Meetings & Conventions Sections

MGM, Surging Downtown Boost Prospects for Meetings, Conventions

Meeting Expectations

Mary Kay Wydra

Mary Kay Wydra

As news circulates concerning construction of MGM’s $950 million casino in Springfield’s South End, the region is finding itself a player in many more of the spirited competitions taking place to host meetings and conventions. That’s no coincidence, said area tourism officials, as well as those who plan such events. Because of the casino and other visible forms of progress, they note, the city is now in a different, higher bracket for such gatherings.

The planned gathering of the Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers of America — the so-called ‘Big I’ — in August 2018 certainly won’t be the biggest convention ever to come to Greater Springfield.

In fact, with 600 to 800 members of that group expected, this event will be roughly one-sixth the size of the 64th National Square Dance Convention, staged in the City of Homes in 2015. It won’t be a hugely visible group, either — again, unlike those square dancers.

Resplendent in their colorful, often handmade outfits, the dancers were easy to spot as they walked to and from various downtown venues. Dressed in civilian clothes, the insurance agents will blend in; most people visiting or working in the downtown won’t even know they’re here, unless they’re wearing nametags.

Still, the announcement that the insurance agents are coming to Springfield was a significant one for this region and its tourism industry as they enter what would have to be called the ‘casino era’ —for many reasons. They range from the list of cities Springfield beat out for the honor — tier-one stalwarts such as Atlanta, New Orleans, and Austin, as well as neighboring rival Hartford — to the comments made by those who compiled a list of finalists and eventually chose Springfield.

Indeed, consider these remarks made to BusinessWest by Jeff Etzkin, an event planner hired by the Big I to scout and then recommend sites for the 2018 show.

“The casino was definitely a factor in this decision — in fact, if it wasn’t for the casino, Springfield would not have been a consideration,” said Etzkin, president of Etzkin Events, adding that there was sentiment to bring the 2018 event to the Northeast, and Springfield emerged as the best, most reasonable option.

There was more from Etzkin. “It’s not just the casino, though,” he explained. “It really helps that Springfield is changing certain aspects of its downtown to be more amenable to events like this. It’s the restaurants, the tourist activities … the whole package.”

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And there was still more. “We looked at this as an opportunity to get there before everyone discovers Springfield and the prices go up,” said Etzkin, adding that, while there was a tinge of humor in his voice, he was dead serious with that comment.

When — and even whether — event planners really start discovering Springfield and the prices do start to rise in dramatic fashion remains to be seen. But there are some strong signs that Springfield is emerging as a more desirable destination for gatherings of various types and sizes — from jugglers to Scrabble players; rowing coaches to women Indian Motorcycle riders (all scheduled to come here over the next 24 months), and that news of the city’s progress, not just with the casino, will prompt more groups to put Springfield and this region in the mix.

“I think people are going to be giving Springfield a harder look given the fact that we’re going to have this massive new attraction right smack in the middle of downtown that’s getting a lot of press, be it the parking garage going up or the Gaming Commission coming to town, or churches being moved,” said Mary Kay Wydra, director of the Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau (GSCVB). “The press is shedding a lot of light on the city, and as these groups make decisions, many are going to be saying, ‘this is a really cool city to check out now.’”

MGM’s planned opening in the summer of 2018

MGM’s planned opening in the summer of 2018 played a key role in the decision of ‘Big I’ officials to bring their convention to Springfield.

Wydra said this region has always had — and always sold — what the bureau calls the three ‘A’s. These would be ‘affordability,’ ‘accessibility,’ and either ‘abundant attractions’ or ‘all those attractions,’ depending on who’s doing the talking. Now, it can add a ‘C’ for MGM’s $950 million casino and perhaps a ‘V’ for vibrancy.

And all those letters should put the city in a different bracket when it comes to competing for events.

“We usually compete against Des Moines or Little Rock or other third-tier cities if we’re talking about a national search,” she explained. “Now, we’re going head-to-head with Chicago and Atlanta; how great is that?”

For this issue and its focus on meetings and conventions, BusinessWest takes a look at some of those events on the books for Greater Springfield, and also at why all signs are pointing to much more of the same.

