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Manufacturing

Innovation and Adaptation

Bill Bither

Bill Bither says employee-retention efforts should consider wages and culture, but also how cutting-edge the company’s technology is.

 

Manufacturing is a healthy industry, Bill Bither days, and demand for manufactured goods is soaring across all sectors. Meeting that demand is … well, a challenge.

“The first half of 2021 was quite strong; we were actually averaging around 30% higher than we’ve ever seen since we’ve been collecting this data,” said Bither, co-founder and CEO of MachineMetrics, a Northampton company that specializes in predictive analytics for manufacturers and serves hundreds of customers all over the globe.

“Then, after the July 4 holiday, we saw this tick down … it was almost like a shift change. That was likely due to the supply-chain issues that occurred over the summer, and we’re continuing to see that in our data through the second half of the year,” he went on. “But if you look into the beginning of 2022, we’re starting to see some of that come back.”

Jerry Foster, chief technology officer at Plex Systems Inc., a software company based in Michigan, saw a similar trend in 2021. He noted a steady, 18% decline in production from the end of the first quarter to the end of the third quarter, when companies were feeling the pinch of labor shortages (see story on page 36) and supply-chain issues.

“This was not due to the economy shrinking or decreased demand; it’s just the opposite. Our customers are reporting three to six months of backlogged orders just waiting to be fulfilled, waiting for raw materials or the workers to do that work. So this downturn is definitely due to those two main issues of labor and supply chain.”

Bither and Foster were joined last week by Chad Moutray, chief economist for the National Assoc. of Manufacturers (NAM), at a MachineMetrics-hosted webinar on the state of the manufacturing industry and the challenges that will continue to impact companies in 2022 and beyond.

To be sure, the past year was nothing like 2020 for many manufacturers. Foster estimates that Plex customers lost 26% of their normal year’s business during a deep trough in the spring of 2020. “Manufacturing really took it on the chin,” he said. “So 2021 had a lot of ground to catch up.”

It has done so — to a point. NAM has conducted a member outlook survey quarterly since 1997, and the sector has certainly rebounded since the recession of 2020, “but we have seen more recently that data pull back a little from where it was last summer,” Moutray said. Specifically, last June, 90.1% of members felt positive about their company’s outlook, but that crept down to 87.5% at the start of fall and 86.8% toward the end of 2021.

Manufacturing demand is really not the problem, he explained, despite a slight dip in production recently due to the surging Omicron variant. “In general, employment is the issue; it’s the ability to meet that demand that has been the larger issue we’ve continued to hear from our members.”

The survey revealed that members’ top four business challeges in the fourth quarter of 2021 — by far — were rising raw-material costs, supply-chain challenges, attracting and retaining a quality workforce, and transportation and logistics costs. Moutray noted that these are all issues that have arisen amid the global economic impact of the pandemic.

“They are intertwined,” he said. “Each of those issues, in my mind, are wrapped up and one and the same.”

They have also lent momentum to wage pressure on companies, the NAM survey suggests, with wages at an all-time high and expected to inch higher as manufacturers try to stay competitive for a shrinking pool of talent.

Add it up, and it all poses an interconnected, global series of manufacturing challenges that may not have an immediate end in sight — but could also bring about more innovation down the line.

 

Frustrating Shortages

The past year has not treated all manufacturers equally. According to NAM survey data, aerospace, computers and electronic products, chemicals, and machinery bounced back the most in 2021, while motor vehicles and automotive parts, printing, furniture, and petroleum and coal products lagged the most.

Bither noted the struggles of the automotive space in the second half of 2021. “That’s where those supply-chain issues with the chip shortage seemed to have the biggest impact.”

Moutray noted that just 1.9% of NAM survey respondents feel the supply-chain issues have already cleared up for them. Of the rest, 53.4% believe they will improve this year, 27.6% say the situation will stabilize in 2023 or beyond, and 17% are uncertain.

