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Cover Story

MGM Looks to Step Things Up in Year Two

It’s been nearly a full year since MGM Springfield opened its doors in Springfield’s South End. It’s been a year of learning — for both the casino’s team and the consuming public as well. As the headlines have announced, the casino has fallen well behind projections for gross gaming revenues (GGR), but in most all of the other ways to measure the success of the operation, it has not underperformed.

Mike Mathis started by stating what has become obvious — and also addressing the topic on the minds of most everyone in this region when it comes to MGM Springfield.

Gross gaming revenues (or GGR, an acronym that is increasingly becoming part of the local lexicon) are not what they were projected to be for the first year of operation, which will end August 23.

Those projections, made several years ago during the licensing process for the $960 million facility in Springfield’s South End, were for roughly $400 million this first year. Instead, the resort casino is on pace to record closer to $275 million, as the chart on page 8, which includes numbers through the end of July, makes clear.

“In the context of a three-year ramp, which is how we view it, we’re off to a slower ramp-up than we’d like,” Mathis, president and COO at MGM Springfield, admitted. “The gaming revenues are less than we hoped for, and the work is understanding where we are performing well and where we are underperforming.”

With that, Mathis hit upon ongoing work that began literally within days of the casino’s opening. And it continues in earnest today, with the expectation that those numbers can and will improve in year two.

Repeating what he said at the six-month mark for MGM Springfield, Mathis noted that new casinos generally go through a lengthy ramp-up period (three years is the timeframe he repeatedly mentioned) before fully hitting their stride. And that this ramping process involves some learning curves, especially when gaming is being introduced to a region, as is the case in Massachusetts.

And much was learned, said Mathis, referencing everything from Super Bowl watching habits — it became clear that most people would rather watch at home than go to the casino, although Mathis still hopes to change that — to the bands that people will come out to watch (it appears locals really like local groups rather than imports), to the casino games people like to play.

A promotion to give away a Mercedes Benz each week for a month is one of many strategic initiatives to drive visitation to MGM Springfield.

Looking ahead to year two, which will kick-off with four performances by Aerosmith and a host of other birthday-celebration events, Mathis said MGM Springfield will enter it with considerable acquired knowledge, as well as what appears to be some momentum.

Indeed, while June’s GGR numbers were the worst for any full month since the facility opened — Encore Boston opened that same month and probably had something to do with that performance — July’s numbers were better, said Mathis, and slots GGR has been generally higher over the past several months.

“There are many examples of facilities that have taken their first year to figure out what the customer is going to react to, what the competition is doing, and achieve real growth,” he said, adding that he firmly believes MGM Springfield will join that list.

He’s pinning those hopes on everything from changes and additions to the casino floor (more on those later) to the possible introduction of sports betting within the Commonwealth, an addition to the gaming landscape now being considered by the Legislature, to the ‘growing-the-pie’ impact of Encore Boston’s opening earlier this summer.

But while the focus has been on GGR, as it should be, said Mathis, there are many other means by which to measure success during MGM’s first year. And with most all of these, the casino has been on target.

These include overall visitation (more than 6 million by the end of the first year); non-gaming revenues (the restaurants and hotel, for example); impact locally in terms of providing a boost to other businesses, especially those in the broad realm of tourism and hospitality; bringing people to the region; boosting the business of meetings and conventions; and employment, especially with regard to hiring Springfield residents and promoting people through the ranks.

“We’re very excited about all the visitors and tourists and eyeballs we’ve brought to the downtown — I know I’ve met many customers who have said ‘this is my first time in Springfield,’ or that they’ve brought their families from other areas to the downtown to show it off,” Mathis told BusinessWest. “One of the emotions I have is a huge sense of pride in what we’ve done here; we’ve given the people of Springfield and Western Mass. a headquarters tourist destination that they can show off to friends and family.”

Rick Sullivan, president of the Western Mass. Economic Development Council, agreed. Using yardsticks as unscientific, but still effective, in his view, as waiting times for a table at restaurants in the downtown area, he said the Casino has brought more vibrancy to the central business district. Also, it has deeply broadened the region’s tourism portfolio, prompting not only greater visitation, but longer stays.

Mike Mathis says year one has been a learning experience on many levels for all those on the MGM team.

“The biggest impact MGM has had in the year it’s been open, and the biggest impact it will have going forward, is that you now have gaming and increasing entertainment opportunities to marry to the other tourist attractions that we can be more than just a one-day travel destination,” he said.

Raising the Stakes

Mathis calls it ‘keeping the floor fresh.’

That’s an industry phrase — one of many that are new to people in this region — and one that refers to the need to constantly change, or freshen, the casino floor to bring both more new business and more repeat customers, said Mathis.

“You can’t get complacent about continuing to earn customers’ loyalty in a highly competitive market,” he noted, adding that efforts to freshen the floor at MGM Springfield include the construction of a new bar just inside the Main Street entrance to the casino — what Mathis calls the ‘back corner,’ because most people enter from the parking garage side — as well as some new electronic table games, some ‘stadium gaming,’ described as a mix of table games and slot machines, and special promotions.

