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Opinion

‘How are they doing?’

That’s the question that seemingly everyone is asking these days, with the ‘they’ obviously being MGM Springfield, the $960 million resort casino complex in Springfield’s South End. Everyone wants to know how they’re doing because this is the biggest business development in this part of the state in who knows how long, the expectations were and are sky-high, and the stakes — for MGM, the state, the city, and the region — are equally high.

And people want to know because, well, it’s not clear just how well they’re doing so far. The revenue numbers, meaning GGR (gross gambling revenues), are not on pace to come close to what MGM told the state they would be for the first year of operation at this facility — just over $400 million. Indeed, over the first six months or so of operation, MGM Springfield was averaging just over $20 million per month. You can do the math.

But beyond the revenues, there are other signs that perhaps this casino is not performing as well as all or most us thought it would and hope it will.

Going all the way back to opening day, the traffic, the lines to get in, the crowds of people downtown just haven’t materialized. Yes, there have been some big days (usually Saturday nights) when it’s difficult to maneuver around downtown Springfield, but not as many as we were led to believe.

Thus the question, ‘how are they doing?’

It’s a difficult question to answer because there are many ways to answer it, and aside from those really qualified to answer that query, no one truly knows.

More to the point, and Mike Mathis said this to BusinessWest for a recent interview, it’s still early in the game when it comes to both gaming in Massachusetts and MGM Springfield, and perhaps much too early to be drawing conclusions about how MGM will fare even this year, let alone in the years to come.

He’s right. These early months can tell us something about how MGM Springfield is going to perform over the long term, but they’re not going to tell us everything. Several of these first months have come in late fall and winter, a typically slow period in this region for both business and tourism.

Meanwhile, MGM Springfield is still very much in the process of trying to figure out what works in this market and what doesn’t, and how to achieve maximum efficiency for this multi-faceted operation. Mathis and others at MGM call this period ‘ramping up,’ and they project it might take three years to get all the way up the ramp.

But there are many reasons for optimism, starting with a change of season and the likelihood that MGM will make far better use of its vast and unique outdoor facilities. There’s also the emerging ROAR! Comedy Club and a multi-year partnership agreement recently inked with the Boston Red Sox that will make MGM Springfield the team’s ‘official and exclusive resort casino’ (replacing Foxwoods in Connecticut) and home to its January Winter Weekend.

Finally, when it comes to the ‘how are they doing?’ question, the most important aspect of the answer relates not to revenues for the state‚ although those are important, but impact on the city of Springfield and the surrounding region.

In the years and then months leading up to the casino’s opening, area officials — and those of us at BusinessWest — said MGM was going to be big piece of the puzzle, not the entire picture. It was going to be a big contributor to the overall vibrancy in the region, but just one of many potential contributors.

Overall, we expected the casino to be a catalyst, not a cure-all, a force that would help put Springfield on the map and help bring people to that spot that on the map.

Maybe all the revenues are not as solid as we hoped they would be, but thus far, the casino is doing most everything we anticipated it might do.

Cover Story

A Six-month Checkup

Mike Mathis, foreground, with recently promoted MGM employees

Mike Mathis, foreground, with recently promoted MGM employees, from left: Marissa Dombkowski, Bill Blake, and Nickolaos Panteleakis.

A half-year after opening its doors, MGM Springfield is well behind its stated goals and expectations for gross gaming revenues, or GGR, and the numbers have been declining each month since the fall. But the winter months are traditionally the slowest in this industry, said Mike Mathis, president and COO of the resort, and the company is still ramping up its operation. Overall, he said, there are a number of positive indicators.

‘Ramping.’

That’s the word you hear quite frequently from MGM’s leaders as they talk about the $950 million property in Springfield’s South End. Jim Murren, president and CEO of MGM Resorts International, used it early and often in a conference call with stock analysts last month following the release of MGM’s fourth-quarter earnings in 2018.

And Mike Mathis, president and COO of MGM Springfield, leaned on it as he talked with BusinessWest late last month, six months after the facility opened its doors. With casinos like this one, Mathis said, the ramping-up process, if you will, goes on for three years or so and is quite involved.

It entails watching, listening, learning, and adapting, all with the goals of growing visitation and, therefore, the bottom line, while also improving efficiency and making the operation in question more profitable.

“I think it’s premature to judge us, or anyone, on a partial data set; it’s a little early to say we’re going to underperform or overperform for our first year.”

“In the context of a new resort, it’s commonly understood within the industry that there’s a three-year stabilization period — a ramp period to stabilization,” he explained. “Three years serves as a benchmark. You’ve been through a few different seasonality rotations, you see the different ranges of weather, you see the different ranges of how holidays land, whether they land on weekends or midweek — you get all those different scenarios.

“You’re also building up your database,” he went on. “Seeing how your competition’s reacting to what you’re doing — how are they activating their property. You get a feel over a couple of years — did we do well that weekend because the competition didn’t have much going on? Or did we suffer because they put in a big act to counter that weekend? That all shakes out over two or three years.”