“It’s important to note some of these issues will take longer than that; the chip shortage could take a lot longer than 2022. The workforce issues are structural issues and are going to take a little bit longer.”

That said, Moutray is pleased that the majority of NAM members are optimistic about seeing supply-chain improvements between now and the end of 2022.

Even with that cautious optimism, however, “manufacturers still need to be smart about how they navigate the supply-chain challenges and workforce challenges,” he added. “Right now, obviously, Omicron is hitting manufacturers pretty hard; we’ve seen a number of stories that it’s affected overall production. So 2022 is shaping up to be much like the last couple of years — another year of uncertainty, which we’ve kind of gotten used to of late.”

Foster and Bither both said companies need to think about how employees are treated in terms of both wages and culture.

“We need to treat employees better because it is an employees’ market,” Bither said. “Part of that is having systems and technology that the younger generation of workers are used to and expect. If you’re an old-school manufacturer and you’re not leveraging these technologies, you’re going to have more difficulty bringing on this newer workforce. So leveraging these technologies and a really good user experience are going to be really important.”

That said, the current situation is also an opportunity to invest in technology, Moutray noted.

Foster agreed; when asked if robotics and AI will help relieve a qualified labor shortage, he answered, “most definitely. We used to be afraid that automation, robotics, and AI were going to take jobs. Now, we are desperate for these technologies just to keep our heads above water by filling gaps and compensating for labor issues.”

 

Investing in the Future

Moutray admits these have been trying times, not just during the pandemic, but before it, with trade wars and workforce issues that predate COVID-19.

“We’ve been talking about uncertainty as long as I’ve been at the NAM,” he said. “But I think manufacturers have had to be smart about some of the moves they’ve made over the past couple years when it comes to supply-chain management or technology adoption or upscaling their workers, and that’s going to pay off in spades moving forward. It’s not hard to be bullish about the manufacturing sector in terms of predicting growth and where it’s headed over the next few years.”

That said, he’s keeping a sharp eye on wage growth in 2022 as one of the key factors impacting manufacturers. Bither agreed, but added that the supply chain is still the problem of the day when he considers why machines are down across the industry.

In truth, all these factors are important — and none are easily solved. But the webinar participants agreed that manufacturers are an innovative bunch, and ready for the challenges ahead.

“Manufacturing has been behind other industries, but it’s catching up. There’s a lot more investment on this space, more adaptation,” Bither said. “It’s a really exciting time to be in the industry. As technology providers, we know we can get through the pandemic and all the other problems thrown our way.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Business of Aging Special Coverage

House Calls

While the pandemic may have challenged the home-care industry, it certainly didn’t suppress the need for such services. In fact, demographic trends in the U.S. — where about 10,000 Baby Boomers reach age 65 every day — speak to continued, and growing, demand for care services delivered in the home. That means opportunities both for agencies who specialize in this field and job seekers looking for a rewarding role and steady work.

Michele Anstett says business was like “falling off a cliff” when COVID hit, but client volume has returned to normal.

Michele Anstett says business was like “falling off a cliff” when COVID hit, but client volume has returned to normal.

By Mark Morris

In early 2020, Michele Anstett, president and owner of Visiting Angels in West Springfield, was pleased because her business was doing well. As a provider of senior home care, she managed 80 caregivers for 50 clients.

“We were going along just fine,” she said. “And when COVID hit, it was like falling off a cliff.”

The business model for companies like Visiting Angels involves interacting with people in their homes, so when early mandates encouraged people to keep away from anyone outside their immediate ‘bubble,’ it hit the industry hard.

Even though caregivers were designated as essential workers, Anstett saw her numbers shrink to 39 caregivers who were now responsible for only 19 clients. In order for her business to survive, she continued to provide services for her clients who needed personal-care services around the clock and for those who had no family members in the area.

“Where possible, we asked family members to step in to help out,” she told BusinessWest. “At the beginning of the pandemic, there was less risk to everyone when a family member could be involved with their loved one’s care.”