“There’s a whole new zone in that corner, where we’re trying to bring some energy to what would otherwise be the back of the building,” he explained. “We’re trying to drive more business to the back; it’s a heavy investment but part of our work to improve the product.”

These steps are part of the ongoing efforts to improve GGR, said Mathis, but also part of what would be considered normal ramp-up of a casino facility as it adjusts to customers’ wants and needs, and the ebb and flow of the competitive landscape.

“I’ve said this in the past, and our competitors have the same view, which is that you need three years to get to a normalized operation,” he said. “And we’re seeing that ourselves; there are holidays and certain events we think are going to be some of our busiest, and for whatever reason they’re quieter. And then we’ll have a random day in the middle of the week that exceeds a weekend day.

“It’s really about trying to understand the patterns and being nimble and reacting to the patterns,” he went on. “Obviously in a market like this, weather is a factor, and we’re learning what the impact of weather is — good and bad.”

Local sports teams are a factor as well, he said, adding that while they have huge followings, this support doesn’t necessarily extend to viewing at the casino, as was learned during the first Super Bowl of the casino era in Massachusetts.

“In this case, business was less than we would normally see in one of other operations — although it was still a really strong day,” he said, “I think there’s a tradition of going to a house party because of the success they’ve had; we’ve got to figure out how to make MGM Springfield the regional house party for the Super Bowl.

“We’ve got great relationships with all the franchises, and we have strategies on how to activate the space and make it fun and interesting, fun and familiar,” he went on. “It’s a fun challenge; it’s not what we expected, but it’s a good problem to have because there’s a huge opportunity there.”

This process of watching, listening, learning, and responding to trends that were not expected extends to every aspect of the operation, he said, including entertainment and that aforementioned affinity for local acts.

“There are some acts that we think that would traditionally do well as they route the country, that don’t perform as well here,” he explained, “And there were other acts where we were pleasantly surprised by the response; country is popular here, so we’re going to look at country a little more.

“Thematically, there are really great regional bands that have a following here that aren’t national and that we’ve had a lot of success with,” he went on, mentioning Trailer Trash, a ‘modern country band,’ as one example. “Anyone in a new market has to figure out what are those great local bands that drive big crowds, local crowds.”

GGReat Expectations

Of course, there are many other things to figure out as well, said Mathis, adding that the broad goal, obviously, is to bring more people to the casino and inspire them to do more (and spend more) while they’re there.

This explains the freshening of the floor, as well as the four Aerosmith shows (now nearly sold out) and a number of other initiatives designed to bring people to the casino — and bring them back repeatedly.

These are the simple forces that drive GGR, said Mathis, who returned to that ongoing work to identify areas where the casino is underperforming, and addressing them.

Overall, he said the broad assignment is to build loyalty, not merely a visit or two to the resort and its casino floor.

“Part of the first year is gaining new visitors and customers who are seeing it for the first time and building loyalty,” he explained. “And in this market, because of the existence of some pretty strong competitors, there’s already strong loyalty and traditions and gaming habits that, quite frankly, we have to disrupt, and that takes some time.”

Meanwhile, there are some lingering patterns when it comes to where customers are coming from — or not coming from — that still need to be addressed.

Indeed, while MGM Springfield is overperforming, in Mathis’s view, when it comes to drawing customers from along the I-91 corridor, “north-south,” as he put it, things are different when it comes to east-west flow.

“It’s been a challenge to get folks to go west within the Commonwealth and give the facility a chance,” said Mathis adding that bookings like Aerosmith are designed to address that specific problem, and he believes there have been some inroads.

As for those efforts to disrupt current gaming patterns and loyalty with other casinos, Mathis noted that there are several arrows in that quiver, including everything from some new games to be introduced in the coming weeks, to a new promotion that involves giving away a Mercedes each week for several weeks, to a recently concluded program called MGM Millions, a lottery-like game that enabled players to win a wide variety of prizes including bonuses and loyalty privileges.

“That was very successful,” said Mathis, “and what we learned is that people like the lottery, and they’d rather have a smaller chance of winning a larger giveaway than a higher chance at smaller gifts — and that’s part of the learning curve.”

It also includes the addition of Symphony Hall to MGM’s portfolio of performance venues (the casino recently assumed management of that facility), which enables the team to book acts such as Steve Martin & Martin Short, coming Sept. 12, Boyz II Men (Sept. 22), and Smokey Robinson (Oct. 18).

“It’s another great venue that fills a niche we didn’t have previously,” he said, noting the hall’s 2,500 seating capacity. “That’s something in the tool shed we didn’t have our first year, especially since we can program into it, so we’re excited.”

He’s excited also by the prospects of sports betting.

“We’ve seen in our other markets that it can provide as much as a 10% lift to the overall business, not just the sports-betting component,” he said. “People will tend to stay longer, they’ll eat in the restaurants, they’ll place a bet, and spend some time on the casino floor on the machines or on the tables. So it’s an important initiative for us, especially in a market like Springfield and New England where people are passionate about their sports; we think it’s a manner of when, not if, this will happen.”