These references to ramping up are being generated by questions about revenues at MGM Springfield, and, more specifically, about why they are not approaching the numbers the company projected to the Mass. Gaming Commission.

‘Slower’ is the operative word being used with regard to revenues, and it fits if one considers MGM’s projections of $418 million in annual gross gaming revenue (GGR) in its first year of operation, or $34.8 million per month. Indeed, the company recorded $21.58 million in GGR in December, and just $19.7 million in January (February’s numbers will not be released for a few weeks). GGR for November was $21.2 million, the number was $22.2 for October, and in September, it was $26.95 million.

Mathis, while certainly acknowledging that the numbers are lower than projected, at least for the winter months, told BusinessWest that the $418 million projection given to the Gaming Commission was made several years ago, and that the landscape has changed in some ways since then.

Mike Mathis says the winter months are traditionally the slowest for casinos

Mike Mathis says the winter months are traditionally the slowest for casinos in the Northeast, and he is optimistic that visitation will climb as the mercury does.

Meanwhile … it’s early, said Mathis, referring to the fact that the casino has only been open for six months, and a few of those months (January, February, and early December, before the holidays) are among the slowest for casinos, especially those in the Northeast.

“I think it’s premature to judge us, or anyone, on a partial data set; it’s a little early to say we’re going to underperform or overperform for our first year,” he told BusinessWest. “If you look at our August and September numbers, we would have exceeded our expectations. And going into the winter months … that’s the low end of the season.”

And, overall, the casino is still ramping.

That means it’s still learning, collecting data, watching patterns develop, and adapting to what the data shows. As he said earlier, it’s an involved process that involves a number of factors, including the weather. Make that especially the weather.

Mathis said he and his team are tuned into the forecasts, because one thing he’s noticed thus far — and this counts as one of the surprises on his list — is that, despite a reputation for being hardy, people in New England are apparently easily scared off from traveling in snow — or even forecasts of same.

“We thought New England would be hardier than what we’ve seen on some of these snow days,” he said with a laugh. “We’ve had a little bit of experience with snow in Detroit and Atlantic City, but I think every market is unique, and we’re learning some of the patterns and behaviors.

“And it’s not just snow,” he went on, sounding much like area golf-course operators when they talk about rain and how it impacts them. “It’s what type of snow and what time of day it hits and what day of the week it hits. Weather forecasts have become an important tool for operating and planning; it’s been a very interesting learning curve.”

One that extends, as he said, well beyond snow, and into other realms such as where people are visiting from, how often they visit, which games they play, which restaurants they frequent, and much more.

Overall, and as might be expected, Mathis is optimistic that the monthly numbers for GGR will improve as the weather gets better and the casino can make much better use of its outdoor facilities with concerts — Aerosmith is coming for the first-anniversary celebration — and other activities.

But looming over MGM Springfield, in a big way, is the opening of a competing casino in Everett, slated for sometime this summer. Mathis said that development will further alter the landscape and certainly add new wrinkles to the ramping process.

Driven by Data

Mathis told BusinessWest that this first six months of operation have been a learning experience on all kinds of levels, and this, too, was to be expected, because gaming is still relatively new to Massachusetts (Plainridge Park Casino, a slots facility, opened in the fall of 2017), and while those at MGM had expectations, they didn’t know exactly what to expect.

What have they learned? For starters, they’ve learned that visitors much prefer the weekend to the weekdays. And while that sounds obvious, the disparity in the numbers is eye-opening.

“I’m surprised at how weekend-centric the business has been — the difference between weekends and weekdays is pretty dramatic,” Mathis noted, adding that, with the former, visitation averages roughly 18,000 to 20,000 a day, while with the latter, it’s closer to 10,000.

This disparity is far greater than it is in Las Vegas and with most other MGM properties, said Mathis, adding that one big reason for this is a still-ramping (there’s that word again) meeting and convention business in Greater Springfield.

Mike Mathis says the ROAR! Comedy Club has become a solid attraction for MGM Springfield

Mike Mathis says the ROAR! Comedy Club has become a solid attraction for MGM Springfield and a vehicle for bringing new audiences to the resort.

“We have the ability to impact those numbers midweek by putting more convention groups in the MassMutual Center, getting more citywide events, and getting more entertainment mid-week, which we plan on ramping up,” he explained. “There’s ways to impact that midweek business to the benefit of the entire downtown.”

What else have they learned? There’s that aversion to traveling in snow that was mentioned earlier. That was in evidence a few weeks back. The weekend before Presidents Day was one of the best the casino had since it opened, said Mathis, crediting MGM’s ROAR! comedy shows and a host of other things happening downtown and elsewhere, including two Thunderbirds games and a camping and RV show at the Big E, for the surge, one that contributed to one of the few real traffic jams recorded since the property opened.

