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Katie DiClemente says the openness of the meeting spaces at the Sheraton is one of the biggest selling points for people looking to stage conventions.

Sheraton Springfield Takes Steps to Stand Out in the Marketplace

Stacy Gravanis acknowledged the obvious when it comes to the convention and meetings market in the Northeast, and the country as a whole — there is no shortage of competition.

And in this climate, the assignment is also obvious — to find a way, or several ways, as the case may be, to stand out in this crowded marketplace.

The Sheraton Springfield has been doing that since it opened more than 30 years ago, said Gravanis, general manager of the facility, and it keeps looking for new, innovative, and, well, cool ways of continuing that practice. Cool as in a Ding-Dong cart. Indeed, the nostalgic summertime staple, sometimes seen patrolling neighborhoods and often seen parked at pools and lakes, became part of the landscape at the downtown Springfield landmark during the first week in August.

It was parked on the grounds, providing a unique opportunity to cool down during what has been an oppressive summer to date — for guests and downtown workers alike. And it became another way to bring value and something different to visitors, said Gravanis, who told BusinessWest that this is all part of the work to not only stand out — as important as that is — but also to help build relationships and turn customers into repeat customers, a critical assignment in this industry.

One of the stops on the Sheraton’s ice cream truck tour was MGM Head Start in Springfield.

“The goal is to find that connection to them and build loyalty,” she told BusinessWest, adding that the Ding-Dong cart is just one example of programs, products, and services that go into the connection-building process.

Katie DiClemente, assistant director of Sales and Marketing for the Sheraton agreed. She said that conventions and meetings comprise a large slice of the business at the Sheraton, one where building relationships and generating repeat business is essential.

DiClemente noted that the facility hosts dozens of convention groups a year, such as the Pancretan Association of America, which was in town from June 28 to July 3 and brought 475 people to the hotel. Meanwhile, its assorted meeting spaces host a wide array of gatherings, from company retreats and annual meetings to team-training sessions, to educational seminars.

The hotel’s portfolio of facilities and its unique layout (more on that later) are attractive selling points, she said, as is the region and its many attractions.

Both Gravanis and DiClemente said an already attractive mix of attractions, from Six Flags to the Dr. Seuss museum, has been significantly bolstered by MGM Springfield, which they expect to help bring new convention business to the 413.

For this issue and its focus on meetings and conventions, BusinessWest talked with Gravanis and DiClemente about the Sheraton’s ongoing work to stand out in the market, and how it is creating new flavors of customer service — figuratively but also quite literally.

Getting the Scoop

One of the largest facilities of its kind in the region, the Sheraton boasts 325 hotel rooms, more than 36,000 square feet of meeting space, including a ballroom and eight meeting rooms on the third floor, six meeting rooms on the second floor, and two additional meeting rooms on the fourth floor, leaving plenty of space for large conventions.

DiClemente says the 10,000 square foot ballroom can hold up to 1,000 people depending on the type of event, with a 500-person cap for a banquet-style event.

But size is not the only attractive quality. Indeed, DiClemente said the setup of the meeting spaces at the Sheraton Springfield is unlike most other hotels.

“The flow of our space is something that definitely attracts people to our hotel,” she told BusinessWest. “We’re not a conference-style hotel where you’re walking down a long hallway and going to your meeting rooms and finding it that way. We’re an atrium style, so if your meeting room is on the second floor, you can look down and see where you need to go. The natural light shines through the atrium.”

This natural light, and all that comes with it, has attracted a number of groups to the Sheraton — and Greater Springfield. The Pancretan Association of America (PAA), a national organization comprised of members who support and perpetuate Cretan culture through scholarship, educational, cultural, and philanthropic programs for those in the United States, Canada, and Crete, is an example of the how the region and the hotel are drawing local, national, and even international groups.

And bringing them here is a collaborative effort, said Gravanis, adding that the hotel works closely with the Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau (GSCVB), keeping in daily contact with Director of Sales Alicia Szenda.

“We have a really great relationship with her being the director of sales,” said DiClemente. “If the convention center has a lead where they need overnight rooms, that’s sent to the [GSCVB] and Alicia is that middleperson between the MassMutual Center and the hotels in the area.”

Once that lead is sent out to the hotels, they bid on the piece of business, which is sent directly to Szenda. Of course, this region is usually competing against several other cities in for the right to host specific conventions, which brings us back to that notion of standing out — and building relationships.

