough shape, but we’ve had people out cleaning it and getting it ready,” said Arment, adding that, while there was a soft opening in late March, the course will not be officially open until the end of this month, with the first tournaments scheduled for early May.

Summing up their plans, the new owners said they plan to continue things as they have been for the past 60 years or so — but, as noted, also make some much-needed improvements and additions. They knew considerable work was needed, but wanted to hear from members about what they thought, and received generous amounts of feedback at a meeting early this past winter.

“We asked them what they wanted, and we’re fulfilling what they wanted, and that’s what bringing membership back up,” said VanZandt, adding that the list of requests included everything from much-needed work on the sand traps to new lighting and carpeting in the 19th hole.

Moving forward, the new owners plan to be aggressive in getting the word out about Wyckoff through some targeted marketing, and they said that word-of-mouth marketing has already generated a solid response.

Membership that once exceeded 400 is now closer to 150, and the new owners obviously hope their investments and ongoing work to get the message out will bring that number considerably higher.

“No one wanted Wyckoff to go away,” Arment said. “While some of the members had questions and concerns, this is what they wanted to see happen here — some improvements inside and out and attention to what the members wanted. We’re seeing very positive feedback — a lot of past members are very interested in getting involved again.”

If this trend continues, then a course with some rich history can continue adding new chapters to that discourse for decades to come.

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

Sports & Leisure

Having a Blast

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

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

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

It doesn’t have a nickname. Yet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barrels of Fun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Loaded Questions

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

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

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

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

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

Sports & Leisure

Changing Lanes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Different Strikes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Something for Everyone

There used to be about eight 10-pin bowling lanes locally, Bennett noted, but now there are only a handful. The average age of bowlers at AMF Chicopee Lanes is 25 to 45, and they usually bowl at least once a week. Many are there on weekend nights, when the average age is 25 to 35.

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sports & Leisure

Exit Strategy

Lise Lawrence

Lise Lawrence, in the study where a professor has disappeared — and visitors must learn why.

Escape Games have been growing in popularity across the U.S., but the Pioneer Valley lacked such an attraction until siblings Lise Lawrence and Tom Dahl opened Puzzled Escape Games at Eastworks in 2016. Since then, they’ve offered several levels of challenge to friends, families, and even companies that take advantage of the activity as a team-building experience. And an experience it is — one that can be as tense and unnerving as it is entertaining.

Picture this: you’re on vacation in Mexico, you visit a tequila distillery, drink too much questionable tequila, pass out, and wake up chained to the wall in a Mexican drug lord’s basement. Now, you have to figure out how to get out in just one hour, before he comes back.

That may sound awful, but plenty of people are happily signing up for the experience — well, minus the tequila.

Indeed, that story is the setup of “Escape from Escobar’s,” one of three escape-room experiences at Puzzled Escape Games, which recently celebrated its two-year anniversary at Eastworks in Easthampton.

Lise Lawrence, who launched and manages the attraction along with her brother, Tom Dahl, recently gave BusinessWest a glimse of what visitors experience on a daily basis, showing how a group of individuals are handcuffed to the wall in a dungeon set, and can’t reach each other — but each has a different perspective on the rest of the room, and they must work together to figure out how to free themselves, first from their shackles and then from the chamber itself.

“You have to communicate,” she said. “People in the front of the cell can see things the people in the back can’t.”

Lawrence, who has a background in film, and Dahl, an actor and screenwriter, established the first escape room in Western Mass. with the goal of building something different than the typical model of ‘find the clues, escape the room’ — even though there’s plenty of that.

“All these places are fun, but what we really pride ourselves on is storylines and set decoration and experience,” she said. “We want to create that real experience, where the only ones who can get you out are you and your team. If you’re alone, you can’t get out of your handcuffs; you need the other people.”

Of course, a game that starts with the claustrophobic tension of a dungeon and handcuffs might not appeal to everyone, which is why Puzzled offers two other experiences: “Find the Professor of the Occult,” and “The Lost Wand,” which appeals to the younger set.

In the former, players enter a large study lined with bookshelves, a desk, and several other items. “The professor’s gone missing, and his housekeeper heard a loud thunder noise, and she went in to investigate, and he was gone,” Lawrence said. “So you’re a paranormal investigator, and you have to figure out what happened to the missing professor.”

In each case, the scenario is introduced by a ‘game master’ who becomes part of the story before leaving the players to their own devices. “That’s another thing that sets us apart from other escape games, where it’s like, ‘OK, go in there and figure it out.’ The moment you walk in the door, you’re aleady engaged with us.”

In its two-plus years of operation, Puzzled Escape Games has engaged a steady flow of participants looking for a different type of activity. For this issue’s focus on sports and leisure, BusinessWest talks to Lawrence about why it’s fun for people to exercise their brains in this way — and why they keep coming back, only to be trapped again.

No Simple Escape

Anyone who thinks these games are easy can think again, Lawrence said — about 20% of teams manage to escape Escobar’s dungeon within the hour allotted, and about 30% figure out what happened to the professor and make their way out of his study. For the rest, well, answers are given to those who want them, while others choose to come back and try again.

“Surprisingly, people usually aren’t disappointed,” she said. “They’re like, ‘oh man, how far did we get?’ You can come back for half price if you want to play the same room again. Or we show you the rest of the tricks.”

Chalkboards outside each game celebrate

Chalkboards outside each game celebrate the teams who completed the challenge the fastest.

Dahl and a screenwriting friend based in Toronto — he and his wife are also partners at Puzzled — came up with the idea of launching an escape room after visiting several and realizing Western Mass. didn’t have such an attraction.

“They said, ‘we can create an experience without cell phones. We can have people work together and have fun using different parts of their brain,’” Lawrence recalled. “They noticed the biggest thing, when you go to other escape games, is that it’s not heavy on storyline. A lot of times, there’s not a lot of intro. We thought, ‘how could we make it a fully immersive experience?’

“That’s why, when you walk through the door, you’re immediately part of the adventure,” she went on. “The game masters are acting with you. As you’re asking, ‘oh, what does this open?’ and finding clues the puzzle, you’re also learning about what happened to the professor. Why did he disappear in the first place? You’re building the storyline. We have set designers on staff, so we’ve created a theater set, so you feel even more immersed in the experience.”

“The Lost Wand,” which opened in December, caters more to kids with its wizarding-school theme (shades of Harry Potter), but mostly draws adults, just like the other two games. It’s also easier than the other two, with a roughly 80% success rate; when kids play, certain puzzles can be switched out for easier ones, and the pass rate jumps to 100%. A wizard-themed party room adjoining the puzzle room hosts theme birthday parties and other events.

Yet, kids do surprisingly well in the other games as well, Lawrence said, especially “Find the Professor.”

“Funny enough, they do amazing in that room because it’s so academic,” Lawrence said. “I was hosting a group of 12- and 13-year-olds, six of them, and they got out. Kids that age might look for things we might not even think about.”

Still, kids dig “The Lost Wand” for the appeal of sitting in a Potteresque classroom, which sits just beyond a lobby filled with board games, tables, and quirky décor — and that’s part of the experience, too.

“It starts with our lobby. The doors are open, and sometimes people come in just to hang out and play board games,” she explained. “We have our wizarding music playing in the background, we have our fun lights, and this is a great place for people to ramp up and get ready for their game.

“Then,” she added, “the game master comes out and does the intro: ‘this is the Massachusetts Academy of Magic.’ Then the door opens, they enter, and their game experience begins.”

In all three games, teams may ask for up to three clues during the hour when they get stuck. “You agree together you’d like a clue, and you press the doorbell. Monitors are watching through cameras, so we have eyes and ears on you, and we give you the best clue possible.”

The lobby outside “The Lost Wand”

The lobby outside “The Lost Wand” is packed with games to pass the time while waiting for the main event.

Everyone gets one extra tip in “Find the Professor,” however — the hundreds of gold-colored books lining the long wall of shelves aren’t clues at all, and the game master says as much, to avoid having teams waste time on them.

“We tell people these gold books are just set decorations, and you don’t have to look in them or behind them,” Lawrence said. “Some people are like, ‘no, they lied to us.’ But we just don’t want to waste your time. Trust us, focus on other things around the room.”

You’re in the Picture

Lawrence draws on her experience creating film festivals to craft a much more interactive type of experience at Puzzled, while most of the staff have backgrounds in graphic design, painting, set design, and the like. The window in the “Lost Wand” classroom is a colorful, painted dragon’s head, and it’s illuminated at night, so visitors see it from outside Eastworks.

It’s not just families and groups of friends who take part in the games; companies have visited as team-building exercises, which is an especially good use of “Escape from Escobar’s,” with teamwork absolutely necessary to escape those initial handcuffs. “We really push to get groups and companies that want to have a fun activity that also enhances team building and communication. This is a great room for that.”

As for other visitors, they appreciate a different experience from the usual night out, even though not everyone is sold right away.

“A lot of times, there’s one person that’s dragged in, saying, ‘I would never choose to do this on a night out.’ Those are my favorite customers because they soon realize it’s not what they think. I was one of those. It took me two years before I did one because I didn’t want to get locked in a room; I didn’t want to feel stupid.

“But one moment can change all that,” she went on. “If they’re the one that finds the first clue, all of a sudden they’re part of that team. Now they’re the ones that get excited, like ‘wow, I had no idea that was going to happen.’ Most people walk out happy. This isn’t for everybody, but it’s for most.”

Because two of the games require at least four players, sometimes strangers are tossed together, depending on who shows up and when. “Those groups usually have the highest escape rate because there’s different minds in there all working together,” Lawrence said.

It’s fun to make progress on the puzzles, she added, even if the end result isn’t a timely escape — and, hopefully, it’s fun mixed with actual thrills. “In Escobar’s, people start thinking, ‘what if I really went on vacation and this happened?’ It’s freaky. People sweat because it gets intense.”

What she hasn’t sweated is launching a startup with Dahl, even after both had heard it’s not a good idea to be, well, handcuffed to one’s sibling in a business venture. But they’re close and get along well, she said.

“We both went to the performing-arts high school in Hadley, so we’re local, and it’s nice to create something artistic and bring something back to our community,” she told BusinessWest. “That’s literally the basis — how can we provide a fun, immersive experience for people? It’s a lot of work, but it’s rewarding. That’s why we do it.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sports & Leisure

Upwardly Mobile

By Kayla Ebner

Hana Skirkey says rock climbers are drawn to the sport

Hana Skirkey says rock climbers are drawn to the sport for both the physical challenge and the welcoming community.
Photos by Kayla Ebner

Hana Skirkey says that, increasingly, individuals young and old are looking for outlets that are both mentally and physically challenging — a tough combination to come by.

Perhaps that difficult search for such an activity is why more people are turning to indoor rock climbing as either a fun activity or a competitive sport. It could also be because climbing offers individuals an opportunity to see some incredible places around the world. Or maybe, it’s because of the truly welcoming people that belong to the climbing community.

Skirkey, general manager of Central Rock Gym in Hadley, believes the the answer is, well, all of the above.

“Indoor climbing is great because you can do it in any type of weather, and the community here is amazing,” said Skirkey, who told BusinessWest that the Hadley location is ideally situated in many respects.

For starters, it’s within a few hours — or even a few minutes — of some challenging and thus popular climbing spots. Meanwhile, it’s situated in the middle of the Five College area — and perhaps 40,000 college students, who make up a large percentage of the growing climbing community.

Actually, Hadley is the second location for Central Rock Gym, or CRG, as it’s called. The company was founded by brothers Ed and Joe Hardy, who decided to bring their love for climbing to their hometown of Worcester, and opened their first location there in 2009. Hadley followed just two years later.

Today, there are nine CRG locations spread across Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New York, and four more locations are set to open very soon. According to CRG’s website, a location in Manhattan will be opening this summer; another Bay State location, in Stoneham, will open in September; and two facilities, in Buffalo and Rochester, N.Y. will be debuting in November. In less than a decade, this business has grown from one facility to 13.

This profound growth reflects the steadily rising popularity of rock climbing — again, as both a recreational activity and competitive sport — in Western Mass. and across the country, for that matter.

The no-harness activity known as boulder-ing gives climbers a different type of experience.

The no-harness activity known as boulder-ing gives climbers a different type of experience.

And the Hadley facility is, in essence, a microcosm of this phenomenon, said Skirkey, referencing everything from the wide age disparity of CRG members — they range from 3 to 90 or so — to the way families are embracing the sport as a unit.

For this issue and its focus on sports and recreation, BusinessWest talked with Skirkey at length about rock climbing, CRG and its Hadley facility, and why the climbing community continues its torrid pace of growth.

Scaling Up the Business

Located at 165 Russell St., CRG’s Hadley facility is a short drive from some of the top climbing destinations in this region, including the White Mountains, making it the perfect spot for outdoor adventurers to train and have fun. There are also many local crags in the Western Mass. area, including Chapel Ledge in Ashfield, Mormon Hollow in Wendell State Forest, and the Skinner area in Hadley.

“There’s a lot of outdoor climbing specifically in Western Mass. compared to other parts of the state,” said Skirkey, who has enjoyed climbing for most of her life.

She graduated from UMass Amherst in 2010 and was the president of the UMass Outing Club (UMOC) where she enjoyed “fun — what some people call crazy — activities” with friends who had the same interest and excitement as she did for various outdoor hobbies. UMOC is a UMass Amherst registered student organization that organizes outdoor trips to both local and distant areas, taking part in activities such as hiking, rock climbing, cross-country skiing, and everything in between. Aside from being the president, Skirkey was also a hiking/backpacking and whitewater kayaking leader for UMOC.

Although she never imagined herself being a climbing-gym manager, Skirkey knew she wanted to be somewhere with like-minded individuals who enjoy being active as much as she does. And CRG is the perfect fit.

“It’s not a normal office job,” she said. “Being a part of the community is great here.”

A passion for those ‘crazy’ activities is one of the things Skirkey loves about the outdoor community. Making friends is easy, she explained, when everyone in a community loves to do a specific thing together — in this case, indoor rock climbing.

After graduation, Skirkey heard the gym was opening a location in Hadley, so she applied. She got a job as a desk staff member, and a year later moved on to assistant manager. She continued to climb — literally and figuratively — and eventually became general manager at Central Rock’s Hadley location.

Climbers prepare to scale the high walls at Central Rock Gym.

Climbers prepare to scale the high walls at Central Rock Gym.

As noted earlier, Skirkey is not the only college student drawn to the gym’s facilities. Students from the Five Colleges — UMass Amherst, Smith College, Amherst College, Hampshire College, and Mount Holyoke College — and many more schools in the Western Mass. area visit CRG to climb. Skirkey said she also sees students from Springfield College visiting the facility.

She noted that people who enjoy outdoor climbing come to CRG to train indoors on days and seasons when outdoor climbing is not feasible because the rocks get wet, or it’s just too cold outside.

“We’re between two and three-ish hours from other, bigger destinations, and then we also have a bunch of local crags people can go out to,” she explained.

CRG upgraded its Hadley location in December 2017. The original 12,400-square-foot facility was expanded to 26,000 square feet. This expansion added 8,000 square feet of climbing surface, 200 linear feet of new bouldering walls, and 24 top-rope stations on a new climbing-wall product. An additional 80 parking spaces were also created. The project expanded the fitness room to 2,100 square feet and nearly tripled the size of the yoga room, extending it to 900 square feet.

CRG holds daily fitness and yoga classes, Skirkey explained, adding that the expansion has brought a new level of service to the membership and guests they bring — and helped increase the ranks of both.

“We just felt like we were in this bubble that we needed to help grow,” she said. “People love bringing their friends here; it’s really nice to be able to accommodate that just a little bit better now.”

When planning the expansion, CRG looked at the busiest areas of the gym, as well as what needed to be improved in terms of spacing. Bouldering is a popular climbing activity that needs a quicker turnover rate, said Skirkey. There are several other types of climbing that a person at any skill level can do when visiting CRG.

Ascending Order

Skirkey described CRG as a very welcoming and community-oriented company, and noted that one of the most common things she hears in reviews is how friendly the staff is. No matter what age or skill level, anyone who walks through the doors is welcomed with open arms.

“It’s really easy to get into it and feel welcomed,” said Skirkey. “I don’t think you get that with most gyms.”

This welcoming effect has contributed to the growth of membership and the wide diversity within it, she noted, adding that the gym’s youngest climbing club ranges from ages 3 to 6 years old. Skirkey also noted that families often come in to enjoy climbing together, a much different family activity than most experiences.

Aside from the standard membership, which costs $85 a month, CRG also has a family plan for these families who love climbing together. The membership includes two people who are engaged or married, or two parents and their dependent children, for $125 a month. Those who want to add additional family members can do so for $30 a month.

Skirkey believes that climbing can help family members bond with each other.

“It’s nice for parents, too, because they can do something active with their kids,” she noted. “Especially for young kids, it’s critical to get into something that makes them feel strong. I think that’s really important for development.”

Climbers have two main options at CRG: bouldering and what’s known as top roping. Bouldering is climbing that a person can undertake after a brief orientation given by a staff member. This specific type of climbing is a free climb on a wall about 15 feet tall.

A renovation completed last year added 8,000 square feet of climbing surface

A renovation completed last year added 8,000 square feet of climbing surface to Central Rock Gym’s Hadley facility.

The other climb, top roping, is highly recommended for those who are new to the sport. Here, the climber is tied onto one end of the rope, and a supporting climber, known as a belayer, is connected to the other side, making sure the rope stays tight so the climber does not fall.

In order to start top roping at CRG, climbers must take a one-hour introductory class to learn how to belay properly. If a person is not interested in learning how to belay, they can schedule a staff belay in which the staff member belays while the customer climbs. In order to belay, a climber must be 13 years or older.

The intro belay class is $20 per person but free for members, and typically lasts between an hour and 90 minutes. During this class, the climber will learn knots, the belay process, and safety procedures practiced at CRG. The staff belay costs $30 an hour per climber. Both the intro belay class and the staff belay require reservations and are only offered at certain times during the week.

“I would say that roped climbing is a bit more beginner-friendly than bouldering is,” said Skirkey. “You’ve got a staff person when you do staff belay, and you’ve got a rope to catch you when you fall. The way that bouldering is … the type of movements are usually a bit more power-oriented.”

There are, of course, varying skill levels of climbing, and some people coming in are going to be far more advanced than others. CRG offers many options for beginners to help them adjust and start their climbing journey, and also has state-of-the-art facilities for more advanced climbers. Aside from the intro and staff belay classes, customers can also schedule a private lesson with a staff member to help them learn the ins and outs of climbing one-on-one. In the “Technique 101” class, climbers who are interested in learning some basic tips can sign up to improve their climbing skills.

Members ages 6 to 18 at Central Rock Gym may also form both competitive and non-competitive climbing teams to help gear up for competitions, or just for fun. In the past, CRG has sent several members to the Nationals run by USA Climbing. Skirkey says members have done exceptionally well at these competitions, and have even placed in third and sixth place. This year, the gym has six kids going to Nationals.

CRG offers plenty of options for climbers of different skill levels. The gym also offers day passes and discounted memberships for climbers 22 and under or 65 and older, and active military members.

Another characteristic that helps CRG stand out from other climbing gyms is the cleanliness and openness of the building itself, Skirkey said. Climbers will use chalk on their hands to help their grip as they climb the walls, and things can get dirty quickly.

“We dedicate a lot of our time to cleaning and making sure the facility has clean air to breathe and nice lighting,” she said. “A lot of climbing gyms can feel like dungeons.”

But not Central Rock Gym. Each facility, including the one in Hadley, has large glass windows that let in plenty of natural light, making the experience for climbers even more enjoyable.

She noted that CRG even connects people who do different outdoor activities. Sometimes, people who enjoy mountain biking or hiking will come in wanting to try climbing, and end up expanding their circle of friends. CRG is definitely a place that attracts the outdoorsy type, she added.

Due to the rising popularity, Skirkey recommends making a reservation, especially if a person lives far away from the gym.

Reaching New Heights

Summing up the many rewards offered by climbing, Skirkey said that, for those dedicated to this sport, it’s not all about getting to the top, although that’s a big part of it.

It’s also about the journey. Indeed, figuring out how to make your way to the top, step by step, is the best part, she told BusinessWest.

“I love it because it’s fun to try to figure out how to finish a climb and challenge yourself both mentally and physically,” she added.

From her perspective, those twin challenges go a long way toward explaining the growing popularity of climbing and the upward trajectory of CRG and especially its Hadley location.

And the best part is, they can both go much higher still.

Sections Sports & Leisure

Game On

Dr. Scott Cooper, one of PSSP’s managing partners

Dr. Scott Cooper, one of PSSP’s managing partners

No one is totally immune from a sports injury, from kids on the playground to serious college athletes to ‘weekend warriors’ in middle age. Treating those injuries — and helping reduce the risk of sustaining them — is one of the key niches of Pioneer Spine & Sports Physicians, which has been helping patients return to full function for more than a quarter-century.

No one is totally immune from a sports injury, from kids on the playground to serious college athletes to ‘weekend warriors’ in middle age. Treating those injuries — and helping reduce the risk of sustaining them — is one of the key niches of Pioneer Spine & Sports Physicians, which has been helping patients return to full function for more than a quarter-century.

The first weeks of spring — not spring in name only, like the bouts of snow and 20-degree weather that dotted late March and early April this year, but actual spring weather — typically send weekend warriors, after a long winter indoors, scurrying for their golf clubs and tennis rackets.

And sometimes, they’re a little too enthusiastic.

“We see a lot of that this time of year — golfers getting the clubs out, only to develop back pain. But we also see hockey players from the over-40 league come in with all kinds of injuries,” said Dr. Scott Cooper, one of the managing partners of Pioneer Spine and Sports Physicians (PSSP), the largest private physiatry practice in the Northeast.

“I had one guy who was probably in his mid-50s, and he had recurrent tennis elbow, and I could not get him to stay off the court,” Cooper told BusinessWest. “I treated him for probably six months for tennis elbow, and I don’t think he ever missed a match — whereas, if he was on a team, I could tell his coach, and his coach would say, ‘you’re going to sit out two weeks until this thing clears up.’ Sometimes the weekend warriors can be determined.”

Cooper and his team should know, seeing a broad range of patients every day, from high-school and college athletes nursing knee and shoulder injuries to the inpatient clients PSSP manages in acute-care settings like Weldon Rehabilitation Hospital and Bronson Rehabilitation, recovering from spinal-cord injuries, neurologic conditions, and amputations.

Physiatry, also known as physical medicine and rehabilitation, is a specific type of practice, he explained, but one with a wide range of applications.

“One of the nice things about physiatry is it’s a very broad specialty, and one of our primary goals is to provide state-of-the-art care in all facets of physiatry,” Cooper explained.

That includes the acute rehab setting at Weldon and Bronson, where Pioneer treats people who have conditions that cause a loss of function, so they can’t return home, but no longer need to be in a medical/surgical unit of the hospital.

“These are people who have had strokes, for example, or spinal-cord injuries or head injuries or complex medical conditions or amputations or other neurologic conditions like multiple sclerosis or ALS — things that cause them to lose function, but they’re now medically stable so they can tolerate rehabilitation.

“We manage those patients, and we’re also involved in pain management, both acute pain and chronic pain, in all our offices,” he added, adding that the practice’s physiatrists also deal with spinal conditions, back pain, herniated disks, pinched nerves, and much more. “We have procedure suites in most of our offices where we can do X-ray guided procedures on people’s spinal conditions, and we are also involved with the Surgery Center of New England; we do procedures there that are not office-based, things that are a little bit more invasive and require anesthesia.”

In short, it’s a one-stop shop for a host of conditions, with one goal in mind — to return patients to the highest function possible — in both their work and play.

The Sporting Life

That ‘play’ factor — sports medicine — is a niche PSSP is well-known for, and around 90% of sports injuries require no surgery at all, Cooper noted.

“If they do require surgical treatment, we work closely with some of the orthopedists in the area who provide those services. But for the other conditions, we’re able to treat them very effectively, and we do that with a lot of recreational athletes, weekend warriors, and we also work with several of the high schools in the area.”

PSSP’s West Springfield location is one of seven offices spanning the Pioneer Valley from East Longmeadow to Brattleboro.

PSSP’s West Springfield location is one of seven offices spanning the Pioneer Valley from East Longmeadow to Brattleboro.

Pioneer also provides team doctors for area colleges including Springfield College, American International College, and Westfield State University, both during and between games.

“For example, hockey and football are the two main ones where they need to have someone on the sidelines according to the rules of their conference, so we provide game coverage in case of an injury during the game,” he explained. Meanwhile, if an athlete is injured in practice, they’re seen in a PSSP office as soon as possible.

“We recognize that one tenet of physiatry is quick return to function,” he said. “So we focus on getting athletes in quickly, diagnosing their condition, treating them, and returning them to the field as quickly as is safe.”

They take the same approach to occupational medicine, working with client businesses — Pioneer has a therapist at MassMutual full-time, for example — on job-site injury prevention and treatment. “We focus on them just the same way we focus on athletes — get them in quickly, diagnose their condition, determine what they can and can’t do in a rapid manner, and treat them comprehensively so they can return to full function.”

While about 70% of all occupational injuries involve the spine, that’s not the case with athletes, Cooper noted. “They have a whole different set of issues. The majority of what we see with athletes involve the knee or the shoulder. And most of those we treat non-operatively. We establish a diagnosis, and if that diagnosis requires a surgical evaluation, we facilitate that, and the surgeons we work with are very accommodating and allow us to get that done very quickly.”

Beyond treatment, though, the team at Pioneer emphasizes prevention. As an example, its physical therapists attended an educational program, developed at Syracuse University, that works to prevent ACL injuries in female athletes, who have a much higher predilection to those injuries than men.

“It’s almost an epidemic,” Cooper said. “Some of the reasons are unclear, but female soccer players and lacrosse players, will come in with ACL injuries, and once you have that kind of injury, it can be devastating, and it generally does require surgery, and requires a long course of rehabilitation.

“So this program has been shown to prevent those injuries,” he went on, explaining that Pioneer’s PTs were certified through the week-long course to teach a group of specific exercises to area sports teams, who come in during the preseason for a week of intensive training, and then continue on a regular basis. The exercises focus on stabilizing the knee and have been shown to prevent injuries.

“That’s one way we try to head off injuries and reduce their likelihood,” he added. “Unfortunately, there’s no way to eliminate them.”

No Slowing Down

That goes for young athletes and older weekend warriors, who often arrive at PSSP with a combination of a sports injury and something more degenerative, such as an arthritic condition.

“It’s something they can normally get by with, but if somebody with an arthritic shoulder is doing OK, but he goes and plays some tennis, now he’s got a rotator-cuff problem. The springtime is definitely a big time for those types of injury, but we see them year-round. And sometimes they can be the hardest to treat because these people are very determined to get back out there.”

With America’s senior population surging, Cooper’s team sees patients from that age group as well.

“We’re definitely seeing an older population that is increasingly active, but we encourage that; we want our patients to be active. There’s good data in the medical community that one of the ways to increase longevity and reduce morbidity in the population as a whole is to have an active lifestyle,” he told BusinessWest, adding that one of the mottos in his profession is that “physiatry adds years to life, and life to years.”

“That’s the idea — we want people to stay active, and it almost doesn’t matter what activity; we want them to engage in exercise, and when they do that, they may encounter some injuries and have some problems, and we’re here to address that.”

Because injuries are often an inevitable speed bump in an active lifestyle, he went on, it’s encouraging that treatments have evolved to allow people to return to full activity much sooner than before.

“Injuries that once may have been considered incompatible with continued competition, we now see as being treatable — and treatable with less-invasive means,” he said. “That can be anything from tendinitis to things like arthritis. In fact, arthritis of the knees is something that used to be, ‘you can take Advil, or you can have a knee replacement’; there wasn’t a whole lot else you could do for it.”

Now, however, physiatrists may tackle the issue with anything from orthotics to new types of bracing; from new exercise methods to injections that go far beyond what traditional cortisone could achieve. “So there are definitely more options to treat those conditions with different means that don’t necessaily require surgery, and allow people to be more active.”

It helps, he said, that Pioneer provides a comprehensive, multi-disciplinary, holistic model of care, where physiatrists, physical therapists, and other team members work together and consult with each other on troublesome conditions. If a patient with a spine injury isn’t progressing quickly enough or has too much pain, the providers aren’t afraid to work together to find a solution.

“Basically, anything that’s needed to treat the conditions we treat, we have under one roof,” Cooper said. “We have specialized nerve testing, guys who focus on different areas … we have all kinds of talent and skill to bear.

“I think that really serves to benefit the patient,” he went on, “because they’re not just getting one doctor and one opinion; they’re getting a team approach. I think that is unusual in a private-practice setting, and I think that’s one of the main reasons we’ve been so successful.”

Bottom Line

When asked what he enjoys about his job, Cooper paused for a moment and smiled.