And, moving forward, Mathis said that while Encore Boston might impact MGM negatively in some ways, overall it will grow the pie when it comes to gaming, as evidenced, he believes, by the Springfield casino’s improved numbers for July.

“That demonstrates what we’ve always said — that there’s an ability to grow this market; there’s different customers for different experiences,” he said. “I like to think that the people in Boston will grow the market.”

Beyond the Floor

While much of the focus has been on the casino floor and GGR, Mathis said there are many other facets to this business, and he’s pleased with, and somewhat surprised by, the performance of some of these operations.

“I’m pleasantly surprised by how well-received our non-gaming amenities have been,” Mathis told BusinessWest. “The hotel is far above our projected occupancy rates, and the rate we’ve been able to charge is above what we project as well.”

He said the hotel has been generating a wide mix of business, from casino guests, to families visiting the area, to convention and meeting groups.

“We’ve done entire hotel blocks for different corporate groups that have come in and let us host their annual meetings or their incentive meetings for top salespeople,” he noted. “On every given day there are different types of customers in the hotel. We’ve been really pleasantly surprised by the amount of cash business we’re driving, the occupancy; that’s translating into the restaurants, exceeding our expectations on the amount of business overall.”

So much so that the MGM team is looking at perhaps adding more offerings, on top of the Wahlburger’s restaurant due to open next spring according to the latest estimates (groundbreaking will be within the next few weeks).

Meanwhile, business at the casino’s many bars has also exceeded expectations.

“We’ve also been pleasantly surprised by the amount of night life and bar business we’ve been doing,” said Mathis. “New Englanders enjoy their local IPAs and enjoy our nightlife lounges, so we’ve built some extra bars, such as the plaza bar to support our outdoor entertainment, and it’s been very successful.”

While generally pleased with what’s been happening within the casino complex itself, Mathis said the first year has shown that MGM Springfield’s impact extends beyond those four walls — and also that block in the South End.

As an example he points to the Red Rose restaurant abutting the property. Already a mainstay and hugely popular eatery, the restaurant has clearly received a tremendous boost from the casino.

“I was talking to the owner, Tony Caputo, on a Friday night recently,” Mathis recalled. “And he talked about business being up considerably since our opening, and how it actually started before we opened, during the construction process.

“Anecdotally, I’ve heard that many of the restaurants are up 20%, based on the overflow visitation we’re bringing — there’s more people than we can lodge and more people than we can feed,” he went on. “That was part of the strategy intentionally, and it’s bearing out.”

Rick Sullivan agreed.

“There’s more activity downtown now, there’s more people walking around,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s not like you can’t get a seat at a lunch place, but it is busier and that’s good; I never mind waiting a little longer to get a table — that’s a good thing.”

An even better thing, he went on, is MGM’s apparent ability to ‘extend the stay,’ as those in the tourism business say. Elaborating, he said there is some anecdotal evidence building that the addition of the casino is prompting more people to look to the region as something more than a day trip.

“People are looking to match a day at the casino and the Seuss Museum, or the Basketball Hall of Fame, or Six Flags, or the Big E,” he said. “People will do the Big E for the day and the casino for a day; we’re starting to see that.”

Likewise, he and others are seeing people visiting the region for special events and happenings make a point of also visiting the casino and, therefore, downtown Springfield.

He said he witnessed this first-hand when it came to teams that came from out of town for a sled hockey tournament at Amelia Park ice rink in Westfield, and he expects the same for the Babe Ruth World Series, also to take place in that city.

“It’s a place to take people,” he said, adding that as more of this happens, the overall impact of the casino will only grow.

Toward Year Two

As he talked about what’s coming up for the casino’s first birthday party — Aerosmith, a huge cake, the Patriots cheerleaders, and more, Mathis flashed back 350 days or so to when he and Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno rode down Main Street in a Rolls Royce manufactured in Springfield during a parade that preceded the formal ribbon cutting.

The year that followed that triumphant moment has been one of intrigue and learning, for many constituencies, and one where expectations have mostly been met.

In year two, the focus will be on maintaining the current course, but also achieving progress with those expectations that haven’t been met. u

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

Sports & Leisure

Star Power

They’re calling it a “pairing party.”

And, as that name suggests, this is a party at which the pairings for the MGM Springfield Basketball Hall of Fame Golf Classic Hosted by Ray Allen!, will be announced.

Most golf tournaments in this region, and there are a great many of them, don’t have a pairing party. This one does, and for a good reason — players are being paired with Hall of Famers and legends of the game. The list of those signed on to participate include players such as Allen, Dominique Wilkins, Gary Payton, Dave Cowens, Rick Barry, Bernard King, Muggsy Bogues, and Alex English. And there are others coming, such as ESPN personality Jackie MacMullan.