Again, the Ding-Dong cart was just part of it.

Aside from the ice cream runs, Gravanis said the hotel staff works to stay in touch with clients — be they groups or individuals — through birthday and anniversary cards and other touch points to build a relationship and, hopefully, a long-term relationship.

“Whether it’s a local client or a client out of a different city, it’s so important to build that relationship with them and that’s something we do every day,” said DiClemente. “It’s really a top priority for our sales team.”

Gravanis added, again, that the area itself is a huge selling point for the Sheraton, and it is becoming more so through the addition of MGM Springfield, which has the potential to bring a wide array of meetings and conventions to the city, many of which will require large amounts of hotel rooms and other facilities.

Staying Power

Since it opened nearly three decades ago, the Sheraton has been one of the key players in the region’s large and important hospitality sector.

It has been one of the important pieces in the puzzle when it comes to the infrastructure needed to bring meetings and conventions, and, therefore, revenue and vibrancy, to the region.

It has maintained this position by being innovative and always finding ways to stand out. And the Ding-Dong cart, as cool as it is, is just the latest example.

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Education

More Than a Head Start

Architects rendering of the $14 million Educare Center now under construction in Springfield.

Architects rendering of the $14 million Educare Center now under construction in Springfield.

The new $14 million Educare Center now under construction in Springfield is focused on education, obviously, but parental involvement and workforce development are key focal points within its broad mission.

Mary Walachy calls it “Head Start on steroids.”

It’s a term she has called upon often, actually, when speaking to individuals and groups about Educare, an innovative model for high-quality early education that’s coming to Springfield next year — only the 24th such center in the country, in fact.

“You have to work with a Head Start partner. That’s a requirement in every Educare site across the country,” said Walachy, executive director of the Irene E. & George A. Davis Foundation, one of the lead partners in the effort to launch the local Educare school. “The base program meets the Head Start national requirements. But then there’s a layer of extensive higher quality. Instead of two adult teachers in the classroom, there needs to be three. Instead of a six-hour day, there needs to be eight or 10. There are higher ratios of family liaisons to families.”

Then there are the elements that Educare centers have really honed in on nationwide: Parental involvement and workforce development — and the many ways those two concepts work together.

“The research is clear — if kids get a good start, if they have a quality preschool, if they arrive at school really ready to be successful and with the skills and language development they need, they can really be quite successful,” Walachy said. “However, at the same time, it’s extremely important they go home to a strong family. One is still good, but both together are a home run.”

The takeaway? Early-education programs must engage parents in their children’s learning, which is a central tenet to Educare. But the second reality is that families often need assistance in other ways — particularly Head Start-eligible families, who tend to be in the lower economic tier.

“We must assist them to begin the trajectory toward financial security,” Walachy said, and Holyoke Chicopee Springfield (HCS) Head Start has long done this by recruiting and training parents, in a collaborative effort with Holyoke Community College, to become classroom assistants, who often move up to become teachers. In fact, some 40% to 50% of teachers in HCS Head Start are former Head Start mothers.

“So they already have a model, but after we get up and running, we want to put that on a bit of a steroid as well,” she noted. That means working with the Federal Reserve’s Working Cities program, in partnership with the Economic Development Council of Western Mass., to steer Head Start and Educare families onto a pathway to better employment opportunities. “It’s getting on a trajectory for employment and then, we hope, financial security and success for themselves and their families.”

“The research is clear — if kids get a good start, if they have a quality preschool, if they arrive at school really ready to be successful and with the skills and language development they need, they can really be quite successful. However, at the same time, it’s extremely important they go home to a strong family. One is still good, but both together are a home run.”

She noted that early education evolved decades ago as a workforce-support program, offering child care so families could go to work or go to school. “We’ve shifted in some ways — people started saying, ‘wait a minute, this isn’t just child care, this is education. We are really putting them on a pathway.’ But now we’ve got to circle back and do both. Head Start was always an anti-poverty program. More recently, it’s really started focusing on employment and financial security for families.”

By making that dual commitment to parent engagement and workforce training, she noted, the organizations supporting the Educare project in Springfield are making a commitment to economic development that lifts families — and, by extension, communities. And that makes this much more than a school.

Alone in Massachusetts

The 24th Educare school in the U.S. will be the only one in Massachusetts, and only the second in New England, when it opens next fall at 100 Hickory St., adjacent to Brookings School, on land provided by Springfield College.