Anstett also incorporated a detailed checklist of risk factors for each caregiver to review to prevent COVID-19 from spreading to them or their clients.

“I thought patients weren’t following up because of a language barrier. As it turns out, they weren’t responding because they didn’t understand the severity of the situation.”

“We talked with caregivers about the people in their circle,” Anstett said. “It was similar to contact tracing, but we did it beforehand, so people would understand what they had to consider to protect themselves, their families, and their clients.”

A Better Life Homecare in Springfield runs two home-care programs. In one, it provides personal-care services such as helping seniors with grooming, cooking, laundry, and more. The other program provides low-income patients with medical care in the home, such as skilled nursing services, occupational therapy, and physical therapy.

On the medical side of the business, licensed practical nurses (LPNs) handle many of the home visits, while certified nursing assistants (CNAs) and patient care assistants (PCAs) are the main frontline workers on the personal-care side. A Better Life also employs case workers to supervise PCAs and CNAs and to set up other resources a patient may need, such as Meals on Wheels and support groups.

When COVID hit, said Claudia Lora, community outreach director for A Better Life, she and her staff made patient communication a top priority.

Claudia Lora

Claudia Lora says communication with clients was key to navigating the pandemic.

“We implemented daily phone calls to our patients that also served as wellness check-ins,” she recalled. Because a majority of the company’s clients are Spanish speakers, A Better Life employs many bilingual staff. At the beginning of their outreach efforts, Lora became concerned when some patients didn’t seem to follow up and respond to communications.

“I thought patients weren’t following up because of a language barrier,” she said. “As it turns out, they weren’t responding because they didn’t understand the severity of the situation.”

On the other hand, she said some patients temporarily stopped their home-care service out of concern about interacting with anyone in person. The system of daily phone calls helped address patient concerns and keep them current on their treatments. In addition, patients received whimsical postcards to lift their spirits and care packages of hygiene products and food staples.

“The pandemic opened our eyes in different ways,” Lora said. “It made us aware that we needed a system of daily phone calls in both programs, which we will continue even after the pandemic is no longer a concern.”

 

Growing Need

The lessons home-care agencies learned from the pandemic — some of which, as noted, will lead to changes in how care is provided — come at a time when the need for home-based services is only increasing.

That growing need is due in part to people living longer, of course. According to government data, once a couple with average health reaches age 65, there is a 50% chance one of them will live to age 93, and a 25% chance one of them will see age 97. With the increased longevity, there is also a greater chance these seniors will need some type of assistance with daily chores or treating a malady.

Receiving care at home, with an average cost nationally of $3,800 per month, is less expensive than moving into a nursing home (approximately $7,000 per month), and nearly everyone would rather stay in their home. When seniors need assistance, Anstett said, they often rely on family members out of fear of having an outside person come into their home.

Now that concerns about COVID are easing, she reports that people are increasingly more willing to have someone come in to their home to help, but there are still some who resist. “I wish they could understand we are not there to take away their independence, but to give them more independence.”

Lora said some of her patients were reluctant to allow people to come into their homes until they considered the alternatives.

“The only other option for people receiving medical care would have been checking into a skilled-nursing facility or a nursing home,” she noted. “I knew that was the last place they wanted to go.”

She added that the extensive news coverage of high rates of COVID in nursing homes and the high case rate locally at the Holyoke Soldiers Home convinced most people that care at home was a wise choice.

Anstett and Lora both pointed out that their companies always make sure anyone providing home care wears appropriate personal protective equipment and follows the latest guidelines for preventing the spread of COVID. Anstett said she encourages her caregivers to get vaccinated, but doesn’t force the issue because she recognizes some people have health issues.

“However,” she added, “I make it clear to the unvaccinated folks that the pool of clients willing to see a caregiver who is not vaccinated is fairly small.”

While the pandemic may have slowed down business in the short term, demographic trends still remain strong for the years ahead. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, about 10,000 people reach age 65 every day. This trend is expected to continue until 2030, when all living Baby Boomers will be at least 65 years old.

