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At the Quarter Pole

Alex Dixon stands by the ice skating rink opened late last month at MGM Springfield

Alex Dixon stands by the ice skating rink opened late last month at MGM Springfield, one of many amenities expected to draw visitors to the resort casino over the holiday season.

MGM Springfield recently wrapped up its first business quarter, as well as that 100-day milestone. This was described by GM Alex Dixon as a time of listening, watching, learning, and tweaking, and this pattern will continue — through the holidays and the months and quarters to follow — as the facility strives for continuous improvement and growth through new business and repeat customers.

100 days.

That’s a chosen milestone and time for reflection when it comes to presidents and governors. And for other individuals and institutions as well, including the $960 million MGM Springfield resort casino.

The facility passed the 100-day threshold earlier this month, and at the urging of BusinessWest, General Manager Alex Dixon used the occasion to spotlight not only how well the resort operation is doing against early projections — it’s been averaging roughly 15,000 visitors a day, and the occupancy rate at the hotel has been at or above 90%, according to the casino’s spokesperson — but to talk about how this is still very much a new business, one that is watching, listening, and, most importantly, learning.

There have been some well-documented changes — inspired by the casino’s ‘You Said, We Did’ campaign — made over the first three months of operation, Dixon noted, listing everything from a reduction on the price of a scooter rental to a doubling of the number of video poker games on the casino floor to the addition of a popular carnival table game called ‘Let It Ride,’ a poker derivative, as Dixon described it.

“Along the way, on those first 100 days, you start to get feedback from both customers and employees,” he explained. “I think of it [‘You Said, We Did’] as a brand of continuous improvement, both internally and externally.”

But the learning process comes on many different levels, he noted, using the Friday after Thanksgiving, when there was a tree-lighting ceremony and other festivities, to get his point across.

“Along the way, on those first 100 days, you start to get feedback from both customers and employees. I think of it [‘You Said, We Did’] as a brand of continuous improvement, both internally and externally.”

Casino operators knew it was the day after a holiday and also a day off for most people, but they didn’t quite anticipate what these factors, coupled with the Big Balloon Parade and other events, would mean for visitation to their facility.

“That Friday … absolutely did not look like any other Friday, where it’s a much-later-arriving crowd and an older crowd,” said Dixon, adding that what (and who) they encountered certainly caught the management team off guard. “We needed to manage a much younger crowd, and one that had many people who were here for the first time.

Peter and Michelle Wirth

Peter and Michelle Wirth say their business, Mercedes-Benz of Springfield, which bought naming rights to the skating rink, has a lot on common with the casino in that they are both relatively new ventures working to establish themselves.

“A quarter seems like a while, but we’re really still a new business in our infancy,” he went on. “And while there are some patterns that have emerged, we’ve really only been open 14 weekends; we learn something new every peak weekend.”

And the team at MGM is now in the midst of another comprehensive, multi-faceted learning experience — the facility’s first holiday season.

The casino has been decorated for the occasion, and it has opened an ice-skating rink — Olympic silver medalist Nancy Kerrigan was on hand for the opening ceremonies.

The holiday season is one when many people will be visiting this region to spend time with friends and family here, Dixon noted, and also a time when families are off from work and school and looking for things to do. And, naturally, MGM will be aggressive in its efforts to seize some of their time.

But while extraordinary in some ways, the holiday season will be like others since late August, when the casino opened its doors amid considerable fanfare, and those to come, he said. It’s merely another opportunity that must be seized.

For this issue, BusinessWest looks at the casino’s first 100 days and how they are reflective of a pattern of continuous improvement that management says will define the operation in the months and years to come.

Straight Shooters

They call them VIP Roundtables.

That’s the name attached to what amount to large, well-organized feedback-gathering sessions, said Dixon, adding that the first one was staged in late October.

“We bring in our best guests, provide them with a nice meal, and all of our executives sit at tables with these guests so that we’re able to get that direct feedback,” he explained, adding that time at his table yielded several pages of notes on his legal pad. Among the suggestions upon which the casino took action — from the VIP Roundtables and other vehicles for conveying feedback — were the addition of electronic roulette, Let It Ride,’ more waitresses serving cocktails, extended hours for some of the South End Market dining options, improved traffic flow in the parking garage, and the addition of ‘top-dollar’ (high-limit) slot machines.

Management even made some adjustments in the store of the hotel, specifically with ‘MGM’ branded items and apparel.

“People wanted more logoed gear,” he explained. “We rolled out some swag — different polos, hats, sweatshirts — but as people earn loyalty points with us and as they frequent the property, you can only buy the same T-shirt, hat, or polo so many times, so we quickly added a new and wider variety.

“Our business is a series of small, minor tweaks to the customer experience,” he went on. “And for our customers who come two, three, four times a week, these small changes are big; if you’re favorite thing in the world is playing Let it Ride, us having Let it Ride is a very big deal.”

