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Cover Story

The Next Stage

The governor calls the last phase of his reopening plan the ‘new normal.’ It’s a phrase people are already tired of, even if they use it themselves. Life in the new normal isn’t like it was during the pandemic, and it isn’t like it was in 2019, either. As the stories below reveal, it’s a different time — a time everyone has been waiting for since workers packed up their things and headed home to work in March 2020. It’s a time of opportunity and a chance to recover some of what’s been lost. But there are still a number of challenges and questions to be answered, involving everything from workforce issues to when business travel will resume, to just how much pent-up demand there is for products and services.

Hall of Fame

Shrine is poised to rebound from a season of hard losses

Bradley International Airport

Facility gains altitude after pandemic-induced declines

White Lion Brewing

After a year to forget, this Springfield label is ready to roar

The Starting Gate at GreatHorse

Reopening timeline prompts excitement, but also trepidation

The Sheraton Springfield

Downtown mainstay sees new signs of life, anticipates many more

The Clark Art Institute

This Berkshires staple has exhibited patience and flexibility

The Federal Restaurant Group

At these eateries, guests will determine pace of reopening

 

 

Features

Downtown Mainstay Sees New Signs of Life, Anticipates Many More

Stacey Gravanis

Stacey Gravanis says the phones starting ringing seemingly within minutes after the governor announced the new timetable for the final stage of his reopening plan.

 

Stacey Gravanis doesn’t particularly like that phrase ‘new normal’ (and she’s certainly not alone in that opinion). She prefers ‘return to life’ to describe what’s happening at her business, the Sheraton Springfield, and the broad hospitality sector.

And that choice of phrase certainly speaks volumes about what’s been happening — or not happening, as the case may be — in the hotel industry over the past 14 months. In short, there haven’t been many signs of life, at least life as these facilities knew it before COVID-19.

“The bottom just fell out,” she said, for all categories of business for the hotel — corporate and leisure stays, events, conventions, visitors to the casino, weddings, even the business from the military and airlines (flight crews flying into Bradley staying overnight came to a screeching halt in mid-March 2020). And it would be months before any of that came back, and then it was mostly the airline and military business, said Gravanis.

“Our customers are reacting. I have said there’s not going to be this switch that flips, and the business is just going to come back. But it felt like that day, someone did flip a switch because the phones were going crazy. What we budgeted for June … we already have it on the books.”

“When it first started, we were tracking the loss on a weekly basis; we had a spread sheet that we would review,” she recalled. “And then we just stopped reviewing it, because everything, everything, canceled. Reviewing it was pointless; we were just focused on how to rebuild.”

That rebuilding process started over the last two quarters of 2020, she said, adding that, by May, occupancy reached 40%, 10% above what she actually budgeted, said Gravanis, who then provided needed perspective by noting that, in a ‘normal’ May, buffeted by college graduations and other events, occupancy reaches 90%.

She expects the numbers to continue climbing, and while she expected the timeline for fully reopening to be accelerated, and was preparing for that eventuality, the response from the public has been more immediate and more pronounced than she anticipated.

“Our customers are reacting,” she told BusinessWest. “I have said there’s not going to be this switch that flips, and the business is just going to come back. But it felt like that day, someone did flip a switch because the phones were going crazy. What we budgeted for June … we already have it on the books.”

On the other end of those phone calls have been clients across a broad spectrum, including everything from leisure travelers with newfound confidence to book rooms for this summer to those planning to participate in a recently announced three-on-three basketball tournament, to brides looking to bring more guests to weddings that were booked for this June and July.

“Some wanted to double their numbers,” she recalled. “We had a wedding for 175 people that’s now 250 people, booked for the end of June.”

The hotel can handle such developments, she said, but it requires staffing up, which is one of the question marks and challenges moving forward, said Gravanis, adding that another concerns just when — and to what extent — corporate travel, a large and important part of the portfolio at the Sheraton, returns.

“We’re seeing a slow, slow return of business travel,” she explained, adding that corporate gatherings are critical to the hotel’s success, accounting for perhaps 40% of overall group/convention business. “We have heard some encouraging news from some of our tower tenants [Monarch Place] that they will be starting to return in June. We knew it would be the last to come back.”