 

Looking Ahead

Fifteen months after the chaotic early days of the pandemic and with many people now vaccinated, Lora said A Better Life is busier today than before the pandemic.

“In the last six months, admissions have increased by around 50%,” she noted. “That’s more than I have seen in the past three years; it’s been insane.”

She added that her company is now short-staffed because of the rapid growth it is seeing and has been offering incentives to try to bring more CNAs and PCAs on board.

Anstett said her client numbers and caregiver numbers are back to where they were before the pandemic and noted that she has not had any problem filling open positions.

“I just cut 80 paychecks, and we are anticipating even more growth,” she said, adding that her secret to hiring is treating caregivers with respect and encouraging them to grow in their careers. “I stay in touch with every one of our caregivers. They’re the reason I’m working, so I treat them with the utmost respect.”

While many professions look to push out older workers, Anstett said she appreciates more seasoned workers and looks forward to hiring them. “Caregiving is an opportunity to keep working for those who want to, and we welcome their experience.”

Pointing out that she hired another case manager last week, Lora added that, while her organization is expanding, it has not forgotten its mission.

“Even with our growth,” she said, “we see our patients as part of a family and a community, not just a number.”

COVID-19

Glass Half Full

By Mark Morris

many people with a history of alcohol abuse have relapsed

Edna Rodriguez says many people with a history of alcohol abuse have relapsed during the pandemic due partly to boredom and disconnection.

Each October, as the weather becomes colder and the days get shorter, it’s not unusual to see an increase in demand for substance-abuse services due to seasonal depression. This fall, however, counselors are expecting an even larger spike in the need for their services because of COVID-19.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, treatment centers in Massachusetts have seen an increase in opioid-related overdoses in the patients they treat — a problem exacerbated by the fact that the drugs have become more dangerous, said Steve Winn, president and CEO of Behavioral Health Network (BHN).

Health professionals believe the problem stems from interruptions in the worldwide supply chain of illegal drugs, making it harder to get heroin and synthetic opioids like fentanyl. As a result, what is being sold as pure heroin is often mixed with a more lethal type of fentanyl, causing the increase in overdoses and deaths.

“We don’t know if use is up, but we know the repercussions of use are more serious now than they were a year ago,” Winn told BusinessWest. “In 2018 and 2019, Massachusetts had begun to flatten the curve on opioid overdoses, but now that curve has accelerated up.”

It’s not a regional problem, he added, as the most recent data shows opioid deaths up in every county in the state.

People with substance-use disorders often have a co-occurring mental-health diagnosis, a situation that may increase their COVID-19 risk, said Millie Rivas, clinical supervisor for Outpatient Behavioral Health at Center for Human Development (CHD), adding that several factors can make people with substance-use disorders more vulnerable to coronavirus.

“Patients with a co-occurring diagnosis usually have a history of poor healthcare and poor nutrition,” she noted. “Add substance use to that, and they become a magnet for COVID-19.”

In short, the stress and anxiety caused by the pandemic — and the economic turmoil that has followed in its wake — aren’t the only COVID-related factors making things tougher for those struggling with substance abuse and those striving to help them. Not by a longshot.

 

From a Distance

Even treating people with substance-use issues became more complicated when the pandemic first hit. By following CDC guidelines to keep everyone safe, one-on-one support was severely reduced, resulting in more isolation for vulnerable people who needed help.

While support has largely shifted to virtual appointments, Rivas and her staff have had to provide technical guidance, as well as their normal counsel to their clients.

“We’re doing things we aren’t accustomed to, such as training people how to use Zoom platforms and how to use their phone beyond Facebook so they can reach services and telehealth,” she said.

Working on virtual platforms allows CHD staff to interact in a more normal way with clients and observe their behavior. Rivas noted that meeting one-on-one would require clients to wear masks, making it more difficult to hear them or see their facial expressions. When clients use virtual platforms, they are also able to increase their engagement in the world.