Elaborating, Dixon noted that those operating in this sphere, as in most other business sectors, tend to break things down, revenue-wise and otherwise, by quarter.

And in this case, obviously, it was MGM Springfield’s first quarter.

It’s been a busy one, marked by everything from the announcement of a Wahlburgers restaurant coming to the site to the launch of a comedy club; from ceremonies in the casino’s Armory Square to mark Theodor Geisel’s birthplace to a vote of the facility’s security personnel not to unionize.

There were some new partnerships as well, such as one with Mercedes-Benz of Springfield, which is sponsoring the ice rink and a car-giveaway program (more on that later).

But mostly, it’s been a time of watching, listening, learning, and tweaking, Dixon said, adding that while some feedback comes directly from customers at VIP Roundtables and formal surveys, most of it comes from employees — who are passing on what they see and hear.

A doubling of the number of video poker games on the casino floor

A doubling of the number of video poker games on the casino floor is one of several tweaks Alex Dixon’s team has made in response to guest feedback.

“The best place that we get direct customer feedback is our front-line employees,” he explained. “It’s important that we talk and develop a deep relationship with those front-line employees because they will tell us what the customers are telling them.”

Over the first quarter, some patterns have emerged in terms of traffic volume and the origination points for visitors, said Dixon. In general, guests have come from a radius of 150 to 250 miles, meaning all of New England and New York. But the lion’s share (pun intended) of the guests (to both the casino and the hotel) are coming from the 413.

He noted that bus service to the casino has been fairly steady and that more routes may be added in the near future.

Meanwhile, bookings for the meeting and event spaces have been solid as well, he noted, adding that a number of large-scale events, including the Bright Nights Ball in November, have been staged on the property, and several area companies, from Florence Bank to Whalley Computer, have already rented spaces for sales meetings, product showcases, and other purposes.

Playing Their Cards Right

Moving forward, the team at MGM will go on listening and tweaking, said Dixon, adding that the goals in this business are the same as they are in any other — to create repeat business, drive new business, and continually look for new opportunities to grow.

Which brings him to a development known as the ‘study hall.’

That’s a play on words involving the casino’s hotel lobby, which boasts a number of shelved books and thus looks like a library, said Dixon.

“A quarter seems like a while, but we’re really still a new business in our infancy. And while there are some patterns that have emerged, we’ve really only been open 14 weekends; we learn something new every peak weekend.”

However, on Friday nights starting at 6, it looks more like an entertainment venue, with a one- or two-piece band playing before an audience of business people and others just looking to unwind and get the weekend started.

“This is catered toward the after-work business crowd,” said Dixon, adding that, rather than being a response to given feedback (like more video roulette), this was a proactive step.

“Marketing is a little bit of reacting or meeting customer demand,” he said. “But in other cases, it’s creating demand for things for people didn’t even know they wanted. We’re mixing a great, literary-themed space and a cocktail and beverage program with entertainment, and hoping that we can create some magic.”

As for repeat business, MGM wants to drive as much as it can, obviously, said Dixon, adding that this will be achieved through a host of factors, including solid customer service, a number of amenities beyond the casino floor, and entertainment options outside the MGM complex.

“We hear from our customers … they stay for a two- or two-and-half-day stay, and they experience all of the amenities within a day or a day and a half — max,” he explained. “And then they say, ‘what else can we go do?’”

There is a good list of other things to do, he went on, adding that MGM is partnering with the Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau and individual attractions like the Basketball Hall of Fame, Springfield Museums, and the Springfield Armory to promote all there is to do.

“We’ve engaged all these entities to help promote Springfield as a destination,” he went on. “And we want more bars, more restaurants, more vibrancy, because that is going to get a return trip.”

As for the holidays, well, it’s an intriguing, potential-laden time for the casino, but it’s also somewhat uncharted territory, at least for a resort operation in this market.

“I wish I had a crystal ball as to understanding just when people will be coming and visiting,” he said, adding that, while days when schools have been closed this fall and that Friday after Thanksgiving have provided some clues, there are still some unknowns. “What we’ve begun to think about is how to change our meal periods, our hours of operation, to be more nimble when there are different events occurring in the city, because we still don’t quite know how things will impact us.”

Overall, the casino has worked to create a list of reasons why individuals, groups, and families should make the casino part of their holiday plans, said Dixon, adding that the decorations, an expanded Kringle Candle shop (it now occupies space in the old armory as well as the former church in Armory Square), and the skating rink are all parts of this equation.

“There was a Rockefeller Plaza-like feel to the lighting ceremony,” Dixon said of the events just after Thanksgiving and the ongoing atmosphere in the plaza. “It creates an energy and vibe.”

A vibe that Mercedes-Benz of Springfield wanted to become attached to.