The opportunity to play with one of these stars is just one of the intriguing aspects of this tournament, which will benefit both the Hall of Fame and local schools, said Jason Fiddler, vice president of Sales & Marketing for the Hall.

Others include the fact that this is a two-day event, with day one being the pairings party at MGM Springfield, and the second day being all golf — at the Ranch in Southwick, one of the region’s premier courses, and also the fact that, the higher the participation level, the more a group gets to choose the star they’ll play golf with.

The tournament, slated for July 25 and 26, is actually a rebirth of a fundraising tournament staged by the Hall of Fame roughly a decade ago, one that was staged in conjunction with enshrinement weekend in September, said Fiddler, adding that it is now one of three golf events the shrine conducts over the course of a year. The others are in Los Angeles in the fall, and in Phoenix in the spring.

“We wanted to bring a premier event back to Springfield — that was one of our primary missions,” he said, noting that Springfield is the birthplace of the sport and home to its Hall of Fame. “We wanted to do something that would bring our Hall of Fame talent back to Springfield on a regular basis.

“We had long conversations with various Hall of Famers to see who we could get engaged,” he went on, “and then had various conversations with local and regional parties to get a title partner involved in the event, and both kind of came together on the same day.”

Elaborating, he said MGM showed great interest in putting its name on the event, and Ray Allen, the former UConn great and key player in the Boston Celtics 2008 championship run, communicated the same level of interest in doing the same — hence the first annual MGM Springfield Basketball Hall of Fame Golf Classic Hosted by Ray Allen!, complete with exclamation point.

In addition to raising funds for the Hall of Fame, proceeds will, through Ray Allen Charities, be channeled to a Springfield-based school to be determined later.

“We’re trying to raise enough funds to revamp a computer room or robotics program here in the city,” said Fiddler, adding that $40,000 has been earmarked for such a project. “Everyone’s working behind the scenes to select an appropriate school.”

This latest addition to the Hall of Fame golf portfolio will be like the others in that it will enable participating golfers to play with a legend, said Fiddler, adding that there has been a good deal of positive response to the tournament, although there are still a few foursomes to be filled.

Foursomes cost $2,500, and, as noted, there are higher participations levels and other ways to support the endeavor. Sponsorships opportunities are also available. For more information, visit www.hoophall.com/events/mgm-springfield-hall-of-fame-golf-classic/schedule-of-events.

—George O’Brien

Opinion

Editorial

We’ll probably never know how far the talks went between Wynn Resorts and MGM Resorts concerning the acquisition of the $2 billion casino in Everett supposedly ready to open any time now.

We’ll just say that we’re glad — and the state should be glad, and the city of Springfield should be glad, and Everett should be glad — that those talks are over, and that MGM will stand pat (yes, that’s an industry term) and not pursue that property.

Had those talks continued and a sale been forged … well, let’s just say we don’t want to go there. And, again, we’re glad the state doesn’t have to. The status quo is working quite well in Springfield, thank you, and if there’s one thing the state and its Gaming Commission don’t need to bring to the picture right now, is question marks — or more question marks, to be more precise.

In case you missed it — and it was hard to miss — word leaked that Wynn Resorts, which is now licensed to operate a casino in Everett under the Encore brand, was in what were called “very preliminary discussions” about a sale of that property to MGM.

Media outlets across the Commonwealth then printed stories laden with conjecture about whether the sale should take place and what might happen if it did. Most of those quoted blasted the concept and projected that it would create something approaching chaos at a time when the state needed just the opposite from its still-fledgling casino industry.

“This isn’t a Monopoly game,” former state Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, a key author of the state’s gaming law, told the Boston Globe as news of the talks broke, adding that a sale of the Boston property, which would force MGM to divest itself of the Springfield facility, was far from a slam dunk. Carlo DeMaria, mayor of Everett, went further, saying, “it’s not going to happen.”

Turns out he was right, because amid that wave of negative commentary and gloom-and-doom conjecture, MGM announced that it was playing the hand it was dealt.

Whether that’s the best move for company, we can’t say. But we can say it’s the best move for the state and this region.

MGM is a known commodity, but whichever entity would buy the Springfield casino is not, and while there are plenty of good casino operators out there, we don’t need an unknown commodity at this point.

Especially in Greater Springfield. Communities, businesses, nonprofits, and other constituencies have forged solid working relationships and partnerships with MGM. They haven’t forged them with a casino on Main Street, but instead with a company, one that has come to be a trusted stakeholder in this region.

So we’re glad MGM is not seeking potentially greener pastures in Boston.

But while this threat has passed, we have to wonder about how it materialized in the first place. The fact that Wynn Resorts fought a long, hard, very expensive battle to open a casino in Everett and then explored a sale just as it was set to cross the finish line is a head scratcher, to be sure.

But there is a lot we don’t know about this industry, and maybe a sale makes sense on some levels, especially if Wynn, which desperately wanted into the Massachusetts market, is now intent on getting out.

Just not a sale to MGM.

