Smith College Conference Center Offers a Slice of Paradise
He started in the front lobby and quickly moved on to the main meeting room, ticking off its various amenities — including a host of seating possibilities, state-of-the-art audio-visual systems, ample parking, and a slew of catering options — as he walked.
“And then … there’s that,” he said, gesturing out the huge windows covering one side of room.
‘That,’ of course, is Paradise Pond and the many views of it and the surrounding grounds that are perhaps the best selling point of this relatively new entry into the highly competitive local market for meetings and conventions.
Intriguing even in winter, the pond area is exceptionally beautiful in the spring and fall, said MacDonald, manager of the conference center, adding that the views — from the Paradise Room, as that aforementioned main meeting facility is called, to the deck nearby and many of the other rooms in this complex — certainly help explain why this facility has become an attractive option for groups of several sizes since it opened to the public only four years ago.
But there is more to this venue than what’s visible out the windows, or experienced up close if one chooses to venture outside during a break in the proceedings in question — which almost everyone does, said MacDonald.
There’s the location — downtown Northampton and, more specifically, the Smith campus, which boasts everything from century-old buildings to its famous botanical garden (designed by the firm headed by Frederick Law Olmstead, who also conceptualized Central Park), to the pond and its waterfall — which is something decidedly different among meeting venues. There are also the many catering options available, said MacDonald, adding that the facility’s kitchens have been used by many of the city’s renowned restaurants to prepare meals for clients.Addie MacDonald says the Smith College Conference Center is off to a good start because of its mix of scenery and amenities.
[/caption]Until very recently, these views and amenities could be enjoyed only by Smith faculty and invited guests. Indeed, the conference center, or at least the main building in the complex, was once the Faculty Club and then the College Club, said MacDonald, meaning it was open only to faculty and staff and was, as he put it, the “social epicenter for the academic mission of Smith.”
“For years, there is where faculty would come to wine and dine and entertain lecturers who would come from out of town, or interview potential candidates,” he explained, adding that the conference center is comprised of two buildings — the 1950s-era former Faculty Club, and a century-old building eventually acquired by the college that was believed to be the home of a buggy-whip manufacturing facility. “And this was ultimately a place where they could freely speak, exchange ideas, develop coursework, and invite other professors from local colleges.
“Over the years, it became more and more popular, and the college decided to open it up to the Northampton general public — and then well beyond,” he continued.
Mostly through word-of-mouth referrals, it quickly became the site for a wide array of functions — from weddings to corporate retreats; from holiday parties to meetings of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
“They do retreats, and once or twice a year they might meet here to discuss policy — I think they like looking at our pond because they can identify the various ducks that are coming and going from there,” MacDonald joked, referencing the fish and wildlife agency.
He told BusinessWest that Smith has become more aggressive in its marketing of the conference center in recent months, and it can certainly no longer be considered a hidden gem or best-kept secret.
It now stages more than 25 weddings a year, and the calendar, especially for those warmer months, fills up quickly.
“In many respects, this is like a classic startup business with a great infrastructure behind it,” he said of the venture. “And it’s gone well — we’ve picked up business even faster than we anticipated; the location has really attracted a number of people.”
For this issue and its focus on meetings and conventions, BusinessWest takes in the views at the Smith College Conference Center and examines why it has quickly become a venue of choice for many different types of groups.
Setting the Stage
MacDonald brings an intriguing background to his role as manager of the conference center.
Indeed, the Vermont native eventually settled in New York City, where he worked for years for the Directors Guild of America, handling a number of screenings and movie premieres in Gotham.
“It was the classic New York job in many ways — a lot of late nights and meeting many interesting people,” he explained, adding that there were several factors that motivated him to come back to New England and get this startup successfully off the ground.“New England is in my blood, and my wife and I really knew that we wanted to find a place to settle down and find a community,” he explained. “We found all that in Northampton and Smith.”
But there are still quite a few of those late nights that he was in many ways hoping to leave behind, he went on, adding quickly that this is a good thing because it’s a clear sign that the conference center is off to a strong start in its bid to become a player in the region’s meeting and conventions market.
“We hit the ground running, because part of my charge here was to bring in new business, and people from Northampton and beyond, across Western Massachusetts, have always been eager to come to campus, utilize our facilities, and take advantage of the many resources we have here — and, quite frankly, impress their clients, because the view and this location are unparalleled.”
As MacDonald mentioned, the conference center, which was given a facelift in early 2014 — one that opened up the lobby area and gave it a new façade — is more than one room with a great view. Offering a more elaborate tour, he and Merrilyn Lewis, associate director of the Events Management Office at Smith, stopped at a number of smaller rooms that are appropriate for a number of different types of events.
There’s the Oak Room, which can accommodate 75 for a reception, 100 for theater-style seating, and 55 for a seated dinner. There’s the adjacent lounge, which can host 50 for a reception, said Lewis, adding that clients can book both rooms for a slightly larger event.
There’s also the so-called Directors Room, which can seat 15 for meetings, and Meeting Rooms B and C, which can accommodate six and 15 people, respectively. Meanwhile, the lobby and adjoining deck, which can accommodate 75 for a reception, has become a popular alternative, in part because it brings guests even closer to the beautiful surroundings and allows more of the senses to get some exercise.
“Everyone likes it out here, and it’s part of the attraction; not many venues have an outdoor location that’s this convenient,” said MacDonald as he stepped onto the deck, noting that various forms of wildlife often come into view, including some otters that recently established residence nearby and have put on some good shows for guests.The venue is a natural for weddings because of the facilities and surroundings, said MacDonald, adding that the center has booked several, some involving individuals, especially students, who have connections to Smith, but also many others who don’t.
And already, a number of businesses, nonprofit groups, and even government agencies have discovered the conference center, said Lewis, noting that Yankee Candle, headquartered in nearby Deerfield, has hosted a number of events there, as has Baystate Health, the Northampton School District, United Way of Hampshire County, and others. Some of those groups are based a few blocks or a few miles from the campus, but many others are headquartered in Springfield and points further south and east.
“Sometimes, when you’re staging a company retreat, it’s nice to hold it away from the office in a completely different setting, which frees up thinking,” Lewis explained. “And that sentiment has brought a lot of people here.”
And while the spring, summer, and early fall are easily the busiest months, the center books a number of corporate outings and annual meetings in the winter, and the venue has hosted a number of smaller holiday parties as well.
View to the Future
Looking ahead, the conference center’s obvious goal is to add more events to its calendar, said MacDonald, who told BusinessWest that he expects this will happen as more individuals and groups come to the facility for the first time.
This will lead to more word-of-mouth referrals, he noted, as well as repeat business — and there has already been a good amount of that.
“We’ve been very fortunate to have a number of repeat clients because of the convenience, location, and simplicity of it all,” he said, adding that a number of businesses and nonprofits have returned several times.
They obviously liked what they saw — both literally and figuratively.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]