The $14 million project was designed by RDg Planning & Design and is being built by Western Builders, with project management by O’Connell Development Group.

Mary Walachy

Mary Walachy says that while it’s important to educate young children, it’s equally important that they go home to strong families.

Educare started with one school in Chicago and has evolved into a national learning network of schools serving thousands of children across the country. An early-education model designed to help narrow the achievement gap for children living in poverty, Educare Springfield is being funded locally by a variety of local, state, and national sources including the Davis Foundation, the Gage Olmstead Fund and Albert Steiger Memorial Fund at the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, the MassMutual Foundation, Berkshire Bank, MassDevelopment, the MassWorks Infrastructure Program at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, the George Kaiser Family Foundation, Florence Bank, Capital One Commercial Banking, and the Early Education and Out of School Time Capital Grant Fund through the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care in collaboration with the Community Economic Development Assistance Corp. and its affiliate, the Children’s Investment Fund. A number of anonymous donors have also contributed significant funding.

Educare Springfield will offer a full-day, full-year program for up to 141 children from birth to age 5, under licensure by the Department of Early Education and Care. The center will also serve as a resource in the early-education community for training and providing professional development for future teachers, social workers, evaluation, and research.

Just from the education perspective, the local need is certainly there. Three years ago, the Springfield Public Schools Kindergarten Reading Assessment scores revealed that preschool children from the Six Corners and Old Hill neighborhoods scored the lowest among city neighborhoods for kindergarten reading readiness, at 1.1% and 3%, respectively. On a broader city scale, the fall 2017 scores showed that only 7% of all city children met all five benchmarks of kindergarten reading readiness.

Research, as Walachy noted, has proven time and again that kids who aren’t kindergarten-ready are at great risk of falling further behind their peers, and these same children, if they’re not reading proficiently by the end of third grade, are significantly less likely to graduate high school, attend college, or find employment that earns them a living wage.

Breaking that cycle means engaging children and their parents — and it’s an effort that could make a multi-generational impact.

Come Together

That potential is certainly gratifying for Walachy and the other partners.

“I think we’re really fortunate that Springfield got this opportunity to bring in this nationally recognized, quality early-childhood program,” she said, adding that the Davis Foundation has been involved from the start. “There has to be a philanthropic lead partner in order to begin to explore Educare because it does require fundraising, and if you don’t have somebody already at the table, it makes it really hard to get anybody else to join the table.”

The board of Educare Springfield, which is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, will hold Head Start accountable for executing the expanded Educare model. Educare Springfield is also tackling enhanced programs, fundraising, and policy and advocacy work associated with the model. A $7 million endowment is also being developed, to be administered by the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, revenue from which will support operating costs.

“We did not want to develop a building that we could then not pay to operate,” Walachy noted, adding that Head Start’s federal dollars will play a significant role as well. “We want to develop a program kids in Springfield deserve. They deserve the best, and we think this is one of the best, and one this community can support.

“No one argues that kids should have a good experience, and that they begin learning at birth,” she went on. “But nothing good is cheap. And I will tell you that Educare isn’t cheap. But it sends a policy message that you’ve got to pay for good programs if you want good outcomes.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Women of Impact 2018

Executive Director, HCS Head Start Inc.

Photo by Dani Fine Photography

She’s Spent Her Career Giving Children a Solid Head Start

It’s called the Goodhue House — because it was built in the early 1890s by local contractor Charles Goodhue as his primary residence — but most know it as the Putnam mansion, the home to Springfield Mayor Roger Putnam until the 1950s.

Whatever name it goes by, the property at the corner of Central Street and Madison Avenue was and is one of the largest private residences ever built in Springfield.

Today, it’s the headquarters building for HCS Head Start Inc., and Janis Santos, executive director of that agency for nearly 40 years, often has to pinch herself to make sure this is really home. That’s because her involvement with Head Start goes back almost to the very beginning, when the organization was created as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s multi-faceted War on Poverty.

In those early days, the digs were much, much different.

“We were a federal agency, and back then, you couldn’t use federal funds to pay rent,” she explained. “So we had to find space that was given in-kind or free, so we were in places like church basements. When I started a Head Start in my town of Ludlow in 1973, we were in the basement of the Ludlow Boys & Girls Club.”