“We think we have the best specialty in the world,” he said. “Whether I’m treating an 80-year-old patient with a stroke or an amputation or I’m treating a 16-year-old with a sports injury, I’m working with people who want to be here, who want to be treated, who have definite goals. And it’s very satisfying when they reach those goals.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Sports & Leisure

Refreshing the Data

The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) has released a new official statement regarding energy drinks, published in the college’s clinical review journal, Current Sports Medicine Reports. “Energy Drinks: A Contemporary Issues Paper” provides guidance and warnings regarding these beverages because of the dangers they present to at-risk populations, primarily children who are the most vulnerable and the target of marketing efforts.

“Energy drinks are extremely popular, and concerns about their consumption are coming from every sector of society, which is why we’ve published these recommendations,” said Dr. John Higgins. “Our review of the available science showed that excessive levels of caffeine found in energy drinks can have adverse effects on cardiovascular, neurological, gastrointestinal, renal, and endocrine systems, as well as psychiatric symptoms. More needs to be done to protect children and adolescents, as well as adults with cardiovascular or other medical conditions.”

Energy drinks are highly caffeinated beverages that often contain myriad vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and herbal mixtures. As a global authority for sports medicine, exercise science, and the promotion of participant safety, the ACSM is focused on facilitating high performance while protecting those who compete in athletics or engage in other forms of physical activity. By publishing the new recommendations, the ACSM is helping consumers to understand the risks associated with rapid and excessive consumption of energy drinks.

“When used safely and with moderation, energy drinks may have some short-term, performance-enhancing effects. However, users are generally unaware of the many potential adverse reactions that could have long-term effects, some of which are quite serious,” said Higgins. We highly encourage consumers, parents, physicians, athletic trainers, personal trainers, and coaches to follow these recommendations.”

Children and adolescents appear to be at particularly high risk of complications from energy drinks due to their small body size, being relatively caffeine-naive, and potentially heavy and frequent consumption patterns, as well as the amounts of caffeine. The message that these beverages are not intended for children needs to be reinforced and widely disseminated, Higgins said.

At the same time, he added, marketing should not appeal to vulnerable populations. Currently, manufacturers of energy drinks advertise on websites, social media, and television channels that are highly appealing to both children and adolescents. Target marketing to sporting and other events involving children and adolescents should not be permitted.

Regardless of health and fitness level, and until such time that proper safety and efficacy data are available, the ACSM recommends that energy drinks should be avoided before, during, or after strenuous activities. Some of the deaths allegedly due to energy drinks have occurred when a person consumed them before and/or after performing strenuous activities.

Clearly, Higgins notes, investment in awareness and educational resources highlighting the potential adverse effects and safe use of energy drinks is required. Significant efforts should be made to educate consumers regarding the clear and present differences between soda, coffee, sports drinks, and energy drinks. Energy-drink education also should be a priority in school-based curricula related to nutrition, health, and wellness.

The ACSM is calling for a research agenda to prioritize key questions about the acute and chronic effects of energy-drink use. At a minimum, standard safety and efficacy studies should be performed and submitted to the FDA by manufacturers. Well-designed and controlled research is required to examine the increasing frequency of adverse events being reported by emergency departments.

In addition, the organization notes, healthcare providers must talk to their patients about energy-drink use and report adverse events to watchdog agencies like poison-control centers, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the FDA. A national registry should be set up to specifically track energy-drink side effects with mandated reporting requirements.

Among other specific recommendations, the ACSM argues that energy drinks should not be consumed by children or adolescents; should not be consumed by other vulnerable populations, including pregnant or breastfeeding women, caffeine-naive or sensitive individuals, or individuals with cardiovascular or medical conditions; should not be used for sports hydration; should not be mixed with alcohol; and should bear a label such as “high source of caffeine” or “do not mix with alcohol.”

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Keeping Score

Valley Blue Sox owner Clark Eckhoff

Valley Blue Sox owner Clark Eckhoff

As the region’s only collegiate summer-league baseball team, the Valley Blue Sox are surging both on the field and in the front office, which is celebrating league-topping attendance last year and a growing reputation for on-field success. Those victories didn’t come overnight, but result from both skilled roster building and a recognition that the product should be, above all, affordable and fun.

When Darth Vader or one of his stormtrooper henchmen roam the third-base line, it’s understandable that not every eye is fixed between the white lines of the diamond.

That’s OK, though, in the world of college-level baseball, and particularly the world of the Valley Blue Sox, who have turned MacKenzie Stadium in Holyoke into a bona fide summer destination.

“We have to be reaching out through promotions and engaging people who might not otherwise have interest in the game, but they’ll come out for a fireworks show or to see Star Wars characters,” General Manager Hunter Golden told BusinessWest. “There’s a hook, something other than the game.”

That’s true of minor-league and amateur baseball organizations across the country, a culture known as much for its mascot races and bobblehead giveaways — in short, family fun — as for the product it puts on the field. But the Blue Sox are garnering increasing attention in the New England Collegiate Baseball League (NECBL) for both the crowds it draws, thanks partly to those promotions, and the quality of the play itself, which is turning casual visitors into devoted fans.

It’s a success story that didn’t happen by accident.

This is truly a team that reaches the entire area; we have fans driving down from Northampton, Amherst, and Hadley.”

In fact, team owner Clark Eckhoff, a veteran of minor-league baseball who oversaw the revival of a team in the Great Lakes region before buying the then-Holyoke Blue Sox in 2013, saw potential in this team and its surroundings, and had a vision for how to grow its popularity.

“This is truly a team that reaches the entire area; we have fans driving down from Northampton, Amherst, and Hadley,” he said — not to mention the fact that Springfield itself is the largest metro area in the country lacking professional baseball. Consider the success of the AA-level Hartford Yard Goats, who are selling out most of their tilts, and it’s clear a regional appetite for baseball has long existed. The challenge was to field a product — on field and off — to sate it.

Blue Sox attendance ranked first in its league last year

Blue Sox attendance ranked first in its league last year, and 11th among 169 summer colleague teams.

So far, mission accomplished. Canny roster building (more on that later) resulted in a deep playoff run last year, and a hot start in 2017 that included a nine-game winning streak in mid-June. Off the field, the team’s heavy promotional schedule of giveaways and events, plus ramped-up efforts to engage with the community, have turned the Blue Sox into the NECBL’s top draw, ranking 11th nationally among 169 summer collegiate teams in 2016, and besting the turnout of 20 A-level professional teams — and three AA squads — to boot.

“I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to take something literally close to not even existing — based on where the team was trending in 2011 and 2012 — and seeing the fanbase grow,” Eckhoff said. “The majority of these kids will be in A ball in two years, so the quality of baseball is really good, and the other things we do provide a great family experience.

“I love going to Fenway Park,” he added. “It’s the most historic stadium; it’s iconic. But the majority of people can’t afford to go there more than once or twice a summer. Here, tickets are $7 — $5 for kids — with affordable concessions, and you can get autographs from guys who will sign pro contracts in a year or two.”

All that and stormtroopers? It’s proven to be a winning combination, both literally and figuratively.

Call of the East

Eckhoff previously owned the Wausau (Wisconsin) Woodchucks of the Northwoods League for 13 years, and was looking for a change of scenery when he bought the Blue Sox in 2013. When he bought the Woodchucks in 1999, the team was drawing some 600 fans per night. By his 10th year, attendance averaged 2,000. He attributes that to the team getting the word out about the quality of play — some 15 of his players eventually made the majors, including Ben Zobrist — but the fun factor as well.

Hunter Golden says building a winning roster means recruiting

Hunter Golden says building a winning roster means recruiting not only talented players, but those who will best fit into the culture of the team and its region.

“There was a study done showing that 80% of fans who walked into a minor-league baseball game were leaving the game in the sixth or seventh inning and couldn’t tell you the opponent or the score, but they knew it was bobblehead night, and that they had enjoyed an affordable night out,” Eckhoff said.

Golden arrived in the baseball-management world much more recently, after parlaying a passion for sabermetrics — an innovative way to analyze a baseball player’s potential by crunching his in-game performance into, essentially, hard math — into a nationally visible role as a blogger and speaker on the subject. That caught the eye of Eckhoff, who tapped Golden as an advisor early on and later offered him the GM’s chair.

They have proven to be a solid team, pairing Eckhoff’s nose for creating a memorable fan experience with Golden’s ability, tested on the fly, to turn his sabermetrics expertise into actual roster building.

It’s a blend of science and art, Golden said, that extends far beyond the numbers.

“The first is key is building the culture you want,” he said. “There’s a lot of great talent out there, but it’s not just about how much talent a kid has. It’s the best kid versus the right kid — finding not only a baseball player who has great ability, but also a kid who’s going to thrive in our area and culture.”

The NECBL has long competed regionally with the Cape Cod Baseball League, and good players concerned with the difference in scenery between the two won’t make good Blue Sox candidates, he went on.

“I tell college coaches, ‘I don’t have a beach. They won’t be taking their parents out to dinner at a nice restaurant on the boardwalk. Guys that prioritize that stuff won’t have success here.’ I want guys who wake up in the morning, and what they’re looking forward to most is grabbing a bat and glove and getting out there to play baseball. That first month, everyone is into it, but when you get into your second month of three-hour bus rides, the first type of kid starts to run out of gas, but the second type of kid wants to be on that bus. That’s what we’re looking for.”

In return, the Blue Sox offer players a robust array of host families — there’s currently a waiting list to house a player for the summer — and activities ranging from trips to Fenway and Cooperstown to gym memberships and opportunities to engage with the community through educational baseball clinics and other events.

It’s a model that makes recruiting easier each season, Golden said. “Schools want to send their guys to us when they see how they’re treated and how they enjoy their time here.”

College students are also paying attention to how successfully NECBL players transition to the pros. In the recent Major League Baseball draft, 11 former Blue Sox players were drafted, led by left-handed pitcher Aaron Leasher, a sixth-round pick of the Red Sox, followed by outfielder Garrett McCain (Tigers, round 10) and catcher Erik Ostberg (Rays, round 13).

Sound Investments

The city of Holyoke has noticed the recent run of Blue Sox success too, and has been making financial investments in the team, including $3,000 to improve the playing surface. The bullpens are also new, and the left-field fence — where long fly balls long went to die — was pulled in to boost home runs and, by extension, excitement.

Eckhoff also credited the businesses that are finding it increasingly rewarding to buy sponsorships in the club. “In the summer, we reap what we sow in the offseason,” he said of those relationships. “That’s what drives the engine — people buying billboards, community nights, ticket sales. It’s become easier for businesses to support you when you’ve got 2,800 fans out there for almost three hours, looking at the signage and hearing public-address announcements promoting businesses. It tends to multiply.”

Hopefully, he added, a new scoreboard is in the works for 2018. “You add some new pieces every year to improve the experience for fans. That’s our goal.”

The key, Golden said, is to take player development seriously, but also understand that families that show up at MacKenzie Stadium want to have a good — even silly — time. That’s where the bobbleheads and ketchup-and-mustard races come in. But the team doesn’t shy away from meaningful displays as well, such as a recent ceremony that honored the World War I hero for whom the stadium is named.

“What keeps the engine going is the fan experience,” Golden said. “The minor-league teams that fail appeal too much to the hardcore baseball guy. You should want as many people as possible to have access to baseball, and that means going out of your way to appeal to non-traditional fans.”

But the sabermetrician and lifelong baseball fan in him certainly appreciates the product he’s helping put on the field.

“There’s not a lot of difference between low-A ball and the best of college baseball,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s great that our community has access to that. It’s affordable entertainment families can enjoy on a Friday night. We’ve been able to do it the right way, and that’s the plan going forward.”

In other words, play ball.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Sports & Leisure

Course Change

Ryan Hall

Ryan Hall says his move to the public-course realm is a learning experience that is ongoing.

Ryan Hall acknowledged that he really didn’t know what to expect when he left the posh private-club realm within the broad business of golf, specifically Avon Country Club in Connecticut, for Springfield’s two public courses, or ‘munis,’ as they’re called, this spring.

But in making that dramatic and somewhat unique career course change, he strongly implied — without actually and officially saying it — that the unknown was and is a better bet for him than something he’d for known for pretty much his entire career.

Thus, his move to Franconia Golf Course and Veterans Memorial Golf Course speaks volumes about the state of this game and what Hall sees happening — or not happening — down the road.

In short, the landscape has changed dramatically across the golf spectrum and at private clubs in particular, especially as the Great Recession put a huge dent in discretionary spending such as club memberships.

“The recession really clobbered the private clubs,” Hall told BusinessWest, adding that the past several years have been, in a word, a struggle — to build and maintain membership and bring more people into the game. “And to me, that model is in real trouble.”

Elaborating, Hall said Avon, like most other clubs like it, is “surviving,” a term that could not have been used, or perhaps even imagined, a few decades ago. And he doesn’t really see that landscape changing in any significant way in the years to come, especially amid conjecture that the Millennial generation is unlikely to enthusiastically embrace the country-club life.

So Hall chose to go work in a far different landscape, the daily-fee world of municipal golf courses, where cash is actually exchanged, there are nine-hole rates, and no one really knows who might walk in the pro-shop door.

As he talked with BusinessWest in his small office in the back of the pro shop at Franconia on Dwight Road, Hall noted that, while he didn’t know what to expect at the city’s two courses, what he’s seen and experienced has nonetheless surprised him in many ways.

Elaborating, he said the crowded sheets for tee times, packed leagues, and steady play all seven days of the week have been somewhat inspiring revelations that have left him feeling pretty good about his career decision.

“It really has shocked me how busy this place and Veterans are; Saturday and Sunday morning, the tee sheets are full from 6 o’clock till noon, and during the week, it’s just non-stop,” he said, adding that people are still playing golf, but more of them are likely to be playing public or semi-private courses rather than private clubs.

Still, Hall, like golf pros everywhere and at public courses as well as private operations, knows that these are ultra-challenging times for the game, and business, of golf.

Young people are not embracing it with the enthusiasm of previous generations, and the cost and time involved with playing 18 are considerable obstacles to those thinking about taking it up.

Thus, public-course managers must be creative — a word you never heard in this business years ago but now hear all the time — and also resilient, and laser-focused on providing something not often thought about in golf until this century: value.

Hall takes over Springfield’s courses at a time of lingering controversy. Well, sort of. His predecessor, Kevin Kennedy, was essentially relieved of his duties amid an investigation involving the Internal Revenue Service. An audit undertaken by the city hinted strongly at revenue skimming on Kennedy’s part as well as a distinct lack of institutional oversight on the city’s part.

The latter seems to be a thing of the past, with a number of new policies, procedures, checks, and balances in place. And the former is mostly in the past as well, said Hall, who is firmly focused on the present and future tenses, which are challenging exercises in their own right.

For this issue and its focus on sports and leisure, BusinessWest talked at length with Hall about his move to Springfield’s courses and the public-track world, and also about the state of the business and its prospects for the future.

Rough Estimates

As noted earlier, Hall, who grew up in Springfield, played both of its municipal courses, and graduated from Cathedral High School, had really only known the private-course world, career-wise, until last March.

Indeed, he cut his teeth at Springfield Country Club, working in the bag room under long-time pro Harry Mattson Jr., and later served as an assistant to Dave DiRico at Crestview Country Club in Agawam before gravitating to Avon in 2001.

In the private sector, we were working so hard the last few years to bring golf to people, to grow the game through junior golf and women’s clubs,” he said. “We had to be so creative and think outside the box to secure these golfers for the future.”

When he later became head pro there, he had a front-row seat, or pro-shop-window view, if you will, to the profound changes that have come to most all private clubs, including exclusive ($25,000 for an initiation fee) clubs like Avon.

“In the private sector, we were working so hard the last few years to bring golf to people, to grow the game through junior golf and women’s clubs,” he said. “We had to be so creative and think outside the box to secure these golfers for the future.”

To get his points across, Hall summoned some numbers.

“When I started as an assistant at Avon, we had 425 members and a waiting list,” he noted, adding that many private clubs were similarly healthy at that point. “At Avon right now … we had a very strong membership drive last year, and they’re still below 300 members and no waiting list.

“And this is Avon,” he went on, accenting that word for a reason. “This is what I view as a protected sort of environment, a very affluent area where you would think that a private club would survive very easily. It’s not to say that they won’t, or aren’t, but it became very, very challenging.”

So much so that Ryan eventually became one of two bidders for the contract to manage Springfield’s courses, a career change he described as a “learning experience,” and one that is very much ongoing.

“I’m learning every day — culturally, it’s definitely much different here,” he said in a classic bit of understatement when asked to explain this career move, something he had to do a lot in the spring and is still doing. “When I learned of the opening, I viewed it as an opportunity to do some different things.”

And thus far, as he said, the scene is in most all ways healthier than what he expected (although he didn’t really know what to expect) and healthier than what he left.

Despite a late start — mid-April, as opposed to early April or even late March most years — and some wet weather that wiped out a few precious Saturdays in May, both courses are off to a solid start, revenue-wise and otherwise.

“It’s the end of June, and things are very promising,” he said, adding that the volume of play generally picks up once school is out and students and their teachers are looking for ways to fill their summer days.

And, as noted earlier, one of the things Hall has learned since arriving is that the decline in interest in private clubs has in some ways benefited public courses, or at least those that are in good condition, present a solid test, and offer value.

“We’re seeing groups coming up from Connecticut and groups from Eastern Massachusetts,” he said, adding that the condition of the two courses and their low price ($40 for 18 holes and a cart on a weekend) are attractive selling points, and news, in the form of word-of-mouth referrals, travels fast. “And I enjoy that aspect of it; if I see a group come through on a weekend and I don’t know them, I’ll ask where they’re from, and they’ll say ‘we’re from Glastonbury.’

“Price drives things,” he went on. “They hear $40 with a cart and the course is in great shape, they come and they check it out, and then they go tell their buddies. We’re seeing that happening more and more.”

Still, there are serious challenges confronting all those doing business within the broad realm of golf, said Hall, adding that perhaps the biggest of these involves getting more women and young people involved in the game.

Women have become a particularly stern challenge, and for a number of reasons.

“In the private sector, I’ve watched the level of play among women diminish — it’s very challenging,” he explained. “And it comes down to the commitment — there’s the time involved, but also the cost. When it comes to the household budget, where does golf fall? What’s important, and what’s not?”

But there is another factor involved, one that Hall says he and other club pros might be able to do something about: the intimidation factor.

By that, he meant everything from the difficulty of the sport to the number and complexity of the rules.

“There are women who are definitely intimidated by golf,” he explained. “I spoke to the group here at Franconia, and some were really concerned that some of the women weren’t counting all their strokes.

“Let’s not worry so much about their strokes,” he went on. “Let’s get them out there playing; let’s grab hold of them and get them comfortable and willing to continue golf; let’s not worry about the competitiveness of golf.”

Elaborating, he said his experience at Avon showed that some women don’t like the word ‘tournament,’ or the notion that they have to play for something, be it a trophy, money, or whatever.

And that led to one of those creative strokes he talked about, a group he called the ‘no-holers.’

“We had the 9-hole ladies, the 18-hole ladies, and then the no-holers,” he explained. “We would invite them out late in the afternoon, give them a glass of wine and some cheese, and just talk about golf, maybe show them the course and introduce them to it. We were trying to get them off on a different foot than that fear many of them experience.”

Going for the Green

While Hall is certainly settled in now at Franconia and Veterans, the learning curve, as he called it, continues.

This was the relative unknown that he chose over the world that he had known since the start of his career.

Thus far, his choice seems like a sound course of action in a business — and a game — where there are challenges around every turn and things can change in a hurry.

And where the phrase ‘going for the green’ is definitely a risk-reward scenario.

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

Cover Story Sections Sports & Leisure

Polishing a Gem

Camile Hannoush

Camile Hannoush on the soon-to-be-renovated front porch at Springfield Country Club, which has a commanding view of downtown Springfield.

Camile Hannoush, managing partner for a group of new owners at Springfield Country Club, doesn’t buy into that argument that the younger generations don’t necessarily want to join a private club. He believes they will join if they’re given enough good reasons to do so. His group’s broad assignment, then — and they’re already hard at work on it — is to create more of those reasons at this venerable landmark.

Camile Hannoush says he’s been a member, and, therefore, a co-owner, of Springfield Country Club (SCC) for more than 25 years now.

“So nothing’s really changed,” he told BusinessWest as he talked about what he and a group of partners who acquired the 120-year-old club last month for $2.8 million intend to do with it, and for it.

He was saying that tongue in cheek, of course, because with this new ownership model — from member-owned to private control — and Hannoush’s new business card identifying him as managing partner, a great deal has changed.

And this is exactly the message that Hannoush and his fellow partners — his brothers Tony, Norman, Peter, and George, as well as Raipher and Joe Pellegrino — want to get across to members and prospective members: change — for the better.

It is coming, and will continue to come, in the areas where it is most needed, especially in the broad realm of financial stability, said Camile, who noted that SCC, like many private clubs, has struggled in recent years with membership and everything that comes with that challenge, especially cash flow, or lack thereof.

As we improve the situation here, once the remodeling is complete and members start coming and bringing friends and guests … once we bring that customer-service level up to five-star, I believe word of mouth will bring us the additional members we need.”

“Our first goal, obviously, is to increase membership,” he explained. “And one key to that is achieving confidence among the community that the club is a solid business and a solid place to be a member.

“One of the reasons we’ve struggled to bring in new members in recent years has been assessments,” he said, referring to the charges imposed upon members to cover everything from cash shortfalls to capital projects to course improvements. “And people don’t want to join a club where they’re not sure what their bottom line is going to be at the end of the year and how much it’s going to cost them.”

Change is also coming to the facilities — everything from improvements to the pool area to a broad renovation of the front-porch area, with its dramatic view of the Connecticut River and the Springfield skyline, to a new fine-dining restaurant now under construction (more on all this later).

What will also change is Hannoush’s typical workday. Also a partner with his brothers in Hannoush Jewelers and Giftology, a gift boutique with several locations including Longmeadow and Springfield, Camile says the country club will be his main focus for the foreseeable future. To prove it, he has taken over what used to be the “ladies card room” on the second floor of the massive clubhouse and created an office there (a new card room for women will be created elsewhere).

“I’ll be running the club this year — this is where I’ll be,” he said, adding that all the partners will be involved, but he’ll be leading the various efforts to return the club to the prominence it has enjoyed through most of its history.


SEE: Chart of Golf Courses in the the area


 

Hannoush said there is already a good deal of momentum at the club — roughly 25 new members (some of which are former members returning to SCC) have signed on since the change in ownership was announced, and he expects more in the coming weeks as the golf season, delayed by that massive March 14 blizzard, gets underway.

And once these new members bring their friends to the facility, and as word gets out about the many improvements and new amenities, he expects momentum to continue building.

“I believe in word of mouth,” he explained. “And I think that, as we improve the situation here, once the remodeling is complete and members start coming and bringing friends and guests … once we bring that customer-service level up to five-star, I believe word of mouth will bring us the additional members we need.”

For this issue and its focus on sports and leisure, BusinessWest talked with the Springfield Country Club’s new managing partner about how the facility intends to refine its game, build membership, and become the region’s club of choice.

Course of Action

Hannoush said he’s heard all that talk and conjecture about how the younger generations simply are not into the country-club scene as much as their predecessors, and this is one of the big reasons why many area clubs are struggling to find members.

He doesn’t exactly buy into that argument, and adds that a quick demographic breakdown of those new members he mentioned earlier helps him state his case.

the younger generations will join a country club

Camile Hannoush says the younger generations will join a country club if they’re given enough good reasons to do so, and that’s his mission at SCC.

“Many of them— in fact, most of them — are under 40,” he said of those new recruits, adding that he’s firmly of the opinion that the younger generations, or any constituency, for that matter, will join a private club if they have the wherewithal, and if you give them enough good reasons to do so.

In a nutshell, this new ownership group has taken on the singular mission of creating more of those good reasons.

There were already many to begin with, said Hannoush, listing the club’s location — just off Riverdale Street in West Springfield and, therefore, easily accessible to downtown Springfield and a host of area communities — as one of its best assets. Others include the stately, well-appointed clubhouse, diverse membership, and a course known for its impeccable condition.

Lately, though, this mix hasn’t been quite enough, he went on, noting that membership had dipped to around 240, down considerably from pre-recession days, and just over half the high-water mark of more than 400 around the start of this century.

To get those numbers back up, the new ownership team has commenced creating more reasons to join, starting with perhaps the biggest — financial stability and far less uncertainty about what members’ financial obligations will be to the club, as he noted earlier.

Of course, this stability can only come through greatly increasing membership, he went on, but not only getting members, but convincing them to spend time and money at the club.

“There’s a lot of overhead — this is a big, big business,” he said while essentially outlining the basic strategy in the business plan moving forward. “That’s why you need a certain number of members to be here, and why you need the members to dine here and spend time here.”

This simple fact explains the current emphasis on amenities with a strong focus on families, and meeting their specific needs, said Hannoush, who said the improvements to the pool area, including a new pool house and cabana, are a good example.

“What we’re going to try to do is bring back more family-focused events,” he explained. “We want to give them more reasons to come to the club. Improving the pool area and giving them more services there will bring them back.”

The extensive renovations to the porch area are another example, he said, as he took out his phone to show pictures of a planned 50-foot ‘fire wall’ that will replace a row of hedges, a new patio, new ceiling, tiling, and other improvements that will make that space more liveable and much more popular with members.

Another big step forward, he said, is creation of a fine-dining restaurant. The club has a grille room and a banquet room that can sit more than 200 people, said Hannoush, but it has long lacked the fine-dining facility that many clubs have and that most current and potential members relish.

One is being created in the former ‘19th hole’ just off the banquet room, he said, adding that the new facility, now walled off from the main room, will seat roughly 40 and have its own bar. Meanwhile, another room, the Brooks Room, with stunning views of the first and 10th holes and the setting sun, will also be renovated and used for small parties and receptions.

“So we’ll be more aggressive with social and dining memberships,” he explained, adding that another focus of change at the club will be its menu of memberships. It will be lengthened and diversified, with corporate offerings, a weekday membership, and other options, to accommodate different constituencies, create value, and, therefore, help bring in new members.

And, as he mentioned earlier, as those new members begin to talk about the club, and as their friends and guests get to experience what they’re talking about, he expects momentum to build.

Diamond in the Rough

As he completed his quick tour of the facilities and posed for a few photos before returning to his new office, Hannoush paused on the porch, gestured toward the Springfield skyline in the distance, and then back toward the clubhouse.

“This club is a gem — it’s always been a gem,” he said. “It just needed to be polished a little.”

Spoken like someone who’s been in the jewelry business his whole life.

Actually, it was spoken like someone who has been a member, and therefore an owner, of the club for 25 years. As he said, in one respect, nothing’s changing.

But in most all others, everything is changing — and for the better.

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

Sections Sports & Leisure

Challenge Cup

the PGA Junior League Golf program has helped swell the ranks

Chris Tallman, head pro at Cold Spring Country Club, says the PGA Junior League Golf program has helped swell the ranks on the local high-school golf team — and get more families involved in the game.

It was with discernable pride in his voice that Chris Tallman noted that there are 30 members on the Belchertown High School boys golf team.

He said that number slowly and with emphasis, as in 30! And with good reason. That is certainly a large number, especially for a comparatively small school, especially at a time when many larger institutions are struggling to field a team. But also because Tallman, head pro at Cold Spring Country Club in Belchertown, believes he probably had something to do with it.

More specifically, he believes his enthusiastic support of a youth program called the PGA Junior League Golf had something to do with it.

The national initiative, administered by the PGA of America, creates teams of young people at participating clubs that compete against one another. The goals are to have fun, learn the game, make some friends, and maybe get families involved in the sport, as well as young people.

And it seems to be working on all those levels.

“You have 70 to 80 juniors at each match, which is great to see,” Tallman explained. “But looking at the business side of things, if you get the juniors to the course, their parents are going to come, too, and they might get involved in the game.”

Such efforts to grow the sport are certainly necessary at this intriguing and somewhat precarious time for the game — and the business — of golf.

Indeed, those we talked with used a host of synonyms, but mostly ‘flat’ and ‘stagnant,’ to describe both business activity and interest in the game. In short, golf isn’t growing — in fact, it’s probably declining slightly — and many are outwardly skeptical about whether the younger generations will embrace the game with the same vigor as their predecessors.

Dave DiRico

Dave DiRico says young professionals comprise the fastest-growing segment of his business.

Tom Hantke, executive director of the Connecticut PGA, which covers most of Western Mass., used some different numbers to get some important points across.

He said there are roughly 24 million golfers out there, meaning people who are active and play the game regularly. And that number has remained at about the same level for some time now. Meanwhile, there are another 86 million who could — that’s could — perhaps join the core group, with some encouragement and attention.

A problem for the industry, said Hantke, is that many within it continue to focus their efforts on those 24 million in the core group, and not the other 86 million. He puts many club owners and managers in that category, as well as the equipment manufacturers, who continue to focus their energies on those who might buy a $500 driver, a $1,000 set of irons, and a $200 pair of golf shoes, rather than those who might be interested in a starter set or some used clubs.

“The industry gets it backward,” he said. “They’re targeting the 24 million core golfers, or whatever the number is in their respective market. And what they should be doing is marketing toward the 86 million, the ones who want to try the game or be part of the game or be entertained by the game.”

But amid the skepticism and heavy use of ‘flat’ and ‘stagnant’ to describe conditions within the industry, there are some positive signs.