Indeed, the company not only brought the naming rights to the rink, but it staged a “Choose Your Ride” promotion whereby a lucky individual won a new Mercedes-Benz in a drawing staged on Dec. 1.

Peter Wirth, co-owner of the dealership with his wife, Michelle, said a solid partnership between the two entities has emerged over the past few years (before the dealership opened and long before the casino opened) in part because they are both new businesses trying to establish themselves and share similar approaches to customer service — as well as geographic service area, if you will.

“MGM is known for providing unparalleled customer service in their world, and that’s exactly what we’re trying to provide in our world,” he explained. “The brands’ missions complement each other nicely.

“At the same time, their geographic reach is very similar to ours,” he went on. “They see the vast majority of their customers come from 50 miles away, and that’s how far our reach is as well.”

Still, such a partnership with a casino and an ice-rink sponsorship would be considered an ambitious marketing step for a single dealership, said Michelle Wirth, adding quickly that Mercedes-Benz of Springfield considers this a calculated roll of the dice, to use casino-industry language, and, more importantly, something positive for the community.

“It makes good business sense to partner with MGM, but it’s also part of our strategy to give back,” she said. “This creates a lot of positive energy.”

Odds Are

As in the political realm, the 100-day milestone is merely a time for businesses to stop and reflect. Or another time, to be more precise.

Indeed, the process of reflecting, and learning, is ongoing for those at MGM Springfield, who will add a holiday season’s worth of observations and feedback to what has been gathered already in efforts to continuously improve.

“Throughout the course of the year, we’re still learning and still growing our database,” said Dixon, adding that tweaks will continue to come.

Like Let it Ride games and more items in the store with the MGM logo on them. As he said, they seem like small changes, but for the customer, they’re big.

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

MGM Springfield

For Starters…

Alex Dixon, seen here at MGM Springfield’s South End Market

Alex Dixon, seen here at MGM Springfield’s South End Market, says ‘normal’ isn’t something to expect at the facility for some time.

The long-awaited opening of MGM is now being talked about in the past tense. It was, as most everyone predicted it would be, a momentous event in the city’s history. But thanks to some careful planning, it was not the disruptive force that some were anticipating.

Alex Dixon came away with a few observations — and a few questions — after MGM Springfield’s first weekend of operation late last month.

In that latter category … well, he was wondering out loud if that fruity libation ‘Sex on the Beach’ is the official drink of Greater Springfield. It must be, he concluded, because the bars on the premises ran out of some or all of the ingredients needed to make it — vodka, peach schnapps, orange juice, and cranberry juice — so some people had to drink something else. And usually did.

But for a while, it was also a challenge to get something involving Coca Cola. “We ran out at one point,” said Dixon, general manager of the facility. “We managed to get some more, but we were out for a while.”

“We ran through so many different scenarios, and none of them came to be; we’re as excited for what happened as we are for what didn’t happen.”

As for observations … he said the company may have to take some steps to help some employees with their feet.

“We’re looking right now into getting some foot care for a lot of our employees,” he said several days after the opening. “People were on their feet more in the past 72 hours than they’ve been in a long time. So we’re looking to store some Epsom salts or some foot care, because people need to take care of their feet.”

OK, those were observations more of the tongue-in-cheek variety. Getting more serious — although he was quite serious about those foot problems — he said the long-awaited opening for MGM, meaning not just not opening day but those first several days, were noteworthy not just for what happened — huge crowds and general excitement for the region’s new, $960 million toy — but also for what didn’t happen.

And with that, Dixon summoned the contrived phrase ‘carmageddon.’ That’s not in the dictionary, but if it were, ‘gridlock’ would be listed as a synonym. Some people were predicting something approaching that, meaning Big E-like traffic jams and parking issues, during the first few days. Anxiety was such that some downtown Springfield-based businesses actually closed their doors or altered their schedules in the wake of some predictions. There were electronic signs on I-91 alerting motorists that MGM was opening on Aug. 24, and therefore they should expect delays.

But, for the most part, none of that happened, and what looked to the untrained eye to be a somewhat slow start for the casino was actually the fruits of some careful planning, said Dixon.

Elaborating, he said MGM officials made arrangements with the Big E for casino patrons to park there for free and be shuttled over. And then, in the countless media interviews that took place leading up to and just after the opening, those same officials kept urging people to park across the river to take advantage of that option.

Long story short, they did, and with positive results for area commuters and businesses downtown and elsewhere.

As for hard numbers on MGM’s opening day and first weekend, Dixon didn’t have any at press time. So he qualified things as best he could.

“It was phenomenal,” he said of the opening and the weekend that followed. “And the big jubilation is that we did it — and by ‘we,’ I mean literally the entire community, meaning the city, the Commonwealth, and all the different agencies we’ve been working with to coordinate things. We ran through so many different scenarios, and none of them came to be; we’re as excited for what happened as we are for what didn’t happen.

