Mid-January is typically the slowest time for the region’s tourism sector. The holidays are over, and college graduations, summer, and the Big E are months away. But this January, and especially Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, will be different. Much different. Two massive happenings — the Red Sox Winter Weekend and the HoopHall Classic — will occur simultaneously, presenting an intriguing and hopefully lucrative mix of challenge and opportunity.
Mary Kay Wydra calls it the “perfect storm.” And she really hopes there isn’t an actual storm over those few days.
With those sentiments, Wydra, president of the Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau, spoke for a good number of people when it comes to what is shaping up to be a memorable and perhaps historic weekend for this region next month.
So did John Doleva, executive director of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, when he said, “this is what we’ve all dreamed about — weekends that were so busy that we’d be bursting at the seams.”
They were both talking about Jan. 16-20. Those are the dates for the 2020 Spalding HoopHall Classic, presented by EastBay. And in the middle of that, on Jan. 17-18, the Boston Red Sox will stage their Winter Weekend at MGM Springfield and the MassMutual Center. The annual fan fest, launched in 2015, had been staged at Foxwoods Resort and Casino in Connecticut, but moves to Springfield for 2020 thanks to a multi-faceted partnership agreement forged between the Red Sox and MGM back in the early spring.
While hard projections are difficult to come by, it’s estimated that, between the two events, more than 20,000 people could come to Springfield over those four days, with a good number of them — again, just how many isn’t known yet — staying a night or several nights.
“Every restaurant in downtown will be packed, and every hotel in the downtown will be packed. This will be one of the biggest parties the city has hosted in some time.”
This is that ‘bursting at the seams’ part.
Indeed, the two events occurring simultaneously will certainly test this region’s hospitality infrastructure and especially its inventory of hotel rooms — so much so that Doleva was candid and to the point when he told BusinessWest, “We’re thankful that we booked the hotel rooms first, because we wouldn’t want to be shut out.”
The Hall was able to do so because this is the 18th HoopHall Classic staged over Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, if you will, meaning that there is an organizational machine in place for this event. That’s not the case with the Red Sox Winter Weekend, which, as noted, is new to Springfield.
Logistics for the event are being handled by both the Red Sox and the event’s official host, MGM Springfield. Mike Mathis, president and COO of the resort casino, said planning efforts are proceeding and accelerating as the event date approaches.
And what is emerging sounds like a dream weekend for ardent Red Sox fans — is there any other kind? — and area restaurant and hotel owners alike, especially with both events happening simultaneously.
“Every restaurant in downtown will be packed, and every hotel in the downtown will be packed,” he told BusinessWest. “This will be one of the biggest parties the city has hosted in some time.”
Like Doleva and Wydra, Mathis projects that this will be a very important weekend for the city, the region, the casino, the Hall, and countless hotels, restaurants, and other hospitality-related businesses. It will be a weekend to showcase the city and also what it can do when it comes to large events like these.
In short, it will be a real test, but also a very welcome test, especially since it comes at the very slowest of times for the region’s hospitality sector, said Wydra, adding that there are benefits on many levels.
“We’re experiencing compression — the downtown fills up, and it spills over into other communities,” she explained, referring not only to hotel rooms but related hospitality-related businesses as well. “We want to make sure, when people come for both of these events, that they see other things and we at least whet their appetite and try to get them back as a leisure visitor for another time.”
For this issue and its focus on travel and tourism, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at all that’s happening in mid-January and what it means for the region.
These certainly won’t be the first large-scale events to come to the Greater Springfield area.
Indeed, the region has played host to everything from enshrinement ceremonies at the Hall to the Women’s U.S. Open golf tournament back in 2004 (the Orchards in South Hadley was the venue); from the American Hockey League All-Star Classic roughly a year ago to a number of large conventions staged at the MassMutual Center, the Big E, or both.
And on an annual or semi-annual basis, it hosts EASTEC, the massive manufacturing trade show, as well as the Big E, which brings in more than 100,000 people on some of its weekend days, and college graduation ceremonies that are crammed into a few weekends in May, with the MassMutual Center often hosting a few such ceremonies a day.
All those gatherings have presented tests — and opportunities — for the region’s hospitality sector.
But the challenge coming in January may surpass all those in the past, in terms of everything from the sheer number of overnight guests to the logistics involved — for example, Main Street and a portion of State Street in Springfield will be shut down for roughly 48 hours to accommodate the Winter Weekend festivities.
But while that long weelend will test planners and hoteliers alike, all those involved with both events see as a tremendous opportunity to put Springfield and the region on the map and into the limelight.
That’s because there will be a good deal of media coverage — ESPN is coming to broadcast HoopHall Classic games, as it has for many years now, and NESN and radio giant WEEI are coming to provide blanket coverage of Red Sox Winter Weekend — as well as visitors who haven’t been to Springfield recently, if at all, especially Red Sox fans from the far corners of New England and beyond.
“We’ve seen the demographics from prior years, and we know that a large part of that population is coming from outside the region,” said Mathis, using ‘region’ to refer to Western Mass. “This is a great chance to expose new customers to the property and the downtown.”
Let’s break here to review just what’s on tap for those four days in January, starting with Winter Weekend.