Dave DiRico, owner, with his wife, Joann, of Dave DiRico’s Golf & Racquet in West Springfield, said ‘young people’ — a term he used to describe those in college and their first decade or two out of it — constitute the fastest-growing segment of his customer base. He said many of these individuals played sports in high school and maybe in college, they’re athletic, and they’re looking for a place to park that athleticism and spirit to compete.

And many are choosing golf.

“We’re seeing those people coming in more and more,” said DiRico, now in his sixth year with this venture. “The college kids, they’re buying used equipment to get into the game. And later, when they want to stay in the game, it’s those same people circling back to buy newer sets; the game has got them, and they’re going to continue to play.”

Meanwhile, a host of other initiatives — everything from a campaign to convince players to step up to the tees that suit their age and abilities, not the ones that suit their ego, to a set of proposed new rules changes — are aimed at making the game more fun, less confusing, less penal, and thus more popular.

The question lingering over the industry is whether all these efforts will make a difference at an age when many don’t seem to have the time or inclination for the game.

Since we’ve focused on numbers quite a bit, we might as well keep going and call that the $64,000 question. And for this issue and its focus on sports and leisure, BusinessWest  goes about getting some answers.

Round Numbers

Dave Fleury knew he was going to get some heavy flak from his male members. And he was right about that.

But he went ahead with his plan to award a popular, coveted night — Thursday — to a women’s league at Crestview Country Club in Agawam, which he owns, along with Elmcrest Country Club in East Longmeadow. And he’s never regretted that decision; in fact, he did the same at Elmcrest.

He told BusinessWest that, along with young people, women constitute the largest, most potential-laden, but also perhaps the most challenging component of that block of 86 million people who could embrace golf.

Like all the other constituencies, including men, they are challenged by the amount of time and money it takes to play golf, but also its complexity and thick, confusing rule book. What many women who take up the game seem to like about it are the social aspects, he went on, meaning the camaraderie and friendships that result.

Which brings us back to Thursday night.

I really applaud these efforts to change the rules. These are the kinds of things that need to happen to make the game more approachable for women, and for everyone, really.”

For many, that’s a social night, a night out, said Fleury, which is why he awarded it to this women’s league.

“Women really focus on the social side of the game,” he explained. “And for a long time, women’s leagues used to be on Monday afternoon, when the men aren’t playing anyway. We turned that on its ear, giving them Thursday night.

“We took flak for it, but you have to take a stance and make it clear that there’s no reason why women shouldn’t have the same accessibility, the same opportunity to go out and have a good time on a night that makes sense, like Thursday,” he went on. “So now, they come in for cocktails and food after the round and socialize like the men would. And as a result, they can see the game the way men see the game, and golf doesn’t become this drudgery.”

Fluery’s decision on what to do with Thursday night at his clubs is a good example of movement toward giving some thought and attention to those aforementioned 86 million potential golfers out there.

It’s a not a huge step, but an important one, he noted, adding quickly that it’s not going to generate tremendous or immediate improvement when it comes to the big picture. But it’s a step in the right direction, something the game and the industry need many of at this moment.

PGA Junior League Golf is another one, only those involved with it say it has the potential to become huge.

“It’s really cool — the kids have jerseys with numbers on them, so it’s similar to other team sports like soccer and basketball,” he explained. “We’ll play against other teams from other clubs; it’s a fun, laid-back format. There’s not a ton of pressure, the kids are competing against one another, and they’re having fun.”

And, as he noted earlier, the juniors’ parents, grandparents, and friends come out to watch them play, possibly inspiring more interest in the game.

“As a golf professional, my main job is to create more golfers, not just for my facility, but for the game of golf as a whole,” he went on. “And this program is helping clubs do just that.”

E.J. Altobello, head pro at Tekoa Country Club in Westfield, a public course, which hosts several teams, agreed, noting that participation has grown from just over a dozen young people in 2013 to more than 50 last year.
“I value it as one of the best programs they’ve probably ever rolled out,” he said. “It’s definitely piqued more interest in junior golf. The kids get involved, the parents get involved; it’s a good way to get families together on the golf course, just as you would in a Little League game.

“I think the program has gotten more kids in the game, and it’s gotten more families into the game,” he went on, adding that he can see results at his course and on area high-school golf teams. “We have parents now who probably wouldn’t have played ever if their kids hadn’t become involved.”

Green Business

But while the youth program is encouraging, Altobello has real concerns about whether the young people can stay with the game after they’ve graduated from college and the many pressures of life — work, family, and more — take hold.

“I don’t have any trouble getting college kids out here — we have a lot of them come down and play,” said Altobelli, noting that Westfield State University is only about two long par-5s away from Tekoa, and many students walk or even skateboard to the course. “But it’s after college — that’s when we lose them for a bit.

“There are tremendous time and money issues at that point that make it difficult for them to stay in it,” he went on. “But if we give them a good base when they’re juniors, and then increase their play when they’re in their early to mid-20s from two rounds a year to six rounds a year, that’s huge.”

There are many keys to getting young professionals — those in their 20s, 30s, and 40s — involved in golf, said those we spoke with. And they come at different levels, from the individual course to national and even international initiatives.

In that first category, said Fleury, courses have to tailor programs for that specific market. Private or semi-private models (the latter of which is used at both Crestview and Elmcrest) typically enable members to pay only for what they’re going to use, and nothing more.

“If they just want to play golf, they can just join the golf course,” he explained. “They don’t have to pay for the pool or the tennis courts, and we don’t have any food minimums; they just play for golf.”

Meanwhile, all courses can encourage nine-hole play, rather than 18 — a major consideration when everyone seems to be strapped for time and when a round plus lunch at the end absorbs five hours or more, said Fleury, and they can take steps, as he did, to accommodate women and enable them to enjoy the social aspects of the game.

On the national and international front, a broad campaign to convince players to choose the right tees — you might have seen Jack Nicklaus in those TV commercials encouraging people to “play it forward” — is designed to make golf more enjoyable, said DiRico.

“The game was meant to be fun,” he explained. “It’s not fun if you can’t reach many of the par-4s or struggle on the longer par-3s. By playing the right tees, people can relate better to the game they see on TV; they’re on in regulation more often, and they’re putting for more birdies. That makes the game enjoyable.”

And then, there are the rule changes. The U.S. Golf Assoc., working in a joint initiative with the R&A (the ruling body on the other side of the Atlantic), have proposed many of them, all with the twin goals of ‘modernizing’ the rules but also making them easier to understand and apply. The hope is that they also make the game less imposing and more fun.

Players will still have to play the ball as it lies, but there are changes regarding everything from play on the greens (one can leave the flagstick in the hole if they choose and repair spike marks) to taking relief (one could drop the ball from any height, not just from the shoulder, as currently prescribed).

“I really applaud these efforts to change the rules,” said Fleury, also a golf-course designer, who said these changes won’t impact the integrity of the game. “These are the kinds of things that need to happen to make the game more approachable for women, and for everyone, really.

“The game can be quite confusing and seem extremely penal, and sometimes unfairly so,” he went on. “A softening of some of these stringent rules and making them more understandable will help make the game less intimidating.”

Rough Guesses

While it may be some time before those owning and managing golf courses can use words other than ‘flat’ or ‘stagnant’ to describe things within their industry, there are some positive signs and many intriguing steps being taken to grow the game.

All one has to do is look at the Belchertown High boys golf team, for example.

But such efforts won’t change the picture overnight, as Fluery noted, and everyone in this business has to remain focused on both those core 24 million golfers and especially the many more who might take up the game with the right encouragement.

Like the game itself, this is a very stern challenge, but one with some significant rewards.

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

Cover Story Sections Sports & Leisure

Plane and Simple

Angela Greco stands by her Cessna 172 SP

Angela Greco stands by her Cessna 172 SP, which she acquired just before Thanksgiving and is now putting through its paces.

Attaining a pilot’s license involves a deep commitment — of time, money, and energy. But for those who persevere, the rewards are many, and include freedom, convenience, and sometimes a career. Meanwhile, there is the simple phenomenon of flight, which continues to captivate and stir the emotions. Said one woman who recently bought her own plane, “it’s almost like magic when that plane lifts off the ground.”

Angela Greco says she first started dreaming about learning to fly and one day owning her own plane when she was a freshman in high school.

Her family had a summer home in Laconia, N.H., she told BusinessWest, and she would become captivated watching the sea planes land and take off, allowing her imagination to take her to a time and place when she might be able to do those things herself.

The dream was put on hold for awhile — OK, a long while, as in more than 40 years. Her mother said ‘no’ when she first raised the prospect of taking flying lessons, and then, well, life got in the way, as it often does. But it has been realized — big time.

Indeed, Greco got her license three years ago, and just last month took possession of a 2005 Cessna 172 SP (price tag: $200,000). She is still in the process of breaking it in and becoming comfortable with its so-called glass cockpit — one that features electronic (digital) flight-instrument displays, rather than the traditional analog dials and gauges — but she’s just about ready to put it through its paces.

Specifically, she’s starting to assemble a list of attractive destinations, and is zeroing in on the state of Tennessee — she recently took in a show on the Smithsonian channel detailing many of its attractions and scenery from the air, and her interest was certainly piqued.

“I love to travel, that’s one of my passions,” she said, adding this pursuit was one of the reasons she pursued a pilot’s license. “There seemed to be a lot of interesting things in Tennessee, and it’s a state I haven’t been to yet.”

Thus, Greco has joined what appears to be a growing number of people making the sizable commitment — in terms of both time and money — it takes to learn how to fly and gain a license.

The numbers of new flyers are not exactly soaring, to use an industry term, noted Rich MacIsaac, manager of Northampton Airport and Northampton Aeronautics Inc., who has been a flight instructor for nearly 20 years. But they are climbing.

And, as has been the case historically, most of those taking to the air are in their 20s and early 30s — before the responsibilities of everyday life really start to pile up — or their 50s and 60s, after those responsibilities have at least started to ease up a bit.

Greco falls in that later category, obviously — she’s an owner and manager of several residential properties and is getting ready to sell them and officially retire — while Shannon O’Leary is among the former.

She’s a 22-year-old senior at Ithaca College in Upstate New York who told BusinessWest that, if all goes well, she might just be handed her diploma and her pilot’s license at roughly the same time.

She said she gained the urge to fly from her father, who flew years ago, put that hobby aside, and then picked it up again a few years ago, or just in time to start flying to Ithaca to hear his daughter, an accomplished French horn player and music teacher in the making, perform at a host of events.

Gaining a pilot’s license, as noted, is an expensive, somewhat time-consuming endeavor, said MacIsaac, noting that, when all is said and done, a license will usually set one back between $8,000 to $10,000, and most will spend 12 to 18 months earning their wings.

Rich MacIsaac

Rich MacIsaac says the sensation of flight continues to attract people of all ages.

Thus, only about half of those who start down this path will reach their destination, he said.

For those who persevere, however, the rewards are considerable, in terms of everything from the convenience that flying provides — one can get from Northampton Airport to Martha’s Vineyard in maybe an hour, a fraction of the time it take to get there via car and the ferry — to the sensation of flying, which can lead those who have experienced it to summon a host of descriptive words and phrases.

Like these.

“It’s almost like magic when that plane lifts off the ground,” said Greco. “That’s the only way I can describe it — magic. It’s exciting, and at the same time very peaceful.”

Added O’Leary, “taking off is probably my favorite part. It’s that moment when you really feel like you can do something so liberating as flying a plane; that feeling that you’re flying is just incredible.”

For this issue and its focus on sports and leisure, BusinessWest talked with a number of people who can talk about that experience, what it takes to join those ranks, and why it’s all well worth it.

Working in the Cloud

It was bitterly cold the day Greco talked with BusinessWest, and the wind, while not as strong as the forecasters predicted, was significant, and gusting up to 15 to 20 miles per hour.

Not ideal flying conditions, certainly, and many of the people who were scheduled to head out of Northampton Airport that day or take lessons there decided to scrap those plans.

But not everyone, and eventually Greco decided that the weather was not bad enough to keep her on the ground. When asked what she had in mind for the afternoon, she paused for a moment as if to indicate she was still considering options, before saying she might head up to Keane, N.H. to have lunch and maybe do some shopping. After all, in her Cessna, she could probably do all that in just a few hours — and take a nice, relaxing ride while doing so.

“It is just this convenience and … let’s call it freedom that has always appealed to people with an interest in aviation,” said MacIsaac, adding quickly that, for most, there is much more involved than a desire to chop a commute time in half.

Indeed, the phenomenon of flight still resonates with many individuals, he noted, even at a time in history when being at the controls at cloud level certainly isn’t as, well, mind-blowing as it was a century ago, or even a few decades ago.

“Flying used to be a kind of technical thing, and it was something people could gravitate toward — these were technically advanced pieces of equipment,” he explained. “Now, if you’re interested in technology, there’s lots of other things you can be doing.”

Still, flying continues to capture the imagination, said MacIsaac, who speaks from personal experience. He moved into a house not far from a small airport outside Omaha, Neb. in his early 30s and, after years of watching planes fly over his yard, eventually decided he’d rather do than observe.

Shannon O’Leary, seen here after her first solo flight last summer

If all goes well, Shannon O’Leary, seen here after her first solo flight last summer, will get her college diploma and pilot’s license at about the same time.

 

“I got to the point where financially I could do it and I had the time to do it,” he explained. “So I got my private pilot’s license and flew recreationally. Over time, I added ratings and became a flight instructor, and it slowly morphed into a career.”

In many ways, his story is typical of those who take the plunge and get their license, he said, adding that recreational flying is just part of the equation. Indeed, some are attracted by career opportunities, he went on, noting that, while many airline pilots don’t earn as much as one might think, that’s just one route one can take, and, overall, one can certainly earn a decent (and fun) living with a pilot’s license.

He’s proof of that.

After instructing for several years, he took aviation as a career to a much higher plane, becoming manager of Northampton Airport in 2004, the year it was acquired by local business owner Bob Bacon, who invested heavily in infrastructure and facilities, including several new hangars. He owns his own plane, a four-seat Sirrus SR22.

Today, MacIsaac oversees a multi-faceted business that operates under the name SevenBravoTwo Inc. It includes everything from the flight school to scenic flights; aircraft maintenance to leasing hangar and tie-down space (there are roughly 90 planes based there).

The flight-school operation generally has about 50 people working toward their pilot’s license at an given time, and that translates into roughly 4,000 flights a year, said MacIsaac, noting that 70% of these individuals are doing so for what would be considered personal or recreational flying, with the other 30% harboring aspirations to become a professional pilot of some sort.

One must be 17 to attain a license, he went on, adding that an individual can start the process earlier. He sees a few who choose to balance flying lessons with high-school classes, but most are older and fall in those two categories mentioned earlier — young professionals who still have the time and the means to pursue a license, and older individuals who have paid off the house and put the children through college.

One must have 40 hours of flight time and be able to successfully complete a wide array of maneuvers to get a private pilot’s license, MacIsaac noted, and most will take their time gaining that requisite experience, usually more than a year. And many won’t reach their intended destination, for one of many reasons.

“For many, it’s a financial issue; it becomes more expensive than they thought it was going to be,” he noted. “Or, over a period of time, something happens in their life that puts them in a situation where they can’t afford it anymore and they have to stop.”

As for those who persevere and gain their licenses, only a small percentage, maybe 5%, will actually buy their own plane, he told BusinessWest, adding that many others will join partnerships and clubs that jointly own planes.

And many will simply choose to rent one of the many aircraft the airport has available for such purposes, he went on, adding that they generally lease for about $120 per hour of flight time (that includes fuel).

Considering that one can fly to the Vineyard and back in two hours and skip a considerable amount of time and hassle that are part and parcel to driving to the island, renting a plane has become an attractive option for day trips to that destination and many others.

Winging It

Dave Strassburg’s story is in many ways similar to MacIsaac’s.  A pharmacist by trade, he attained his license more than 20 years ago, and continued to add ratings, moving from private to ‘instrument,’ to commercial.

Becoming an instructor was an objective he put on his bucket list some time ago, and he’s been doing it for 15 years now. While doing that at Northampton Airport on a very part-time basis, he also flies recreationally, and for business — he owns a medical-device-manufacturing company, Strassburg Medical Inc., based just outside Buffalo, N.Y., and takes his twin-engine Cessna there at least once a month.

Business takes him all over the country, and whenever possible, he’ll fly himself, he said, adding that doing so frees him from having to comply with the airlines’ schedules and a host of other inconveniences.

“Besides, if I was sitting in the back of a commercial airliner, I’d just be wishing I was up front anyway,” he said with a laugh.

Strassburg says flying is a passion, and he’s dedicated himself to encouraging others to take up that pursuit and persevere in their quest for a license. He’s convinced a good number, including his wife, who got her license about six months ago, and two Blackhawk helicopter instructor pilots based at Barnes Municipal Airport in Westfield.

“I’m a big proponent of aviation, and I love getting other people involved in it — I like giving people that little push they need,” he told BusinessWest. “There are so many people who think about it, but they never pursue it. I instruct people for the passion of flying and getting people involved in it and showing them that they can do it.”

That push he described comes in various forms, including Groupons used as incentives to get people who are on the fence to try to get over it.

And it was one of that Groupons that caught Greco’s eye.

“I said to myself, ‘that’s it, it’s sign, time to go do it,” she said, adding that she never actually lost that fascination for flying she acquired while summering in Laconia. She just had to wait till the time was right.

She said the lessons were not easy or inexpensive, but she stuck with it and gained her license in the spring of 2014. Soon thereafter, she rented planes and became a half-share partner in a another Cessna 172, taking trips to a host of destinations, including, Block Island, Niagara Falls, Cape Cod, Maine, and North Carolina.

“My plan now is to take my plane and just fly to destinations all over the United States,” she said, adding that she’ll likely start with Tennessee and move on from there.

O’Leary has some similar ambitions, and some others as well. She plans to teach music for a living, but intends to make flying an important part of her life.

“In an ideal world, I see myself getting a recreational license and being able to have a side gig where I might be able to take people on scenic flights,” she told BusinessWest. “That would be a second source of income for me during the summers, because I’m going to be an educator.

“It would be awesome to be able to fly and also service others,” she went on, adding that she intends to make this a life-long pursuit. “You start doing this because you love it, and when you don’t stop loving it, you get to open up all kinds of possibilities.”

And with that, she spoke for everyone who has had the privilege to enjoy life in what’s known in aviation as the ‘left seat.’

Final Approach

Summing up the pursuit of a pilot’s license and recreational flying in general, MacIsaac said it’s like golf or many other activities one might pursue during their lifetime.

“Some people are naturally going to be better at it than others, some people are going to enjoy it more and it’s going to become a big part of their life forever,” he explained. “And for some, it’s going to be something they tried, and maybe they enjoyed it, but for reason or another, they moved on to something else.”

Perhaps, but not too many of those activities can evoke the same kind of emotions — and the same kind of language used by those who have experienced flight.

As Greco said, “it’s like magic when that plane lifts off the ground.”

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

Sections Sports & Leisure

Level Best

Greg Stutsman and George Myers

Greg Stutsman and George Myers say the Quarters is intended to appeal to a wide range of people, from kids to college students to adults who crave a nostalgia fix.

George Myers and Greg Stutsman didn’t spend the early ’80s in arcades; they were toddlers when the arcade craze peaked in 1982 and 1983 before collapsing alongside the boom in home consoles.

So they don’t remember first-hand the thrill of mastering Ms. Pac-Man and Q*bert and Donkey Kong and dozens of other titles from that golden age. But they experience it vicariously every day at the Quarters in Hadley, watching 40-somethings light up with nostalgia at the old games while their own tweens, raised on the hyper-realistic games of the 21st century, discover the simple charms of these retro titles for the first time.

“A lot of people say our games are obsolete, and one reason is home-gaming consoles,” said Stutsman, who opened the Quarters with Myers in January 2014. “But the thing that’s missing is being in the physical space, enjoying the games alongside other people. Here, they can play one game, move to another — it’s a more energetic space.”

The pair had known each other for 12 years through event production, mainly music shows, and began talking about going into business together. The original idea was a music venue with food and drink and maybe a few arcade games, and they visited several potential locations before their current neighbor, who runs a tattoo business next to the Quarters, told them about the available space, which used to house a café and a furniture gallery.

It didn’t work as a music venue, but Myers and Stutsman saw plenty of potential for both nightlife and weekend traffic, and the Quarters concept began to take shape.

“We’ve seen an emergence of destinations like this, arcade bars,” Stutsman said. “A lot of places focus on nightlife, a young, creative crowd, but we saw an opportunity for a more inclusive place, where we could include a broader community than the college-student nightlife crowd.”

Myers recalled with a smile how friends they’d go out with would complain when he and Stutsman criticized how a venue was laid out and how they’d do it differently. When they had their space, and saw how it bordered the region’s main bike trail and was close to both Hadley’s downtown area and area colleges, they recognized that the games should be the main draw, with their appeal to multiple generations.

And so they are — almost two dozen at any given time, ranging from 1978’s Space Invaders to a few from the early ’90s, but mainly hailing from that early-’80s golden age.

“We liked the idea of creating a space that was special in nature and provided opportunities for people to bond over their shared love of these retro games,” Myers said. “We wanted to make sure it was exciting and interesting for a lot of different people.”

Some patrons might be drawn by theme trivia nights, he went on, while kids tend to pour in on weekend mornings and early afternoons. “We want all these different people in this space. At its core, it never stresses one thing, and we make sure no one feels alienated or unwelcome.”

Word on the Street

After deciding on their concept, the owners relied on an Indiegogo campaign to raise money to buy the initial machines, which got the word on the street that a retro arcade was coming. That turned out to be a positive development, even when the opening took longer than expected.

“All businesses take longer than people think to open, and we started advertising pretty early,” Stutsman said. “But that was to our benefit. People knew about us; the word was out. We were often telling people, ‘next month it’s going to happen.’ And when we did open, we were busy from day one.”

Myers said he and Stutsman deliberately crafted their business as a space where everyone could come and feel comfortable. It’s a popular booking spot for kids’ birthday parties, and weekly Super Cereal Saturdays, which feature unlimited tokens, a cereal and milk bar, and ’80s and ’90s cartoons, are well-attended.

“It’s a place for 11-year-olds and people who remember being 11, and may be in their 30s or 40s with their own kids,” Myers said. “People on the bike trail might stop by for lunch. At night, it’s a little more bar-oriented crowd. In the span of 24 hours, so many different types of people can come here and enjoy it on their own terms. We went through great pains to make that happen.”

As for the food, it’s not an afterthought, said Stutsman, who ran sandwich shops in Northampton in a previous career. “We’re happy to see the recognition it’s getting. People are really happy with the food. For us, it’s an important piece of the puzzle, and a lot of thought was put into that.”

Q*bert

Myers and Stutsman get a kick out of seeing parents introduce their kids to the games they grew up with, like Q*bert, Ms. Pac-Man, and Burgertime.

The menu features food that can be carried around while patrons play games, but with a twist. For example, a series of small, locally made hot dogs, or ‘pups,’ come in varieties ranging from the classic New York pup to a kimchi pup and a banh mi pup. At the other end of the taste spectrum, the place was packed for a recent vegan night, which featured a wide-ranging menu of all-vegan fare.

But the games themselves are the main draw, and they’re not as difficult to find as one might think, Stutsman said. Craigslist was an obvious starting point, and in the four years since they began collecting the machines, they’ve come to know a network of sellers across the country — some in the Western Mass. region — so the task of replacing games and adding to their collection has become easier.

When they sat down with BusinessWest, the Quarters had 22 games on the floor and another 35 in storage. Games are rotated in and out on a regular basis, both for repairs and simply to maintain variety for players.

And, yes, the games do need repairs. Over the years, they’ve learned enough to fix some issues themselves, while others require outside repair experts; some are hobbyists, others electrical engineers with an interest in vintage games.

“Games do break, and we try to stay on top of that,” Stutsman said. “This is not a museum.”

Some video-game collectors, he elaborated, display their machines as showpieces, not meant to be played, but the games in the Quarters are meant to be used, and used a lot, and their moving parts often require maintenance. “These aren’t like the collector’s pieces you’ll find in someone’s basement.”

Blast from the Past

Myers and Stutsman knew their concept was a winner after the success of their Indiegogo campaign and the initial crowds, which haven’t dampened. They recognize they’re giving something valuable to their customers: a chance to relive fond memories and create new ones.

“One of the neatest things for me is to see the joy on people’s faces when they walk in here,” Stutsman said. “It’s a pretty special place — not just because it’s a room full of arcade games, but because of the atmosphere. On the flip side of that, all the work that goes into it is hard to overstate.”

Myers agreed.

“It’s much easier to talk about the fun aspects as the years move along, but opening it was a challenge, a lot of sweat equity,” he told BusinessWest. But he’s gratified to see the sheer range of people who come in every day — kids and their parents, teenagers, college students, young professionals — all with a shared love of playing retro games and soaking in the distinctly ’80s vibe. Here, after all, is a place where the arcade industry never disappeared, where people still patiently line up for their turn on Galaga or Arkanoid or Burgertime.

“I love seeing a dad in his 40s introducing his daughter to the game he was so great at — and the daughter turns out to be better than he is,” Myers said.

“That’s a great experience,” Stutsman added, “sharing that joy, seeing someone experiencing a game for the first time.”

And then dropping in another quarter. And another. And another.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Sports & Leisure

Strike Force

Jeff Bennett, general manager of AMF Chicopee Lanes

Jeff Bennett, general manager of AMF Chicopee Lanes, says there has been a seismic shift in the bowling industry in recent years.

Those who haven’t been in a bowling alley in decades probably wouldn’t recognize today’s centers. There are strobe lights and black lights, disc jockeys, and fine food. These are just some of the adjustments center owners have made to bring people to their doors and, more importantly, bring them back.

It is late Friday night at Shaker Bowl in East Longmeadow — or ‘Galactic Bowl’ time, as it has come to be called.

The lanes are lined with tiny rope lights, and bouncing colored-light orbs dance on the walls and floor as a disc jockey plays tunes and bowlers enjoy drinks from the bar or food from the recently expanded menu. There are also prizes awarded each night in the form of discount coupons for return visits.

“The people who are here come to hear the music and have a good time. It’s a different atmosphere – more of a nightclub feel,” said Justin Godfrey, general manager of the operation.

This scene, and Godfrey’s words, speak to just how much the business of bowling — not the game, really — has changed over the decades and especially the past several years.

Indeed, where once people came to bowl, and the only thing those who owned such establishments had to do to bring in business was unlock the front door, now there’s … Galactic Bowl and a whole host of initiatives like it. And they are the new reality.

Today, there are fewer bowling lanes in operation than even a decade ago, and those still in business would be somewhat unrecognizable to those who grew up on the game in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. Now, the lanes have black lights and strobe lights. There are music videos or disc jockeys on weekend nights to appeal to young people looking for a place to socialize with their friends. Arcade games have become a staple, and food and beverage sales figure prominently as a source of income.

Bowling, it seems, is not the thing people come to do — it’s something else they come to do.

“There has been a huge shift in the bowling business,” said Jeff Bennett, general manager at AMF Chicopee Lanes, who has been involved with the industry since the ’80s.

He noted that AMF bowling centers represent the largest operation of its type in the world, and today, some are set up more like lounges and don’t cater to leagues, which were once the backbone of the business. “They’re designed for folks who want to make food and drink as much a part of their experience as bowling.

“Centers used to have double shifts on weeknights for league play; one would start at 6 p.m., and another would begin when the first league finished at 8:30,” he went on. “Years ago, many people bowled three to four times a week; they belonged to a men’s or ladies’ league as well as a couple’s league, and food and drink only accounted for 10 to 15% of a center’s revenue.”

Jon Roberts, left, and Jim Feeley

Jon Roberts, left, and Jim Feeley are committed to making needed adjustments at Agawam Bowl, one of the few remaining candlepin facilities.

Jim Feeley, who grew up bowling and watched it every Saturday on TV, made similar observations. “When I was a youngster and young adult, I was glued to the TV set when candlepin bowling was on,” said the manager of Agawam Bowl, a candlepin operation.

He bowled on a sanctioned team at Springfield Technical High School, and today he enjoys the sport with his son. But Feeley and others who have spent years in the business say people today are too busy to make long-term commitments to league bowling, and there are so many sports and activities for young and old alike that can be done year-round, that bowling no longer takes the lead when it comes to recreational pursuits.

“Owners have had to make big investments to improve conditions and the attractions they offer at bowling centers to stay in business,” Feeley said. “It’s not easy to do well today.”

But some operations are. These are the ones who have made the necessary adjustments — and the requisite investments.

For this issue and its focus on sports and leisure, BusinessWest looks at how the game — and the business — have changed, and the types of programs bowling centers have developed to attract patrons.

No Time to Spare

Erik Semb remembers when people used to line up at the door of French King Bowling Center in Erving, just east of Greenfield, in hopes of joining a bowling league.

Some of its busiest years were from 1987 to 1991, when 300 people bowled in leagues Monday through Friday. At that time, 80% of the business consisted of league play, and 20% was open play.