But will it return to pre-COVID levels?

“I feel that it will,” she said, offering a few questions, the answers to which are on the minds of everyone who relies on business travel. “Who’s not sick of being behind a screen? And are those Zoom meetings as productive as bringing everyone together and putting them in the same room?”

As for staffing, she said the Sheraton has benefited greatly from corporate direction to keep key personnel amid large-scale furloughs and layoffs, on the theory that it would be difficult to replace them. That theory certainly has validity, she said, and keeping those personnel has helped the hotel as it returns to life.

Still, the Sheraton, like most businesses in this sector, is struggling to find enough help to handle the new waves of business now arriving.

“You may have 25% of your interviews actually show up,” she said with a noticeable amount of frustration in her voice — because she handles the interviews. “The hiring crisis hasn’t really hurt us yet because we have such talented managers, and every employee who works for us can work in multiple disciplines — they’re all cross-trained; our front-desk people can also drive a shuttle and jump into laundry. That said, we’re struggling just like everyone else.”

She remains optimistic, though, that these struggles won’t interfere with this downtown landmark’s long-awaited return to life.

 

—George O’Brien

Opinion

Editorial

The light at the tunnel that we’ve all been waiting for is essentially here.

Gov. Charlie Baker’s announcement last week that he was eliminating virtually all COVID-19 restrictions on May 29, in time for Memorial Day weekend, puts Massachusetts in the final stage of the reopening plan he announced almost exactly a year ago, which he dubbed the ‘new normal.’

But while this announcement is certainly cause for celebration and optimism, the local business community is, in many ways, still in the tunnel. COVID is not to be referred to in the past tense yet, and there are still a number of challenges to overcome, including some new ones.

Indeed, as the story on page 10 reveals, the governor’s announcement brings some anxiety to go along with the joy and relief that most business owners are certainly feeling. That anxiety comes in many forms, from finding adequate supplies of good help (a challenge confronting those in virtually every sector of the economy) to tackling the daunting task of bringing employees back to the office, to dealing with loosened restrictions on masks, which are causing confusion and considerable doubt when it comes to the ‘honor system.’

In many ways, as welcome as the governor’s announcement was and is, it’s a fact that many businesses are simply not ready to turn back the clock to the fall of 2019, when the world had never heard that word COVID.

What makes things even more complicated is that no one knows just how ready the consuming public is to turn back the clock and pick up where things left off 15 months ago. It’s safe to say it might take a little time for both constituencies to feel comfortable within the realm of the new normal.

Here’s what we do know: this region’s business community has shown remarkable resilience since the pandemic arrived in this region. We’re all tired of hearing and uttering that word ‘pivot,’ but that’s exactly what business owners and managers did, whether they’re in hospitality, manufacturing, financial services, healthcare, or any other sector.

The new normal means pivoting again. In some cases, it will actually mean simply returning to how things were in late 2019, and that can be challenging enough given the abundance of ‘help wanted’ and ‘we’re hiring: $250 sign-on bonus’ signs we’re seeing in ever-increasing numbers, as well as the skyrocketing price increases involving everything from food products to lumber to gasoline (see story on page 6).

For most businesses, though, things won’t ever be just as they were before COVID. They’ve learned new and, in many instances, better ways of doing things — out of necessity. Meanwhile, many employees will continue to work remotely, changing, perhaps forever, the dynamic of the modern office.

As we said, the region’s business community will have to pivot once again. Based on how well it did the past 14 months, we believe it will adjust quite well to the new normal. We’re not out of the tunnel yet, but the light is very, very close.

Autos Special Coverage

Driving Forces

 

Rob Pion was walking outside at his family’s Buick/GMC dealership on Memorial Avenue in Chicopee, and used the view to put things in perspective for this industry as a trying, but not altogether terrible, year comes to an end.

“That’s basically the new-car inventory,” he said, pointing to a long single line of cars along the front of the property, noting that he was exaggerating, but only slightly.

Indeed, inventory remains an issue for almost all dealers in this region as manufacturers struggle to catch up after weeks, if not months, of shutdown at the factories. And matters are worse for GM dealers, said Pion, the third-generation principal of this venture, because of the lengthy strike at that corporation in 2019.