But the holiday itself (a day off for the vast majority of workers in this region) was considerably slower, and Mathis believes that the few inches of snow that fell overnight had a lot to do with this. Of course, Monday is also a weekday.

What else? Well, to date, MGM Springfield is “underperforming” (Mathis’ word) when it comes to attracting people from Central Mass. Indeed, while the casino does well in drawing people from Upstate New York, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Connecticut (the I-91 corridor), the numbers from the central part of the state are less impressive, which, if you take the glass-is-half-full approach, which Mathis does, means there’s considerable room for growth.

“We’re trying to understand the phenomenon of east-west travel on the Pike, frankly,” he explained. “I think there’s a bias to go north-south — I think that might be the more the traditional traffic pattern, and that’s what the data shows — but we’re also doing well with Boston.

“The good news about how this data shakes out is that there’s upside opportunity for us in Central Mass.,” he went on. “And this might blunt the impact of the Everett casino.”

There have been a few other surprises, including the number of people making their first visit six months after the ceremonial ribbon was cut.

“I’m still surprised by how many people I’m meeting on the floor who are seeing it for the first time,” he said. “Our team has been at this since 2012, so sometimes I feel that anybody who was interested in coming would have come in the first month or two. But there are people hitting the floor every day who are brand new, and for whatever reason have decided that this is the weekend they want to check it out.”

A Laughing Matter

While much of the media’s focus has been on GGR and the hard fact that the numbers are not where they were projected to be, Mathis said there are a number of positive developments to note as the casino passes that six-month mile marker. Here are several he listed:

• The data clearly shows that the opening of MGM Springfield has grown the overall gambling market in this broad region, he said, adding that this becomes clear when one does some simple math and looks at MGM’s revenues and the declining numbers for competitors. The former is larger than the aggregate of the latter, which translates into growth, which bodes well for all players.

“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.”

“I’ve met countless customers on our floor who have said that MGM Springfield is their first casino gaming experience, and there’s a few reasons for that,” he said. “Some say they were in Las Vegas, they’re Mlife members, and they’d been to a convention or show, but didn’t happen to go into the casino on that trip; with this in their backyard, they thought they’d give it a try. Others will say they like our non-smoking gaming environment and had never gone into another casino because they didn’t want the smoke; that’s a real competitive advantage for us.”

• The ROAR! Comedy Club has been a solid addition to the MGM lineup, helping to drive visitation, especially during some of the slower months on the calendar. Located in the historic Armory, the shows have drawn consistent crowds, said Mathis, adding that, as the calendar turns to spring and then summer, the team at MGM Springfield will look to maximize its outdoor facilities with a full slate of entertainment to be announced in the coming weeks.

“In talking with the comedians, they say we’re now the buzz within that community — it’s a cool venue, something all the comics want to play on their East Coast rotation,” he told BusinessWest. “it’s a great way to expose the building to different customers.”

• The team continues to find new ways to leverage its many facilities at the casino, said Mathis, noting that it has added entertainment in its ballrooms — Sinbad recently performed two sold-out shows — and the staff continually looks for new opportunities.

“We’re doing a lot of fun activations in different parts of the resort,” he explained. “We want to make sure we understand the booking patterns for convention and meeting groups, and when we see holes, it’s like an empty airplane seat; how do you fill it, and how do you bring new customers to the resort?”

• The hotel and food and beverage side of the casino operation has been exceeding expectations, said Mathis, adding that, among other things, a recently added weekend brunch at Cal Mare restaurant has helped grow that side of the equation.

“Our hotel and restaurant business has been extremely strong, and we thought that would be the case, because there’s good, local lodging and F&B in the market, but perhaps not to a Vegas standard, and we believe we’ve brought a Vegas standard to this market. We’ve exceeded occupancy, and we’ve exceeded our average daily rate.”

• But despite this success, there has been some spillover to other area businesses in this sector, and this is by design, said Mathis, noting that the hotel, with 252 rooms, is not particularly large, and the dining options, while growing (groundbreaking on a Wahlburgers is slated for later this year), leave plenty of opportunities for other eateries in the downtown.

“One of the reasons we sized the hotel the way we did was that we wanted to make sure that developments like ours have a spillover effect to other businesses,” he said. “And we wanted to make sure that came true. Some restaurant owners, including the Caputo family at Red Rose, have been quoted as saying that their business is up 20%, and people are expanding and extending hours.”

• Likewise, the numbers regarding the workforce have been generally positive, said Mathis. He estimated a 35% churn rate since the facility opened its doors, and noted that, while this might sound high to business owners and managers in other sectors, it’s in line with industry norms and actually lower than in many other areas.

Meanwhile, the targets for hiring Springfield residents, veterans, women, and minorities have all been met or exceeded, and many employees have already moved up the ladder since the casino opened its doors.

“I got the stat the other day … I think we’ve had 200 or so promotions since day one, and 30% of those are Springfield residents,” he noted. “Nothing makes me prouder than to see a line-level employee on day one who’s now wearing a suit in a supervisory management role. And it’s happening.”