But today, those numbers have become reversed, not only at French King, but at all bowling operations, and Semb cites changing demographics, attitudes, and priorities as the main reasons why.

Three decades ago, all of the area factories, including Erving Paper Mills and Strathmore Paper Co., had leagues, he noted, but when those industries left town, went to swing shifts, or downsized, business began to plummet.

Meanwhile, today’s young professionals don’t have as much time for recreation as previous generations, or so the theory goes, and there is considerably more competition for what time they do have, he went on, listing everything from the Internet to ziplines.

“It’s a commitment, and people today are so busy today,” he said of bowling and especially league play. “The average person works longer and more hours than they did 20 years ago, and there are more women in the workforce.”

So, like most all bowling facilities, French King has made necessary changes, many of which have been successful.

These include everything from a focus on corporate outings — Dylan Chevrolet in Greenfield has hosted several there, for example — to leagues that play only every other week.

“We also have black-light bowling on Friday nights and all day Saturday and Sunday,” said Semb, adding that these steps are typical of what’s taking place across the industry.

“The industry is at a crossroads,” said Shaker Bowl’s Godfrey, noting that everything about the business is different, from how the game is presented to how it’s marketed to how operations are staffed.

Indeed, most bowling centers now have an event planner on staff, he said, adding that one is necessary to make sure that the many different types of gatherings that now take place are well-planned and well-executed.

“Marketing used to be mainly done for leagues, but now you need to invest in advertising just to get people in the door,” he told BusinessWest, citing another key change. “Arcade games are huge, and many centers are going after birthday parties or offering laser tag.”

“For most people, bowling is simply a night out and a social experience,” he went on, adding that only 5% to 10% of people who bowl do so competitively. “Our goal is to elevate the guest experience; we want to create memorable experiences for every guest on every visit; it’s become our mission.”

And it’s the mission for every bowling facility, because the game itself is not enough to bring people in.

Making the needed adjustments is difficult — and costly — and many operations simply haven’t been able to keep up, said those we spoke with.

There used to be about eight 10-pin bowling lanes locally, Bennette noted, but now there are only a handful, including AMF Chicopee Lanes. “There are none in Greenfield, one in Pittsfield and one in Great Barrington,” he said, adding that few candlepin bowling lanes exist in the area, and the ones that are still open are often small operations. “Their struggle is more mighty than the 10-pin centers.”

Candlepin bowling is almost strictly a New England and Canadian sport. The main difference between 10-pin and candlepin is that, in the latter form, each player uses three balls per frame rather than two; the balls are smaller, weigh less, and don’t have finger holes; the pins are thinner; and when they are downed they not cleared away between balls during a player’s turn.

Justin Godfrey

Justin Godfrey says aggressive marketing is necessary today to get people in the doors and attract new bowlers.

The average age of bowlers at AMF Chicopee Lanes is 25 to 45, and they usually bowl at least once a week. Many are there on weekend nights, when the average age is 25 to 35.

“We have music videos playing on screens over the lanes and black lighting. It’s a very upbeat atmosphere, and people are here for two to three hours, eating and drinking while they bowl,” Bennett said, adding that, generations ago, bowling centers were often empty on weekend nights.

AMF Chicopee has two men’s leagues on Friday nights that are very competitive and a few competitive women’s leagues, but they are the exception.

In general, there are very few men-only leagues, and the remaining women’s leagues are typically made up of senior citizens, although the number of mixed leagues has grown.

AMF Chicopee’s leagues have remained at the same levels they were at 15 years ago, but Bennett says that may be true because there are fewer centers today, and whenever one closes, many of its bowlers move to the remaining centers.

Knowing the Score

Jon Roberts purchased the building Agawam Bowl is housed in on April 1, and had no plans to continue the bowling operation, but decided to do so when he found how important it was to the community.

“There aren’t many candlepin lanes left, and one woman in the senior league has bowled here for more than 50 years,” he said, noting that candlepin centers in Westfield, Holyoke, and Springfield closed over the past several years; there were at least a dozen candlepin centers in Springfield alone decades ago.

His decision to keep the business going and make needed adjustments are steps reflective of those trying to make what amounts to a 7-10 split in this business.

He reconditioned the lanes and recently hired a marketing manager, he said, citing a few examples.

Agawam Bowl offers a number of summer programs, including a Friday Night Pizza League that people can join with no commitment — each person is assigned a handicap score, and each week teams are composed of bowlers who show up. At the end of the night, the top-scoring team gets free pizza courtesy of the other bowlers.

It also started a Summer Fun Bowling program; children have to rent shoes, but if they register, they can play two free games each week.

The program has been very successful: 1,400 young people are registered, and an additional 100 family passes have been sold.

Feeley said there has been a revival of interest in candlepin bowling in Eastern Mass., but owners everywhere have had to improve conditions and add attractions.

For example, the center in Wilmington, Vt., which that was rebuilt after it was devastated by Hurricane Irene, has added a restaurant and mini-golf course.

“We have had a pretty good summer and are trying to reestablish a youth group here, but have problems because so many kids have schedule conflicts,” he said, adding that they tried adding special effects such as lights and music, but it didn’t prove popular.

However, Agawam Bowl does host its share of corporate events and birthday parties.

“The game is not out of the woods, but I have hope for the future. There are people who want to continue to go bowling at a competitive level, but we need more families to start bowling,” Feeley said.

Bennett agreed. “The game’s inexpensive, and something people can do from age 2 to 102,” he said, adding that AMF Chicopee Lanes has an e-mail club that offers discounts several times a month and other special offers for people who sign up when they bowl.

“It’s a benefit for our loyal customers,” he went on. “Marketing has had to change to keep up with time and the demographics; today people can text and get coupons, so we run contests on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook to keep in touch with young people. But our customer base is so broad that it takes a lot to keep in contact with people of all ages.”

Although the center used to target 25- to 40-year-olds, today, every age group has become a focus. There are ramps so people with handicaps can bowl, six-pound balls that can be pushed down the ramps by 3- and 4-year-olds (bumpers are put in the gutters to increase their chances of knocking down pins), and senior leagues with members in their 80s. “Millenials have fun here on Saturday nights, and we have programs that cater to all abilities and interest levels,” Bennett said.

AMF Chicopee is also the setting for many corporate outings and fund-raisers; it caters to eight to 10 groups a month and works with corporate planners to build special menus.

Semb says French King Bowling Center holds about two corporate events a month as well as a lot of Christmas and birthday parties. “When companies go out to dinner around the holidays, people usually only socialize with co-workers who sit next to them. But when they have a party here, everyone socializes with each other when they are not bowling,” he said.

Since it’s a candlepin center and the balls weigh only two pounds, six ounces, small children can enjoy it, and even preschool groups have gone to French King.

Next Generation

Although the scope of bowling has changed, many adults are introducing their children to the sport. Theresa Sherman was at Agawam Bowl with her two children, their friend, and her own friend Alicia Richter, who brought her 5-year-old daughter and 4-month-old to the lanes on a recent stifling hot day.

“My high school had a bowling program, and I came from a generation that bowled a lot and enjoyed it. My daughter is at a good age to start, so I definitely plan to bring her here more often,” Richter said.

Sherman recalled bowling lock-ins in high school, when students would spend the entire night in a center, bowling and eating pizza. “I bowl occasionally and came here when my son’s school sponsored a bowling night. We loved it and hadn’t known that there were candlepin bowling centers around here. But we discovered their summer program; the children love it, and it’s definitely a good family activity.”

Five-year-old Logan agreed. “It’s better than anything. The pins are like bad guys, and the balls are like power balls,” he said.

Indeed, although the reasons people bowl have changed, it’s still a sport and an activity which current and future generations can enjoy in a world where superstars and special effects reign.

Sections Sports & Leisure

Return to Nature

Ramblewild’s aerial adventure park

There are eight courses in Ramblewild’s aerial adventure park for people to choose from, accommodating beginners to experts.

Few people ever get the opportunity to play high in the treetops.

But at Ramblewild LLC in Lanesborough, children and adults of all ages and abilities can swing through the forest like Tarzan, climb rope ladders, and encounter a series of challenging obstacles as they make their way through a series of 15 platforms connected by bridge elements set 15 to 50 feet high in the treetops.

Program Director and Operations Manager Luke Bloom says Ramblewild’s aerial adventure park is the largest of its kind in North America.
“When we built this, our goal was to reintroduce kids to nature in an exciting way,” he told BusinessWest. “Technology has become an appendage that consumes so much of everyone’s life, and this is the first generation of children who will have to seek out the solitude of nature on their own. We want to get them excited about being stewards of the forest, and they can see the beauty and relaxation it can provide while they’re here; there is so much that can be learned from the forest.”

The focal point of the park is a central platform rising 15 feet from the ground called the Hub, which is the starting point for eight different adventure courses or trails that meander from tree to tree at various heights throughout the forest.

“We have something for everyone,” said Bloom, noting, however, that children must be at least 7 years old and 55 inches tall to enter the park. “We’re set up like a ski area and have two courses for beginners, two for intermediates, two advanced trails, and two for experts.”

They include elements that range from high wires to ziplines, balancing logs, rope ladders, cargo nets, suspended bridges, and more; four of the courses cross a ravine via ziplines that swing people 100 feet above its bottom.

Although the aerial park is decidedly the crown jewel of Ramblewild, it is far more than a place to have fun. Feronia Forests owns the 1,450-acre property, and the company has chosen not to follow the typical approach taken by most foresting companies, which involves evaluating the trees as a commodity and selling their wood for profit.

Bloom says there are no plans to harvest the trees at Ramblewild for the next 30 to 50 years, although some may be taken down to maintain the overall health of the forest. Instead, four avenues are being used to make the land profitable while sustaining its natural beauty.

platforms

Some platforms in the treetops are joined together by suspended bridges.

The first avenue is recreation, which is provided at the aerial adventure park and through an extensive network of hiking and snowshoeing nature trails that begin at the lodge and wind their way over Brodie Mountain, showcasing a wide variety of flora and fauna.

The second is education; many schools bring classes to Ramblewild to get hands-on lessons about science and history. Their programs are aligned with national STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) applications as well as the Massachusetts Common Core state standards for grades 3 to 12.

“We like to look at this as one of the largest living laboratories in the Northeast. Most classes are already studying what they come here for, and our programs are custom-designed for each teacher,” Bloom said. A 120-acre sugar forest with 6,000 taps provides the raw material for a commercial maple-syrup business, which is the third avenue of business and economic development, while the fourth is providing jobs and vocational opportunities for people in the area.

“These programs all support each other and make Ramblewild a workable, functional place where we can turn a profit without cutting down trees,” Bloom told BusinessWest, adding that wind turbines at the top of Brodie Mountain are a visible display of the power that can be generated from natural resources and also provide lessons in renewable energy.

Sustainable Projects

The philosophy and concepts employed at Ramblewild were the brainchild of Paolo Cugnasca and his daughter, Valentina Cugnasca, who are the principal investors.

“When Valentina was a student at the University of San Francisco she wrote a doctoral thesis titled ‘Tree Hugging Capitalism,’” Bloom said, explaining that the ideas that make Ramblewild successful stem from her work.

Education is a critical component, and it’s based on silviculture, defined as the art and science of controlling the establishment, growth, composition, health, and quality of forests and woodlands to meet the diverse needs and values of landowners and society on a sustainable basis.

“When school and camp groups come here, we explain how we manage our open space compared to other foresting companies, how we get the most of the forest with the least amount of damage,” Bloom noted.

Classroom lessons typically last six hours. A physics class could study the idea of bodies in motion by using the ziplines, and a fifth-grade teacher could use the course for a geology lesson because glacial scarring can be seen from the top of the mountain. There are also opportunities for natural-history lessons, and Bloom said a high-school English teacher brought a class to Ramblewild to inspire students to write poetry.

“We have a stage in the adventure park and had a high school collaborate with area jazz musicians to conduct free concerts in the forest,” Bloom noted. “The potential here is literally unlimited in terms of applicable lessons, and we make things as easy as possible for teachers.”

ropeFor example, a third-grade class might visit Ramblewild during maple-sugaring season and learn how much science is involved in tapping a maple tree, as well as how to care for it and what takes place from the root structure up to the cellular level.

“The students feel the tree, put a tap in it, and are able to taste the sap, which is the tree’s lifeblood,” Bloom said. “It’s like clear water, and we talk about the evaporation process needed to turn it into maple syrup, which many people don’t know about; they think it comes out of the tree as sweetened syrup.

“When we say we’re the largest living laboratory, what we mean is that the forest is a place to hammer home lessons taught inside the classroom,” he continued. “It is infinitely more powerful when you can see something, touch it, smell it, and taste it. Studies have shown that people only retain 10% of what they hear, 50% of what they see, and 90% of what they do, and we operate under that onus: we want people outside seeing, tasting, smelling, and feeling the forest.”

Ramblewild sells light, medium, and dark maple syrup, and this year it began working with Hillrock Distillery in New York to produce maple-bourbon syrup.

Bloom explained that Hillrock is one of few in the country that produces whiskey from farm to bottle on the premises. It ages its whiskey in white oak barrels to turn it into bourbon, and Ramblewild purchases the used barrels, fills them with maple syrup, and ages it for 14 weeks before filtering it into bottles.

A group of campers from Smith College recently visited Ramblewild, and after learning about its full forestry program, they went for a hike in the sugar bush and were taught about that operation.

Berkshire Wind Co-op’s wind power project on top of Brodie Mountain, which consists of 13 wind turbines located on Ramblewild propery, is another place where students of all ages can experience nature in a unique way.

“We take them to a place where they can stand underneath a 320-foot tall wind turbine and talk about how it works and how kinetic energy is turned into electric energy, which is then returned to the grid for use by the consumer,” Bloom said. “It’s one thing to learn about it from a book and another to stand beneath one of these giants and see it firsthand. It’s pretty incredible.”

Classes have lunch at Ramblewild, and afternoons are spent at the aerial adventure park, playing in the treetops.

There is also a nonprofit division of the corporation called Feronia Forward whose sole purpose is to provide funding to allow more schools and students to participate in Ramblewild’s programs.

“A percentage of the price of every bottle of maple syrup we sell goes into the fund. The proceeds are often matched by investors, and over the last two years we have given more than $100,000 to school groups,” Bloom noted.

Dedicated Mission

It took four years for Ramblewild to become operational: three to procure the land and obtain the necessary permits, and a year to build the aerial adventure park.

“We’re in our third season and expect to make a profit this year. We stay very busy from June until after Columbus Day and expect to get about 20,000 visitors this year,” Bloom said.

The operation has five full-time employees but adds up to 40 additional staff during their busy season, which fulfills the goal of providing vocational opportunities for people living within a 100-mile radius.

In addition, every product used at Ramblewild comes from local businesses, including the raw materials needed to create the buildings and the aerial adventure park.

Ramblewild has been named a ‘B corporation’ for the past four years, which is an elite recognition given to companies that use business for the higher purpose of solving society’s most challenging problems. Only a handful of firms have earned the environmental distinction, as the standards are very stringent.

“Our ultimate goal is to be a place where families, teachers, and anyone interested in the forest can come, a place where they can disconnect from technology and reconnect with family and friends in an effort to educate the next generation about stewardship of the forest,” Bloom said. “We want them to claim responsibility for the environment, as if they don’t, no one else will. It’s our sole purpose, and we are proud of what we have created.”

That would be another world, high in the treetops and on top of Brodie Mountain, where it’s easy to forget the pressures of the modern world and find the extraordinary peace that nature can provide.

Sections Sports & Leisure

Doubling Down

Dave Fluery

Dave Fluery says there are many advantages to owning two golf courses instead of one, and this explains his pursuit of Elmcrest Country Club.

Dave Fleury says it wasn’t long after he and business partner Greg Lindenmuth acquired Crestview Country Club in Agawam that they started thinking about the various benefits — especially the many economies of scale that would present themselves — if they owned two courses instead of one.

So they kept at least one eye on several potential acquisition targets in the region, not knowing when an opportunity might present itself.

Elmcrest Country Club, the private course in East Longmeadow, wasn’t actually one of them. But that changed, in dramatic fashion, in the days, hours, and especially the final minutes before that club and all the items in it were set to be auctioned off in January.

Indeed, maybe a week before that scheduled auction, and while Fleury, a golf-course designer by trade, was in Spain working on a project on the Costa Del Sol, the plan — if he could get to the auction upon his planned return — was to look at acquiring some tables and chairs, a request that came from his banquet manager.

But upon driving to the auction, picking up Lindenmuth on the way over, the discussion turned to maybe coming home with something much more, like the course itself. And after talking to those handling the auction upon arriving, Fleury was told this was eminently doable — if he could produce a check for $50,000 in 18 minutes and meet some other obligations.

“It was close, but we made it back with two minutes to spare,” he recalled, adding that, upon calling his lender at Westfield Bank, Fleury was pleased to learn it had a branch in East Longmeadow. A call was made, and the check was waiting for him when he got there, enabling the partners to race back and acquire the club for what would have to be considered the bargain price of $1 million.

All that constitutes an exciting, page-turning first chapter in this unfolding story. What happens next? Well, the authors are looking to script something along the lines of the comeback story they wrote for Crestview, which has recovered from the depths of economic gloom and rebuilt its membership to the desired 300 mark in four years.

But there will likely be some different plot twists, and, in essence, there has already been one.

Fleury said the turnaround at Crestview didn’t exactly start well. Members at the private club weren’t happy with the way they were left in the dark in the months before the course was sold, and weren’t thrilled, to put in mildly, with Fleury’s plans to make it a semi-private operation — one that’s open to the public but with many perks for members.

It took a while, but the Crestview ship was eventually righted. Members who stayed came to appreciate the new model, and many who left decided to come back when they saw how well it was working.

At Elmcrest, the semi-private plan has been given a much warmer initial response than the one originally received at Crestview, said Fleury, noting that many long-time members saw Crestview’s success — in fact, many of them had moved there as Elmcrest started its spiral — and welcomed the model for their former (and likely future) club.

“The members were so supportive and so positive,” he said of the Elmcrest members. “They believed in us because they thought we saved Crestview and resurrected that club; now they saw us as someone who could come into their club and effect positive change.”

For this issue and its focus on sports and leisure, BusinessWest looks at Fleury’s latest entrepreneurial venture within the highly competitive local golf market, and what this gambit means for him — and the playing field.

Fore Example

When asked what happened at the East Longmeadow club to bring it to precipitous decline and finally that auction in January, Fleury, a fairly close observer of the local golf market who was helped in this assessment by some insider information gleaned from long-time Elmcrest members who moved to Crestview, paused for a moment. He then said he would select his words carefully in a bid to be diplomatic, which he was.

“Let’s just say the club was struggling with the current economic and cultural environment that golf is in,” he explained. “The economics are still not the best, and it seems that, in a way, golf has lost its way somewhat, because of the economics, the time constraints, and everything that’s been said about the game.

“The owners didn’t know how to move forward,” he continued, adding that they told members theirs was a private club, but they didn’t run it like one, with numerous outings, specials, promotions, coupons, and other business-generating moves that private clubs just don’t take.

“The members didn’t feel appreciated,” said Fleury, adding that the situation, and the club’s finances, deteriorated to the point where the course and its various assets had to be auctioned.

With this acquisition, Fleury said he will soon enjoy those economies of scale, or cost synergies, as he called them, which are critical in a business where expenses keep rising and revenues are generally flat.

To make his point, he cited a piece of equipment known as a greens aerator, a vehicle that punches holes into the greens to allow air into the soil beneath. Such a procedure, called aeration, is undertaken at least once or twice a year.

“If you have to buy one of them, and the cost is $50,000, you’re much better off when you can spread the cost of that equipment over two courses instead of one,” he explained. “That’s a real cost synergy, and I can think of probably 25 more examples like that.”

But while having two golf courses can be advantageous, it has to be the right two courses, meaning operations that complement one another and don’t necessarily compete.

“We wanted to continue to grow the brand and the company,” he explained. “And the way to do that is by finding another course close enough, but not too close, in the same market, but not in the exact same market, from the standpoint of the price point and the property.”

To explain, he offered thoughts blending geography and economics in a way that resonates with many area business owners.

“I don’t have an issue with the Connecticut River, but apparently, a lot of people do,” he said, noting that it acts as a kind of borderline that many people looking to do business — and that includes playing golf — don’t want to cross.

Elaborating, he said that, while Crestview has done well since he acquired it, one area where it continues to struggle is with attracting players from communities east of the river, in both Massachusetts and Connecticut.

The Elmcrest acquisition gives the company an opportunity to tap into both geographic quadrants, and with courses that won’t exactly compete with one another because they will be at different levels price-wise and customer-experience-wise — Crestview at the high end, with Emcrest just one notch below.

Course Correction

As he talked with BusinessWest in mid March, Fleury was anticipating that Elmcrest would be open the first weekend in April.

“The course is in great shape, we’ve got our team in place, and we’re ready to go,” he said, uttering words he probably couldn’t have imagined just a few months ago.

But the landscape has changed, and very quickly. Now, Fleury wants to keep on altering it, making his small family of courses — and it would have to be called that — a formidable presence in the local market.

You might just say he’s changing the course of things — or courses, to be more precise.

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

Sections Sports & Leisure

Private Conversations

David Brosseau

David Brosseau says that, while conditions have improved somewhat for the area’s private clubs, many challenges remain.

David Brosseau has been a member of Springfield Country Club for a quarter-century now, so he can speak from experience about how the landscape has changed over that time.

Not at the club, necessarily — although there have been renovations at the stately clubhouse, the building of a skating rink on property formerly occupied by tennis courts, and tweaks on the course, especially the treacherous, downhill, par-4 sixth hole — but in the marketplace.

Indeed, over the past several years, Brosseau, now in his second year as president of the private club off Route 5 in West Springfield, has seen developments that wouldn’t have been contemplated in 1991 — because they didn’t have to be. Things like membership drives, promotional ads in area publications, special introductory rates, and elimination of initiation fees.

But all those steps and more are part of a new reality for private clubs (most of them, anyway), who have seen waiting lists become a thing of the distant past, replaced by spirited competition for a dwindling number of golfers and families willing to make the investment needed to join a club.

“It’s very competitive out there right now, and it’s been that way for a while, especially the past five or six years with the turndown in the economy and the turndown in golf,” said Brosseau, adding that the number of clubs has actually increased, with the addition of Great Horse in Hampden, while the pool of prospective members is flat at best. “But we’re starting to see things improve somewhat.”

Mary McNally, the recently installed president of the Country Club of Wilbraham, a semi-private course that sees most of its play from its members, agreed. She said her facility, which she described as primarily a golf club — it doesn’t have a pool, tennis courts, or other family-oriented amenities — has confronted everything from the general decline in the number of people playing golf to an evident lack of loyalty among members at area clubs, in part because they’re not paying any initiation fees.

The Wilbraham club is more than holding its own — membership is currently at 300, a solid number, and it is working to hard to increase public play — but, like most clubs in the area, it must work much harder to maintain those numbers than it did years ago.

The good news for clubs is that what would be considered the worst seems to be over. That would be the lingering effects of a devastating recession on top of all those factors, a perfect storm that made for some lean and trying years.

“I think conditions are improved overall — the economy is better, and more people are looking to join a club,” said Attilio Cardaropoli, owner and general manager at Twin Hills Country Club in Longmeadow, one of the healthier facilities in the region.

That was certainly not the case seven or eight years ago, when the club was in financial distress and rumors swirled that the valuable real estate in the northeast corner of the town would be transformed into a subdivision.

But Cardaropoli not only resuscitated the club, he’s returned it to full membership — 300 or so members — and undertaken extensive renovations and additions, on the course and in the clubhouse, to better serve those members.

He said the key to success is catering to members, providing value, and offering a return on their investment. For this issue and its focus on sports and leisure, BusinessWest looks at how clubs strive to do just that.

Members Bounce

As she talked with BusinessWest in late March, McNally echoed what the leaders of virtually every club in the region have been saying for years now — that there is at least one too many of these facilities serving the general population.

Such sentiments explain why the recent auction of Elmcrest Country Club in East Longmeadow, a private facility that has been struggling for several years, was watched very closely: perhaps now there would be one less club with which to compete.

Attilio Cardaropoli

Attilio Cardaropoli says Twin Hills Country Club in Longmeadow has staged a dramatic comeback through a strong focus on serving members.

But the news that the partners who acquired Crestview Country Club in Agawam and converted it into a semi-private facility would do the same at Elmcrest after submitted the winning bid for the property (see related story, page 19) put an end such speculation — and optimism.

Which means the bounce that Wilbraham might have seen if Elmcrest closed — the clubs are only a few miles apart — certainly won’t be as great, said McNally, adding that this development merely adds another small layer to the ongoing challenge facing area clubs.

In a nutshell, that comes down to closing the proverbial gap between where the membership total stands and where a club’s leadership would want it to be. Years ago, most clubs didn’t have gaps, and if they did, they were small and easily closeable.

In recent years, though, and especially during and after the Great Recession, the gaps became wider, and to close them, clubs responded with a number of measures. Some were time-tested tactics, such as offering the fall months for free when someone signs on for the following year. But most were relatively new (at least for private clubs in this market), like advertising, membership drives, price incentives, waiving initiation fees, and creating new products in their form of specially tailored membership packages for constituencies ranging from young professionals to retirees.

Overall, such steps have worked at SCC, said Brosseau, adding that the club has closed its gap significantly, thanks to a recent membership drive (the first in several years), which added nearly 70 new members, and other steps.

For example, the club would at times offer three years of membership for the price of two, while it also restructured fees for existing members to bring them more in line with what recent recruits were offered, a step that has helped improve retention, as well as morale.

Overall, the club has evolved somewhat over the years, he went on, and is now more of a social club for families than a golf club, another clear sign of the times.

And this is reflected in some changes in scenery, such as that aforementioned skating rink.

“We put in a skating rink, and we get the warmest winter in years,” he joked, adding that, while the club struggled to keep the ice surface clear, it has generally succeeded in its mission to become more family-friendly.

That word ‘friendly’ was also used by Cardaropoli, who summoned it when talking about how Twin Hills does not levy assessments on members for capital improvements, maintenance, or any other reason, and this greatly improves morale.

And it gives the club another addition to an already solid list of selling points, including accessibility, price, course quality and walkability (there are few steep hills, despite the name on the sign), and large practice facility.

“We have a great course and a great location, and we cater to the membership,” he explained. “Every year, we’re taking on some improvements or renovations to the course, but the big thing is that we never have any special assessments or initiation fees, so when someone joins, they know exactly what they’re going to be paying, and there’s no surprises at the end of the year.”

The Country Club of Wilbraham, which expanded from nine to 18 holes in 2002, has fewer and different selling points — it lacks many family-friendly facilities and, thus, focuses on its strengths, intimacy and golf.

“We’re a small club, and we’re low-key,” she said. “We don’t have tennis or a pool or a fancy dining room, but we have a lovely facility and a relaxed atmosphere; we just try to be who we are and not pretend to be something we’re not, and I think that’s going to be the key to our success.”

Historically, that formula has worked well, she said, adding that the club has picked up several new members in recent months (many of them returnees who had left) and is ahead of the budgeted number for 2016.

Keeping it in or above that ballpark is an ongoing challenge, she went on, in part because of the competition and attractive offers from other clubs, but also that lack of loyalty she mentioned earlier.

“Someone might to go to one club one year because it’s $300 less,” she explained, adding that this happens more frequently now because people aren’t paying initiation fees. “But then, people often wind up coming back to where their friends are.”

Dues and Don’ts

Lately, more people have been coming back to the country-club lifestyle or experiencing it for first time.

It’s certainly not like it was 25 years ago, when Brosseau first joined SCC, or even 10 years ago, but conditions are improving gradually.

Still, stern challenges remain, said those we spoke with, adding that clubs must continue to be diligent and imaginative in their efforts to attract and then serve members.

Because the current environment constitutes a new normal.

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

Sections Sports & Leisure

Communion with Nature

Benjamin Quick

Benjamin Quick hopes to strengthen and grow programs at Pioneer Valley Riverfront Club so more people can experience the beauty of the Connecticut River.

Sunlight dances off sparkling water as Emily Quirk sits on a platform overlooking the Connecticut River. Her white socks are wet and muddy, but the 17-year-old pays no heed to the chilly breeze blowing along the riverfront; her focus is upstream as she watches for the two boats she helped launch — thus, the muddy feet — return from their first outing this season.

Quirk has been rowing since eighth grade, and is a member of the Pioneer Valley Riverfront Club’s (PVRC) competitive team. “The sport is unique. Not many people are involved with it, but just being on the river is so peaceful,” she said.

It’s that same feeling and sense of wonder that newly appointed PVRC Executive Director Benjamin Quick hopes to promote in his mission to expand the club’s visibility, programming, and sponsorship. He also wants to upgrade some of the equipment and improve the boathouse, and although he has only been on the job a few weeks, new programs have already been put into place, and marketing efforts have begun to meet those goals.

“Most people don’t know anything about rowing. They think the only way to get on the water is to rent a kayak. But our rowing program provides recreational and competitive opportunities,” Quick said, adding that it only takes one day to learn to paddle a dragon boat.

