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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]

Pioneer Valley Hotel Group is hosting a job fair for our brand new Homewood Suites by Hilton property in Hadley, MA. We will be conducting interviews at the job fair on February 5, 2019.

Positions Available Part Time and Full Time
Front Desk Agents, Housekeepers, Breakfast Attendants, Evening Social Attendant, Laundry Attendants, and Houseman

Workforce Development

The Heat Is On

Springfield Operations Manager Meagan Greene

The culinary world is a notoriously challenging place to forge a career, and turnover at the entry level is often high, a problem that constantly challenges restaurants, hotels, colleges, and a host of other food-service companies. Enter Snapchef, which has built a regional reputation for training those workers and matching them with workforce needs to help them get a foot in the door — and then, hopefully, kick it in.

It’s called ‘backfilling.’

That’s a concept businesses in many area industries — from financial services to marketing, from security to hospitality — have been thinking about as MGM Springfield has ramped up its efforts to hire some 3,000 people for its August opening.

Backfilling, simply put, it’s the replacement of an employee who moves on to a different opportunity, and MGM has undoubtedly caused a wave of that phenomenon locally. Because of the casino’s food-service operations, area restaurants, hotels, and other facilities that prepare and serve food have been doing quite a bit of backfilling as well.

If they can find adequate replacements, that is. That’s where Snapchef, a regional food-service training company that opened up shop in Springfield last year, can play a key role.

CEO Todd Snopkowski, who founded Snapchef 16 years ago, said the business model has proven successful in its other four locations — Boston, Dorchester, Worcester, and Providence, R.I. — and has found fertile ground in the City of Homes, where the need for restaurant workers has been on the rise.

“We train folks that are looking to make a career change,” he told BusinessWest. “And, being a staffing company, we don’t only train, we also match folks looking for work in the industry with jobs that are available. If they don’t have the skills to do a job, we actually train them, whether it be dishwashing, cooking, cheffing, you name it. We cover those bases and give them a foothold in the industry.”

As the largest culinary training and staffing company in New England, Snapchef essentially trains and provides staffing help to area food-service establishments. Clients range from large colleges and universities and hospitals to food-service corporations; from hotels and corporate cafeterias to hotels and restaurants.

We train folks that are looking to make a career change,” he told BusinessWest. “And, being a staffing company, we don’t only train, we also match folks looking for work in the industry with jobs that are available. If they don’t have the skills to do a job, we actually train them, whether it be dishwashing, cooking, cheffing, you name it. We cover those bases and give them a foothold in the industry.”

“If they come to me with little or no skills or just want to brush up, we guide individuals in that track,” said Meagan Greene, operations manager in Springfield, noting that Snapchef’s 13-week courses include fast-track culinary training, ServSafe food handling, and workplace safety, among other offerings.

“When the finish the apprentice program, we try to find them full-time jobs, where they can utilize their skills in the workforce,” she went on, noting that all of that is free. The training programs are grant-funded, while Snapchef’s partner employers pay for the hours the employee works, while SnapChef pays the employee directly, with pay depending on the position.

This isn’t culinary school, Greene stressed, but a place to learn enough to get into the culinary world, and advance career-wise from there — an idea Greene called “earning and learning.”

“We go over soups, stocks, sauces, emulsions, salad bar, deli prep. Sometimes, people will go out into the field, come back, and say, ‘hey, Meagan, I did this today at work; is there a better way to do it?’ We also do a little bit of baking, which isn’t our specialty, but you’ll learn how to make pies, quick breads, muffins, and danishes.”

The need for culinary workers, especially at the entry level, is constant, Greene noted, sometimes year-round and sometimes seasonally — for example, colleges need help between September and May, while Six Flags requires a wave of help between April and October.

“For some of the colleges, this will be their second school year with us, so they may buy out some of our employees because they liked them last year,” she told BusinessWest. “It’s kind of bittersweet for us, because the people who get bought out or move forward or find their own job — those are your keepers. Those are the ones who show up for work every day, people who are clean and on time and ready to rock. I’m like, ‘noooo!’ But it’s nice to see somebody move forward.”