But aside from supplies of new cars — and things are getting slightly better on that front as well, as we’ll hear — the picture is brightening somewhat for auto dealers, and a sense of normal is returning, at least in some respects.

Or a new normal, if you will.

Indeed, Pion said the pandemic has effectively served to speed up the pace of change within the auto industry when it comes to doing things remotely and moving away from those traditional visits to the dealership to look at models, kick the tires, and even drop off the car for service.

Rob Pion

Rob Pion says inventory remains an issue at his dealership, and it will likely remain that way into the new year.

“There are experts out there saying that we moved forward 10 years in three months when it comes to internet purchasing, out-of-state deliveries, and people doing 98% of the deal over the phone or the internet,” he told BusinessWest. “And that sounds about right.”

Carla Cosenzi, president of TommyCar Auto Group, which operates four dealerships (Volkswagen, Nissan, Hyundai, and Volvo), agreed. She said the pandemic has certainly made online buying, as well as vehicle pickup and dropoff for needed service, more popular, and these trends will have staying power, especially as the number of COVID-19 cases rises again.

And while it was a somewhat tumultuous year, especially when it came to inventories of both new and used cars (and the prices of the latter), it wasn’t really a bad year for many dealerships — and certainly not as bad as things as things looked in March and April, when some dealerships actually closed and all others were seeing business come to something approaching a standstill.

“We’re actually on track for what our plan was 2020, even with what happened in March, April, and May,” said Peter Wirth, co-owner with his wife, Michelle, of Mercedes-Benz of Springfield, quickly noting a few caveats to that assessment. “Some things moved around a little — more used cars and fewer used cars based on supplies — but overall, as I said, we’re on track for where we wanted to be as a dealership.”

Cosenzi concurred. “Given the circumstances and what happened, we feel really good about how we finished in 2020,” she said. “When you look back to how everyone was feeling in March, we feel really appreciative of how we finished the year.”

‘Normal’ also applies, to some extent, to end-of-year, holiday-season sales, said those we spoke with, adding quickly that smaller inventories will certainly limit how many cars, trucks, and SUVs will be sold, including to businesses looking for tax incentives — although demand is certainly there.

But those end-of-year sales, such as Mercedes’ annual Winter Event, are happening, and they are bringing customers to the ‘dealership,’ literally or figuratively.

“It’s like a cherished piece of normalcy,” said Wirth. “People see that the Winter Event is happening, that the deals are out there. I feel like both our customers and our team are enjoying the fact that there’s a normal, busy holiday-selling season — so far, at least.”

He made that statement toward the middle of December, and that tone reflects a degree of uncertainty that still prevails in this industry and most all others as well.

Peter and Michelle Wirth

Peter and Michelle Wirth say their Mercedes-Benz dealership managed to hit most of the set goals for 2020 despite the pandemic.

Indeed, while it’s easy to reflect on 2020, projecting what will happen in 2021 is much more difficult, said those we spoke with. Generally, there is optimism — or guarded optimism, which is the popular phrase at this time of year, and this time in history especially — but still some concern.

Overall, those we spoke with said trends and sentiments that took hold in 2020 — from less reliance on public transportation and services like Uber and Lyft (fueled by pandemic fears) to people gaining more comfort from (while also putting more resources into) their vehicles — should continue in 2021, and that bodes well for the year ahead.

But, as this year clearly showed, things can change — and in the time it takes for one of these new models to go from 0 to 60.

 

Changing Gears

Looking back on 2020, the dealers we spoke with said it was a trying year in many respects, and, overall, a time of adjustment — for both those selling cars and buying them — because of the pandemic.

Many of those adjustments involved the purchase or leasing process, with much of it, as noted, moving online. But the pandemic also forced most car manufacturers to shut down for weeks or months, eventually leading to those half-full (if that) lots at the dealership that became one of the enduring, and very visible, symbols of the pandemic.

Thus, instead of going to the lot and picking out what they wanted, as they had become accustomed to doing for years, many more customers had to factory-order their vehicle and wait, usually several weeks, for it to arrive. This meant extending leases in some cases, said Wirth, adding that the factory-ordering process took longer, in general. Overall, he noted, customers and his dealership adjusted, and there wasn’t a significant loss of business.