But as she talked with BusinessWest and later offered a tour of the Goodhue House, pointing out such things as the former master bedroom (now the conference room), what once were servants’ quarters, and a large room that once housed a music conservatory, Santos said that much more has changed over the past four decades or so than the accommodations.

And she has been at the forefront of, and a catalyst for, practically all of it, becoming what those who have worked with her over the years — directly, as an employee, or indirectly, as a state legislator or municipal official in one of the communities served by HCS Head Start — call a true pioneer in the field of early childhood education.

“Janis has led the charge, ensuring that children from vulnerable backgrounds have access to high-quality early learning, and has helped to legitimize and professionalize the field,” said Susan Gosselin, chair of the HCS Head Start board of directors, who began her teaching career at that aforementioned facility in Ludlow; Santos was her supervisor. “She began teaching at a time when the greater public viewed her career as babysitting, and today early education is a highly valued profession, and there is a better understanding of brain development and the importance of the early years.

“Her unwavering advocacy over the past four decades at the local, state, and national levels has helped bring attention to this issue,” Gosselin went on, “and has helped change the perception of early childhood education.”

These days, Santos admits she’s frequently asked about retirement and whether she’s ready for it, and noted that her answer is always a quick and firm ‘no.’ If anything, she’s probably picking up the pace a little (if that’s possible) and doing more of that aforementioned pinching.

“Janis has led the charge, ensuring that children from vulnerable backgrounds have access to high-quality early learning, and has helped to legitimize and professionalize the field.”

Indeed, recent initiatives, ones that make the Goodhue House rather old news, include a partnership with MGM Springfield that culminated in the opening this fall of the $4 million MGM Head Start Child and Family Center on Union Street. And in September, she presided over the groundbreaking ceremonies for an ambitious, state-of-the-art Educare School for preschool-aged children, a $14 million facility slated to open next year.

Meanwhile, she’s working on the front lines of efforts to improve access to preschool and increase the salaries for preschool educators, necessary steps, she said, toward better preparing children for school — and all that will follow (more on that later).

Santos, who said she had a few very important mentors while she was young, including an English teacher who insisted on calling students by their last names — hers was Johnston, and her teacher called it out several times a day as she implored her charge to work harder and reach higher — now counts mentoring as a large part of her job description, especially when it comes to employees.

This role comes naturally because, in most all respects, she has been where they are — as a young early-education teacher struggling to do that work while raising children at home — and is now (serving as an innovative, entrepreneurial administrator) where they want to be.

When asked about what she tells those she manages and mentors, she summed it up quickly and effectively.

“I tell them that change is important — if we don’t change, we won’t succeed,” she explained. “When there are new ways of doing things, new curriculum, always be thinking outside the box.

“I also tell them, when you look at a child, look at that child individually; they’re not like the child sitting next to them,” she went on. “Find their strengths and what their needs are; every child, every person is different.”

Janis Santos has always followed her own advice, and that’s why, for a half-century now, she’s been a true Woman of Impact.

New School of Thought

Santos calls it “management by walking about.”

That’s been her style throughout her career, and while those four words sum it up pretty well, we’ll let her elaborate.

“If you want your staff to trust you, you’ve got to be out there with them,” she explained, referring to the classroom, but also every office carved out of the many unique spaces at the Goodhue House. “I read … I love to read to kids in the classroom, or I might sit and have lunch with them. I also like to bring in area mayors and other officials to read; we’re a community program, and I want people to know what we do.”

And while she’s an administrator now and has been for decades, she says that, in her heart, she will always be a teacher and takes on that role in many different ways now, inside, but mostly outside, the classroom.

Janis Santos likes to say she “manages by walking around,” which includes regular sessions where she reads to children.

Janis Santos likes to say she “manages by walking around,” which includes regular sessions where she reads to children.

This has been her MO since she started with Head Start back in 1973, managing a small facility in Ludlow that, as she noted, was located in the basement of the Boys Club. In 1979, she was hired as executive director of Holyoke-Chicopee Head Start, and has presided over profound growth; indeed, the agency now has 17 sites and provides early education to more than 1,000 children, making it the second-largest Head Start in the Commonwealth.

Holyoke-Chicopee Head Start expanded into Springfield in 1996 when, after the agency that was running the Head Start in that city lost its federal funding because it wasn’t complying with regulations, it successfully bid for that license. And with that contract came a directive to find better space, she recalled, adding that a Realtor eventually brought her to the Goodhue House for a look.