Steven Winn

“We don’t know if use is up, but we know the repercussions of use are more serious now than they were a year ago. In 2018 and 2019, Massachusetts had begun to flatten the curve on opioid overdoses, but now that curve has accelerated up.”

“At times, going virtual has been frustrating for the client, but overall, it’s nice to have them experience an achievement like that,” Rivas said, adding that clients can now more easily connect with healthcare providers as well as family and friends, and hopefully become more engaged and feel less isolated.

While it’s not surprising that those with a history of substance abuse would be more vulnerable during a pandemic, Rivas has observed an increase in substance use among people with no diagnosed substance-use disorders. The myriad factors include health concerns, increased isolation from not going out and socializing, and anxiety about finances. “It’s not unusual for people to manage stress with one too many beers or one too many glasses of wine.”

Winn noted that clinicians at BHN have observed an increase in people coming in to talk about alcohol use and overuse. “They are self-medicating because they feel more stressed, more unhappy, and more isolated.”

Edna Rodriguez, director of Clinical Assessment and Clinical Ambulatory Programs at Providence Behavioral Health Hospital, has noticed a trend during the pandemic of people having relapses and abusing alcohol after years of being clean and sober. She cited one example of a person who relapsed after five years of sobriety. Clients tell her they start drinking again out of boredom and being stuck at home.

“In my opinion, since COVID hit, we’ve seen an increase in the glorifying of alcohol use,” Rodriguez said, noting social-media memes about people day drinking and taking Zoom calls with a drink in hand. While meant to be humorous, she explained, these messages are dangerous for people with substance-use disorders, especially when so many are feeling less connected to the community.

“Distractions that were healthy, like going to the gym, going to church, or programs that encourage people to live healthy lifestyles, have all been reduced or eliminated,” she said. “We’re in a moment of depleted connections.”

Because the pandemic creates uncertainty for everyone, Winn encourages anyone who has a question about their substance use to reach out to BHN or one of the other local agencies.

“If you’re struggling with something, reach out and ask for help. We’re all doing telehealth, so it’s safe in terms of social distancing.”

 

Heal Thyself

Providers face a dilemma of trying to help people while at the same time feeling their own stress and uncertainty about the coronavirus. Rodriguez said many of her colleagues are experiencing ‘pandemic fatigue.’

“I wish there was a book on my shelf titled ‘How to Treat Substance Use Disorders During a Pandemic,’ but we don’t have that book; we’re all new to this, and we’re still learning.”

Rodriguez and her colleagues are supporting each other by having conversations about how to stay grounded. She mentioned a ‘comfort cart’ that goes around to staff with bottles of water, soda, and treats like chocolate and candy.

“It’s a way of recognizing that everyone is stressed and needs something to comfort themselves,” she said. “The more we take care of each other, the better resource we’re going to be for our patients.”

Rivas said she often reminds her staff about the importance of self-care.

“It’s easy to forget about yourself when you’re trying to take care of someone else,” she noted, adding that, among other changes since COVID-19, staff can no longer use their offices for one-on-one meetings because they are too small to accommodate proper social distancing.

As everyone is still trying to figure out how to stay safe from a virus that just won’t fade away, Rodriguez said her normal work process now includes thinking about how to take care of herself as a provider.

Yet, she remains hopeful the scientific and therapeutic communities will use their creativity to develop new ways for everyone to deal with coronavirus. “These times are calling for an honest and humble review of how we administer treatment, how we approach our patients, and how we approach ourselves as providers.”

Tourism & Hospitality

Rolling Out the Welcome Mat

Mary Kay Wydra (left) and Alicia Szenda

Mary Kay Wydra (left) and Alicia Szenda say the GSCVB works closely with area hotels as part of efforts to draw conventions and other events to Greater Springfield.

There’s more than one way to look at a number. That’s especially true when it comes to hotel occupancy rates.