Show Time

Mike Sullivan says the International Jugglers’ Assoc. (IJA), which he currently serves as a site consultant, generally has no problem finding cities that have the various facilities and amenities it requires for its annual festival, including a large performance venue — the group prefers grand, Vaudeville-era halls, like the historic, 90-year-old Plaza Theatre in El Paso, site of this year’s festival. Likewise, it can easily find cities that would fit the broad description of ‘affordable.’

What is has long struggled with, however, is finding locales that can effectively check both boxes. But Springfield can, and that pretty much sums up why between 500 and 750 jugglers — professionals and hobbyists alike — will be descending on the City of Homes on July 18, 2018, although there is certainly more to the story.

Indeed, instead of the jugglers finding Greater Springfield, this region (and, in this case, the GSCVB) essentially found the jugglers. It did so as part of a broader effort to bring more sports-related groups and events to the area. (That initiative also explains why the U.S. Rowing Convention is coming to Springfield in December.)

As Sullivan relates the story, the IJA, as a member of the National Assoc. of Sports Commissions, posted its festival requirements to that group’s website. Sullivan also staged a webinar, during which he explained what it would take for a city to host the festival. Among those who took it in was Alicia Szenda, director of sales for the GSCVB, who quickly noted that Springfield fit the bill; she crafted a proposal that eventually became the winning bid.

But while strong outreach helped prompt the jugglers and rowing coaches to sign on the dotted line, it’s clear that more groups are discovering Greater Springfield — through referrals, hard research, news coverage, or some of those all-important local connections.

There were more than a few of the latter involved with the Big I and its decision, said Wydra, noting, in the interest of full disclosure, that Joseph Leahy, a principal with Springfield-based Leahy & Brown Insurance and Realty, is slated to be sworn in as chairman of the national organization at that 2018 convention.

But Leahy & Brown’s Allen Street address was certainly not enough by itself to tip the scales in favor of Springfield, said Etzkin, who returned to that ‘package’ he mentioned earlier, the broader Western Mass. region, one that offers attractive options for members who bring their families — and there are many of those.

Alicia Szenda

Alicia Szenda says many forms of progress in Springfield — from Union Station to new restaurants downtown — are making the city a more viable option for meetings and conventions.

Springfield’s ongoing efforts to revitalize its downtown helped bring the city into a discussion that usually involves much larger cities — including Chicago (where the convention will be held this year and next) and previous locations New Orleans, San Antonio, and Minneapolis — although smaller destinations, such as Savannah for 2019, have also been chosen.

But he made it clear that the casino was a huge factor in the decision, as evidenced by those earlier comments as well as his unique insight into the probable schedule for the casino’s opening (nothing approaching what would be considered official has been announced), which is very close to the chosen date for the start of the 2018 convention.

“There’s been talk of a soft opening and also a date for a hard opening,” he said, adding that all indications are the casino will be open when the Big I arrives on Aug. 22. “They were talking about September, but from what I understand, everything is moving along a little quicker.”

It Wasn’t a Toss-up

The casino did not play any significant role in the IJA’s decision to come to Springfield, said Sullivan, adding that, while his group was aware the city was soon to be home to such a facility and that it might be ready by the time they arrived, it did not really enter into the decision-making process.

What did, however, were some or all of those 3 ‘A’s Wydra mentioned, and especially the one that stands for affordability.

“No one gets paid to go to a juggling convention — everyone is spending their own money,” he explained. “We’re looking for very reasonable hotel-room rates, and we’re looking for rental rates on performance venues that would also be reasonable. A lot of cities that would be perfect for us, that have perfect facilities, and are very reachable by air, would also be perfect for lots of other groups, which means they’re busy, their rates are high, and we can’t afford them.

“We’re happiest when we’re in small cities where there’s a nice, small downtown with all the ingredients,” he went on, adding that, while the festival has been to large cities such Portland, Ore., Quebec City, and even Los Angeles, the IJA clearly prefers smaller communities such as Winston-Salem, N.C.

But the facilities certainly played a role in the decision, noted Sullivan, adding that Springfield Symphony Hall, similar in age and size to El Paso’s Plaza Theatre, fits the bill for the Las Vegas-style shows that are staged nightly during the festival/convention and are a big part of the gathering.