“We need to get people rested up because this is a marathon, although we had a sprint initially. People need their rest.”

“We did very well in terms of volume — we’re still tabulating the numbers,” he went on. “But we didn’t have the side effects that can potentially come with too many cars, too many pedestrians, and too many issues.”

Looking ahead, and, more specifically, addressing the question of when something approaching normalcy might descend on MGM Springfield, Dixon said it will be a while before that happens.

Indeed, while the week days after the opening were far less hectic, the Labor Day weekend (with Stevie Wonder appearing at the MassMutual Center on Sept. 1) was fast approaching, with Enshrinement weekend for the Basketball Hall of Fame coming the following week, and the Big E to open on Sept. 14.

“I don’t think we’ll see ‘normal’ for some time yet,” said Dixon with a huge smile on his face, implying that not normal is good, as in really good.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with Dixon about MGM’s long-awaited opening and got a behind-the-scenes look (sort of, but not really) at what was happening, and, as he noted, not happening.

General Manager Alex Dixon didn’t have specific numbers

General Manager Alex Dixon didn’t have specific numbers, but he said volume at MGM Springfield those first few days met or exceeded expectations. Getty Images

Crowd Control

In the days leading up to the opening, there were many MGM employees working long days and often long nights as well, said Dixon, who put himself in that category.

So one of the many items on his to-do list as general manager in the days immediately following the opening was to make sure that those who needed to caught up on their rest.

“That Sunday was focused on really looking at people’s days off, to make sure that, if they couldn’t take a full day, they could at least take some hours off,” he explained. “We need to get people rested up because this is a marathon, although we had a sprint initially. People need their rest.”

After that first weekend, most certainly needed some rest, he went on, adding that the facility was at or near full capacity for many stretches, especially Friday and Saturday nights.

For the most part, the hundreds of employees, many wearing their uniforms for the first time, came through it well, despite what were for some 16-, 18-, even 20-hour days for those at the top levels.

As the bartenders, waiters, and waitresses serving up Sex on the Beach drinks — or not, as the case may be — they had some very long nights, but few seemed to be complaining, said Dixon.

“I heard anecdotally that someone said they made more in three hours than she did in three weeks at her last job,” he said. “That’s not only heartwarming, but it gives an indication of the sheer volume we encountered, and our restaurants were far busier than any of us could have imagined.”

Flashing back to opening day, he said that he and his team handled the different waves of visitors smoothly, but made some adjustments on the fly. The first wave comprised of the thousands who assembled on Main Street in advance of the 11 a.m. opening — some were on the street before 6, said Dixon, adding that the first order of business that day (literally and figuratively) was to get those people into the building safely and in an orderly fashion in order to reopen Main Street to traffic.

The first order of business for those at MGM Springfield

The first order of business for those at MGM Springfield was to get the throngs on Main Street who gathered on the morning of opening day into the facility safely and in an orderly fashion.

That all happened according to plan, he went on, adding that the next wave was a mixed group that included large numbers of workers spilling out of the downtown office buildings and walking the few blocks to the casino. Another wave came through that night, again filling the casino to something approaching full capacity.

As for the adjustments, or tweaks, as Dixon called them, they included everything from reconfiguring the ling lines for people looking to sign up for the M Life Rewards program to devising ways to handle all the traffic at the brick-oven pizzeria at the Cal-Mare restaurant.

“The pizza counter was wildly successful, and we needed more space, we needed another point of sale to handle everyone,” he noted. “That brick-oven pizza was just a hit, so we made some adjustments.”

Getting back to that phrase ‘carmageddon,’ Dixon said it didn’t happen on opening weekend, and that shows, by and large, that it’s not likely to happen on a large scale.

When asked if that was a good thing, he said it was — for MGM, the region, and its business community.

“Through this big peak, we’ve shown that there’s not an over-arching impact to the business community in a negative way, such as slowing down commerce to the rest of the city,” he told BusinessWest. “We’re just really proud of the planning we did in advance, with the city, West Springfield, and the Big E; that investment in the shuttles really paid off.”

And the investment grew in size, because the shuttle service, originally to be offered only on opening day (Friday), was extended through the weekend in yet another attempt to control the impact of the casino’s opening on the region and its businesses.

Drinking it In

When pressed, Dixon said he doesn’t know what goes into a Sex on the Beach drink and wouldn’t know how to make one.

“But apparently half of Springfield does, because that’s must have been the most popular drink,” he said with a laugh, adding that besides stocking on up on peach schnapps and whatever else might be needed, he and his team will continue to make tweaks and adjust as necessary, because ‘normal,’ as he noted, isn’t something likely to be seen at MGM for a while.

And as he also noted, this is a marathon, even though it started with a sprint.

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