Take Greater Springfield’s occupancy rates through the last six months of 2018. At almost 67%, they’re 5% higher than they were over the same period in 2017.

That’s good news on its own, but especially positive when considering the capacity added over the past 18 months, from Holiday Inn Express on State Street in Springfield to Fairfield Inn & Suites in Holyoke; from Tru by Hilton in Chicopee to, of course, the hotel at MGM Springfield, the resort casino which is perhaps the region’s top tourism development in decades.

“We’ve definitely seen growth,” said Wydra, president of the Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau (GSCVB), adding that the average daily room rate also rose by $3 over that time frame.

“The fact that we added inventory and we’re still able to grow rate and grow occupancy is a really good thing,” she noted. “In analyzing that, a lot of it is the MGM factor, and it’s conservative because MGM didn’t open until the end of August. We don’t even have a full year’s picture of them being fully operational, but in just those four months, it’s helped.

“And by charging a higher rate for their rooms,” she added, “it allows everyone else in the marketplace to go up a little bit, which from our perspective is really good because, before they got here, we weren’t moving that needle.”

“The fact that we added inventory and we’re still able to grow rate and grow occupancy is a really good thing. In analyzing that, a lot of it is the MGM factor, and it’s conservative because MGM didn’t open until the end of August. We don’t even have a full year’s picture of them being fully operational, but in just those four months, it’s helped.”

But MGM is just one factor in drawing visitors to the region and increasing demand for hotel rooms. In fact, the relationship between hotels, tourist attractions, convention business, leisure travel, and a host of economic benefits that follow in wake of all that is the result of a coordinated dance between the various players — a dance that has continues to pick up the tempo.

Go for the Juggler

Greater Springfield still runs slightly below the national average in hotel occupancy rate — 63.6%, to be exact, compared to 66.2% nationally. And it doesn’t compare to a city like Boston, which hovers around 79% occupancy.

“Remember, hotels serve the leisure traveler, conventions, bus tours, corporate travel, and also having businesses surrounding you. Boston has growth from the companies being built. It’s not all tourism. It’s business travel as well,” Wydra said. “There’s clearly corporate travel in our area too, probably not to the extent that a major city like Boston has. We’re more focused on other things: the conventions, the leisure, the bus tours, sports.”

The GSCVB has, indeed, seen an uptick in conventions in recent years, and believes MGM is just one more perk to draw in convention groups looking for a vibrant scene, which Western Mass. offers, especially during the summer.

The new Tru by Hilton in Chicopee

The new Tru by Hilton in Chicopee is one of several hotels that have recently opened in the region.

“You’ll see that with some of the national conventions we work with,” said Alicia Szenda, director of Sales for the GSVCB. “We’ve hosted the National Square Dance Convention, the International Jugglers Association … those events take place in the summer, and people participate in them not for their job, but for their leisure activities, their hobbies, so they look forward to that week every summer, and that’s their family vacation.

“So they’re here,” she went on, “and they’re participating in educational seminars and shows and the dancing or whatever it is, but they’re also going to Six Flags, they’re going to Yankee Candle, they’re going to the museums, and doing some sightseeing while they’re here. A lot of the conventions we work with build that social component into their event schedules, so people get to experience the area they’re in. So the more attractions we have, the more variety of hotels, the more attractive we are to different groups.”

And a dynamic hotel scene is, indeed, a key element, which is Wydra is happy to see new names on the scene and planned renovations as well, such as Tower Square Hotel’s plan to return the Marriott name to its complex.

“I think one of the good things about new properties coming into the market is it keeps everybody in a position of having to keep up,” she said. “You’ve got to be reinvesting in your property and making changes; it’s survival of the fittest.”

As part of her role in recruiting conventions to the region and guiding them through the process (more on that later), Szenda also works directly with hotels, asking them to quote rates and block off a certain inventory of rooms, sometimes three years out.