Now that MGM has backed away, it’s time for the Gaming Commission to determine whether Wynn is still the best fit for the Boston market, and if it isn’t, the state should find another player.

It’s also time to move forward with the next big order of business — sports gambling. As it did with gaming itself, the state is dragging its feet on sports gambling, losing revenue to neighboring Rhode Island with each day that passes.

Thankfully, the state, and Springfield, won’t have to deal with a change of ownership at the casino in Springfield’s South End.

Cover Story

Forward Progress

 

Forward Progress

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Right Place, Right Time

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Economic Outlook

Right Place, Right Time

John Doleva shows off the Basketball Hall of Fame’s renovated theater, one of many improvements at the hall.

John Doleva shows off the Basketball Hall of Fame’s renovated theater, one of many improvements at the hall.

They call it the ‘need period.’

There are probably other names for it, but that’s how those at the Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau (GSCVB) refer to the post-holiday winter stretch in this region.

And that phrase pretty much sums it up. Area tourist attractions and hospitality-related businesses are indeed needy at that time — far more than at any other season in this region. Traditionally, it’s a time to hold on and, if you’re a ski-related business, hope for snow or enough cold weather to make some.

But as the calendar prepares to change over to 2019 — and, yes, the needy season for many tourism-related businesses in the 413 — there is hope and optimism, at least much more than is the norm.

This needy season, MGM Springfield will be open, and five months into its work to refine and continuously improve its mix of products and services. And there will also be the American Hockey League (AHL) All-Star Game, coming to Springfield for the first time in a long time on Jan. 28 (actually, there is a whole weekend’s worth of activities). There will be a revamped Basketball Hall of Fame, a few new hotels, and some targeted marketing on the part of the GSCVB to let everyone know about everything going on in this area.

“The last half of 2018 has been great, and we’re very optimistic — our outlook for tourism is really positive for 2019. Certainly, MGM is a factor — it’s a huge factor, it’s a game changer — but it’s just part of the story.”

So maybe the need period won’t be quite as needy as it has been.

And if the outlook for the traditionally slow winter months is brighter, the same — and more — can be said for the year ahead, said Mary Kay Wydra, president of the Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau, noting that expectations, based in large part on the last few quarters of 2018 and especially the results after MGM opened on Aug. 24, are quite high for the year ahead.

“The last half of 2018 has been great, and we’re very optimistic — our outlook for tourism is really positive for 2019,” she told BusinessWest. “Certainly, MGM is a factor — it’s a huge factor, it’s a game changer — but it’s just part of the story.”

Elaborating, she said MGM is helping to spur new development in this sector — one new hotel, a Holiday Inn Express, opened in downtown Springfield in 2018, and another, a Courtyard by Marriott, is set to open on Riverdale Street in West Springfield — while also filling more existing rooms and driving rates higher.

Indeed, occupancy rates in area hotels rose to 68.5% in October (the latest data available), up nearly 2% from that same month in 2017, and in August, they were up 5% (to 72.6%) over the year prior.

Meanwhile, room revenue was up 4.6% in October, from $113 a night on average in this region to $119 a night, and in August, it went up 7.2%.

And, as noted, MGM is just one of the reasons for optimism and a bright outlook in this sector, Wydra said. Others include the renovated hoop hall, yearly new additions at Six Flags, and the awesome drawing power of the Dr. Seuss museum on the Quadrangle.

An architect’s rendering of the renovated third-floor mezzanine at the Basketball Hall of Fame, which includes the tributes to the inductees.

An architect’s rendering of the renovated third-floor mezzanine at the Basketball Hall of Fame, which includes the tributes to the inductees.

For 2019, the outlook is for the needle to keep moving in the right direction, she said, noting that some new meetings and conventions have been booked (more on that later); Eastec, the massive manufacturing trade show, will be making its biennial pilgrimage to this region (specifically the Big E); the Babe Ruth World Series will again return to Westfield; and the AHL All-Star weekend will get things off to a solid start.

John Doleva, president of the Basketball Hall of Fame and a member of the executive board of the GSCVB, agreed.

“With MGM now in the marketplace and being active, there does appear to be a lift, much more of an excited spirit by those that are in the business,” he noted. “Everybody is saying that, at some level, their business is up, their interest in visitation is up — there is a general feeling of optimism.”

Getting a Bounce

Doleva told BusinessWest that MGM opened its doors toward the tail end of peak season for the hoop hall — the summer vacation months. Therefore, it’s too early to quantify the impact of the casino on attendance there.

But the expectations for the next peak season are quite high, he went on, adding that many MGM customers return several times, and the hope — and expectation — is that, on one or several of those return trips, guests will extend their visit far beyond the casino’s grounds.

“Once people return a few times, they’re going to be looking for other things to do,” he said. “I definitely feel a sense of excitement and anticipation, and I’m definitely looking forward to next summer when it’s the high-travel season, and really get a gauge for what the potential MGM crossover customer is.

“Conversely, there are probably individuals that would probably have the Hall of Fame on their list of things to do,” he went on, “and now that there’s more of a critical mass, with MGM right across the street, I think we rise up on their to-do list.”