As examples, he cited three employees who joined him for photos later in the day: Bill Blake, formerly graphic supervisor and now creative manager; Nickolaos Panteleakis, formerly Front Services manager (where he handled many front desk duties) and now director of Front Services; and Marissa Dombkowski, who has been promoted twice already — she started as an HR communications specialist, moved up to Entertainment Marketing coordinator, and is now Marketing manager for the MassMutual Center.

Overall, and to recap, Mathis reiterated that ramping up is, indeed, a three-year process, one that involves a serious learning curve on many different levels.

“I tell my team all the time, ‘if it were easy, everyone would do it,’” he said of casino operations in general. “That’s why we’re here — to manage through, collect data, and be smarter every day as we collect data and finetune the business.”

Driving Force

Mathis was one of those people caught in that traffic jam on the Saturday of Presidents Day weekend.

He told BusinessWest that it took him more than 45 minutes to get to an event downtown from his home in Longmeadow, normally a 15-minute drive. But unlike most others, he certainly wasn’t complaining.

“I’ve never been happer to be in stand-still traffic,” he said, adding that, while it has always been MGM’s goal to minimize such disruption, he’ll gladly take more nights like that in the weeks and months to come.

And he predicts he’ll be getting more as that ramping process continues.

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

Commercial Real Estate

Warming Trend

A confluence of factors — from the opening of MGM Springfield to the dawn of the cannabis era in Massachusetts — have fueled heightened interest in real estate in downtown Springfield. Brokers report that the level of activity — inquiries, showings, leases, and sales — is the highest they’ve seen in recent memory.

Freddy Lopez Jr. says there’s a rather complex algorithm, as he called it, when it comes to locating a cannabis dispensary in Springfield.

Such a facility can’t be within 500 feet of a school, he noted. Or within 300 of another dispensary. Or within 50 feet of a Class A residence. And there are many other restrictions, as well as a host of hurdles to clear locally and with the state, just to get the doors open.

But this rather high degree of difficulty doesn’t seem to be stopping many people from trying to get in the game in downtown Springfield — and at other locations within the city, said Lopez, a broker with Springfield-based NAI Plotkin.

He said he’s lost count when it comes to how many properties he’s shown to various parties, and noted that the interest is constant and only increasing, as desire to be part of the cannabis wave, if you will, intensifies.

“There’s a lot of interest across the area, but the hot spots are downtown, and especially locations near the casino,” said Lopez, who recently brokered the sale of 1665 Main St., once the headquarters of Hampden Bank, to a party (RLTY Development Springfield LLC) interested in converting it into a dispensary. “There’s a lot of competition for good sites.”

1665 Main St., recently sold to a party interested in converting it into a cannabis dispensary. Evan Plotkin, left, and Freddy Lopez Jr. of NAI Plotkin, which brokered the sale.

The Main Street property, located across from the Hippodrome and a block from Union Station, was most recently assessed at $127,600, but sold for $285,000, a clear sign of the times and an indicator of how hot the race to secure locations for cannabis facilities can, and probably will, become.

“People are jockeying for position right now,” said Lopez, adding that some parties are securing options, some are leasing, and others, like RLTY, are going ahead and buying properties in anticipation of winning a coveted license.

But the cannabis industry is only part of the story when it comes to growing interest in Springfield and especially its downtown, said Mitch Bolotin, a principal with Colebook Realty, based in the heart of downtown.

MGM Springfield has certainly had an impact as well, spurring interest in various forms of development, from retail to housing. But there have been many other positive developments as well, from the relocation of the Community Foundation of Western Mass. to a location on Bridge Street, to the renovation of Stearns Square, to an improved outlook on the part of many when it comes to public safety.

“There are a number of factors driving this,” said Bolotin late on a Friday afternoon after a day of showing various properties, referring to a surge in interest and activity in Springfield and its downtown. “I’ve been doing this for more than 30 years now, and this is the strongest I’ve ever seen it.”

Mitch Bolotin says MGM Springfield is just one of many factors stimulating the most activity seen in the downtown Springfield market in recent memory.

Mitch Bolotin says MGM Springfield is just one of many factors stimulating the most activity seen in the downtown Springfield market in recent memory.

Demetrius Panteleakis expressed similar sentiments. The president of Macmillan Group LLC, now based in Tower Square, said the last quarter of this year has been extremely busy, and he expects that pattern to continue.

“I haven’t seen an October-November-December period as busy as this one — this is usually a slower time,” he noted. “There is a lot of movement; things are very robust right now.”

For this issue and its focus on commercial real estate, BusinessWest looks at why things are heating up in the downtown market and what this warming trend means for 2019 and beyond.

Where There’s Smoke…

Lopez said he has a number of anecdotes that capture the soaring level of interest in Springfield and its impact on the real-estate market.

One of his favorites concerns a party calling to inquire about securing a luxury apartment in downtown Springfield. Lopez explained that the city doesn’t really have any of those, much to the disappointment of the caller.