This will be an intense two days of meet-and-greets, a town meeting with Red Sox brass holding court, autograph signings, a kids’ zone, and much more.
Fans of the team will get to see, meet, get an autograph from, and perhaps snap a picture with players from the present and past, well as executives (including recently hired Chaim Bloom, the team’s chief baseball officer), coaches, network broadcasters, and even the well-known mascots, Wally the Green Monster and Tessie. (Fans can even buy a package that includes breakfast or lunch with the mascots.)
Players set to appear will cover every decade since the ’60s, a list including Jim Lonborg, Luis Tiant, Fred Lynn, Dennis Eckersley, David Ortiz, Pedro Martinez, Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, and dozens more.
There will be events in MGM’s ballrooms and at the MassMutual Center (word has it that every square foot of the facility has been booked), and tents will connect the two venues, enabling patrons to move freely from one to the other, said Mathis.
As for the HoopHall Classic, it will bring its own brand of star power to the region, Doleva said.
He noted that a number of top college coaches, including John Calipari (Kentucky), Mike Krzyzewski (Duke), and Patrick Ewing (Georgetown) will likely be on hand to scout many of the top young players from across the country. And that talent includes some famous last names — ‘Bronny’ James, son of NBA superstar Lebron James, and Zaire Wade, son of former NBA superstar Dwayne Wade, will play for the same team from California.
“Teams travel in from all around the country,” Doleva noted. “On Sunday and Monday, we have the top-ranked teams in the country; the top 10 or 15 prospects going D1 [Division 1] will be playing on the various teams. We have multiple TV events on Sunday and Monday, so if you can’t buy a ticket to Blake Arena at Springfield College, you can watch it on ESPN or ESPN2.”
Having a Ball
That’s what’s on tap. As for what it all means … those we spoke with said the simultaneous events could well set a new bar when it comes to bringing visitors, vibrancy, spending dollars, and, yes, challenges for the region’s hospitality sector.
Doleva noted that he expects the Hall’s event to consume 1,100 to 1,200 hotel-room nights when one factors in players, their parents, the college coaches coming to watch and recruit, and members of the media. And, as he noted, he’s happy he reserved hotel rooms early and managed to get large blocks of rooms in and around downtown Springfield and close to the Hall of Fame, where many of the HoopHall Classic events will take place.
Overall, though, hotels across the region will benefit, said Alicia Szenda, director of Sales for the GSCB.
“Patrons coming in for both events will be in Chicopee, Holyoke, and West Springfield properties, and into Connecticut as well,” she told BusinessWest. “I can’t remember a time when we’ve had two events of this magnitude happening at the same time; these are large fan bases that are coming to the area.”
Mathis told BusinessWest that the Red Sox players will be staying at MGM Springfield —most of the facility’s rooms have been reserved for weekend event — but he expects that attendees, media members, and others will be finding accommodations across the area, creating a sizable trickle-down effect.
Meanwhile, the twin events, and especially Winter Weekend, will present a huge opportunity to introduce the resort casino to new audiences, said Mathis, with the goal of making a very strong first impression and bringing them back for return visits.
“We always feel that, if we can get a new customer on the property to give us a trial, we have a very good chance of getting that customer back and start building loyalty,” he explained, adding, again, that the resort casino will be just one of many winners that long weekend.
“This goes well beyond the property and the city — the impact will be region-wide,” he went on, referring specifically to the Winter Weekend but the sum of the two events as well. “Springfield is hosting two major events on the same weekend; the compression and the energy that comes from that is testament to what we’re doing down here, that we’re starting to get double-booked on weekends.”
Doleva echoed those thoughts, and noted that there could be a good amount of crossover from the events.
“I think that many of the folks coming from out of town for our event might enjoy the Red Sox gathering,” he said. “And those here for the Red Sox will hopefully realize that they’re three minutes away from the Basketball Hall of Fame and come over and check it out. This is the perfect storm of good things.”
And, as noted earlier, this storm comes when it’s needed most for the tourism sector — the dead of winter.
Last year, the region and its hospitality sector got a boost from the AHL All-Star Classic, said Wydra, adding that, this January, there will be a much larger shot of adrenaline.
“We’re creating a reason to come here in the winter — and that’s always been a struggle not only for us, but for any New England city,” she noted, adding that perhaps the best news is that this will be the first of hopefully many Winter Weekends in Springfield, and the same goes for the HoopHall Classic.
While almost all his time and energy are focused on the 2020 HoopHall Classic, Doleva has allowed himself to think a little about the 2021 edition as well.
It may well be staged at the same time as the Red Sox Winter Weekend again, which means there may be a more intense competition, if that’s what it is, for hotel rooms in the city.
“Next year, I’m hoping we all work together so everything happens in a cost-effective way,” he noted. “But, like I said, this is what we all hoped for and dreamed for — that the city would be on fire with tourism and events and people coming from out of town.
“We’ll find a way to coexist and celebrate the assets that we have in Springfield, and blow it out that weekend — and hopefully a number of other weekends as well,” he went on.
And with that, he once again spoke for a great number of people concerning a weekend destined to be a hot time — during the coldest month of the year.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]