But MGM’s arrival is only one reason for soaring expectations at the hall, said Doleva, adding that the facility is in the middle of an ambitious renovation project that is already yielding dividends.

Indeed, phase one of the project included an extensive makeover of the lobby area and the hall’s theater, and those steps have helped inspire a significant increase in bookings for meetings and events.

Mary Kay Wydra says 2019 is shaping up as a very solid year for the region’s tourism industry.

Mary Kay Wydra says 2019 is shaping up as a very solid year for the region’s tourism industry.

“Our renovations have led to a great number of facility rentals for events that are happening in our theater, our new lobby, and Center Court,” he said, adding that the hall was averaging 175 rentals a year, and will log close to 240 for 2018. “Before, the theater wasn’t a hidden gem, it was just hidden; it was like a junior-high-school auditorium — it was dark, it was gray, it had no life. Now, it’s a great place to have a meeting or presentation like a product launch.”

Phase 2 of the project, which includes a renovation of the third-floor mezzanine, where the Hall of Fame plaques are, and considerable work on the roof of the sphere, will commence “any minute now,” said Doleva, adding that the work should improve visitation numbers, but, even more importantly, revenue and profitability.

The improved numbers for the hall — and the optimism there concerning the year ahead — are a microcosm of the broader tourism sector, said Wydra, adding that a number of collaborating factors point toward what could be a special year — and a solid long-term outlook.

It starts with the All-Star Game. The game itself is on a Monday night, but there is a whole weekend’s worth of activities planned, including the ‘classic skills competition’ the night before.

“Even with the average daily rate going up and occupancy growing, we still have that need period — which is true for all of Massachusetts,” she noted. “When you have an event like the All-Star Game in January, that really helps the hotels and restaurants.”

Additional momentum is expected in May with the arrival of EASTEC, considered to be New England’s premier manufacturing exposition. The three-day event drew more than 13,000 attendees last year, many of whom patronized area restaurants and clubs, said Wydra, adding that MGM Springfield only adds to the list of entertainment and hospitality options for attendees.

The Babe Ruth World Series is another solid addition to the year’s lineup, she noted, adding that the teams coming into the area, and their parents, frequent a number of area attractions catering to families.

Analysts say MGM Springfield has a far-reaching impact on the region’s tourism sector, including higher occupancy rates at area hotels and higher room rates.

Analysts say MGM Springfield has a far-reaching impact on the region’s tourism sector, including higher occupancy rates at area hotels and higher room rates.

Meanwhile, the region continues to attract a diverse portfolio of meetings and conventions, said Alicia Szenda, director of sales for the GSCVB, adding that MGM Springfield provides another attractive selling point for the 413, which can already boast a host of amenities, accessibility, and affordable hotel rates.

In June, the National Assoc. of Watch and Clock Collectors will stage its 75th annual national convention at the Big E, she said, an event that is expected to bring 2,000 people to the region. And later in the summer, the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts will bring more than 900 people to downtown Springfield.

Those attending these conventions and the many others slated during the year now have a growing list of things to do in this region, said Wydra, who mentioned MGM, obviously, but also the revamped Hall of Fame; Six Flags, which continues to add new attractions yearly (a Cyborg ride is on tap for 2019); and the Dr. Seuss museum, which is drawing people from across the country and around the world.

“The Seuss factor is huge,” said Wydra. “It’s a big reason why visitation is up in this region. Seuss is a recognizable brand, and the museum delivers on the brand, and they keep reinventing that product.”

Staying Power

This ‘Seuss factor’ is just one of a number of powerful forces coming together to bring the outlook for tourism in this region to perhaps the highest plane it’s seen.

Pieces of the puzzle continue to fall into place, and together, they point to Western Mass. becoming a true destination.

As noted, even the ‘need period’ is looking less needy. The rest of the year? The sky’s the limit.

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

Opinion

Editorial

Looking back, 2018 was, overall, a year of progress and accumulated momentum for the Greater Springfield region. As the calendar turns, we have a short wish list for 2019:

• Continued success for MGM Springfield. Not everyone is a big fan of gambling, but everyone should want this facility to not only succeed, but continue to grow and expand its influence. Most all of the things we wanted to happen with this casino — thousands of jobs, more vibrancy downtown, a boost to the convention and meetings market, and people loading ‘Main Street, Springfield, Mass.’ into the car’s GPS — have happened, and things we didn’t want to happen — traffic jams, turmoil in the labor market, and damage to other businesses — really haven’t happened. Let’s hope this pattern continues into the new year and beyond.

• More progress with helping the unemployed and underemployed get into the game. In most all respects, the economy is solid, and individual sectors are doing well. Employers are still struggling to find good help. But the regional unemployment rate remains higher than the national average, and many are still on the sidelines when it comes to the job market because they lack the needed hard and soft skills. Several area agencies and institutions, especially the community colleges, are aggressively attacking the problem, and it is our wish that these efforts generate some real results in the year to come, because, in many sectors, the only thing holding them back is securing enough talent to get the work done.