“This person was looking to do some investing in Springfield, and I think he wanted to use this apartment as a base — he could meet people there,” Lopez explained, adding that this phone call, all by itself, speaks volumes about how the commercial real-estate market is heating up in the city, and also how widespread the interest is.

Indeed, while there are many local parties interested in investment and/or development opportunities, the callers and visitors are also coming from well outside the 413.

“We’re getting calls from developers and investors in Boston, Rhode Island, New York City, and beyond,” he said, noting that many of these calls involve potential housing developments. “People who have never set foot in Springfield now have an interest in the city, and that’s very encouraging.”

That interest comes in many flavors, said those we spoke with, adding that the cannabis industry, and a strong desire to join it, are sparking many of the inquiries.

But these robust times are manifesting themselves in many ways.

Bolotin noted that he recently secured a lease for a new food-service business on Bridge Street. He couldn’t give specifics, but said the deal involved one of the vacant storefronts on that street, damaged first by the natural-gas blast and later by explosions triggered by a water-main break.

It’s an example of the strong interest in the market that he noted earlier, arguably the most activity he’s seen in recent memory.

“We’re seeing a lot of positive signs in the marketplace in terms of activity and interest, leases, and sales,” he said, adding that this vibrancy is reflected in everything from higher occupancy rates in the buildings managed by Colebrook — and there are many in the downtown, including the TD Bank Center and the Fuller Block — to how many showings of properties he’s conducted in recent months.

Overall, Bolotin, like others we spoke with about this, said there is considerably more positive energy concerning the downtown than there has been in some time. MGM deserves some credit for this, he noted, but there are many other factors as well, from the developments on and around Bridge Street to the renovation of the Fuller Block, to less apprehension about public safety. “The attitude is much more positive than it’s ever been.”

He noted that Patricia Canavan, president of United Personnel, who moved her business onto Bridge Street, Katie Alan Zobel, who relocated the Community Foundation to that same area, Tom Dennis, owner of the Dennis Group, who purchased and renovated the Fuller Block, among other buildings downtown, and Martin Miller, general manager of WFCR, who moved his operation from Amherst into the Fuller Block, are all examples of people investing in the downtown, and through, their actions, inspiring others to do so.

Panteleakis has also seen considerable optimism and less apprehension about public safety. “You don’t hear as many concerns about safety,” he said. “Before, safety was a real issue — it kept some people from coming downtown. But you don’t hear that much anymore.”

Meanwhile, housing has become a huge area of interest, in part because of MGM and the needs of its huge workforce, but also because of rising activity levels in general and growing anticipation that the city will soon become, if it isn’t already, a landing spot for younger people and empty-nesters alike.

Evan Plotkin, a principal with NAI Plotkin and long-time champion of downtown Springfield, noted the purchase of the former Willys-Overland building in the so-called ‘blast zone’ by Boston-based Davenport Advisors LLC, and that company’s acquisition of the old Registry of Motor Vehicles site, possibly for the same use, as harbingers of things to come.

“I’m seeing a lot of developers coming in looking to develop residential,” he said. “I see tremendous potential for new developments in parts of our city that have been stagnant for a long time, including areas on the fringes of downtown and in the downtown itself.”

Joint Ventures

While interest in potential housing development grows, the cannabis industry is the source of much of the activity downtown.

The brokers we spoke with said they’ve been showing multiple sites to groups interested in all facets of this business, from cultivation to retail. And while sites across the city are being explored — as many as 15 sites might become licensed in Springfield — the downtown is becoming the focal point.

“Things have been crazy for the past two years when it comes to this business,” he said, adding that he’s brokered the sale of sites for marijuana-related businesses in Holyoke and Easthampton. “Now, the focus is shifting to Springfield and the downtown area; people are trying to line up sites.”

Lopez concurred, noting that there is a broad mix of local, national, and even international companies looking to start a cannabis dispensary or cultivation site in this region, with many focused on Springfield and an initiative known as the Opportunity Zone Program.

Created as part of the U.S. Tax Cut and Jobs Act of 2017, the program provides incentives for investment in low-income communities, like Springfield. Individuals and groups looking to develop in these designated geographic areas can gain favorable tax treatment on their capital gains, said Lopez, adding that he has worked with several owners and investors in the city’s Opportunity Zone.

The purchase of 1665 Main St. falls into this category, he said, noting that the acquisition is a good example of investors jockeying for position through options, leases, or outright purchases.

And the race for cannabis locations should provide a substantial boost for owners of properties downtown, said Plotkin, noting that prices are moving higher as interest grows, in a movement that echoes what happened when MGM Springfield and other casino-industry players jockeyed to enter this market.

“When you were dealing with a casino developer, like MGM or the other parties interested in Springfield, there was what we all referred to as the ‘casino rate,’” he explained. “They’ll pay more for real estate than the average buyer will.