Actually, Santos was one of the Head Start leaders who pushed legislators to change the laws on the books and thus enable the agency’s facilities to move out of church basements, and that’s just one example of her leadership efforts within the organization.

Indeed, she has served as chairperson of both the Massachusetts Head Start Assoc. and the New England Head Start Assoc., and was a member of the National Advisory Panel for the Head Start 2010 Project in Washington, D.C. in 1999. She also served as vice chair of the National Head Start Assoc. board from 2007 to 2014.

As she talked with BusinessWest about the organization, where it’s been, where it is today, and where it hopes to go in the future, Santos relayed some of the thoughts on those very subjects that she had left with the Rotary Club of East Longmeadow a few days earlier, a talk she gives to a number of groups over the course of a year.

During that quick speech, as she called it, she described Head Start as a holistic agency, one that focuses on children, obviously, but also parents, and therefore families.

Supporting just the children but not the others is unproductive, she said, adding that, overall, Head Start emphasizes everything from the health and nutrition of all members of a family to helping parents attain their GEDs so they can join the workforce.

“I told members of that Rotary Club that there’s a perception out there that low-income parents don’t want to work — they want to stay home and collect welfare, that sort of thing,” she said. “In Head Start, we know that’s not exactly true. We have many young parents … many of them have dropped out of school; we help them get their GED.

“I tell them my story,” she went on, referring to those young parents. “I was a teen parent, I went to college at night, I had three children at home. I tell them that they, too, can succeed. They can do as I did — they just need someone to believe in them and be there for them and mentor them.”

Class Act

Over the years, Santos has been that someone to believe in others and to mentor them, especially staff members at Head Start.

They are the lifeblood of the organization, she said, adding that, overall, while she’s seen a great deal of progress at Head Start and the larger early-education realm during her career, there is still a great deal of work to do in terms of making this field attractive to young people, especially men.

“Historically, this has been a field dominated by women, in large part because of the low wages paid,” she said, adding that men are needed because so many young children don’t have a father figure in their lives.

“Finding male teachers is very hard,” she explained, adding that retaining them is equally challenging. She related the story of one male teacher who resigned just a few days earlier; he loved what he did but couldn’t afford to keep on doing it, said Santos, adding that he left to become an apprentice with what she described as a sprinkler company.

“My heart was broken,” she said, adding that the young man wrote her a beautiful letter explaining his course of action and the reasons for it. “How sad is that? His heart is in early childhood teaching, but he just can’t afford to stay in this field.”

That story, and many others like it, make it clear that, while much progress has been made since Head Start was created, there is still a long way to go. In short, while many people no longer regard early childhood education as babysitting, people in the field are still paid as if they were babysitters.

“How can we get that perception to go away that these teachers don’t work hard?” she asked rhetorically. “We have children that have challenging behaviors, we have children with serious health problems; these early years are critical, and they are challenging. Taking care of one preschooler is a big job — when you have 20 of them in a classroom and there’s one other teacher, it’s a very big job.”

Suffice it to say that Santos is fighting hard to bring salary levels higher, and she will continue that fight. She told BusinessWest that legislators have passed several modest increases recently and remain champions of early education, but continued improvement is still the top priority within this industry.

“Her unwavering advocacy over the past four decades at the local, state, and national levels has helped bring attention to this issue and has helped change the perception of early childhood education.”

And while she said there have been many achievements of note since the early ’70s — for her and the early-education community — she’s always focused on the future, not the past.

And the future is represented in those two new projects in Springfield — the MGM Head Start Child & Family Center and the Educare school, both of which help show how far early education has come since it was still considered babysitting and classrooms were carved out of church basements.

View to the Future

While offering that tour of the Goodhue House, Santos made a number of stops — the second-floor porch with a commanding view of the city, the sitting room shaped like the bow of a ship (Mayor Putnam was in the Coast Guard), the elaborate front door, the grand staircase, and much more.

Yes, Head Start has come a long way since it was occupying donated space in church basements — in ways far beyond the mailing address of its facilities.

Janis Santos has been instrumental in achieving all of that, and while she’s proud of what’s been accomplished, she’s always looking toward what’s coming around the next bend, at what challenges remain to be addressed, at what new trails can be blazed.

That’s what true pioneers — and Women of Impact — do, and she has certainly set a high standard for others to follow.

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

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