• More work to aggressively market this region and the many good things happening here. Yes, we know that Greater Springfield has come a long way since the dark days when a receiver controlled the City of Homes and its downtown was essentially dead as a doornail. But the rest of the region and the country don’t. We could wait for the New York Times and the Boston Globe to tel the story (they might get around to it someday), but we should probably tell it ourselves through targeted marketing, as other cities (New York) and states (Michigan) have done. We don’t need a catchy phrase, but we do need to get the word out. The Economic Development Council has recognized this as a priority and we hope to see some progress made in 2019.

• Continued efforts to inspire and mentor entrepreneurs. We’ve said this many times before, but need to keep emphasizing the point. The most logical way to create jobs and revitalize individual cities and their downtowns is not by luring large companies, but by building from within, by promoting entrepreneurship and then mentoring those who go into business for themselves. Yes, it takes longer, and for every Google — and we’re probably not going to get a Google — there are hundreds of ventures that fail to take flight. But we have to keep trying to build from within. We’ve made great progress in this realm through the efforts of Valley Venture Mentors and many others, and we have to continue building on the foundation that we’ve laid.

MGM Springfield

For Starters…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

General Manager Alex Dixon didn’t have specific numbers

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

Crowd Control

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The first order of business for those at MGM Springfield

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drinking it In

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Editorial

With MGM Springfield dominating the 24-hour news cycle like nothing that came before it in local business history, it’s sometimes easy to momentarily forget about all the other positive, even transformational things going on within the local economy.

We said ‘momentarily,’ because this issue should help readers put the new casino aside for just a moment and appreciate, again, the depth and diversity of the region’s economy and all it takes to make this region as special as it is.

Specifically, we’re talking about the Healthcare Heroes for 2018. And there’s plenty to talk about.

Healthcare Heroes is a recognition program created by BusinessWest and its sister publication, the Healthcare News, and launched last year to shine a bright spotlight on a sector that is sometimes overlooked. Indeed, BusinessWest has other recognition programs — Forty Under 40 and Difference Makers — but, historically, those working within the broad realm of health and wellness have not been well-represented by those programs, making it clear that something distinct for that sector was needed.

One of the goals with Healthcare Heroes was to create a vehicle for relaying some of the many amazing stories taking place within this industry, stories that convey energy, compassion, innovation, forward thinking, and, above all, passion — for finding ways to improve quality of life for those that these people and agencies touch every day.

It was that way in 2017 with the inaugural class of Heroes, and it’s the same this year with the winners of seven carefully crafted categories. The stories are many things, but most of all, they’re inspiring, which was yet another goal of this program. Each story is different, but the common denominator is the passion brought to what they do.

That’s what Mary Paquette brings to her role as director of Health Services at American International College. She has completely transformed that service, once one of the lowest-rated in surveys of students, into one of the highest.

It’s also what Celeste Surreira, winner in the ‘administration’ category, brings to the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke every day. She’s spent most of her long career in healthcare working the emergency room, but made this dramatic career shift because it represented a chance to be on the front lines dealing with the larger issues emerging in healthcare today.

And it’s what Dr. Matthew Sadof has brought to his pediatric practice for decades now. A passionate advocate for the underserved and the marginalized, he has dedicated his career to healing patients and — through his work with the Community Asthma Coalition and other initiatives — making the Springfield community a better, healthier one.

Peter DePergola II is the Hero in the Emerging Leader category, and fittingly so. He has emerged as not only a leader but a true pioneer in the field of bioethics. There are many facets to his work, especially those incredibly hard talks he must have with patients, families, and healthcare providers about end-of-life issues.

Speaking of pioneers, that term also applies to Robert Fazzi. He likes to say he’s spent his entire career — nearly a half-century of work — in the ‘helping professions,’ culminating in his work with company, which, for 40 years, has been on the cutting edge of developments in the home-care and hospice sectors.

That phrase cutting-edge also applies to the winner in the Innovation category, TechSpring. Launched more than three years ago, this venture, in the words of its co-founder Christian Lagier, exists at the intersection of healthcare and technology, and has forged unique collaborative efforts between innovators, healthcare providers, and even patients to bring new developments to the market.

Lastly, in the category called Collaboration in Health/Wellness, a large, powerful collaboration led by the Western Mass. Training Consortium and the Opioid Task Force of Franklin County and the North Quabbin Region has been changing — and saving — lives through a host of innovative initiatives.

Together, and also individually, these stories are powerful — powerful enough to take your eyes off the new casino for a minute and understand just some of the many other awesome things taking place in this region.