His efforts to raise awareness about PVRC will get a decided boost in early December, when PVRC hosts the 2016 U.S. Rowing Annual Convention.

“This will be the most momentous rowing event in Springfield in a century; it will be the culmination of our work this year and put Springfield on the map,” Quick said, explaining that the convention is the premier event for organized rowing and teaching.

The multi-day affair will highlight the history of rowing, look to its future, and include a number of seminars and programs.

“We’re the gateway to the Connecticut River in Springfield, and this will be dream exposure,” Quick continued. “The rowing community is international but very networked, and since PVRC is the host club, it lends a degree of legitimacy to what we have felt here internally.”

More than 600 rowers, coaches, and interested people are expected to attend, along with several dozen vendors, and although the events will be held in Springfield hotels, PVRC will offer boathouse tours and is planning a Saturday-evening gala to make the convention memorable.

The last convention was held in Philadelphia, which boasts 12 private, exclusive boathouses that date back to the 19th century. “It’s a tough act to follow, but we are the people’s solution to getting on the water in Springfield,” Quick said, explaining that the City of Homes was selected as the 2016 venue due to efforts by the Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau.

GSCVB President Mary Kay Wydra said outreach began when there was talk of hosting the Olympics in Boston in 2024. During that time period, the tourism board worked hard to make connections that would promote sports-related activities in Western Mass., which led to winning the bid to have the U.S. Rowing Convention held here.

“We want to bring sporting events to the region that have an economic impact on our local economy,” said GSCVB Director of Sales Alicia Szenza. “We’re really proud that Springfield was selected.”

Changing Landscape

Springfield has a storied rowing history, and in 2012 PVRC took up residence in a century-old building that formerly housed Bassett Boat’s showroom. It sits on the edge of North Riverfront Park, which recently received a $1.3 million makeover, and is backed by the 3.7-mile Connecticut River Walk and Bikeway.

Quick said the club is delighted with the new pergola, pavilion, picnic tables, nautical flagpole, and sitting walls at the park, and works closely with the city to maintain it.

The views and the new amenities were designed to attract more people, and the improvements are important to the public face of PVRC, which is dependent on sponsorships, grants, and donations to fund its annual $500,000 budget.

The clubs sponsor a large number of youth programs, and Quick said the business community has been very supportive, with many companies stepping forward to help, such as Peter Pan Bus Lines, which houses some of its boats during the winter.

The Dragon Boat Festival

The Dragon Boat Festival on June 25 offers businesses a unique team building opportunity on the Connecticut River that includes entertainment, food, and a chance to compete for prizes.

The clubhouse has undergone recent renovations; new men’s and women’s locker rooms with showers have been added, and a new community room is slowly taking shape, where parents can relax and young people can do their homework if they arrive before the afternoon programming begins. The floor was just finished, thanks to help from United Water (Suez) in Agawam, which supplied the labor to paint it after a broken pipe destroyed the carpeting last winter. In addition, donations of high-quality, second-hand furniture are being accepted.

“Everyone who is exposed to what we do wants to help,” Quick said. But, unfortunately, many companies that support the club have told him they will have to reduce their contributions this year.

“But I see it as an opportunity, not a challenge,” he continued, adding that the organization has taken a close look at where to make improvements and what can be cut. For example, the club just hired three, part-time seasonal coaches, which is a reduction from the past, when they were overstaffed and didn’t have enough formal programs. “But that leak in the dam has been plugged,” he noted.

To illustrate that point, he told BusinessWest about a few new, formal initiatives that will kick off this summer. They include a five-day learn-to-row program that will take place the first week of each month; a dragon-boat paddling program, and an opportunity for experienced rowers to engage in high-performance training.

Corporate outings are also on the menu, and will range from kayaking to canoeing, with refreshments. “These programs will allow adults to get some exercise, see the city from a new perspective, and have a story to tell, which is part of the century-old rowing legacy,” Quick said, noting that business events will be custom-tailored to suit individual needs.

As mentioned before, youth programs comprise a critical part of the club’s mission, and about 100 young people are exposed to start rowing through the club — and hopefully develop a passion for it — each year. They come from a wide range of area communities, and many receive scholarships.

“Rowing is not a high-school sport, and our program gives kids from Springfield public schools an opportunity to see the city from the river,” said Quick. “If it opens one door even a few inches wider, we consider it a success.

“We’re trying to get kids to feel good about doing something well and set the bar high for them,” he went on, adding that this constitutes a commitment the PVRC has made to the city and its sponsors.

Rowing has another benefit for young athletes; almost 50% of females who apply for rowing scholarships receive them, and last year one of PVRC’s competitive rowers earned a full scholarship to George Washington University.

Adults who join the club become part of the Master’s Program and can choose to row competitively or simply enjoy lazing along the river on warm summer nights. However, most contribute financially or through donations of time, and many become mentors to teens in the youth programs.

“They work shoulder to shoulder with them during volunteer activities, which is an experience these teens couldn’t get anywhere else,” Quick said.

One of the club’s largest events is its Dragon Boat Festival, which will be held June 25, and will attract more than 500 paddlers from all over the Northeast. “The boats are magnificently decorated and have drummers who sit in the bow and set the beat for the paddlers,” he noted.

Teams are still needed, and groups and organizations are invited to sign up. The cost is $2,000, which includes a half-day of training, all that is needed — life jackets, the boat, coaching — and more.

“The festival is the perfect event for businesses and organizations looking for a new team-building opportunity,” Quick said, adding that no experience is needed. The day will also include a breast-cancer-survivor flower ceremony, Asian-themed entertainment, music, food, and vendors.

But not everyone wants to compete, so people can sign up to learn how to paddle and join others several nights a week on the club’s dragon boats. “We need more paddlers,” Quick said, noting the activity is well-suited to a variety of abilities, and women make up the majority of people who choose to navigate the river in this manner.

Tom Siddall was recently appointedthe new varsity and master’s rowing coach, and his goal is to change the way training is conducted by focusing on strength and conditioning, mobility, flexibility, volume, and intensity.

“I’ve been able to scale the program so participants can do as much as they want,” he said, explaining that, since rowers spend so much time indoors practicing during the offseason, it’s important for them to gain functional strength, which includes doing exercise such as squats, dead lifts, or one-leg unilateral movements.

Worthwhile Venture

On a recent day, Julia and Luis Cortes were rowing on machines overlooking the riverfront. “I like the discipline and commitment this requires,” said 16-year-old Luis, explaining that each person strives to break through their own personal barriers.

Julia was excited about getting out on the river, and said her enthusiasm has grown since they signed up five months ago.

Quick doesn’t find that surprising. “Sometimes you just have to stop and gawk at the wildlife,” he said. “We see bald eagles fishing on the river, and it’s an inspiring sight.”

And it is in line with the soaring goals of this club, which introduces people to a form of exercise that nourishes the mind, body, and spirit.

Sections Sports & Leisure

A Nation of GMs

fantasySportsDPart

Fantasy sports — born decades ago as a niche pastime for baseball überfans who tracked statistics by hand with calculators — has since exploded into an instant-data industry that claims more than 56 million participants. Most of those drafted their football teams last week in anticipation of the season, while others will put up money to redraft each week on sites like FanDuel and DraftKings. One thing is for sure: whether for fun or profit, the fantasy world has changed the way people watch sports — and the leagues, networks, and advertisers couldn’t be happier.

Before Mark McDonald jumped into fantasy football, he’d watch the Patriots on Sunday, and not much else. But now?

“It has dramatically changed my viewing habits,” said McDonald, a professor of Sport Management at UMass Amherst. “Games between horrible teams, games that once meant nothing to me, now I want to watch to see how my fantasy team is doing. I like that sense of control — I’m the general manager, controlling my own team, and watching other players to see who I might pick up. It changes your view of football. Even Thursday nights are must-watch.”

McDonald started playing GM four years ago when fellow faculty members at the Isenberg School of Management invited him into their league. He’s been hooked ever since, and was preparing for drafts in two different leagues the week he spoke with BusinessWest.

He’s not alone. The number of people participating in fantasy sports — football, baseball, basketball, hockey, even golf and auto racing — is expected to reach 56.8 million this year, a staggering increase of 37% from 2013, according to the Fantasy Sports Trade Assoc. (FSTA).

The vast majority play in season-long leagues, going head to head with a different team’s owner each week. But, increasingly, ‘daily’ fantasy sports, played for real money — FanDuel and DraftKings are the two giants of this industry — are becoming more popular. At the end of 2014, the two online services posted a combined $920 million in entry fees from 1.3 million paying users — numbers this year’s participation is expected to far surpass.

“It gives fans another connection point,” said Janet Fink, another UMass professor and chair of the Department of Sport Management. “Fantasy football is much more widely popular than any other fantasy sport, but they’re all growing. And now you have these day-to-day, week-to-week leagues getting more popular as well.”

Indeed, fantasy sports has come a long way from its 1970s origins, when hardcore baseball players played something called Rotisserie, drafting players at the start of the season, then tracking their statistics, by hand and with calculators, and translating those stats into a scoring system. Today, the data is instantaneous, meaning owners can sit on the couch with a smartphone and watch the points roll in.

And, by the tens of millions, that’s exactly what they do.

Fan Fare

Andrew Zimbalist, a professor of Economics at Smith College and one of the world’s foremost sports economists, has observed the impact of fantasy sports on American life, which goes well beyond that annoying guy in the lunchroom on Tuesday complaining about losing by a point because Julio Jones dropped an easy touchdown Monday night.

“It’s something that increases the avidity of fandom and, in some cases, extends fandom,” he explained. “People who are involved in fantasy sports are paying much more attention to the game. They subscribe to more online services and satellite services.

“The other effect they have, to some degree — and it differs by sport — is more generalized fandom,” he went on. “If I’m a Red Sox fan living in Massachusetts, without the fantasy-sports component, I’m following the 25 people on the active Red Sox roster. But if I have Mike Trout in my fantasy-baseball league, if I’ve got Joe Mauer on my team, I’m not only into the Red Sox games, but Angels games and Twins games, etc.”

That sort of changed behavior is something sought after and prized by professional sports leagues, Zimbalist added.

“Football, for a variety of reasons, has long been a national sport; even though fans have a team they follow and support, true football fans will watch two games, and might stay around for Sunday evening,” he explained. “But in the other leagues, like baseball — say you’re a Padres fan living in San Diego. You’re going to watch the Padres games; you’re not going to watch the Giants or Diamondbacks. But some of the fandom becomes nationalized when you have fantasy sports leagues. That is a very valuable component — and it’s a growing fandom.”

No wonder, then, that ESPN hosts the most popular fantasy platform (Yahoo! is the second-largest), while DraftKings recently secured $300 million in funding from Fox Sports, Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, and Major League Soccer. In return, the company plans to give away $1 billion in prizes this year, more than triple the $300 million it awarded in 2014.

Meanwhile, the larger play-for-cash entity, FanDuel, which pays out more than $10 million in prizes every week, recently raised $275 million from investors, including affiliates of Google, Comcast, and Time Warner.

Janet Fink

Janet Fink

“Research has been done asking whether, if people got too much into fantasy sports, it might decrease their interest in their own team,” Fink said. “In fact, they found quite the opposite. People around here still root for the Patriots, but they flip to the Red Zone to check out their fantasy team. That way, the viewership of games league-wide increases. There’s extra incentive to watch the Chargers versus the Raiders when you wouldn’t do that normally.”

McDonald is familiar with DirecTV’s Red Zone channel, which jumps, all Sunday long, between teams on the cusp of scoring — a fantasy maven’s dream. He noted that his league’s owners get together twice a year for Sunday viewing parties, but they don’t watch the Patriots; they watch Red Zone. “One aspect to fantasy that’s a bit negative is how it impacts viewing your favorite team.”

Fink has read studies showing that, while some fantasy hobbyists remain more interested in their home-state team, others come to identify more with their fantasy players and seek them out on TV instead. “But in most cases,” she added, “it’s probably a very complementary relationship.”

Speaking of relationships, McDonald believes fantasy football has strengthened connections between the people he works with at Isenberg.

Mark McDonald

Mark McDonald

“As with any business school, we have a bunch of different departments — accounting, finance, management, marketing … seven or eight in all. There are faculty members I might not otherwise interact with, and now, if I run into the owner I’m playing against that week, we’ll get some friendly trash talking going on in the hallway. You get to know each other. We find ways to get together now.”

Real Money

Advertisers covet the fantasy-sports market, according to the FSTA, which reports that team owners are mostly college-educated with an average household income topping $75,000. At last measure, 66% of participants were male, and 34% female, but those figures have been steadily moving toward each other in recent years.

However, the daily and weekly games at FanDuel and DraftKings remain almost exclusively the domain of men. Meanwhile, a survey of more than 1,400 players by Eilers Research found that more than 40% of these players have reduced the amount of time they devoted to traditional fantasy leagues.

“Everyone I know is pretty much in it for season-long fun, low-stakes games. But I am concerned that our students are increasingly drawn to that world,” McDonald said of the high-risk sites, saying they’re occupying a role that online poker recently dominated.

But — because of the obvious risk involved — is it legal? The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) of 2006, intended to regulate the financial institutions that act as the monetary link between gamblers and Internet casinos, seems to say yes.

While some states — Arizona, Iowa, Louisiana, Maryland, Montana, and Vermont — have enacted their own laws muddying the waters around this issue, the vast majority of states, including Massachusetts, have not.

That leaves the UIGEA as the go-to authority, and the federal law specifically does not regulate games in which “all winning outcomes reflect the relative knowledge and skill of the participants and are determined predominantly by accumulated statistical results of the performance of individuals (athletes, in the case of sports events) in multiple real-world sporting or other events.”

In other words, in the eyes of the law, fantasy sports are considered games of skill, not luck.

McDonald, again noting the excitement of a weekly draft, worries about their appeal and the potential for addiction and financial trouble, no matter how shrilly FanDuel and DraftKings shout about millions in winnings on their ubiquitous radio ads.

“It’s so exciting to redraft and select your team every week,” he told BusinessWest. “They may think the way we old guys play is slow and boring. If you have injuries early in the season, it can kill you. But with the weekly games at DraftKings and FanDuel, you get away from that, and every week is a new opportunity to make choices.

“But,” he went on, “people do put a lot of money at risk, and I think it’s addicting. It’s like crack to fantasy sports players. It’s a weekly high, and in a sport like baseball, it could be a daily high.”

For now, McDonald considers himself firmly in the camp of more than 55 million people who have become amateur GMs not for big payouts, but for the fun, the challenge, and the camaraderie.

“It’s a social thing that enhances the viewing experience,” he said. “For me, personally, putting money at risk would take some of the fun out of it; I think it would be very stressful.”

After all, trash talk is stressful enough.


Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Sports & Leisure

Pioneer Volley

George Mulry

George Mulry stands in front of one of the many displays at the Volleyball Hall of Fame, which is seeing a rise in visitorship.

In 1895, William Morgan invented a game he called ‘mintonette’ for adult males at the Holyoke YMCA in hopes of retaining members who were leaving because they found another recently invented game, basketball, to be too violent.

“He was the Y’s physical-education director, and he created the sport so middle-aged businessmen would have something to do on their lunch break,” said George Mulry, executive director of the International Volleyball Hall of Fame in Holyoke. “The name of the game was changed to volleyball a year later by a professor at Springfield College, and today, it’s played by more than 880 million people. It is an international powerhouse sport, the second-most-popular game in the world, and one of the most popular at the Summer Olympics.”

Indeed, the game has come a long way since it began in a small gymnasium in Holyoke. It ranks as one of the top sports in nine countries, and the Fédération Internationale de Volleyball (FIVB) boasts 220 members, making it the largest sports federation in the world.

“I see more people smiling when they are playing volleyball than I do in any other sport; it’s a great game, and people at any level not only enjoy it, but appreciate the camaraderie it promotes,” said Charlie Diner, a member of the Hall’s board of directors. “Volleyball is a game that is fun.”

In many ways, the Hall of Fame created to honor the games, founder, legacy, and greatest players, coaches, and contributors has followed a somewhat similar path.

It started in a closet in Wistariahurst Museum, with some additional space in Holyoke City Hall for storage. It has moved a few times over the years, but has generally struggled to find adequate space and resources to properly tell the game’s intriguing story.

But the Hall has gained some much-needed momentum in recent years, building awareness, gaining visitorship, hosting more events, and adding new displays to capture the game’s progression and impact on society.

Visits to the museum are on the rise, and today, 4,000 to 5,000 guests embark on the self-guided tour inside the space each year. One thing they particularly enjoy is trying on the Gold Medal won by Maurico Lima at the 1992 Summer Olympics. The athlete was inducted in 2012 and donated the medal to the museum, along with other memorabilia.

“Many people pose for photos wearing it around their necks. It’s a popular thing to do,” Mulry said. “Donating items is a way for Hall of Famers to keep their legacy going.”

The nonprofit changed its name from the Holyoke Volleyball Hall of Fame to the International Volleyball Hall of Fame last year to reflect the fact that it has been inducting international players for some time. This will be the Hall’s 30th year holding the ceremonies, and so far, 125 inductees from 21 countries have been honored.

But the museum operates on a tight annual budget of $215,000. Mulry is the only full-time employee, and the museum relies heavily on fund-raisers, donations, and sponsors to keep it operational.

For this issue and its focus on sports and leisure, BusinessWest offers some quick history lessons on the sport of valleyball and a detailed look at how its shrine is scoring points as it strives to gain relevance and increase visitorship.

Spike in Interest

A display of large, colorful panels

A display of large, colorful panels with photos documents volleyball’s historical timeline.

Mulry told BusinessWest the Hall of Fame has always had close ties to Springfield College, a relationship that began when Morgan met James Naismith, who founded the game of basketball in 1891 while teaching at the International YMCA Training School (now Springfield College).

Morgan was on Northfield Mount Hermon’s football team, and after watching him play during a game at the college, Naismith successfully recruited the young athlete and brought him to Springfield College. “He had wanted to become an engineer, but abandoned those plans to teach physical education,” said Mulry.

After graduating, Morgan became director of physical education at the Holyoke YMCA and gave birth to his own game. “He borrowed from a lot of different sports to create it. He took the net from tennis, the ball from basketball, and the innings from baseball, which were used when the game was first played,” Mulry explained.

The game of mintonette received its new name after it was introduced to the public at a tournament at Springfield College that was held during a national conference for YMCA directors. “Professor Alfred Halsted decided volleyball was a more appropriate name because the players were volleying the ball across the net,” Mulry said. “After the demonstration, the game spread through the nation’s YMCAs, then was adopted by the military because the troops were looking for something to do that was not physically taxing.

“The YMCAs took the game to the Philippines and a few other countries, but the military introduced it to Europe and the rest of the world during World War I,” he went on, “and the level of play increased dramatically.”

The first national championship was held in 1922 at the Brooklyn YMCA, but the game was played on an almost a purely recreational basis through the early 1930s. However, a dramatic change occurred in April 1947, when representatives from 14 nations formed the FIVB and began recruiting teams from across the world to play in tournaments.

The first world championship for men was held in 1949, followed by the first world championship for women in 1952, and the game reached an even broader audience a dozen years later when it was introduced and played at the Tokyo Olympics by both men’s and women’s teams. Beach volleyball wasn’t added for another 32 years, however, and that inaugural Olympic competition took place in Atlanta.

Despite the game’s popularity, it wasn’t until the early ’70s that anyone proposed creating a museum to house memorabilia and recount the game’s history and the success of its players.

“At that time, the Greater Holyoke Chamber of Commerce was looking for ways to position the city and make it interesting to tourists,” Mulry noted, adding that, even though it established an ad hoc committee to promote the idea of Holyoke becoming home to a Volleyball Hall of Fame, the only thing it did was host an tournament for YMCA teams.

However, in 1978, the Holyoke Volleyball Hall of Fame was officially incorporated, and the first induction ceremony was held in 1985. But the organization still didn’t really have a home.

Points of Interest

“All it consisted of was a closet in Wistariahurst Museum and space in City Hall that was used to hold memorabilia,” Mulry said, adding that things changed in 1987, when the city of Holyoke gave the Hall an area in a building on Dwight Street to use free of charge. “The space was small, and the only things put on display were a few jerseys, nets, and uniforms,” Mulry said.

However, when the building was renovated a year later, the museum was given an area three times larger, which encompassed 4,500 square feet.

Mulry told BusinessWest it was only supposed to be a temporary home, and a capital campaign was launched with the goal of raising $27 million for a new building. “An architect was hired, and 15 possible sites were looked at before it became clear that it wasn’t feasible to raise that amount. So, the temporary space became our permanent home.”

Although a few exhibits were added at that time, the majority of displays, as well as the annual events the organization stages, have been developed over the last four years as officials take a proactive stance to attract new visitors and increase interest in the sport.

Their efforts were helped two years ago, when the museum received additional space in the building, which allowed them to move their archives there.

“We’re categorizing them, and we created a special exhibit titled ‘Volleyball in the Military,’ a 1964 Olympic exhibit, and we continue to put single artifacts on display,” Mulry said. “We also set an area aside for local events, and have hosted a lot of receptions over the past two years.”

Glass display cases

Glass display cases for current inductees house donated memorabilia, including photos, uniforms, medals, and other significant keepsakes.

Popular tournaments include the annual Police and Fire Challenge, which pits members of the New York City fire and police departments against teams composed up of emergency personnel from across New England. “There is a great rivalry between the Holyoke and Springfield teams,” Mulry said, adding that they are among many groups that participate.

During last year’s tournament, state Sen. Don Humason and state Rep. Aaron Vega unveiled a new exhibit titled “Humanity and Sports,” which was dedicated to two members of the New York City team who lost their lives in 9/11. “It has been one of our most well-received displays,” Mulry said.

In addition, the Hall of Fame began holding the Spalding Western Mass. Boys & Girls High School All-Star Games and the Massachusetts Boys & Girls High School All-State Games in Holyoke high schools four years ago, which include free clinics for players ages 10 to 12 throughout Western Mass.

To carry out these various programs, the Hall relies heavily on support from the community and, especially, Holyoke-based businesses and institutions.

“What we do would not be possible without the business community; they help offset our expenses, and we are certainly grateful for their help,” Mulry said, adding that the city of Holyoke, Holyoke Medical Center, and Holyoke Gas and Electric are major sponsors, while Dinn Brothers and the Dowd Agencies have been sponsors for more than a decade.

“They continue to make significant contributions and fund our induction ceremonies and events. PSI 91 is our newest sponsor, and we have many other local firms that support us,” he noted.

The organization also relies on an annual appeal, and donations are collected from 40 participating regions under the umbrella of USA Volleyball, which provides a dollar-for-dollar match, resulting in about $30,000 each year.

“They certainly see the value in having the museum on U.S. soil,” Mulry said, as he discussed how he and the 15 members of the board of directors are doing all they can to promote interest in the museum. “We’re working with the governing body of the Fédération Internationale de Volleyball to finalize an agreement that would make us the official repository for artifacts in the world. We expect make an announcement about it in October during the induction ceremony.”

That will allow the Hall to open its fund-raising to the 220 federations associated with the FIDV, and additional funds raised will be used to make improvements and update the displays.

Net Gains

“We’re the one true Volleyball Hall of Fame for the world, and anyone who is at all interested in the history of any sport should come here,” said Mulry. “We offer people a chance to see artifacts and learn about a sport that started out in Holyoke.”

Diner agreed. “We’re trying to expand awareness of the sport and its history to help grow the game, and this is a good place for community organizations to hold events. It’s steeped in Holyoke’s history,” he said.

It’s an intriguing history indeed, and it’s likely that Morgan could never have imagined that the simple game he created for aging businessmen would become a hugely popular sport played in nations throughout the world.

Meanwhile, the sport’s Hall of Fame still has considerable work to do to build its profile and visitorship, but it is making net gains — in many different respects.

Sections Sports & Leisure
Wilderness Experiences Unlimited Is in the Confidence Business

Wilderness Experiences  Unlimited

Wilderness Experiences
Unlimited

Imagine your child donning a full-body harness and helmet, climbing to the top of a 35-foot wall and rappelling down it; trekking into the woods and learning to track animals; or sitting around a campfire and listening to Native American stories.

These and other adventures, such as kayaking, which take place during the summer camp run by Wilderness Experiences Unlimited in Southwick, are structured to help young people build confidence, self-esteem, and pride in achievement, all while enabling them to gain an appreciation for the outdoors.

“Our youth group adventures are designed to be safe, exciting, educational, and most of all, fun. It is never too early or too late to instill a sense of respect and wonder for the natural environment in children,” said T. Scott Cook, who founded the business 34 years ago. “We use adventure sports as a carrot to get kids outdoors.”

However, the offerings at Wilderness Experiences also extend to adults who want to embark on adventurous vacations.

They can learn to scuba dive in Southwick, then use their newfound skill on a trip to the Cayman Islands or Florida. Or they can choose an exotic destination such as Africa, where they can interact with orphaned animals in the wild that are being rehabilitated, and enjoy other excursions as they make memories that will last a lifetime.

Cook, who says outdoor play requires skills and knowledge, has written a book titled Outdoor Leadership: the Noble Gift.

“Play is a value-added necessity in life; it’s fun to have fun, but you have to know how,” he said, quoting Dr. Seuss and adding that he believes people often forget that play is critical to living a balanced life.

It’s something he keeps front and center in his own life. The morning of his interview with BusinessWest, he climbed off his bicycle after a relatively short — at least for him — 30-mile ride.

“I would have gone farther if I didn’t have this meeting,” he said, parking his bike in front a poster that shows his daughter Aubrey carrying a kayak. She shares his love of the outdoors and is a professional tri-athlete who will serve as assistant director of the camp this summer.

An impressive ropes course stands behind the poster — there are huge nets, sky-high poles with a network of lines, an enormous spiderweb configuration of ropes, and features such as the ‘rickety bridge’ and ‘multi-vine’ that were created to help summer campers challenge themselves individually and in groups as they master the course with the help and support of team members.

Meanwhile, an almost-Olympic-size swimming pool in the building on 526 College Highway provides a perfect setting for children and adults to learn to swim. Scuba-diving lessons are also conducted there, and seniors enjoy staying fit in special water-aerobics classes.

T. Scott Cook

T. Scott Cook believes people forget that play is critical to living a balanced life — and he’s trying to change that.

Over the years, Wilderness Experiences Unlimited has been a tremendous success; the summer camps are so popular, they are filled by January, and the majority of the counselors are former campers who return year after year to share their love of the outdoors.

However, Cook keeps the camp small and accepts only about 50 young people in each session, which runs from Monday to Friday, with overnight programs and field trips for older campers. Although he could easily have grown due to demand, he chooses to remain small so he has the time to get to know each child and be sure everyone has a meaningful experience.

“When I started this, I had been running large camps with 300 kids and 70 staff members, so I really never got to know the campers, or even all of the staff. I prefer to keep it manageable,” he told BusinessWest.

Still, the scope of offerings at Wilderness Experiences has expanded since Cook opened his first camp. At that time, his primary goal was to teach children about the outdoors, help them build confidence by mastering physical challenges, and give them opportunities to learn sports they could continue for a lifetime.

That’s still the goal, but there are now many more ways to embrace and meet it.

Early Exposure

Cook’s parents ran outdoor camps when he was young, and he was involved in scouting for many years.

“Playing in the outdoors has always been a big piece of my life,” he said, adding that, in his early college years, he majored in photojournalism but found the career didn’t offer much potential, so he sought out an outdoor-recreation leadership program and eventually earned a doctorate in the field. “I had always worked in summer camps, and when I finished my schooling, I founded Wilderness Experiences Unlimited.”

During the school year, he served as a consultant and worked with children in local school systems who had emotional and behavioral challenges.

“I provided their physical education via an incentive-based program; if their behavior faltered, they were not allowed to participate,” he said, noting that he took them on field trips that included rock climbing and kayaking as well as other outdoor activities they enjoyed. “It was a positive experience.”

After 15 years in that role, he was offered a job running the Wilderness Leadership Program at Westfield State University. He retired from the position last spring, but hosts a special Outdoor Wilderness Leaders program in Southwick for campers ages 12 to 18 who have been recommended by three counselors. It runs year-round, and participants advance through the ranks, volunteer at different organizations, and host their own trips and social events.

Cook has led people on excursions as far away as Africa

In addition to his offerings in Southwick, Cook has led people on excursions as far away as Africa.

“The goal is for them to learn more about their personal values and core beliefs as well as the way they communicate,” he said. “As they gain confidence, they take younger children under their wing, so it ends up being a very positive place.”

Although not everyone qualifies, every camper gains self-knowledge. “When campers navigate the ropes course, they build their confidence and self-esteem. They have to dig deep inside and share their feelings and emotions because it can seem daunting,” Cook said.

He cited the example of climbing to the top of a telephone pole, then jumping off. It’s a group exercise, and although each camper is carefully outfitted with a full body harness, helmet, and other protective gear, it’s a virtual leap of faith that requires trust in other team members.

“The perceived risk is big, but the actual risk is small due to all of the safety measures in place,” he explained.

Every camp session contains an aquatics segment. “The campers do some type of swimming, whether it’s in our pool or in a mountain stream where they get to know the natural world better. We also take them to state parks to explore the outdoors and go on hikes and play outdoor games,” Cook noted.