“In the case of a marijuana dispensary, because the business is so lucrative, they will pay a lot more rent per square foot,” he went on, noting that a ‘marijuana rate’ is taking shape. “Rents that may have been $15 a square foot a year ago … for a marijuana shop, we’re taking about $20 to $25 per square foot, and in some cases more, depending on where it is.”

As for what the cannabis industry might mean for Springfield, Plotkin, who has traveled extensively, expressed some hope that the city might someday become somewhat like Amsterdam, a city famous for its culture, nightlife, and countless shops selling marijuana, other drugs, and related paraphernalia.

“I think Amsterdam is a great example of just how the very liberal nature of that city has led to incredible street life in that town that’s very safe,” he said. “Amsterdam is a great city, one of the most vibrant cities in the world, and maybe we can learn from its example.”

Bottom Line

Whether Springfield can become anything approaching Amsterdam — as a tourist destination or cannabis hotspot — remains to be seen.

For the time being, it is a hotspot when it comes to its commercial real-estate market.

There is interest and activity unlike anything that’s been seen in decades, and the consensus is that this pattern will likely continue and perhaps even intensify.

Springfield and its downtown have become the right place at the right time.

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

Features

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]

Opinion

Editorial

Two months (and it’s not even that, really) is not a huge sample size when it comes to any new business. But especially one as large and far-reaching as the $950 million MGM Springfield.

But it might just be enough to offer some commentary — specifically the thought that, thus far, MGM seems to be everything that most of us thought it would be. Meanwhile, it is not what some feared it might become.

Yes, we need to elaborate. And let’s start with the latter.

Many feared that the casino would become predatory in nature (that’s the word many people used), in that it would devour business and employees from other employers, and disposable income from area residents. In other words, it would become a drain of sorts.

Thus far, we really haven’t seen much, if any, of that. To be sure, many of those now wearing MGM Springfield uniforms and name badges were working for someone else several months ago. But thus far, it would be fair to say that most area employers have not been negatively impacted by the arrival of the resort casino.

As for siphoning off business from others … there’s certainly been some of that, too. It’s fair to assume that many of those taking in the first several Patriots’ games at the casino might have been eating chicken wings, drinking craft brews, and watching a big screen in one of the area’s many other sports bars and restaurants. But there’s always been stern competition for those dollars, and this is just one more competitor.

From what we’ve been able to gather — and this is unscientific data collection to be sure — downtown restaurants are doing at least as well as they were before MGM Springfield, and probably better, because there are more people downtown.

And we’re sure we heard somewhere — actually, everywhere — that the Big E set a new attendance record this year, and the middle Saturday set an all-time one-day mark for visitors. You could say it did that in spite of the casino, but it might be better to say that it did that partly because of the casino.

And then there’s traffic, or the worries about it. Some people, especially those living in Longmeadow who commute via I-91, were anticipating the worst when it came to the ride home. The traffic onto Route 5 was already bad, and while it hasn’t gotten any better, it really hasn’t become any worse since the casino opened.

Overall, and we’re not sure this is a good thing or a bad thing, there are days when it would be safe to say that if you didn’t know there was a $960 million casino in the heart of downtown — well, you wouldn’t know.

However, there aren’t many days like that. Which brings us to the first part of the equation — what the casino has become.

It has become a nice addition to the landscape. Thus far, it’s not changing the landscape, and it’s not defining who we are — although the casino seems to be all anyone wants to talk about when it comes to this region lately. And why not? It’s brand new, and there’s lots to talk about.

When it was being planned and built, people talked about the casino as a spark, a momentum builder, maybe even a game changer for the city and the region. It’s far too early to say it’s acting as a game changer, but not too early to say it’s provided a spark and some momentum — as a visit downtown on a Saturday night will make abundantly clear.

Like we said, two months, give or take, is a very small sample size.

But so far, the casino is mostly everything we hoped it would be, and nothing we feared it could be.

MGM Springfield

Looking at His Reflection

Mike Mathis, seen here with Anita Bird

Mike Mathis, seen here with Anita Bird, assistant general manager of the Starbucks at MGM Springfield, says the $960 million initiative has gone from being a campaign and project to being an employer and operator.

When Mike Mathis rode down Main Street with Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno in the back of a Rolls-Royce (built in the city) on Aug. 24, it was the symbolic end to a journey that began nearly six years earlier. Or one stage of it, anyway. Indeed, Mathis, president and COO of MGM Springfield, made it clear that the journey continues, personally and professionally, as the casino works over the next few years to ‘hit its stride,’ as he put it.

Mike Mathis said there were so many high points during the journey to opening the $960 million MGM Springfield that he was having some trouble listing and ranking some that stood out above the others.

As for low points, well, he didn’t have any trouble at all with that assignment.

There was one stood out well above the others, and it brought with it some lessons — and humility — that served him well for the rest of the sojourn that climaxed on Aug. 24 when the resort casino opened, but is still very much ongoing.