Cover Story

MGM Opens

MGM Springfield will open for business on August 24, thus ending a seven-year-long effort to bring a resort casino to Springfield’s South End and beginning a new era in the city’s history. In this special section, we’ll look at what brought us to this moment and what MGM’s arrival means to a wide range of constituencies, from those now working for the company to those doing business with it. (Photography provided by Aerial 51 Studios)

• The Moment is Here

Springfield Begins a New and Intriguing Chapter in its History

• From Their Perspective

Area Civic, Business Leaders Weigh in on MGM and its Impact

• An MGM Chronology

• Hitting the Jackpot

Dozens of Area Companies Become Coveted MGM Vendors

• MGM Springfield at a Glance

• In Good Company

Area Residents Find Opportunity Knocks at MGM Springfield

• Who’s Who?

The MGM Springfield Leadership Team

MGM Springfield

The Moment Is Here

groundbreaking ceremonies

Few in attendance at the groundbreaking ceremonies three and half years ago could have imagined how Springfield’s South End would be transformed by MGM Springfield.

Back about 1,300 days or so ago, several hundred business and civic leaders and other dignitaries gathered in bright sunshine in Springfield’s South End to witness the official ground-breaking ceremonies for MGM Springfield.

Analysis

Those in attendance that day would probably struggle now to remember what that area looked like back then. Maybe not. The former Zanetti School and the old correctional facility (known as the ‘alcohol jail’ to many) on Howard Street were considerable landmarks, and it’s not difficult to conjure up remembrances of them and other structures now gone.

More to the point, it was virtually impossible for anyone there that day to stretch their imagination and conceive of the complex that occupies that site now. We had all seen the renderings, but back on that warm spring day, those architect’s drawings were a long, long way from reality.

Indeed, even though the journey began well before that day, those groundbreaking ceremonies marked the official moment, for most of us, anyway, when the $960 million MGM Springfield project became real. And even then, it didn’t actually seem real.

This was (and is) Springfield after all, and in the minds of many, something this big, something this grand, something this potentially life-altering, just wasn’t going to happen here. MGM was going to change its mind. The Legislature was going to screw things up. Something bad was going to happen.

The city hasn’t really seen anything like this probably since George Washington picked that acreage on the hill above downtown as the site of the young nation’s first arsenal — what became the Springfield Armory.

But here we are, 1,300 or so days later. It is real, and is happening, even if for some it seems surreal.

That phrase ‘history-making’ is overused these days, to the point where it doesn’t mean much anymore. The talking heads at ESPN use it almost every night to refer to some relief pitcher, hockey goalie, or field goal kicker achieving some obscure statistical milestone.

But with MGM Springfield, it fits. The city hasn’t really seen anything like this probably since George Washington picked that acreage on the hill above downtown as the site of the young nation’s first arsenal — what became the Springfield Armory. The armory, as most know, changed the course of this city and this region in all kinds of ways.

The innovation and craftsmanship that marked the Armory’s early days — and all its days, for that matter — sparked waves of related businesses and an entire business sector — precision manufacturing. Meanwhile, the solid jobs available at the Armory spurred wealth and the construction of the large, beautiful homes that gave the city its nickname.

What kind of chapter in the city’s history will MGM author?

We really don’t know. No one does.

Back 30 years or so ago, the good people of Atlantic City hailed the gambling palaces being built there then as a renaissance, a rebirth for a city that had fallen on some very hard times. We all know how that turned out.

MGM Springfield is opening at a time when competition for the gambling dollar has never been stiffer, and the pace of competition will only accelerate as states and regions look to cash in on what appears to be a sure thing.

Only … there is no such thing, as anyone who gambles can surely tell you.

And while MGM Springfield is many things to many people, it is, overall, a gamble, and people shouldn’t ever forget that. And when you gamble, you can win, you can lose, and you can break even.

A lot can happen over the next few years or the next few decades, but we choose to believe that the city and this region will see this gamble pay off.

And while MGM Springfield is many things to many people, it is, overall, a gamble, and people shouldn’t ever forget that. And when you gamble, you can win, you can lose, and you can break even.

It will pay off in jobs, in vibrancy, in a trickle-down effect to other businesses in many sectors, and above all, in making this city relevant again, something it really hasn’t been for a long time. Remember, before that ground-breaking ceremony, there hadn’t been a significant private-sector development in downtown Springfield in almost 30 years.

Not every development will be positive; some businesses will definitely be hurt by the arrival of MGM, and there will be more traffic and hassles getting in and out of the city. And there is the very real possibility that many of those coming to visit MGM will get back in their cars, buses, and limos at the end of the stay and get right back on I-91 north or south and leave Springfield behind.

But for city leaders, the state, the Gaming Commission, this region as a whole, and especially MGM, this was a gamble well worth taking. In the end, we don’t believe anyone will regret putting their chips on Springfield and letting it ride.

Those are the kinds of words that can certainly come back to haunt someone, but we don’t believe they will. This is, as they say in this business, a solid bet — for MGM and this region.

BusinessWest invited area business and civic leaders to offer their thoughts on what the arrival of MGM Springfield means for this region. Maybe Peter Rosskothen, owner of the Log Cabin and a host of other businesses, all of them to compete with MGM in one way or another, said it best: “I am excited about the excitement.”

So are we.

George O’Brien is the editor of BusinessWest.