His joy in introducing campers to the outdoors has never diminished.

“If a child goes for a walk in the woods and understands nature and learns how to track animal behavior, the woods don’t seem as overwhelming; we present it as a story, a habitat with living things,” he explaned. “When you understand something, it’s easy to respect it, and when you respect it, it’s easy to love and value it. And if you introduce kids to things they have fun doing when they are young, they are likely to continue to play as adults and enjoy their lives. People who recreate have goals and reasons to stay fit.”

Each camp session also contains a spiritual element, which is focused on the way young people view nature. “When they’re outdoors, they are part of a circle of life, and we have campfires where we tell Native American stories of days gone by and how these people perceived the world around them,” Cook said.

Change in Venue

Wilderness Experiences Unlimited teaches participants how to scuba dive

One program of Wilderness Experiences Unlimited teaches participants how to scuba dive, then arranges trips to Florida and the Cayman Islands to help them enjoy that new skill.

Wilderness Experiences began selling sporting goods years ago, and the Cooks eventually purchased Westfield Water Sports in Southwick and combined it with their own small retail operation.

The acquisition allowed them to bring scuba diving into the mix because the store sold scuba gear, and it was then that Cook built a pool where he could conduct diving and swim classes, and later added the ropes course.

Prior to the acquisition, Wilderness Experiences Unlimited had operated out of a number of sites, including Huntington and a variety of spots in Westfield. But location has never been a critical ingredient in the camp’s success.

“It doesn’t take an amazing property to make an amazing camp — it takes amazing people,” Cook told BusinessWest. “All I needed was a place where I could launch adventures from.”

He closed the retail end of his business in January, and New England Bike moved into the space and took over the scuba operation. “My wife Laura and I both had careers, and we were running two businesses,” he noted, adding that she was a nurse at Shriners Hospital. “So we left the retail side and can focus now on what we love best — the pool, our summer camps, and our travel business, which Laura launched about 20 years ago.

“We’ve always traveled, so we take people to our favorite locations around the world,” he went on. “We’ve hosted trips on every continent except Antarctica, and we’re going there in 2017.”

The focus is on visiting historical and cultural sites, but participants are also taken off the beaten track so they can see what life is like in small towns. “We may spend as much time in someone’s personal wine cellar having a six-hour meal as we do at a tourist attraction.”

There is an adventure component included in every trip, and excursions have included whitewater rafting on the Zabezzi River in Africa and diving to see great white sharks.

“On one side trip, we met orphaned juvenile lions under age 2 and went for a walk with them. Once they are grown, they stop having contact with people and their offspring are released into the wild,” Cook noted, adding that they have done the same thing with young elephants and giraffes at responsible rehabilitation facilities.

Cook firmly believes that play is a necessary component in a balanced life. “But many adults get distracted. They’re busy working, being a good parent, and watching their children play sports, so they don’t take the time to have fun themselves,” he said.

He and his daughter have been traveling around the world for years to compete in national and world-championship triathlons, and he made sure she became acclimated to the outdoors at an early age. “She spent three nights living in a tepee with me during her first year of life,” he said.

Although he realizes that’s far more than most people want to do, his mission at Wilderness Experiences Unlimited remains unchanged.

“It’s a place where people of all ages can face their fears and accomplish things they didn’t ever think they could do,” he explained. “We hope to continue to open up new worlds for young people and adults.” n

Sections Sports & Leisure
Sonny’s Place Sets Standard for Family Entertainment Centers

Chris Shaw

Chris Shaw says the goal at Sonny’s Place is to provide a wide range of activities for people of all ages.

Chris Shaw says the phrase ‘family entertainment center’ has been around for decades and is certainly not a new business concept.

But it has definitely come a long way since the days when such venues consisted of a driving range and miniature golf course with a soft-serve ice-cream stand near the entrance, he went on, adding quickly that Sonny’s Place, the Somers, Conn. venture he serves as general manager, is probably the best example in this region of how such facilities have evolved.

Indeed, the site on Main Street, formerly home to a driving range carved out of a former fruit and vegetable farm, is now home to everything from go-karts, a zipline, and a rock wall to batting cages, an arcade, and a performance stage for live acts — the country group Trailer Trash performed there last weekend. There is also a bar and a barbecue restaurant.

And while Sonny’s does, indeed, offer a miniature golf course, there is no windmill or clown’s mouth to navigate. Instead, there are fountains, a rock formation, and a number of other landscaping features.

“This is not the type of mom-and-pop operation we saw years ago,” said Shaw, who has owned such a facility himself. “The family entertainment center has come a long way.”

And Sonny’s Place is, in many respects, setting the new standard, he told BusinessWest, adding that the facility has added a new attraction almost every year since the Antonacci family, also owners of USA Hauling and the recently christened Greathorse (formerly Hampden Country Club), acquired the property nearly a decade ago.

Together, these attractions draw roughly 600 to 1,000 people a day, depending on the weather, said Shaw, adding that, while most visitors are from Connecticut and Massachusetts, license plates from other states can be seen in the parking lot.

And there is plenty of room for further expansion — both literally and figuratively, he said, adding that the facility closed its driving range a few years ago, leaving that vast acreage for new activities and revenue streams. The zipline now occupies some of that space, said Shaw, adding that a host of possibilities, from a ropes course to another arcade; from laser tag to bumper boats, are all potential expansion options.

“There are a lot of things we can do to further enhance the experience and provide people with even more to do,” he added. “We’re looking at a number of attractive options.”

For this issue and its focus on sports and leisure, BusinessWest paid a visit to Sonny’s Place, a tour that yielded ample evidence of how the family entertainment complex has changed and what it takes to succeed in this new environment.

Setting the Stage

Shaw had Monday, June 22 off from work. He remembers looking forward to it, because he knew there wouldn’t be many other off days for a while.

Indeed, that Monday marked the start of summer vacation for most young people in the region, and by the end of that afternoon, most all other schools had shut things down until late August or early September.

Thus, the very busy season is now underway at Sonny’s Place. This is a year-round facility, certainly, but most of its visitors — and revenue — come in the summer months.

And on that Tuesday, roughly an hour before the facility opened, Shaw had one eye on the weather — thunderstorms and even hail were predicted for that afternoon, and clouds were already gathering by 10 a.m. — and the other on the four months to come.

Sonny’s place has been enjoying steady growth over the past several years, and Shaw certainly expects that trend to continue in 2015 due to continued expansion of the facility and strict adherence to the basic formula for success in this specific business sector.

Elaborating on that formula, he said it involves, well, living up to that timeworn anthem in this business, the one about having something for everyone, meaning, in this case, every age group.

Sonny’s Place has maintained a pace of adding a new attraction roughly every year

Chris Shaw says Sonny’s Place has maintained a pace of adding a new attraction roughly every year — and there is still considerable room for expansion.

Actually, the goal is to have many things for everyone, and Sonny’s Place is accomplishing that — with everything from bounce houses for the very young to a bar with a full liquor license for those who were very young decades ago — as well as activities for everyone in between. For example, 80 students from the class of 2015 at Somers High School were on the grounds just hours after receiving their diplomas for late-night and then early-morning activities that could be placed in the category of ‘safe alternative’ to whatever else the graduates might have been doing that night.

“It’s called a safe grad party, or a safe after-party,” he explained, adding that Sonny’s Place has hosted it the past two years. “They had a buffet served at 11, they also had a hypnotist, and full run of the facility until 5 in the morning.

“We tried to build a well-rounded facility that covers all ages,” he went on. “Mini-golf is good for all ages, the go-karts are good for the teenage crowd — but also for adults, because they like to do it, too — and we have the bar back here so parents can come back and relax, and we have live entertainment for the adults.”

Another part of the success formula, though, involves continually adding new attractions to build on the experience and drive repeat business. This has been the basic mission since the Antonacci family acquired the facility formerly known as Somers Golf Center.

Back then, it had a driving range and a miniature golf course, no doubt with a windmill, said Shaw, adding that, over the years, the venture has added significantly to the footprint while upgrading facilities like the golf course.

The goal was to create an entertainment center that people could spend a half-day or more at, not just a few hours, said Shaw, adding that Sonny’s Place has become a destination in every sense of that word, for families, groups such as summer camps (like the one based in New York State that makes a pilgrimage every summer), and even area businesses.

Indeed, Windsor, Conn.-based Alstom Power, a global leader in power generation, power transmission, and rail infrastructure, will stage three outings for employees and their families at Sonny’s Place this year.

Those visitors, like other others, will have a host of options available when it comes to recreation and possible competition, from miniature golf to mini-bowling; from the zipline to the so-called ‘monkey motion’ jumper, which, said Shaw, blends bungee jumping with a trampoline.

Visitors purchase what is known as a ‘Sonny Moni Card,’ which can be loaded based on dollar amounts or increments of time, said Shaw, adding that they represent another vast improvement over the facilities of years ago — no more feeding quarters into arcade games or buying tickets for individual attractions — and can be used over several days, depending on the amount purchased.

Most visitors will spend several hours at Sonny’s Place, said Shaw, adding that the basic goal in the business plan is to not only extend the day, but bring people back repeatedly over the course of a season that stretches from April to October.

And this goal was the primary motivation for expanding the options in the broad category of hospitality, he noted, adding that a barbecue pit is now open to the public. And then, there’s the live entertainment.

Trailer Trash also made an appearance last year, said Shaw, who couldn’t quantify the turnout — he didn’t have an exact number — but could qualify it.

“There was an overflow crowd,” he explained. “We had to park cars on the old driving range, and we never had to do that before.”

He was expecting a similar turnout this year, and also predicting good crowds for a host of other scheduled acts, including Southern Rain, Jeff Pitchell, Frank Serafino, Lobsterz from Mars, Brass Attack, and many others.

Coming Attractions

Shaw admitted that he didn’t get to see Trailer Trash when it played Sonny’s Place in 2014. He was far too busy dealing with that overflow crowd he described and making sure the night ran smoothly.

He was hoping to get a look for this year’s show, but was hedging his bets in anticipation of another huge turnout.

As for time off? As he said, there won’t be much of that between this summer and the end of the season.

Such is life in the modern family entertainment center, a realm where the bar is being set consistently higher — and Sonny’s Place continues to clear it.

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

Cover Story Golf Preview Sections Sports & Leisure
Golf Industry Adjusts to a Changing Climate

GolfPreviewDPlayersART
While golf courses in the Pioneer Valley will certainly be opening earlier than those east of Worcester — where close to nine feet of snow fell in less than two months and temperatures have not induced much melting — they will be getting down to business later than what would be considered normal or desirable.

And that has Kevin Kennedy a little worried.

The head professional at Springfield’s two municipal courses, Franconia and Veterans Memorial, told BusinessWest that golf seasons have a tendency to reflect how — and often when — spring begins.

“I really believe that, if you get off to a good start in the spring, it trickles down to club sales and everything else — everyone’s raring to go,” he explained. “I’d rather have a good spring than a good fall; if they don’t excited about golf in the spring, some people may not get excited for the whole year. A good spring start is imperative.”

However, it looks like area courses won’t be getting that good start. As BusinessWest went to press on April Fool’s Day, the professionals we spoke with were predicting it would be at least another week and probably two before anyone would be putting a peg in the ground.

Kevin Kennedy

While many in the golf industry are content to whine about business, Kevin Kennedy says, he prefers to be optimistic about the present and future.

That’s a few weeks later than normal — many courses are typically able to open in late March — and this year it’s after Good Friday, which is usually one of the busiest golfing days of the year. In fact, area courses with a lot of snow will likely kick off after the Masters tournament (April 9-12), which has become a symbol to many golfers in colder climates that it’s time to get out and play.

And a slow start certainly isn’t what courses need at a time marked by myriad and, in some cases, historic challenges for the industry — everything from the lingering effects from the recession, especially when it comes to discretionary spending, to an oversaturation of the local market when it comes to courses (although that’s certainly not a recent phenomenon); from continued discounting and price stagnation that has many consequences, to societal changes that have left many people, especially younger audiences, with little if any appetite for an activity that consumes five hours or more.

Yet, despite all this, there is optimism to be found among the pros we spoke with, who said they’re learning to adapt to this new environment.

E.J. Altobello, long-time professional at Tekoa Country Club in Westfield, said the course registered “minor growth” in 2014, another season that started later than what would be considered normal, a byproduct of predominantly solid weather during the summer and few lost weekend days. Overall, he said the golf market has stabilized somewhat after several challenging years immediately following the Great Recession.

“We’ve been pretty steady the past several years,” he said, referring to both Tekoa and the regional market in general. “I think we’ve managed to stop some of the bleeding from six or seven years ago. We’ve had minor growth — nothing off the charts — and that’s what we’re probably going to see this year.”

Mike Zaranek, head pro at Crumpin Fox, a higher-end course in the Franklin County community of Bernardston, agreed.

“We had a good year last year, with about the same number of rounds as we did in 2013, which I really can’t complain about in this golf world,” he said, adding that this was despite a similarly late start, April 19 to be exact. “Our membership has been hanging on — the numbers are steady, which, for our neck of the woods and this business climate, is pretty good.”

Even Kennedy, despite his apprehension about a late start, takes a decidedly glass-is-more-than-half-full attitude as he talks about the local market, the state of the sport, and the industry’s prospects for the future.

“I tend to be a little more optimistic than many,” he said. “There are some people in the industry, and not just locally, who prefer to sit around and whine about the golf industry and how bad it is. It’d definitely challenging, but I think the game is healthy, and we can grow it.”

Still, challenges abound, and for this issue and its focus on sports and leisure, BusinessWest looks at how they are forcing clubs to bring their A-games to the table in order to post some solid numbers.

Par for the Course

To summarize the state of the game and the environment in which clubs are operating today, Kennedy summoned some numbers to get his points across.

“In 1995, there were about 25 million golfers,” he said, noting that was the year before Tiger Woods joined the PGA tour and inspired people of all ages to not only watch the sport on TV, but take it up. “And in 2013 there were … about 25 million golfers.”

In between, or roughly around 2000, there were maybe 31 million or 32 million, he went on, noting that this surge, fueled by Woods and a strong economy, was greeted with a wave of new course construction that was country-wide and included Western Mass.

Indeed, this region saw the construction of several new tracts, including the Ledges in South Hadley, the Ranch in Southwick, and, most recently, Cold Spring in Belchertown.

“The overall supply of golf courses skyrocketed — every developer wanted to build 100 condos with courses around them,” said Kennedy, talking about the scene nationally, adding that demand is currently what it was two decades ago and much less than at the start of this century.

Mike Zaranek

Mike Zaranek says courses like Crumpin Fox can’t compete on price, so they must focus on value and providing an experience.

The laws of supply and demand dictate that there would be some attrition, that some courses would fail, he went on, noting that this happened nationally, with several hundred courses closed or soon to close.

But it hasn’t happened regionally, where the inventory has only grown.

And that has left clubs and their managers to take whatever steps they deem necessary to compete, he went on, adding that this means keeping prices stable (the two Springfield courses have not had an increase the past three years, for example), adding value wherever possible, focusing on good customer service, and, in many cases, marketing themselves far more aggressively than they did years ago.

Altobello agreed, and noted that the greater inventory of courses, even just a few new layouts, impacts everything from daily fee play to league play to the myriad outings and charity tournaments staged each year. And it all matters when there is already little margin for error.

“We’ve lost a few tournaments to some of the newer courses,” he said, noting the Ranch specifically because of its proximity. “Every new option out there hurts a little bit and dilutes the business for the rest of us.

“The real issue around here is saturation,” he went on. “It’s great for the consumer — this is a wonderful place to play golf — but not so great for course owners and operators.”

Using his own specific competitive situation, or “micro-climate,” as he called it, to illustrate his points, Altobello said that, although he’s competing against courses across the Pioneer Valley, the situation in his own backyard is especially intense.

Indeed, there are six public or semi-private courses in Westfield and neighboring Southwick alone — Tekoa, East Mountain, and Shaker Farms in Westfield; Southwick Country Club, Edgewood, and the Ranch in Southwick — along with two driving ranges and a par-3 course. And they serve only about 65,000 people, said Altobello.

“That’s a huge number — this is a tough environment to compete in,” he told BusinessWest, adding that a few of those courses are offering “ridiculously low” yearly rates to woo members and keep the daily time sheets full.

Given this competitive climate, Tekoa and other higher-end courses are forced to compete on quality, because they can’t compete on price.

“I certainly feel that our facility is a little better, and hopefully that wins out in the end,” he said, adding quickly that, while quality is important to some, increasingly, the golfing public is being motivated by rates and deals.

That’s because there are so many of them — available through coupon books, Groupon, Golf Now, and other online phenomena, and individual courses looking to drive traffic, especially on the slower weekdays, through golf-and-lunch specials.

“Some people are just looking to get out quick and get the lowest price available,” said Altobello. “It’s different strokes for different folks.”

Zaranek agreed. “People will ask, ‘what’s the special of the day?’ and ‘how much is this going to cost me?’” he said, adding that many will look to do better than the prices posted at the counter. “Everyone wants a deal — that’s the battle you fight.”

At Crumpin Fox, where daily rates average around $100, the club has to specifically focus on those for whom quality and excellent course conditions are a priority, he added.

“There are some places south of us where people can play three rounds for what it costs to play one at Crump,” he explained. “Our job is to get them to come up and understand the value attached to that high-end daily-fee golf course — how you’re treated, the experience you get, the golf holes you remember, the conditions you play under — and make it worth their trip once, maybe twice a year.”

Course Corrections

Meanwhile, there are many other challenges for club owners and professionals — everything from declining sales of clubs (generally, people are holding onto equipment longer than they did even a few years ago and buying last year’s models at a fraction of the cost of new sticks) to a younger generation that seemingly has no patience or passion for a game that takes so much of their time.

“The retail side of the business has changed considerably since the recession of 2008 and 2009,” said Altobello. “Guys aren’t spending money like they used to, and the equipment makers have trained people on when to buy; the 2015 driver is $400, but the 2014 driver is now $149. Is the 2015 driver $250 better than the 2014 model? Probably not. And when the next new driver comes out, people will know to wait it out.”

As for attracting younger audiences — and even those a little older who have similarly stiff competition for their time and attention — clubs are doing what they can to spark interest and hold it.

But it’s an uphill battle.

“Young kids want instant gratification — they want to pick up their phone and play a game, they want to go do this and then do that,” Kennedy explained. “Five hours? If I tell my daughter she’s going to have something good in five hours, she looks at me like I have seven heads. Five hours? How about five minutes? That’s what they have patience for.”

Despite those sentiments, clubs are being more aggressive with programs aimed at attracting younger audiences and, when possible, keeping them in the game, said Zaranek, noting that Crumpin Fox has pricing programs for families and juniors. Meanwhile, it is stressing options for time-strapped individuals, such as nine-hole outings or even playing a handful of holes.

Clubs are also working hard to keep younger individuals and families interested in golf through that challenging period when they are otherwise preoccupied with their career and their family.

Altobello said an all-too-common pattern is for young people to start playing the game in high school, maybe stay with it through college — although that’s challenging as well — but then drop the game when the responsibilities of parenthood and their career consume most all of their time.

“I don’t think the 17-and-under crowd is playing any less than they were 10 or 15 years ago,” he explained. “But I think that, as they get into business and get into their 20s, it seems like we lose them for about 10 to 12 years.

“The whole dynamic of the family has changed over the past 25 or 30 years,” he went on, adding that, while this isn’t a recent phenomenon, societal changes have amplified its impact. “Today, both parents are working, and kids are into more things — and parents need to be there, whether it’s a soccer game or practice or dance. It’s a time factor.”

The challenge for clubs is to try to keep people in the game, he went on, or at least make sure they get back into it when their children get older and time is more plentiful.

There are some positive developments, said the pros we spoke with, although the impacts are more likely to be felt down than the road than in the present.

One is the retirement and pending retirement of the huge Baby Boom generation, said Altobello, adding that this constituency has two things the golf industry requires — time and, generally speaking, disposable income. And many have the wherewithal to retire early.

“The real factor for most people is time,” said Altobello. “If you have a family and you’re working, you just don’t have a lot of time. Anyone who’s retiring early, people in their late 50s and early 60s — that really helps out, and we’re seeing more of those people, men and women, out there.”

Spring in Their Step

It will probably be at least mid-April before they’ll be out on many of the courses in this region.

That later start will only add to the many challenges facing golf-course owners today as they deal with changing societal patterns, lingering effects from the recession, a time-challenged population, and, yes, the weather.

In this climate, ‘steady’ is a reasonable goal and, in the end, a good number on the scorecard.


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

Sections Sports & Leisure
For the Agawam Cinemas, There Will Indeed Be a Sequel

By KEVIN FLANDERS

Kimberly Wheeler

Kimberly Wheeler says she was pleasantly surprised by the level of enthusiasm she encountered from local movie fans who supported her Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to renovate and reopen the Agawam Cinemas.

Facing an ultimatum effected by the ever-present hand of technology, Agawam Family Cinemas was forced to shut down last year.

The deadline had been looming for some time following the announcement that 35-mm film would no longer be used. The result was a difficult decision for many theater owners — initiate the costly conversion to digital projectors or close their doors.

Then-owner Sal Anzalotti, who had run the cinemas for nearly 20 years, elected to close the business, much to the devastation of many local families who frequented the cinemas. For a time it looked like the reign of movies at the 866 Suffield St. location was over; the price of bringing movies back to Agawam was seemingly too steep.

Fast-forward almost one year, and those very families once fraught with despair are now teeming with joy and excitement. The movies are indeed coming back to Agawam, with Kimberly Wheeler leading the way.

“This was an opportunity I simply couldn’t pass up,” said Wheeler, a lifelong Agawam resident and movie buff who spent countless hours catching films at the theater with friends and family. “When it closed its doors, it was absolutely heartbreaking.”

Wheeler had no experience prior to this year in acquiring and operating local cinemas. An EMT for 13 years and also an instructor of emergency medicine, she might have been the last person one might have expected to embrace such a massive undertaking. There are many innate challenges to restoring a cinema and getting a business back on its feet — challenges that would have daunted most people.

But with a lifetime of movie memories and the desire for new ones serving as her inspirations, Wheeler excitedly took over the shuttered cinemas and hasn’t looked back since.

Total Team Effort

Having only rented the business — now called Agawam Cinemas — for 10 months, Wheeler has gone a surprisingly long way in a short period of time. Needing to raise about $150,000 in order to purchase digital projectors, it was a tall task to get the business off the ground again.

But Wheeler wasn’t alone with her aspirations. Hundreds of area residents and business owners, many with similar recollections of catching movies in Agawam, showed their support through $45,000 in donations during a month-long fund-raising effort on Kickstarter. Additionally, several individuals reached out to Wheeler to express their support of the project and congratulate her for bringing the movie tradition back to Agawam.

“I had so much support from Agawam residents and businesses. It was stunning — the most heartwarming thing I have ever seen,” Wheeler told BusinessWest. “I don’t know if I could have done this without all of the help I’ve gotten from the community. It really does take a village.”

Agawam Family Cinemas

Agawam Family Cinemas started life as the local Jerry Lewis Twin Cinemas, and is set to reopen soon as a modern, fully digital theater.

It means a lot to Wheeler to have the community’s support as she continues through the renovation phase of the project. Working closely with Easthampton Savings Bank, she will provide most of the remaining funds for digital projectors from her own pocket. A murder-mystery-dinner fund-raiser is scheduled for April 11, but those proceeds will merely help defray the cost of acoustic improvements to the theaters.

Those costs are well worth it, Wheeler said, especially since the project has come as a pleasant surprise not only to Agawam residents, but to film fans throughout the area. Many people used to travel several miles to see movies in Agawam, passing up larger cinemas to experience the quaint environment.

“I got many letters and e-mails of encouragement,” added Wheeler, who hopes construction will be complete in time for a grand reopening in May or June. “It’s so important to know that the town and region are behind you 100% when you do something like this. People really missed this place.”

Residents and town officials alike are eagerly anticipating the reopening of the cinemas. From family events to nights out with friends, Agawam Cinemas will be ideal for people of all ages.

Wheeler, who has always enjoyed watching movies with her father, wants to give others a chance to experience the thrill of taking in movies with their families as well. She has seen countless movies in all genres over the years in Agawam, from Monsters University to Philomena. One of Wheeler’s fondest memories of the Agawam cinemas was seeing the film Django Unchained with her father. Theater policies at the time required at least four guests to be in attendance for the movie to run, but for a while Wheeler and her father were the only guests.

“We were sitting in the lobby, holding our breath to see if two other people would arrive to see this film alongside us, when finally one couple arrived,” Wheeler recalled. “We all let out a sigh of relief and laughed together. It was a team effort to get this film presented that evening, and we all enjoyed the film immensely.”

Town officials, meanwhile, have plenty of great memories of the place as well, many of their recollections dating back to the early days of the cinemas. Listening to their stories, one can easily understand how the cinemas have been stitched into the fabric of Agawam.

“I am both pleased and excited about the renovation and reopening of the Agawam Cinemas at the Southgate Plaza,” said Agawam Mayor Richard Cohen. “I remember when they originally opened as the Jerry Lewis Twin Cinemas. We are fortunate that the town’s only movie theater will once again be offering first-grade services with a hometown atmosphere. I can’t wait for the ribbon cutting and the ability of watching movies once again here in Agawam.”

Showtime

Built in the late ’60s, Agawam Cinemas was originally part of a chain of Jerry Lewis Twin Cinemas franchises that sprouted up across the country, with individual operators paying around $10,000 to operate a given cinema. The two auditoriums hold 175 and 250 guests, respectively, with the unique distinction of having tables in front of every seat. The theaters used to hold more than 400 each, and the decision to add tables reduced seating capacity but increased guest comfort.

Since taking over the business, Wheeler has placed an emphasis on creating the most comfortable and convenient atmosphere possible for her guests. Upgrades are currently in progress to make the building fully ADA-compliant, and the lobby has experienced a makeover as well. In addition to standard concession choices that will be made available for snacks, Wheeler is also thinking outside the box by offering guests gourmet chocolate creations from Maureen’s Sweet Shoppe in East Longmeadow. Now that movies are coming back to town, she wants other businesses to benefit as well.

On the topic of business, Wheeler praised New England Theater Co. of Connecticut for its construction work on the building, and she’s eagerly awaiting opening night.

“We want to make it a destination for people, from the atmosphere to the exceptional customer service,” Wheeler said. “This is something that will get people out of their houses and help them forget their troubles. It will provide a great family and group experience.”

Unlike large movie theater chains, Wheeler is striving to foster the same neighborhood feel the place has always been known for, a venue where people can build friendships on the foundation of a common bond. By intertwining modern technologies with nostalgic elements, the cinema will transcend the zeitgeist of its initial creation and usher in a new era of movie magic in Agawam.

To celebrate the building’s history, the lobby will feature several items of Jerry Lewis memorabilia and other hallmarks of the cinema’s past. Prior to entering the theaters, guests will get to experience the history that connects generations of Agawam residents.

“We want the lobby to be comfortable, with a focus on nostalgia. We are digging up everything we can find, from the groundbreaking of the cinema to current day,” Wheeler said.

She plans to show first-run movies at the theaters, perhaps in an alternating sequence that allows about four movies to play on a given day, two per theater. Though the details haven’t been fully ironed out, Wheeler said she will seek input from guests on what movies they would like to see and try to create a balance.

“We want to make it flexible and give them the opportunity to let us know what they want to see,” she told BusinessWest.

For many residents and town officials, it won’t even matter which movies are playing, as long as the big screens are bright again in Agawam.

Sections Sports & Leisure
Hot-air Balloon Pilot Rises to the Occasion

chief pilot Lisa Fusco

Pioneer Valley Balloons owner and chief pilot Lisa Fusco gets ‘Teddy Bear’ ready for takeoff.


As Lisa Fusco’s pickup truck approaches an elevated, wide-open space in Hadley called Sylvia Heights, this writer has the music from that scene near the end of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ — the one where the wizard and Dorothy are getting ready to take off in a hot-air balloon — playing in his head. And he can’t get it out. This is regrettable, but there is simply nothing else to regret on this Sunday afternoon during Columbus Day weekend. It is sunny and warm, and the winds are calm, almost negligible. Fusco, owner and chief pilot of Northampton-based Pioneer Valley Balloons, would spend the next few hours wearing out the phrase ‘perfect conditions for a ride,’ as she not only talked with BusinessWest about her venture, but showed what it’s all about.

Lisa Fusco is colorful, witty, and direct. She doesn’t mince words.

“People who do this … they don’t give up their day jobs,” she said of what would have to be called the hot-air-balloon business. And with that quick assessment, she spoke volumes about her 16-year-old entrepreneurial venture, for which things are looking up — literally, but certainly not figuratively.

Indeed, these are not the best of times for this industry, if one could call it that. The economy is still somewhat sluggish, and riding in a hot-air balloon (Fusco usually charges $250 per person for an hour-long ride) is an activity that epitomizes the phrase ‘discretionary spending.’ Also, there have been a few high-profile accidents in recent months, including a mishap in Virginia that cost three people their lives.