It came in the fall of 2015 as the design of the casino, and, more specifically, its hotel, changed considerably — from a 25-story glass tower that would dominate the skyline to a five-story facility along Main Street that would blend in. And especially at a hastily arranged press conference to announce the change and the days that followed.

Mathis, named president and COO of MGM Springfield roughly a year and a half before that day, looked uncomfortable and quite defensive at that press conference, called after news of the design change leaked out in the local press and spurred a reaction he and others within the company were not prepared for after years of doing business in Las Vegas and other locales where such design changes aren’t really news, let alone confidence-shattering developments.

“Some of our naysayers took advantage of that and accused us of a bait and switch,” Mathis recalled. “Meanwhile, some of the folks that were more pessimistic about what our intentions were — despite years of goodwill I thought we had earned — seized on that moment.

“It was almost a condition of … this community had seen such a tough run that even some of our supporters thought that maybe MGM is too good to be true — the commitment is too good to be true — and used that change to say, ‘I told you so.’ That was challenging on many levels for me personally and the team.”

“It was almost a condition of … this community had seen such a tough run that even some of our supporters thought that maybe MGM is too good to be true — the commitment is too good to be true — and used that change to say, ‘I told you so,’” he went on. “That was challenging on many levels for me personally and the team.”

Elaborating, he said that he and his team members were all very visible in those days — and throughout the process — and some of those they greeted on the streets in the days following the announcement made their feelings known.

“I got a lot of personal flak on the streets, some of it not so gracious,” he recalled. “But that was a very small window and from a small majority, and that’s what I kept telling myself. And we weathered that storm, and we got the right information out. We didn’t handle it perfectly by any means, and I told the mayor that, but we got past it.”

Indeed, and on Aug. 24, Mathis and Mayor Domenic Sarno shared an energetic high-five as they opened the doors to the casino complex just before 11 a.m., capping a six-year journey that actually began in Brimfield, not Springfield, as some may recall.

Or at least the first part of the journey.

Mike Mathis says it takes two to three years for a facility like MGM Springfield to fully “ramp up.”

Mike Mathis says it takes two to three years for a facility like MGM Springfield to fully “ramp up.”

Building and opening the casino was obviously a long and difficult assignment, but it was just a step in the process, said Mathis, who told BusinessWest that MGM Springfield has gone from being a campaign and a project (one that officially ended on Aug. 24) to being an employer and an operator. And with that change, there are new responsibilities — for him and the team.

“That means thinking about the customer first, and everything flows from that,” he explained, adding that one of the things he’s most proud of to date is how the workforce, much of it without any experience working in gaming, has progressed. “There’s so much you can overcome in our industry with a positive attitude, and that’s been really gratifying to see.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with Mathis, clearly the face of MGM Springfield, about the journey he’s on — the parts have been completed and the ones still to come.

A Solid Bet

As noted earlier, when Mathis, then vice president of Global Gaming Operations for MGM’s hospitality division, first arrived on the scene in Western Mass. with the goal of helping the company win one of the coveted casino licenses in the Bay State, the focus wasn’t on Springfield, but tiny Brimfield.

That’s where Mathis, who described himself as the “MGM advance Massachusetts guy,” first touched down and commenced learning all about Massachusetts politics, zoning, and more.

Eventually, he and the team would learn some other things — primarily that a Turnpike exit needed to make a Brimfield casino happen was not in the cards, as they say in this business, and also that Brimfield residents weren’t very responsive to the idea of having a project of this scale in their proverbial backyard.

“We mistakenly thought, because they host the antiques fair a few times a year that brings in hundreds of thousands of people a year, that they would be receptive to this attraction,” he recalled. “What we learned is that they like that a few times a year — to let their town get taken over — but they weren’t looking for that 365 days a year.”

Mathis and the team at MGM would learn many other things in the weeks, months, and years to come, especially the fact that they were not in Las Vegas anymore, and that things move much more slowly in the Bay State.

They also learned a lot about Springfield, which, in the early going, was emerging as a competitor to Brimfield. And the more they learned, the more they came to like the city and understand that whichever proposal emerged from the City of Homes would be a formidable candidate for the Western Mass. license.

Fast-forwarding a little, by late 2013, MGM’s plan to place a resort casino in Springfield’s South End was the only Western Mass. proposal still on the table after voters in West Springfield and Palmer rejected casino referendums and officials in Springfield chose the MGM option over two others placed into contention.

But still the fight wasn’t over, as MGM had to withstand a statewide referendum bid to ban casinos in November 2014, which it did, when 59% of voters gave the go-ahead to commence the casino era.

All that was left now was to design and build the facility, staff it up, meet a host of conditions set by the city and the Mass. Gaming Commission, and eventually open the doors.

“I remember the humility of Jim Murren walking into his [Sarno’s] office and saying, ‘mayor, we do these all the time, but we want to make sure we understand what your goals are before we even think about what we want to do here.”