Moving forward, after all, is what it’s all about once that foot is in the door.

Slow Burn

Snopkowski has grown Snapchef from its original home Dorchester into a regional force that has trained thousands of workers for potentially rewarding careers in what is, admittedly, a tough field to master, and one where good help is valuable.

Clients have ranged from individual restaurants and caterers to Foxwoods Resort Casino and Gillette Stadium, as well as large food-service corporations like Aramark, Sodexo, and the Compass Group.

Snapchef CEO Todd Snopkowski

Snapchef CEO Todd Snopkowski

“With my background, being a corporate chef, I saw the need for an organization like Snapchef 25 years ago. And I think there’s a huge opportunity down the road for even more expansion,” said, noting that MGM Springfield itself poses significant opportunity. “We’re supporting them, and for businesses suffering the loss of people taking these awesome jobs MGM has to offer, we’re there to make sure we backfill the vacancies.”

Snapchef’s growth has led to a number of accolades for Snopkowski, including the 2015 SBA Small Business Person of the Year award for Massachusetts, and the 2016 Citizens Bank Good Citizens Award. And it has inspired people like Greene, who see the value in training the next generation of food-service workers.

She works with the state Department of Labor and the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County to create apprenticeship models, teaching participants everything from basic knife skills to how to conduct themselves in a kitchen. She also helps them append their résumés based on what they’ve learned.

After studying culinary arts at a vocational high school and earning three degrees from Johnson & Wales University, she became a sous chef at Sturbridge Host Hotel, not far from her home in Warren. She loved the job — and the commute — but traded it in for an opportunity to work for Snapchef.

“To be honest, I’m never bored. I’m always doing something different,” she said, and that’s true of many of her trainees, who typically begin with temporary placements, which often become permanent. But not all are seeking a permanent gig, she added; some love the variety of ever-changing assignments.

“Some people love it because it’s a lifestyle for them,” she said. “They want to work over here, then they come back to me and say, ‘hey, Meagan, I wasn’t really liking that spot; I don’t want to go back there. I didn’t like the size of the kitchen. It was too big for me; I’m used to working in a smaller kitchen.’” I’ll say, ‘OK, I’ll try not to send you back there.’ And it’s a two-way street; clients can say, ‘I don’t want Joe Smith back.’”

Because the training is free, Snapchef offers an attractive opportunity for people who want to get a food in the door in food service.

Finishing Touches

As a company that fills a needed gap — as culinary schools aren’t typically training for entry-level positions — Snopkowski said Snapchef has made significant inroads in Western Mass. over the past year, especially working with FutureWorks Career Center to identify individuals looking to shift into the world of food service.

“Our employees don’t have to pay for transition training and all those attributes that are needed to get a foothold in the business,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s good to see that MGM recognizes it, the colleges as well.”

Speaking of financial perks, Snapchef-trained employees may access round-trip transportation from the Springfield office to their job sites across the region, for only $3 per day, Greene said. “It’s cheaper than Uber, cheaper than Lyft, and better than having your mom come pick you up and drop you off. If you live in the city and are used to taking the bus everywhere, you don’t have to worry about how to get to work.”

As for Greene, she continues to enjoy the variety of her work — a pickling enthusiast, she taught a recent class how to pickle vegetables, and they prepared 300 jars worth — as well as the success stories that arise from it, like a man trained by Snapchef who went on to further his education at Holyoke Community College and is now opening a restaurant with his daughter.

“I’ve had the opportunity to see people progress in a short period of time,” she said. “It’s nice to see someone grow so fast. I love that.”

Snopkowski has seen plenty such stories unfold in the 16 years his company has been training people for a new, challenging career, and then helping them build a foothold in the industry.

“We’ve only been able to scratch the surface; there are so many other opportunities out there,” he said. “The future is bright in culinary.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]