There are also seminars, open juggling 24 hours a day, competitions (attendees vie for the coveted gold medal and the accompanying $10,000 prize), and workshops, at which beginners and so-called hobbyists can learn from some of the most celebrated names in this entertainment genre.

“It would be like going to basketball camp and getting tips on your jump shot from Michael Jordan and Larry Bird,” said Sullivan, who has been attending the festival for a quarter-century now, adding that there are typically more than 100 of these workshops during the course of the event, some running several hours in length.

Wydra noted that the combination of attractive venues and affordability is a potent mix, one that, with the addition of the casino, should help Springfield turn more heads, especially those on event planners and convention schedulers looking to bring an event to the Northeast.

Both Sullivan and Etzkin said the groups they represented were definitely leaning in that direction, and as they mulled options in that geographic quadrant, Springfield emerged as an attractive option.

“We like to work the event into a location that’s convenient for people who want to attend the conference from a particular volunteer’s location,” said Etzkin, referring, in this case, to Leahy.

“Boston is a very expensive location, and Hartford, while it’s good from a flight perspective, it’s not exactly a great site for a conference,” he went on, using language that certainly bodes well for this region moving forward.

The Latest Word

Melissa Brown acknowledged that Scrabble is not exactly a spectator sport.

“It’s kind of like watching paint dry — some people will sit in on a match for a little while, but then they’ll get bored and leave,” she said, speaking, quite obviously, from experience gathered as a participant in events staged by the World Game Players Organization (WGPA).

The group will be taking its so-called Word Cup (yes, that is indeed a play on words) to Springfield in roughly 13 months, and while there won’t be many on hand at the Sheraton Springfield to watch, the competition, involving an anticipated 100 players, will be keen.

As was, in many ways, the contest for the right to stage this event, said Brown, a long-time member of that group and its current member liaison, who relocated to Wilbraham from the Midwest several years ago and was part of the team that chose Springfield to join cities such as Reno, Denver, and Phoenix (this year) as hosts for the event.

She said organizers were looking for some specific amenities — quiet spaces for the games and playing areas close to restrooms, because every minute counts (yes, players are on the clock for these games). But mostly, it was looking for a site in the Northeast as a way to help build membership there, and a location that was reasonably priced.

“We’ve had some smaller events in the Northeast, but this is the first time we’ve taken the Word Cup there,” she said, adding that she was the one who compiled the research given to those who made the final decision and chose Springfield over Detroit, Charlotte, and other contenders.

When asked what put the city over the top, she said it was a combination of factors, including everything from the cooperation of the GSCVB to the amenities at the Sheraton. “All around, it just seemed like the best option.”
It is the unofficial goal of the bureau to convince more groups to think in those terms, said Szenda, adding that a variety of forces are coming together to make this task easier.

These include more hotel rooms — new facilities have opened in Springfield and Northampton recently, pushing the number of ‘room nights,’ as they’re called, to 1,125 in Springfield and 4,000 in the region— as well as the casino and recognized progress in the region.

Together, these forces are getting Greater Springfield more looks, as they say in this business.

“The insurance group said they might not have looked at Springfield five years ago, and they’re not alone in that sentiment,” she said. “But because of what’s happening, not just with the casino, but with Union Station and the Chinese subway-car manufacturer and other things that happening, they are looking.”

Etzkin confirmed those observations, noting that, while Springfield still has a ways to go when it comes to having an A-list reputation within the galaxy of meeting and convention planners, perceptions of the city and region are certainly changing for the better.

“I was serious about getting there before the area gets too well-known and the prices go up,” he told BusinessWest. “That part of Massachusetts is beautiful, and people are going to want to go there.”

Staying Power

Despite Etzkin’s expectation that prices in Springfield may soon start to rise, Wydra believes that, for the foreseeable future, anyway, the city and region will be able to boast all three of those aforementioned ‘A’s.

And with the addition of MGM’s casino and growing vibrancy in Springfield’s downtown, the package that attracted insurance agents, jugglers, and Scrabble players should appeal to more of those who plan and stage events.

It won’t happen overnight, but it appears certain there will be, well, more overnights in the area’s future. And that means a new day is dawning for the region and its tourism and hospitality sectors.

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