Mathis, of course, was involved in every step of the process, and he recalls it as the most challenging but ultimately rewarding experience in his career.

“Seeing crowds enjoy this product that we created out of thin air, and seeing it serviced by a bunch of my friends and supporters and volunteers that I’ve been with since we were knocking on doors back in 2012 and 2013 … that’s as good as it gets,” he told BusinessWest. “That’s been the highlight of my career.”

As he looks back on that process, dozens, if not hundreds, of memories float to the surface — from attending neighborhood council meetings across Springfield to working with volunteers to summon the votes to defeat the ballot initiative on gaming, to visiting the Springfield Armory with MGM Chairman Jim Murren to learn about city history and architecture, and especially the influence of Frederick Law Olmstead, who designed not only Central Park in New York but Forest Park in Springfield.

And, yes, that uncomfortable press conference when the design change was announced.

Early on the in the process, when Mathis was still on the advance team and not yet the face of the project, he recalls watching senior-management members as they worked to develop a relationship with Springfield and its leaders — and learning from those experiences.

Mike Mathis and Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno ride in style on opening day of MGM Springfield

Mike Mathis and Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno ride in style on opening day of MGM Springfield — in a Rolls-Royce made in the city — at the symbolic end of a journey that began six years ago.   Getty Images

“My memory from those early days was how important it was for the chairman of our company to really understand what the mayor wanted,” he recalled. “I remember the humility of Jim Murren walking into his [Sarno’s] office and saying, ‘mayor, we do these all the time, but we want to make sure we understand what your goals are before we even think about what we want to do here.’”

All In

Actually, MGM doesn’t really do this all the time. It opened National Harbor in Maryland in late 2016, and another casino in Detroit a few years earlier. But it hasn’t opened many in this country, and hadn’t opened anything in the middle of an urban area like downtown Springfield.

So this was a pioneering effort in many ways, and for Mathis, who had previously done considerable work for the company overseas, in locales ranging from Singapore to Toronto, it was, quite obviously, a significant career stepping stone to be put in charge of it all.

To put that in perspective, he flashed back to the Gaming Commission session in early 2014 (he easily summoned the exact date, Jan. 24), when he was announced as the president of the project.

“There was a huge round of applause, and I recognized some of the voices in the audience saying ‘attaboy,’ and that was based on some of the relationships I had formed over the two years before that,” he recalled. “It was a special moment, and it really cemented for me how important this project was going to be for not just the company but the community, and they saw me as the face of it. And I thought that I owed them personally to deliver on the commitment; there was no way I was going to let these people down.”

He said the biggest challenges involved with coming to a new market like Massachusetts is understanding the local population’s experience with gaming, and its wants, needs, perceptions, and fears.

“We would go into neighborhood meetings and ask how many people had been to Las Vegas,” he recalled. “And not many had, and that told me that, to the extent that they know gaming, they know it in a regional way, and they don’t know some of the great things we do in Las Vegas, a lot of which is MGM.

“And that gives you some perspective on the group and the level of education you have to give them,” he went on. “Because I knew what the fear was — the fear was a slot box that would be cavernous and unimaginative and prey on the worst elements of the business. Overall, you have to identify with people on a very personal level and overcome some of the stereotypes people have from watching movies about what a casino operator is.”

Now that MGM Springfield is open, there’s been that shift he described, going from being a project to an operation. For him, the day-to-day is obviously much different, with a great deal of time spent on the casino floor.

“I view my role, especially in this early stage, as being quality assurance,” he explained. “I try to put on the eyes of the customer and walk through every space and observe every interaction.”

I do so with the mindset, ‘what is the customer experiencing, from the minute they enter our garage, or even further downstream — what are they experiencing as they travel on I-91 or the Turnpike?’” he went on. “‘What are they seeing for signage? What are they seeing in terms of access and traffic?’ These are all things I’m trying to see from their perspective.”

He said he will frequently engage patrons, asking them about their experience, their meal, and more. And many times, they’ll engage him because they recognize him from all those times he’s been in the news — and walking around the city, through the good times and the bad.

That’s when happens when you’re the face of the operation.

As for MGM Springfield as an operation, not a project, he said that, overall, it takes two to three years for a resort casino like this one to “hit its stride,” as he put it.

“That’s the typical ramp-up,” he went on. “There’s a lot of runway for us to do more business and more profitable business moving forward, especially as understand our staffing patterns, our peaks and valleys throughout the week and throughout the season, and what the customer wants and doesn’t want.”

Next Question

When asked what comes next for him — a prolonged stay in Springfield, a new assignment in another corner of the world, or something in between — Mathis said he really hasn’t had any time to think about that.

“The journey was amazing, and I’d be worried about trying to replicate it — if I could replicate it,” he explained. “This has been pretty unique, and it would be a mistake to think I could find another Springfield and do what we did here.”

And with that, he went back to the casino floor to engage customers and be engaged by them.

The journey has, indeed, been amazing, but in most all respects, this trip is far from over.

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