But even when times are better, this business is extremely fickle. Balloons can only take off in certain conditions, and this is New England, where the weather isn’t great to begin with can change in a matter of minutes, easily wiping out a day’s or weekend’s worth of revenue. And, in general, this is an activity most people do only once.

But Fusco, who also owns a bar in Easthampton called Casey’s Big Dog Saloon as well as some rental properties, and was at one time part-owner of Northampton Airport, isn’t in this for the money — not just the money, anyway.
“I absolutely love being part of so many people’s memories,” she said when asked what she likes about this business and why she got into it.

balloon rides

Lisa Fusco says balloon rides provide memories for those in the air and on the ground.

And she provides such memories to a wide range of individuals — from people who have had this activity on their bucket list since long before that movie came out, to couples who get engaged 1,000 feet in the air; from young people (and many who are not so young) on the ground who look up in wonder at the 75-foot-high balloon and follow it until it lands, to the property owner who looks out the window to see that balloon in his back yard — and gets a bottle of champagne as a gesture of thanks.

She even provides rides to people who know they are nearing the end of their lives and covet a chance to do something they’ve always dreamed of doing.

“We’ll get people who are going in for surgery, and it might be pretty serious, so they’ll say, ‘well, I at least want to do this before the unknown happens,’” she said. “We also get people who just survived cancer and people who are terminally ill; we had one woman who was given a month to live, and this was one of the things she wanted to do before she died. She was absolutely delighted and had a fantastic time.”

Soon after arriving at Sylvia Heights, Fusco and several assistants begin getting things ready for takeoff. The blue and black balloon, once sponsored by Teddy Bear Pools & Spas and named, appropriately enough, Teddy Bear, is unpacked and stretched out on the ground. Fusco then directs cold air through a large gas-powered fan into the open end, and the balloon very quickly takes shape as it is attached to the 450-pound wicker basket. With a long blast of heated propane, the balloon reaches its full dimensions and the air temperature needed to lift off, and, along with the basket, it is eased into an upright position. As Fusco yells instructions, the three ‘passengers’ jump in and prepare to leave terra firma behind.

While transporting her balloon, basket, passengers, and support staff to the liftoff spot in Hadley, Fusco revealed that she has a fairly serious fear of heights.

“I would never climb onto a second-story roof,” she told BusinessWest, adding quickly that she is completely at peace piloting a balloon several hundred feet in the air. “You get used to what they call the sight picture up there; you get used to being off the ground and what it looks like.”

How Fusco attained this comfort level, and grew a business while doing so, is an interesting story.

It begins with an episode when she was an Environmental Police officer. She was investigating a report of someone doing some shooting near Northampton Airport in 1996 when she met the facility’s owner, Dick Giusto. As they talked, eventually the subject of ballooning came up (Giusto was and still is a balloon pilot), and Fusco, an entrepreneurial sort looking to start some kind of business, became intrigued.

Despite that fear of heights and the fact that she’d never been in a balloon, she aggressively pursued what she saw as a real opportunity.

“It took about a year of really not doing anything else,” she explained. “When he [Giusto] was flying, I was either ground crew or I was getting a lesson. One time, we waited six weeks to get a flyable day.”

She eventually attained her balloon pilot’s license — one has to have a certain number of hours in the air and meet several other requirements to get one — and started Pioneer Valley Balloons in 1998.

When the economy was better, Fusco could book close to 100 flights a year; this year, she’s logged a fraction of that number.

She flies year-round, but early fall, when the foliage is at its peak, is the most popular time. Conditions are actually at their best in October and November, she went on, because the air is clear, there is less humidity, and it takes less fuel to gain altitude (balloons rise when the air inside them is warmer than the air around them).

“Balloons like cold weather,” said Fusco, adding quickly that passengers generally do not, so she books few flights during the winter. But there will be some, most involving couples getting engaged or celebrating an anniversary.

The UMass Amherst campus

The UMass Amherst campus — and the balloon’s shadow — provide some of the many forms of scenery for passengers on this ride.

While they like cold weather, balloons don’t like many other forms of weather, including high humidity, rain, or winds gusting about at more than 8 knots (roughly 12 mph), said Fusco, meaning that there are many days when she can’t go up.

It’s not unusual to have a flight rescheduled several times because of uncooperative weather, she said. “And that’s when you have to build a rapport with passengers, because you want them to hang in there and not give up on this.”

Few do give up, because a hot air balloon trip is a common wish-list item, and the Pioneer Valley, especially the pocket in and around the Amherst-Hadley area, is one of the best places for a ride because of the scenery and an abundance of wide-open spaces that are ideal for taking off and landing.

As the balloon begins to lift, one gets the sensation of being in a glass elevator. It rises quickly, and if one looks to the side, he or she could see its large shadow on the field below. Once airborne, the balloon is completely controlled by the wind. Only, on this day, there isn’t much — if any. A full 15 minutes after lifting off, the balloon has moved only a few dozen yards to the west. It almost feels stationary 500 feet in the air, providing breathtaking views of the UMass campus to one side, the Holyoke Range to another, and Mount Sugarloaf to yet another. Four other balloons can be seen to the south. Recognizable to Fusco by their colors and patterns (Giusto is piloting one of them), they are nearly stationary as well. Fusco tries to find some wind by taking the balloon higher and then lower by alternately heating and cooling it via the amount of propane burned (longer and more frequent blasts take the balloon higher; shorter, less frequent bursts take it lower; and a steady amount will keep it level). In between the very loud and extremely hot blasts of propane, she talks some more about the business of making memories for her customers.


Fusco said there’s been one wedding in her balloon. It was a cozy ceremony, obviously, for which she used a larger basket that can hold six people.

“The justice of the peace was a riot — we had a really good time,” she recalled, adding that engagements are far more common and equally memorable. She said she generally knows when someone is going to pop the question, and will give a signal when the conditions are just right. She can’t recall anyone ever saying ‘no,’ which is good when the parties are 500 feet in the air.

Also common are flights to mark round-number wedding anniversaries, said Fusco, adding that she’s handled many 30th and 40th celebrations, and even a few 50th anniversaries. She’s had a 93-year-old woman up for a ride, and gets a number of people in their 70s and 80s who have waited years, or decades, to draw a line through this item on their to-do list, but eventually got around to it.

“This and skydiving — those are still big ones for a lot of people,” she said, adding that, in addition to the flight, there is usually a get-together for passengers and crew after the balloon lands, complete with champagne and appetizers.

But the memories are not reserved only for those in the basket, she went on, adding that they’re created for those on the ground who are seeing a balloon up close for the first time, and especially for the individual whose property becomes a landing spot.

Tradition holds that the balloonist awards that person with a bottle of champagne, said Fusco, and most of the time, the property owner is well aware of this.

“Sometimes people will come running out of the house saying, ‘where’s my bottle of champagne?’ she noted, adding that she’s put down in a backyard on numerous occasions and has never had anything approaching a problem. “Usually it’s a big thrill for them to have a balloon come down in their yard; they take pictures and come out and talk with us, and they learn something about ballooning.”

Overall, landowner relations are very important, said Fusco, adding that, if the balloon has to put down in a field and crops in that field are damaged, every effort is made to find the landowner and make appropriate compensation. Doing so is only common courtesy, but it’s also good for business.

“It doesn’t happen often, but when it happens, word will get out,” she said. “And you don’t want to be that person who never had the consideration to go talk to the landowner, because if we don’t have cooperation from them, we don’t have anything.”

The relative calm in the basket is interrupted as Fusco yells (even though she doesn’t have to in such close quarters), “look … a hawk!” And there, just to the northeast, roughly halfway between the balloon and ground, is a large red-tailed hawk circling and looking for dinner. Humans don’t get to see birds fly from above like this (except on NOVA), and it is quite an experience. So, too, is watching the people below. Hot-air balloons are a common sight in this picturesque part of the state, but Fusco says they never fail to draw a crowd. As the balloon hovers above, families come out of their homes, stand in their yards, and wave. And cars pull over to the side of the road, and their passengers jump out to catch a look.

As she talked about the science of flying a balloon, Fusco reiterated that pilots can only take them higher or lower; the wind determines where they go, how quickly they travel, and, in many respects, where they will land. “Sometimes, you can travel eight miles; other times, just a few hundred yards,” she explained.

But there is a high degree of skill involved with the many nuances of this activity, from takeoff and landing to avoiding power lines to providing an enjoyable experience for passengers.

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien is back on the ground safely with chief pilot Lisa Fusco and some of her support team.

“I’ve seen the weather change quickly over the course of an hour, and I’ve had some tricky landings when the wind has picked up,” she said. “Safety is always your first priority.”

She noted that a fellow balloonist recently set down in the breakdown lane of I-91 in Whately due to some type of malfunction. There were no injuries and minimal inconvenience to motorists, she noted, but the incident still resulted in some bad press that is certainly not needed at this time.

Indeed, there’s been plenty of that over the past year or so. A balloon drifted into power lines at a Virginia festival in May, resulting in a fire that killed three people. And in February 2013, 19 people were killed when a balloon crashed near Luxor, Egypt, in the deadliest ballooning disaster in history.

Fusco said she doesn’t know the cause of either mishap, but speculated that in one or both, the culprit may have been complacency, something she doesn’t allow to happen when she’s flying.

“You can’t say, ‘I’ve done this a million times before’ — you have to be methodical,” she explained. “You have to follow that mental checklist and go over everything and double-check it. I never taken any flight for granted and say, ‘we’ve taken off from here before, we’ll probably land over here, we’ve landed there before.’ You can’t take that attitude; you have to accept that every flight is going to be different and has its own set of challenges.”

With about an hour of daylight left, Fusco decides it’s time to land. After making sure she is well past some power lines, she sets the balloon down in a field maybe 100 yards behind a home on Mount Warner Street. Soon, several people who have been watching the balloon come over to greet its occupants. A couple from Texas, in town to visit their daughter at Hampshire College, say they’ve been carefully following the balloon in their car for the past half-hour. A mother and her young daughter arrive, and Fusco invites them to get a look in the basket and then help pack up the balloon. Fusco makes her way over to meet the home’s owner and ask if she can drive her pickup onto his field.

Walter Sadlowski has had a few balloons land on his property — enough to know that there’s a bottle of champagne coming his way.

After accepting it and listening to advice from Fusco to serve it very cold, he had a few words for BusinessWest.

“This is just a great thing — they can land here anytime,” he said. “It’s fun to see the look in people’s eyes and hear the excitement in their voices. To have a balloon come down in your backyard … that’s something pretty special.”

Such sentiments help explain why Fusco got into this business, and why she’s stayed in it despite its many challenges and the vagaries of the economy and weather.

While she can’t count on either one, she can rely on her balloons to provide views that people have never experienced — and moments they’ll never forget.

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

Sections Sports & Leisure
Ski Resorts Aim for New Heights, No Matter the Weather

Matt Sawyer

Matt Sawyer not only works for Ski Butternut, he also enjoys gliding down the slopes there.

Tyler Fairbank has long understood the relationship between weather and a ski resort’s success, but last winter hammered home the message.

“The thing we learned — well, we’ve known it for years, but it was exacerbated last year — is that people hate to ski in rain or super, super cold,” said Fairbank, president of Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort in Hancock. “So we had an OK season — not a bad season, but OK.”

That’s because last winter, in case you’ve forgotten, was super, super cold, at least until a comparatively temperate March.

“March helped make up a little for what might have been a subpar season, and it turned out to be an OK season overall — again, not bad, but not great from a business standpoint,” he said. “We were really consistent with the rest of the country in that we dealt with some extreme cold for sure. And the timing of some early-season rain events didn’t help much. Followed by a midseason of really super-cold events, that had us behind the eight-ball.”

Fairbank explained further what he meant by timing. “Obviously, this is a weather-dependent industry, but when people talk about a cold winter or a rainy winter, that’s the macro picture. The micro picture is the timing of events. A rain event on Friday or Saturday can work against you, but if it rains on Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday, we have an opportunity to recover later in the week. We can have a good season if the micro events cooperate.”

At Ski Butternut in Great Barrington, about 45 minutes south of Jiminy Peak, the weather, though bitterly cold, cooperated a little better, said Matthew Sawyer, director of marketing and sales, and the resort was able to maintain a consistent trail quality throughout the season.

“But that was due mostly to the fact that we have enhanced snow-making systems and can guarantee good-quality snow, despite what Mother Nature throws at us, good or bad,” he explained.

“Last year was actually a very good year for keeping snow on the mountain,” Sawyer continued. “We didn’t get a lot of new snow — 67 inches, when it’s usually 110 to 120 inches — but it was cold, so the snow we did get stayed around; it didn’t go through a lot of freeze-and-thaw cycles.”

In a typical season, he explained, a mountain deals with about five freeze-thaw events, which can wreak havoc on trail quality in the short term. But with so many days last winter topping out in the low 20s, or even the teens — perfect snow-making conditions — it didn’t matter that it didn’t snow very much, because the snow that did fall, or was shot through Ski Butternut’s state-of-the-art snow-making system, tended to stick around.

“Last year, by the second week of December, we were able to open every single trail,” Sawyer said. “Very few mountains on the East Coast did that, and we did it by snow-making alone. There was no natural snow during that time, but also no freeze-thaw cycle. When you get a rain or warm event, 55 degrees and sunshine, that obviously changes the conditions.

“People were raving last year about our good snow, despite not getting as much natural snow as we usually see,” he went on. “We put a lot of money into the snow-making guns and, more importantly, the pumphouse.”

He explained that temperatures below 26 degrees are ideal for making snow, because the water that emerges from the nozzles in tiny droplets are almost instantly supercooled to create the best-quality snow. “It used to be, everyone wanted to ski after a natural snowstorm, and you can still do that. It is the best snow going; Mother Nature has a lock on that market. But we can make some pretty good snow with just cold weather.”

Recognizing the importance of snow making, Jiminy Peak has also made significant enhancements to its equipment, Fairbank said.

“Here in Southern New England, you have to have a super-powerful snow-making plant, and we are constantly tweaking it year after year,” he told BusinessWest. “We’re a pretty major player in the region, and we’ve grown our market share, and we’re anticipating a very, very busy season. But we have to continue to invest in the resort.

“It’s a capital-intensive business,” he continued. “Twenty-five years ago, there were twice as many resorts. But people didn’t do the capital investments that are needed, and now they’re gone. It’s an important part of our approach — we invest about $1 million each year into all this stuff, and we hope it continues to add up to success.”

For this issue’s focus on sports and recreation, we check out the conditions at two Berkshires ski resorts — and the industry in general, one that faces some challenges in keeping people returning over and over for their downhill rush.

Growth Pattern

“As a general rule, skiing is growing,” Sawyer told BusinessWest. “We’re not seeing the growth we saw back in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, but every sport is challenged right now; there are so many options, and kids are involved in so many sports.”

One thing keeping people coming back is an industry-wide emphasis on reducing prices. “It’s much more affordable. A season pass here is $300 for an adult. Sixteen years ago, it was $499. A midweek lift ticket is only $25.”

Sawyer said Ski Butternut has been at the forefront when it comes to making skiing more affordable, which has encouraged more families to give the activity a try. “Before, you had to ski 17 [weekend] days to justify a pass. We brought it down to five. We realize so many things are competing for people’s time, and this has made the commitment easier. We’re trying to reinvigorate people through a quality product and affordable pricing.”

Fairbank agreed. “I’m on the board of the National Ski Areas Assoc., and I spend a lot of time on this topic,” he said. “When you look at national trends and regional trends, from a long-term perspective, when you adjust for weather, we’re seeing slow and steady growth, if not enormous growth.

Jiminy Peak

Skiers and snowboarders take in the view as they glide down a hill at Jiminy Peak.

“That being said, however, there are some other dynamics happening within the industry,” he went on. “The number of people trying it for the first time, over the last few years, is starting to drop — not big numbers, but big enough to say, ‘hmmm … that’s not something we want to see.’”

The question that raises, of course, is where the growth is coming from if the number of first-time skiers is declining. The answer lies with the regulars.

“The core of people who love to ski, they really love to ski,” Fairbank said, and that includes the retirement-age crowd. But the older Baby Boomers are leaving the activity in large numbers — “there’s not enough Advil left on the planet to make some of those people want to ski anymore” — and the younger Boomers won’t be far behind.

The key, then, is to replace those who leave the sport with new blood — and both Gen-Xers and Millennials are skiing at healthy rates, Fairbank said. The worry, he said, is what’s known as the conversion rate, or the percentage of first-timers who embrace the slopes and return for more. That figure, nationally, currently stands at around 15%, and the industry needs to find ways to boost it, he said, to truly ensure its long-term growth.

“The conversion of first-time skiers to lifelong skiers is a big challenge for the industry, and that 15% conversion rate is a somewhat alarming statistic,” he went on, adding that Jiminy Peak and its sister resorts, Cranwell Resort in Lenox and Bromley Mountain Resort in Vermont, have set a goal of doubling that rate — with some very specific strategies.

It starts, he said, with creating realistic expectations for first-timers, which includes everything from maintaining a strong FAQ page on the website to moving newcomers through the lines efficiently and answering all their questions. “We want to educate people before they even get here, so their expectations are well-developed.”

The second step is to create educational programming that will encourage first-timers, not make the experience of putting on skis or a board for the first time a stressful one. To that end, Jiminy Peak uses an innovative training method called ‘terrain-based learning’ that uses shaped snow to teach elements of skiing before the rookie ever hits a hill.

“They’re able to relax and feel the sensations while learning, but do it in a controlled environment where they’re not fearful,” Fairbank said. “This seems to have really taken hold. People love it, and we’re seeing them get better quickly. That’s a big part of it. Skiing is not easy, and our emphasis on making it easier eliminates the barrier of frustration and replaces it with fun. In fact, ‘make it easy, make it fun’ is our whole approach to the business, and terrain-based learning is a big piece of it.”

Getting Board?

One trend that has caught the ski industry by surprise is a sudden decline in the popularity of snowboarding, according to a report published in the National Ski Areas Association Journal.

In its first decade of popularity, snowboarding grew from a 7.7% share of the skier market in 1991 to 32.6% in 2000, a surge that coincided with a slight decline in the popularity of skiing.

“Snowboarding lost some of its mojo around 2005 and 2006, and we’ve been running on fumes since then,” Nate Fristoe director of operations for RRC Associates, which tracks industry trends, wrote in the journal recently. “It’s like any kind of trend — full of all sorts of energy until it isn’t.”

On the other hand, Ski Butternut’s tubing park has grown in popularity every year, Sawyer said, noting that the area expanded from seven lanes to eight last year.

“What’s nice about tubing is, it’s usually a different clientele than skiers. Sure, we’re kid-friendly here, and often mom, dad, and a kid still have energy after a day of skiing, so to burn off more energy before dinner, they walk over to the tubing area,” he said. “But we have different customers there, too, who want to enjoy an outdoor, mountain experience but don’t want to learn to ski. Tubing takes no skill, and families can enjoy it all together. It’s not a competition; it’s a chance to have some fun and giggles. It’s a great social activity.”

Fairbank, whose resort also features an aerial park, mountain biking, and other activities during the warmer months, certainly understands that.

“As an industry, we don’t pay as much attention to the fun factor as we should,” he said. “What can we do to make it easier and more fun? It sounds so basic and so simple, but this is an industry that’s done it a certain way for a long time, and we need to take it to the next level.”

And hope the weather cooperates.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Sports & Leisure
Area Recreation Facilities Raise the Game for Summer Fun

By KEVIN FLANDERS

Kevin McMillan, with canopy tour manager Nina Nunes

Kevin McMillan, with canopy tour manager Nina Nunes, says Zoar Outdoor used to be one of the only such facilities in the region, but today, enterprises across New England are getting in on an increasingly popular activity.

The forest is cool and quiet, sunlight coruscating through the trees. In the distance, a high-pitched, mechanical whine tumbles down the mountain, growing steadily louder, closer, accompanied by screams of excitement. A look upward reveals a taut cable backlit by ripples of morning light, and then, moments later, a flash of color and joyful sound ripping past — another guest giddily speeding toward the next platform.

It’s a scene that plays out every day in Charlemont, a rural Franklin County town intersected by the Mohawk Trail and the Deerfield River. With a population scarcely exceeding 1,000, the town would be virtually unknown to most Massachusetts residents if not for two popular ziplining destinations that have transformed the burg into a hub of outdoor recreation.

Located almost directly across the river from each other, Berkshire East and Zoar Outdoor have become two of the premier ziplining and canopy-tour businesses in New England. Boasting advanced equipment, thrilling courses, and knowledgeable staffs, they have helped thousands of families learn how to ‘zip’ while enjoying the breathtaking scenery atop Massachusetts’ northwest woods.

“Our focus is on making a connection with guests,” said Kevin McMillan, director of guided programs at Zoar Outdoor. “We carefully train our staff, and they’re always excited to share their vocation with the guests. If you have a family with young teens, coming here is a great family adventure.”

The sentiment was echoed by Gabriel Porter-Henry, director of marketing and customer relations at Berkshire East, who encourages guests to sample both facilities.

“What’s nice is that both businesses provide different experiences and cater to people with different focuses,” he said. “Both are great businesses that have created a series of outdoor activities that draw people to Charlemont.”

For this issue’s focus on sports and leisure, BusinessWest zips up to Charlemont to learn about a fast-growing activity that is, quite literally, raising the game when it comes to outdoor fun.

High-flying Business

Berkshire East and Zoar Outdoor vary in terms of ziplining offerings, with programs geared toward different interests, McMillan and Porter-Henry said.

For example, Zoar puts a greater emphasis on the tree-to-tree exploration component of a canopy tour, with eleven zip lines and two sky bridges. The course is essentially an aerial hike, enabling guests to explore the woods from one platform to the next and experience nature in a new way. At times, when they’re cutting through the dense wilderness at 35 mph, guests feel what it’s like for birds to fly between the trees. The course’s highest point reaches 55 feet, and the tour takes about three hours to complete.

DownHill“We’re definitely different in what we offer, and I always recommend that guests try both places,” said McMillan, who has been with Zoar Outdoor for 23 years and previously worked at Berkshire East.

Meanwhile, across the Mohawk Trail, the Berkshire East course is perfect for those in search of speed, height, and distance, Porter-Henry noted, boasting zips that exceed 50 mph and rise nearly 200 feet into the air. The course’s most extreme lines, X1 and X2, are each a half-mile long and bring guests high above the treetops and across town lines. Berkshire East also offers an introductory tour for those who aren’t quite up for the intensity of X1 and X2.

“We have some of the longest lines in North America, and it’s great to see all kinds of people come out and enjoy them,” he said, adding that staff recently guided a 94-year-old woman through the course.

Both Zoar Outdoor and Berkshire East draw significant revenue from ziplining during a season that runs from spring to fall. For Berkshire East, a ski resort, the zips allow the mountain to maintain a steady stream of customers long after the snow melts.

Meanwhile, Zoar Outdoor generates revenue through a host of activities, including rafting, kayaking, mountain biking, and rock climbing, the latter run through a partnership between Zoar and Hadley’s Central Rock Gym, which specializes in rock climbing and rappelling.

Ziplining has flourished in the last decade, not only regionally but nationally, with hundreds of operations starting up. Many of them are run by ski resorts, as the expansive, hilly terrain is ideal for the construction of zip platforms complete with sturdy cables that can support 14,000 pounds. Other zipline businesses are operated by companies that specialize in water sports and are interested in adding another source of income.

“The zip business is going well,” said Porter-Henry. “There is excellent interest locally and from people throughout New England, which is great for the local economy.”

For Zoar Outdoor, the zipping and canopy-tour business continues to thrive, but McMillan has seen growth slow slightly in recent years, mostly due to increased competition.

“When we first started, we were one of the only places in the region offering canopy tours,” he said. “Now there are many operations in New England, which means more competition for us.”

Still, Zoar Outdoor has hosted about 50,000 people since starting its canopy-tour business six years ago, and employs about 55 canopy tour guides, most of whom are also experienced in leading rafting and kayaking excursions. Many staff members have primary jobs in teaching or other occupations that give them significant time off in the summer, and they wind up serving as guides in a part-time capacity.

“It’s nice to have staff members that can do kayaking, rafting, and zipping, which gives them variation and keeps people fresh,” McMillan said. “Because of how we do it with the part-time work, our staff tends to be a little older and more experienced in each activity.”

Hanging Around

While both Berkshire East and Zoar Outdoor are constantly welcoming new zipliners to the thrill of sailing over the trees, it’s only natural that some participants arrive with a little anxiety. But Porter-Henry and McMillan both emphasized the role of their well-trained guides — and their safety equipment — in helping zippers build trust and let go of their fears.

In fact, they said, newcomers are often left speechless by the exhilarating freedom that sweeps over them while soaring through the air, suspended by just a few pieces of equipment, including harnesses, carabiners, ropes, and cables. Some guests curl their legs up tightly to maximize speed, while others spread themselves out to increase drag and prolong their views of the sprawling scenery.

As thrilling as the activity is, however, there are innate risks if the correct safety procedures aren’t used. Both Zoar Outdoor and Berkshire East employ dual locking mechanisms on each line that provide a secondary failsafe in the extremely unlikely event of a break from the cables. The equipment is carefully inspected each day, and when guests are waiting for their next zip on the platforms, the staffs at both sites ensure they are secured to the decks to prevent injury in case of a stumble.

“Whenever you’re working at height, it’s all about redundancy,” McMillan said. “Redundancy will minimize your exposure to risk.”

Guides also carefully explain the safety procedures and confirm that guests are comfortable and ready prior to each jump, and no one feels rushed.

Those positive experiences with ziplining have been a boon to Zoar, especially as families try other outdoor activities after coming down from the trees. They’ve also taken advantage of Zoar’s campground and lodge.

“A lot of people will raft one day, camp overnight, and zip the next morning, which I think is the perfect way to do it,” McMillan said. “You could leave one day in the morning and be back by noon the next day.”

Berkshire East also affords guests an opportunity to try various outdoor thrills in one day or weekend. As a partner with nearby Crab Apple Whitewater, the facility offers guests discounts for zipping and then heading down the road for a few hours on the Deerfield River. In addition, Berkshire East is nearing the completion of what will be the longest mountain coaster in North America. Carrying one to two people per car, the attraction is expected to open in late summer or early fall.

“We’re really excited about it opening. This will provide another activity for people to try and help increase our exposure,” said Porter-Henry, who used to work at Crab Apple Whitewater as a raft guide, and is gratified to see people enjoying a variety of activities that have helped put sleepy Charlemont on the map.

“Personally,” he said, “it’s very rewarding to work in the area where I grew up and see these businesses continue to develop.”

Sections Sports & Leisure
Pioneer Valley Indoor Karting Is a Venture on the Right Track

By KEVIN FLANDERS

PVIK owner Ryan Bouvier, left, pictured with manager Wilder Gulmi-Landy

PVIK owner Ryan Bouvier, left, pictured with manager Wilder Gulmi-Landy, is advancing plans to expand his venture.

As a youngster, Ryan Bouvier and his family would often vacation at Salisbury Beach on the Bay State’s North Shore. One of the annual stops would be at Go-Kart Land.

It was there, he recalls, that he not only developed an affection for the sport, but started dreaming about one day opening his own operation in Western Mass. In fact, he told his parents that this was his career ambition — or at least one of many.

It would take more than a decade for that dream to become reality, but today, Bouvier is the proud owner of Pioneer Valley Indoor Karting in Hatfield, a business that only two years after opening is already on the fast track, serving a growing number of customers in all age groups.

PVIK, as it’s called, has been a wild ride for this entrepreneur, who left a job as a commercial-lending officer to pursue this venture full-time, and it’s really just getting started. The operation boasts go-karts capable of reaching 35 mph and a winding, 1,000-foot track that keeps drivers on their toes.

PVIK attracts serious racers and families alike, hosting everything from leagues to birthday parties to corporate outings that offer something much faster — and exponentially more fun — than a conference-room table. Visitors come from across town, throughout the region, and even beyond, because there just aren’t many facilities like this.

“This is definitely a destination for people, many who don’t live around here; some people will travel one or two hours every week to get time on the track,” said Bouvier, who works closely with manager Wilder Gulmi-Landy to handle daily operations and promote the venture. “Just like any business, you want to always get the word out there about what you offer and keep people coming back.”

Bouvier spent more than nine years researching the karting industry, saving money, and honing his vision. Often, he thought it would be beyond his reach, because while the business is unique and has vast promise, there are also some considerable risks and expenses that come with the territory.

“When I was researching, I never thought it would be possible for me to open a business due to the expense involved,” he said, adding that, after much due diligence and introspection, he decided to take the plunge, and he hasn’t bothered to look in the rear-view mirror — not that there is one on these karts — since he opened the doors.

Instead, the focus is on what’s down the road, meaning likely expansion — on several possible levels.

Bouvier is already moving ahead with a plan to invest in new vehicles, double karts that will enable young children to ride with parents and also allow disabled individuals to also experience the track’s speed and tight turns. He’s also exploring the possibility of opening another karting operation, potentially farther south in the Pioneer Valley, and is already thinking about one day having multiple karting locations.