“What the hotels give back depends on where they’re located, what other business they have, and whether they want to roll the dice and let other hotels get the group business,” Wydra said. “They might say, ‘I don’t want that. I’m going to roll the dice and see if I get the leisure visitor.’ They can charge leisure travelers a higher rate — because Alicia’s going to beat them up and say, ‘I want the best rate I can get for my group.’”

Besides attractive hotel rates, the GSCVB might find local ties to entice a convention group, Wydra said, giving the hypothetical example of bringing in a convention of railroad hobby enthusiasts and trying to set up a tour of the CRRC rail-car manufacturing plant in Springfield. “We try to tie in local business with the groups that we have.”

Holding Hands

But there’s far more to the equation, Szenda noted.

“Some groups come to me and say, ‘this is everything I need.’ But a lot of groups I work with don’t have that. It might be their turn to host, and they’ve never planned a national convention before. I sit with them and go through everything they need. Then I send those leads out to our members. Depending on what they need for space, the lead could go to Eastern States, or the Mullins Center, or the MassMutual Center, all three.”

Then she gets to work finding the aforementioned local connections, setting up reasonably priced hotel options, and assembling tourism information about the region.

“Really, it’s the destination a lot of times that’s going to sell that piece of business,” Szenda said, “because you’re trying to convince that one person to bring thousands of people here. They have to make sure each person has something to do that interests them. And, once we win that piece of business, we continue to hold their hand through the process.”

“I think one of the good things about new properties coming into the market is it keeps everybody in a position of having to keep up.”

Part of that is a hospitality program that many similar-sized cities don’t offer, she said, which includes everything from airport pickups and hotel greeters to downtown maps and goodie bags.

“A lot of the business we get is repeat business because we’ve done a good job from the very beginning — meeting them, listening to what they need, giving them what they need, and holding their hand until the event occurs,” Wydra said. “And while the event occurs, we don’t disappear. Even with groups we’ve hosted for years, we never want to rest on our laurels and say, ‘well, we’ve got them.’ It’s a very competitive business, so we want them to know how much we appreciate they’ve selected Western Mass.”

And it’s not just repeat business from that convention group at stake, she added. Oftentimes family members tag along, extending the trip with some family time.

“You never know which of those participants might want to come back,” Szenda said. “They might belong to another association and want to bring a group here or come back with the family. A lot of people to do that.”

It’s always interesting to see what impresses event planners, Wydra said. Once, Springfield was competing with a city in New Hampshire, and when the group heard that welcome signs would be hung downtown, it was a game changer. The planner had previously walked the streets of unfamiliar downtowns, getting permission as she went to tape up handmade signs.

“She didn’t want to do that; she had a day job,” Wydra said. “The minute we take that out of their hands, make it easy, the results are often good for us.

“We work hard to get the groups, so at the very least we want to keep them,” she went on. “We want repeat business. Alicia loves when someone signs a multi-year contract, and we can count on them for years to come.”

What’s in a Name?

If Tower Square does bring back the Marriott name — and makes the upgrades required to do so — that will be another note of progress for the region’s expanding hotel scene, Wydra said.

“Brands are important,” she noted. “I think a brand kind of promises something, if the property does it right. People know what they’re going to get. They know they’re going to get a certain style room, they’re going to get a free breakfast, affinity programs, whatever it is they want.”

Greater Springfield is a brand of sorts, too, even though it can be a tough sell during the winter, which is why events like the recent AHL All-Star weekend are so desirable, driving room nights during a challenging time of the year for the hospitality industry.

But there’s still plenty of room for hotels to flourish, Szenda said, as evidenced by the challenge of cobbling together enough rooms when multiple conventions and event planners want to swoop in during the same weekend — typically between spring and fall.

“During the summer months, we do quite well on weekends, with Six Flags and other activities,” Wydra said. “It’s always midweek that we’re trying to find business, and especially in the winter.”

But a rising tourism brand, buoyed most recently by MGM Springfield — and increased convention volume, much of which promises to become repeat business — is certainly changing the demand picture for the better.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

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