“We’ve done really well for a young business with young people operating it,” said Bouvier, who is 29. “I’d love to own multiple locations by the time I’m 40.”

For this issue and its focus on sports and leisure, BusinessWest goes behind the scenes at this operation, where the phrase ‘getting up to speed’ has many different connotations.

Start Your Engines

Take a walk through the PVIK facility, and you’ll be quick to spot its many auto-racing inspirations.

The track, flanked by carefully laid tire barriers, can be completed in less than 20 seconds by the expert drivers who take part in PVIK’s many leagues, perfecting the sharp curves over thousands of laps. The high-performance adult and junior karts meet the industry standard, and the track officials even use flags like those seen on the NASCAR circuit — blue and yellow to indicate a passing situation and checkered to signify the completion of a race, among others — to keep traffic moving smoothly.

It’s an environment designed to keep guests feeling like they’re in the fast lane, making each second of PVIK’s eight-minute, $20 sessions riveting.

Pioneer Valley Indoor Karting

Racers get ready to roll at Pioneer Valley Indoor Karting in Hatfield.

“The cool thing about karting is that you really feel like you did something when it’s over,” Bouvier said. “You get what you pay for every time, and we’ve never had anyone come out disappointed. We’re in the business of making people happy; that’s the most important thing for us.”

The PVIK staff is also in the business of keeping people safe, an emphasis reflected in its many course policies. Before they even step through the doors to the track, guests are required to watch a brief video explaining safety regulations and equipment. They are then guided by track officials in selecting a helmet and neck brace of the appropriate size prior to entering the karts. As yet another layer of safety, each kart is equipped with seatbelts to minimize the risk of injury in the event of a collision into the wall or another kart.

“Safety is our biggest priority,” Bouvier said. “We want to keep people safe at all times when they’re on our track.”

For Wyatt Pease and other track officials, ensuring guest safety and good track conditions are part of a multi-faceted job description. When officials aren’t helping guests with chinstraps and seatbelts, they’re monitoring the vehicles on the course and waving the correct flags for specific situations. In the instance of a spinout or another incident on the course, it’s up to the track officials to wave the red flags and indicate to drivers that they must stop.

“It’s awesome working here — we have a lot of fun every day,” said Pease, one of 20 PVIK employees who collectively serve as the engine that makes the business run.

The Road Ahead

From a revenue perspective, the race has just begun for the PVIK staff, and they believe they’re off to a fast start.

Bouvier estimates that about 80% of his customers are new to the facility, and his primary mission is to turn them into repeat customers, many of whom will participate regularly in events and leagues. He said PVIK has already developed a solid core of regulars, some of whom travel from other states to get behind the wheel of its karts.

“New customers walk through our doors all the time,” Bouvier said. “We’re constantly getting new people from all over the area, and we want to get as many of those people as we can to come back for more.”

Through leagues, shows, and ironman events, as well as promotions and occasional free races, Bouvier has seen a rise in repeat customers in the past year. But it’s PVIK’s future plans that are expected to significantly increase its exposure and customer base.

For example, there’s the plan to order several double karts to accommodate a broader spectrum of guests. The PVIK staff is excited about the opportunities these new karts will create for people who previously wouldn’t have been able to enjoy karting.

“We’re hoping to have them in by the holiday season,” Bouvier predicted. “If people know someone who’s disabled who has always wanted to do this, now they’ll be able to ride.”

Bouvier said the new karts will be equipped with specialized steering wheels located in the passenger compartments, which will enable individuals without the use of their lower extremities to steer the karts while the operator focuses on the brake and accelerator.

Meanwhile, Bouvier is hoping to make major improvements to the track as well, a project that could include the addition of 10,000 square feet of drivable space. One of Bouvier’s main goals for the planned upgrade is to elevate the track by adding a raised deck that spans other sections of the course, then loops around and connects back to the starting point. Currently the course doesn’t feature any elevation changes, but that could soon be a thing of the past.

“At this point, it’s just a matter of getting the financing together,” said Bouvier. “It’s hard to put a date on the project, but we’re definitely looking into the possibility of expanding.”

Indeed, Bouvier has researched several locations with good potential, and he may decide to partner with an investor if the right opportunity presents itself.

It’s an ambitious goal, but the word ‘complacency’ isn’t in Bouvier’s vocabulary, and while he’s still somewhat new to the industry, he’s knows that, like his kart drivers, he has to focus on what’s ahead and be ready for it.

Getting Revved Up

It isn’t always high speeds and smooth driving in the indoor karting business. When the doors close for the night and the customers head home, that’s when the hard work starts for Bouvier and Gulmi-Landy, long hours of readying the equipment for the next day and devising new marketing strategies, with the constant goal of making customers’ experiences as enjoyable as possible.

“It’s been a ton of work, a lot of 100-hour weeks,” recalled Bouvier, who has had a hand in every aspect of PVIK’s growth, even the initial construction of the building and the track design. “It was a huge help to have him [Gulmi-Landy] helping me when we first opened up. Sometimes we’d be here at 4 a.m. trying to figure out certain things and working on different projects.”

One of the biggest challenges is getting the word out and bringing people to the facility on West Street, just off I-91, he said. But once they get there, he added, they are drawn to the sport’s speed and exhilaration.

That’s because, like Bouvier, they enjoy life in the fast lane.

Sections Sports & Leisure
Cautious Optimism Prevails as a New Golf Season Gets Underway

GolfDPartDave DiRico hadn’t been in retail for very long — just over two years, actually — but that was long enough to know that something unusual, and perhaps historically bad, was going on.

“January was terribly slow,” said the former club pro turned owner of Dave DiRico’s Golf & Racquet in West Springfield, formerly Fran Johnson’s. “And in February, we were closed for seven days due to snowstorms; it was tough.”

Like area car dealers and others in the retail sector, DiRico was feeling the effects from an interminably long, brutal winter, one in which consumers mostly stayed indoors and kept their wallets in their pockets.

But when the calendar turned to March, said DiRico, people started coming out again. And then, Golf Digest printed its annual “Hot List,” a rundown of the year’s new equipment, with the TaylorMade SLDR driver earning five stars in each of four categories, something that had never happened before.

“The Hot List comes out the first week in March, and people really pay attention to that,” said DiRico, adding that, while the SLDR has been his best seller this spring, many lines are moving, people are replacing equipment they bought from him just two years ago, and, overall, he’s off to his best start to a year.

He and others are choosing to view these early signs as harbingers of what could be a turnaround year for an industry that has seen the adjective ‘beleagured’ attached to it for the past several years.

“I don’t know where golf is going in the years to come — I don’t think anyone does, and that’s the big question, “ said Ted Perez Jr., long-time pro and co-owner of East Mountain Country Club in Westfield, a public facility. “I’m optimistic, but that’s my nature, I’m always optimistic.”

But there are still a number of challenges remaining for an industry that has never fully recovered from the recession that started six years ago, and has endured several difficult seasons weather-wise, with everything from tornadoes to heavy rains to last summer’s prolonged heat wave, and is still in a state of flux.

And for Perez and several other owners and operators, the new year is already off to a slow start.

Dave DiRico

Dave DiRico says golfers have a good case of cabin fever, and that could translate into stronger sales for his store and a solid start to the new season for area courses.

Indeed, East Mountain, famous for being open whenever the ground is clear of snow, is usually open by St. Patrick’s Day, if not before, and has long stretches during winter when the course is playable. This year, the track was open just a few days in January, due more to cold than snow, and also on Super Bowl Sunday. “But things turned south in a hurry after that,” said Perez. The official opening was March 28, and the next three days saw torrential rain, heavy winds, snow, and sleet.

Most area courses are looking to open on or about April 10, putting them somewhat behind schedule at a time when there is little margin for error, as competition for what has become a stagnant, if not declining, pool of area golfers has intensified and area clubs have turned to discounts and promotions to bring people to their first tees.

And some believe these specials are making it more difficult for area courses because the buying public has becoming increasingly less willing to pay full price, and a time when margins are tightened and expenses are spiraling.

At the Ranch Golf Club in Southwick, one of the region’s high-end, semi-private layouts — greens fees average $100 — long-time pro Hope Kelley has seen people arrive at the pro shop looking for bargains, and sometimes getting back in their cars if they can’t find one, something that just didn’t happen years ago.

“People will come in and say, ‘what’s the real rate for today?’ It’s like Hotwire nonstop,” she said, referencing the website that helps consumers find cheap deals on flights, hotel rooms, and travel. “Unfortunately, that’s pretty much taken over the whole golf industry, just as it’s infiltrated into the restaurant business and the recreation business, and it’s a tough thing.”

Dave Fleury, managing partner and leader of a group that acquired Crestview Country Club two years ago (see story, page 26), agreed, and said the discount pricing and various coupon books that enable golfers to get rounds at many area courses at substantially reduced rates, while good for consumers, are in some ways hurting the industry.

“Golf, as an industry, is going through a very interesting time, and with some of the things that are happening, like these deals, whether it’s one of these Internet companies or these cards or books, they’re almost creating the feel that golf is a commodity,” he explained. “And, in fact, golf is not a commodity. Every property is so very unique, every course is so unique; they all have their strengths and weaknesses, and some are more fun to play than others, and some are better-conditioned than others. This is not a commodity.”

For this issue and its annual golf preview, BusinessWest looks at projections for the season ahead and at the many challenges that continue to face area club owners and professionals.

Rough Going

Perez, who has spent most of his life working at the course his father carved out of the hills just east of Barnes Municipal Airport more than a half-century ago, said he used some of the considerable downtime from this longer-than-normal offseason to look at some recent numbers, especially last year’s, and attempt to decipher what they were telling him.

The first part of the assignment was rather sobering.

“The numbers [of rounds and overall revenues] from 2010 to 2013 were dramatically lower,” he said, adding that, while this was not a news flash, the extent of the decline was more excessive than he’d anticipated. “And last year was an off year; the number of outings was the same, but overall, play was down.”

Ted Perez Jr.

Ted Perez Jr., the pro at East Mountain Country Club, says the trend toward deep discounts and specials is making things more challenging for area courses.

As for the reasons why, he said there are many, and they include the weather — lots of rain in the spring and hot, muggy weather through July — as well as the lingering recession and, for East Mountain, problems with three greens (6, 12, and 13) that were damaged in the application of an herbicide during the summer.

But he believes numbers are down industry-wide. “Anybody in the golf business who says they had a good year last year is flat-out lying,” he said with a strong dose of confidence in his voice. “Nobody had a good year.”

Kelley said volume was down at the Ranch last year, and weather was a big reason reason why. She said a good fall helped rescue the season to some extent, but business was off probably 2% to 4% for the region as a whole, and the Ranch’s numbers were in that ballpark.

The question now becomes, will it get better in 2014? The quick answer is usually ‘yes,’ but with the typical caveats, with weather at the top of the list.

“In this part of the country, about 80% of our revenue has to be made in a five-month period — the second week in April to the second week of September,” said Perez, noting that, while early fall saw good weather last year, many players had put their clubs away by then. “It’s during those five months that you’re at full capacity, there’s more daylight, the leagues are playing. This is when you have to do it, and in recent years, we just haven’t been doing as well.”

By ‘we’ he meant East Mountain, but also the industry in general. He said the recession is still a factor, but the bigger issues are stagnancy in the number of players and relentless competition for consumer dollars.

That competition has led some clubs to take what Fleury called “desperate measures,” such as deep discounts on everything from individual rounds to club memberships, with some positive results short-term, but real question marks about the long term-impact.

“Golf is going through the unfortunate circumstance of having to deal with a really poor economy,” he explained. “And in a poor economy, people may do things from a general business sense that they wouldn’t do otherwise because they feel forced into it, and I think that’s what we’re seeing.”

Kelley said the “Hotwire mentality,” as she called it, presents challenges, but also some opportunities, especially during off-peak times of the day and the season.

“You have much longer days in summer, so there’s more inventory you can sell,” she told BusinessWest, adding that the Ranch does offer what she called “qualified promotions” (she doesn’t like to use the term ‘discount’) to help fill the tee sheets and expose new audiences to the course.

But Perez clearly doesn’t like the way things are trending.

“I think the golf industry in this area is hurting itself by running too many specials, at least low-priced specials,” he said. “The golf ‘passbooks’ that are going around are hurting the business; they’re lining some people’s pockets, but they’re not helping the golf courses.

“These things cheapen golf in the area,” he went on, “and it schools everyone to think they should be able to play for $12 — golf, cart, lunch, dinner, and more. It’s gotten out of hand, and that’s why you’re seeing fewer clubs in this area take part in these anymore.”

The discount pricing and intense competition challenges all clubs, public or private, because it forces them to maintain current pricing levels even as the cost of doing business continues to rise, with everything from payroll to insurance to fertilizer.

“Any business shows that, if your expenses go up, you are supposed to pass that expense on to the consumer, somehow, some way,” said Perez, who is nothing if not candid and outspoken about what he’s seeing in his industry. “And that means going up a dollar or a half-dollar on greens fees. But you can’t do that anymore, because if you do, people will go down the road to the guy who has a better special.”

Recovery Shots

Moving forward, club pros and owners we spoke with said their facilities have to become proactive, aggressive, and imaginative when it comes to operating their courses, bringing players to their pro shops, and introducing the game to various audiences, especially women and young people.

“To me, golf is very healthy,” said Kelley. “We have a goal within the PGA of America to try to grow the game and get more people to play the game; golf is still a very popular sport, and golf professionals across the country are doing their best to offer programs that appeal to the masses.

“And that’s what I want to focus my energies on,” she continued. “At the end of the day, if we can bring more people to the golf course, that’s what really matters.”

Elaborating, she said the challenge for individual clubs, and the industry as a whole, is to do more than just bring people to the club. The focus must be put on what she called the “experience,” and getting visitors to return — to that club or another one.

“The glass is half-full as far I’m concerned, not half-empty,” she went on. “I’m optimistic that there will be a lot of people playing golf. Yes, there are a lot of courses competing for players, but I’m rooting for everyone — I don’t care if you’re a muni (municipal course), private, or public. At the end of the day, it’s all about the game of golf.”

Perez summoned that well-worn phrase ‘thinking outside the box’ to sum up the challenge, adding that, in some cases, it means going back to basics, such as with customer service and marketing.

He noted that East Mountain was one of the first area courses, if not the first, to market itself extensively, especially through cable television, and also one of the facilities to see a dramatic benefit from such exposure.

“My dad said we should be doing advertising on television,” he recalled, adding that this was in the ’80s, cable was still in its relative infancy, and the notion of the courses taking to the airwaves to promote themselves was a novel concept. “It really made a hell of a lot of difference; we went from being a little busy to a lot busy in a year.

“When we first got into it, our brand-new ad was being shown at 2:30 in the morning on CNN,” he went on. “But we learned how to do it. And when your ad is in the middle of a golf tournament on the Golf Channel or one of the networks, you’ve got a captive audience; that’s going to reach a lot of people.”

Beyond marketing, the club will look to continue to find ways to control and cut costs without impacting the quality of the experience, and create repeat business.

“You have to make the most of the opportunities that you have to show people a good time and make them want to come back,” he said, speaking for everyone in his business as he did so.

Driving Force

As he talked with BusinessWest about his start to the year and thoughts on what happens next, DiRico kept referring to what he called an “improved forecast.”

Initially, he was talking about weather, and how, after roughly 15 weeks of misery, the mercury was ready to soar past 40 — and stay there.

But he was also talking about projections for the industry as a whole.

This business has been playing out of the rough for several seasons now, and its score, the bottom-line results, clearly show it. Challenges, and many of them, remain, but there are indications that the industry’s lie, and its fortunes, might be improving.

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

Sections Sports & Leisure
Crestview’s Owners Say the Turnaround Effort Is on Schedule

Dave Fleury

Dave Fleury says Crestview’s turnaround efforts are on schedule despite some tough economic conditions.

When Dave Fleury and several partners acquired Crestview Country Club in Agawam in early 2012, they did so with the expectation that it would probably take at least five years to complete a full turnaround of the once-proud, but at that time troubled, operation.

And as he talked about season three for the new ownership group, Fleury, whose title is managing partner, believes things are progressing right on schedule.

By that, he meant that there has been considerable progress made with the assignment to convert this historically and seriously private course into a semi-private operation with limited public play, but there’s still much work to be done.

For exhibit A, Fleury, the golf-course designer turned owner (although he still does design work) recalled some experiences at the recent Connecticut Golf Show, where he staffed the Crestview booth for the better part of two days.

“We were there to get the message out — ‘you can come and play Crestview,’” he recalled. “But probably eight out of 10 people didn’t know about Crestview, so we have to work harder to tell our story and make people aware.”

Meanwhile, membership has been slowly rising past the 200 mark, but is still a ways from the stated goal of 280, he said, noting that Crestview, like most other private clubs, has been challenged in this realm by a still-shaky economy and younger generations that are not as enamored with country club life as those that came before them.

But with these and other aspects of the multi-faceted challenge facing the new leadership group, Fleury is nothing if not optimistic. That’s because he believes he has the course, the setting, the quality of service, value, and, perhaps most importantly, the business model to meet and probably exceed those five-year expectations.

That model, of course, is the ‘semi-private’ configuration that blends a solid core of members with daily-fee play at specific times, especially weekdays.

“I believe that a well-run semi-private model, especially in this market, can work extremely well, and I think we’ve proven that here,” he said, adding that daily fee play increased last year after that inaugural season under the new structure, and the expectation is that it will continue to rise as more people understand that they can now play the course.

Overall, he said the needle is moving in the right direction due to a focus on the customer experience that is helping membership numbers increase, making Crestview the destination course that the ownership group envisioned.

“We’re quite happy with where we are — we’re basically where we thought we would be at this point,” said Fleury. “And in some ways, that’s amazing, because the market really hasn’t improved.”

For this issue and its broad look at the start of the new golf season, BusinessWest talked at length with Fleury about what’s been accomplished at Crestview and the work that remains.

Round Numbers

Like many area golf pros and course owners, Fleury is sensing a significant amount of pent-up demand, for lack of a better term, when it comes to the golfing public.

He said the brutal winter coupled with a longer-than-normal off-season — few people have played since well before Thanksgiving — have many left champing at the bit to get back on the first tee. “People have cabin fever … they’re ready,” he said.

Fleury believes that strong attendance at both the Connecticut and Western Mass. golf shows (Crestview exhibited at both) provides evidence of this sentiment, as does the large number of people who have driven to Crestview’s hilltop parking lot over the past few weeks for status reports on snow meltage and signs that the course would soon be opening.

If these unscientific measures are indicative of a solid start to the year — and if Mother Nature cooperates, something she hasn’t done lately or much at all for the past three years — then Fleury believes Crestview can take some larger strides when it comes to the numbers set out in the business plan just over two years ago.

Looking back over the past 25 months or so, Fleury said his group’s work to reposition and reinvigorate Crestview has been a labor of love — one defined by conservative projections and large doses of realism.

“If you know golf, you don’t get into something like this thinking there’s a million dollars to be made tomorrow — that’s certainly not the case,” he told BusinessWest. “To own a golf course and to run a golf course is a daunting task, and in this economy, it’s even more so.

“But for us, it still comes back to the fact that this property is effectively home,” he went on. “To be able to take it, resurrect it in a sense, and reposition it, and see the response from the community, has been great. It’s a lot of work, but the rewards are right in front of you when you see people come out and enjoy themselves.”

By ‘home,’ Fleury meant that Crestview has long had a place in his life. He grew up behind the second green, caddied there as teenager, and had his wedding reception there in 2000. When he found out the course was for sale, he led a determined effort to acquire it, despite the shaky financial ground it was on.

The blueprint for the turnaround was fairly simple: convert the club to a semi-private facility, and then fully leverage the facility’s many amenities and strong track record — it hosted an LPGA event, the Friendly’s Classic, for three years — to achieve growth with both membership and daily-fee play.

And, as he said at the top, progress has been achieved, but it’s been a slow, steady climb, with much of the hill still ahead. That’s because this turnaround is taking place during a challenging time for all golf operations.

The battle plan has been — and will continue to be — to market Crestview as a facility with a private feel that the public can play, and then deliver on that promise.

Fleury isn’t worried about the second part of the equation, and to explain why, he made early and frequent use of the word ‘value,’ as it pertains to members and daily-fee players who make their way past the gate just off Shoemaker Lane.

With the latter, a key part of the equation is price, said Fleury, adding that the $49 greens fee for weekdays and $59 for weekends (carts are extra) positions the club above most other public courses, but well below many other semi-private facilities.

But value comes in other forms, including access — whenever members don’t reserve times, those slots are made available to the public — as well as what is generally considered one of the best-conditioned courses in the region and one of the largest practice facilities.

“Our business model from day one has been to offer a high-end product for a great value,” he said. “Crestview has always been a high-end product — there’s a reason the LPGA was here for three years; the facilities here are grand.”

And with members, value comes in the form of customizing packages so that those using them — be it an individual focused only on golf or a family using the pool, tennis courts, and fitness facility — say they get their money’s worth, which is often an a elusive phrase when it comes to club membership.

“We want to make it so that, when the year is over, people are not saying, ‘I paid all this money, and I never used it,” Fleury explained. “That’s why we design our membership packages to what we called tailored programs, so people can design their own membership and personalize it to their needs. This allows them to feel in control.”

That’s a sensation that those in the industry rarely, if ever, get to experience, he went on, adding that there are so many things that are simply out of the control of club owners and pros.

That list includes everything from the weather to the economy to simple geography.

“Crestview has always struggled with its location,” Fleury explained. “It’s only 10 minutes from Longmeadow, but with that river, it seems like East and West Berlin. And it’s only three minutes from Connecticut, but you have that boundary, which some people don’t cross.”

Fleury can’t move the course, but he can, and will, continue his work to make the river and the state line less-formidable psychological barriers.

And he’ll continue to put his energies toward those things he can control, such as building awareness concerning Crestview and its new model, and that hard focus on value that he mentioned repeatedly.

Finishing Whole

Looking ahead, Fleury says he’s optimistic but also realistic about 2014 and beyond. The golf industry hasn’t fully recovered from the recession, and ‘flat’ is the word almost everyone in this business uses to describe its current state.

But overall, he believes the club is on the right course and on schedule with its turnaround efforts.

“You had to figure that it would take at least five years to know what its true potential was and to work the problem,” he said. “You had to be able to come in here with enough knowledge to change what needed to be changed, reduce costs without sacrificing quality, set a course, and stay on that course. And we’ve done all that.”


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

Sections Sports & Leisure
Indoor Rock Climbing Is Gaining a Foothold in the Region

By KEVIN FLANDERS

massive rock walls

Interest is growing locally in climbing massive rock walls like these, which, depending on the facility, can stretch up 40 feet or higher.

Hana Skirkey cites a number of reasons why a growing number of people are trying out — and usually staying with — the emerging sport of indoor rock climbing.

“For some it’s a way to conquer their fear of heights,” said Skirkey, an instructor and manager at Central Rock Gym (CRG) in Hadley. “Others just like the freedom. Personally, I think it’s a really fun form of exercise — every step is like a puzzle you’re trying to figure out with your own body. It’s all about finding ways to get to that next hold.”

Whatever the reason or reasons, this activity is certainly gaining traction — literally and figuratively — across the nation and in Western Mass.

Indeed, the region now boasts two indoor rock-climbing facilities — CRG-Hadley, one of four locations operated by Central Rock Gym across the state, and the Northampton Athletic Club (NAC).

The former features the region’s highest rock wall, at 45 feet, and 17,000 square feet of space, while the latter boasts a 40-foot wall, use of which is included in a club membership.

And many people, of all ages and with a host of motivations, are finding and challenging these walls.

“Interest in indoor climbing has definitely grown over the past few years,” said Andy Goddeau, the general manager of the NAC. “It offers something different that a lot of people have never tried before. Many kids start off when they’re really young, and they keep coming back as they get older to learn different techniques and training styles.”

Rigged with hundreds of colored grips and footholds, the wall provides several climbing routes that correspond to different ability levels to ensure everyone from beginners to experts have a fun experience at the appropriate degree of difficulty. Each route features arrows that guide climbers in specific directions, the most challenging of which require the use of advanced techniques. But before anyone can test their skills on the wall, they must first pass an introductory safety course.

“The course teaches people all about the harnesses, carabiners, and other equipment they’ll be using on the wall,” added Goddeau. “We want to make sure people are proficient with belaying and how to climb safely before they go off on their own.”

The NAC and CRG-Hadley now host everything from competitions for people of all skill levels to team-building exercises for area companies; from birthday parties to gatherings for area Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. And it appears that all this is not a fad, but rather a recreational activity — and business opportunity — with staying power.

“Business has really exploded over the past year, with college students and families always coming in and looking to try it out,” said Skirkey. “Weekends are usually the busiest for us, but we get new people here every day.”

For this issue and its focus on sports and leisure, BusinessWest turns the spotlight on an activity that’s growing on a grand scale, in every sense of that phrase.

Warmer Climbs

As the only gym in Western Mass. dedicated specifically to indoor climbing, CRG-Hadley hosts many specialized training classes and programs, one of which is designed for advanced climbers who have mastered an array of difficult skills.

Skirkey described the “extreme” 45-foot roof as one of the most challenging obstacles in the facility, keeping high-level climbers on top of their game. But for those who are just starting out and want to stick to the lower walls, the gym holds belaying classes every weeknight to show beginners the ropes.

“There’s something for everyone here, from people new to climbing to experts,” she explained. “The roof definitely gives us an opportunity to create challenging routes for advanced climbers.”

It is this ability to provide challenges for people of all ages and skill levels that has enabled the indoor rock-climbing facilities to enjoy steady growth and attract an array of different audiences, said those we spoke with.

This diversity comes in many forms, including the ability to present plenty of fun options that don’t even require a rope, such as bouldering. This is the act of scaling a wall without a rope, and it allows climbers to envision themselves navigating treacherous terrain without worrying about getting injured, as safety mats dutifully await any missteps. Both Northampton Athletic Club and CRG-Hadley are equipped with bouldering walls for individuals who prefer to climb with nothing to guide them but their arms and legs.

Increasingly, it is young — and even very young — people who are trying out these activities, and then coming back for more.

“Kids really love getting on the wall. I think the youngest person we’ve ever had up there was 3 years old,” said John Maradik, one of three climbing instructors at the NAC, which uses specialized full-body harnesses for children, enabling youngsters to experience the thrill of the climb along with their parents or one of the instructors.

For Goddeau, who’s worked at the club since 2002, it’s rewarding to see children develop a love for climbing. One of the club’s current instructors, he recalled, first climbed the wall as a 12-year-old and never looked back, eventually becoming a skilled climber and returning to the club to share his passion with beginners.

Teaching and reinforcing the proper techniques is an important goal at the club, whose instructors strive to maximize their students’ enjoyment of the activity and also reduce their risk of injury. The facility offers instructional classes for those who want to learn more about belaying and footwork, as well as the Try-a-Climb program, during which instructors provide individual feedback to novice climbers.

Safety and education are also major focal points at CRG, which frequently runs instructional classes to introduce the activity to the new climbers who step through its doors each day.

Sometimes the perception of risk is the most exciting part of the climb, instructors at both businesses agree, even though the safety mats are always there to cushion falls.

And while indoor rock climbing provides year-round business, the colder months are typically the busiest, when snow-covered mountains and frigid temperatures force hikers indoors to find a rock to conquer. It’s also a great activity for athletes in other sports who are looking to keep their muscles and reflexes toned during the off-season.

Regardless of the season, indoor climbing courses provide sustainable business due to their popularity as a choice for birthday parties, family outings, and team-building events. The NAC and CRG-Hadley both offer group specials, discount nights, and promotional events.

“Every few weeks, we do a college night or a guys and girls night. We host a lot of birthday parties and events for the Boy and Girl Scouts,” said Goddeau. “We also had a competition this year with about 25 participants. One thing people really like is that they can come and use the gym, then climb the wall. There is no additional charge to go climbing.”

Skirkey noted that CRG-Hadley also hosts a wide range of events and outings.

“Birthday parties, youth camps, classes — we do it all here,” she said. “We even have a climbing team for kids. One of them was invited to a team that competes at the national level.”

CRG-Hadley also hosts several competitions and tournaments throughout the year. On April 12, the gym will serve as the site of the second event in CRG’s Ring of Fire Competition, a series of three climbing tournaments at CRG locations. The first event took place in Glastonbury, Conn., while the final leg of the series will bring competitors to the chain’s Watertown branch. With major sponsors such as Adidas and cash prizes, the annual competition attracts amateur and professional athletes from across the country, one of many competitions Skirkey describes as integral to CRG’s success.

“The Ring of Fire Competition is really big in terms of sponsorship and exposure,” she said. “We also have speed-climbing competitions, bouldering competitions, and fund-raising competitions throughout the year.”

Social Climbers

Skirkey told BusinessWest that one of the biggest advantages indoor climbing has over most other sports and activities is its ability to combine recreation with adventure, providing climbers with an exhilarating experience without sacrificing safety.

This quality has enabled climbing to gain a strong foothold in the region, one that should enable it to continue to see consistent growth in popularity and a place in the area’s deep portfolio of recreational activities.

You might say the pattern of progress has been rock steady.