“Given the circumstances and what happened, we feel really good about how we finished in 2020. When you look back to how everyone was feeling in March, we feel really appreciative of how we finished the year.”

That’s because demand was consistently high, for a number of reasons, starting with some pandemic-fueled reliance on the family cars — yes, even as people were driving less, and considerably less in some cases — and a greater desire to take care of that car or trade up, something made more feasible and attractive by everything from incentives from the manufacturers to stimulus checks from the federal government, to the fact that people weren’t spending money on vacations or many other things.

Indeed, Michelle Wirth said 2020 was a year of greater appreciation for the car, and a time when many chose to focus on, and put money in, their homes, their cars, or both.

“There was a point in time during all this when your vehicle was probably the only recommended mode of transportation available to you,” she explained. “And if you chose, for whatever reason, not to have a car for a long time, suddenly, you felt you needed one.

“And if you had one, and it wasn’t as safe or new or nice as you might like, you did something about that,” she went on. “It was the same with home improvement — people were looking around and saying, ‘I didn’t spend much time here before. Now I do; I need to do something.’ The same with their car.”

Cosenzi agreed. “We saw many people reallocating their household budget,” she said. “We saw the majority of the people who shop our brands put their money in their houses and their vehicles, and also feel more like they had to rely on their vehicles, now more than ever.”

Elaborating, she said — and others did as well — that this sentiment applies to both service (taking better care of the car currently in the driveway) and buying or leasing something new or newer, more reliable, and in some cases lighter on the monthly budget.

Indeed, some manufacturers have been offering unprecedented incentives — Cosenzi noted that at least one brand is offering no interest for 84 months — and many of those still employed and with stimulus checks in hand soon eyed new or used cars as rock-solid investments.

“People were saying, ‘I can upgrade my car and get a lower interest rate; I can have a newer car that’s under warranty; I can pay less in interest in the long run and maybe lower my payment,’” she explained. “There are a lot of people who weren’t working or nervous about not working, that were taking advantage of the stimulus and really took that to make decisions about how to allocate their income.”

The problem is that supplies haven’t been able to keep up with demand — for most of this year and on most lots, anyway.

 

Keep On Truckin’

Which brings us all the way to back to Rob Pion pointing at that single line of new cars at his dealership. He said inventories have been consistently low and are due to remain that way. And when vehicles do arrive on the lot, they’re either already spoken for or not on the lot for long, especially when it comes to trucks, the pride of the GM line.

“We’re preselling vehicles at an unprecedented rate — the vehicles are sold before they hit my lot,” he explained. “Typically, people just want to come in and see them: ‘give me a call when it gets here.’ Now, they’re ‘here’s my deposit, call me when I can pick it up.’

“I don’t have any pickup truck inventory,” he went on. “So any businesses looking to make those year-end purchases for tax writeoffs … that’s just not happening this year because there’s little or no availability for them when it comes to that type of vehicle.”

Still, overall, dealers are reporting that the parking lots are more full than they have been.

Peter Wirth said supplies have been steadily improving at Mercedes-Benz, and in the meantime, between the stock at the Chicopee location and a sister dealership in New York, most customers have been able to find what they’re looking for or factory-order it.

Cosenzi, meanwhile, said inventory levels have “balanced out” at her dealerships, and there are now adequate supplies for what she hopes will be a solid end-of-year run.

As for what has been a crazy year for the used-car market, where at times vehicles were difficult if not impossible to find and prices skyrocketed, some normalcy is returning to that realm as well.

“As quickly as it went up, the market is perhaps just as quickly coming back down,” said Pion, adding that, overall, it’s been ultra-challenging for dealers to not only get used cars but cope with the fluctuations in that market — from when the bottom dropped out back in the spring to when prices soared during the summer, to the state of relative uncertainty that exists now.

Peter Wirth agreed that it’s been a bumpy road when it comes to used cars — for a time, he had one employee who did nothing else but try to find vehicles to buy — but said some stability has returned.

“We have roughly 75 used cars in stock,” he noted. “It took us a while to catch up on inventory, just because sales were really good on pre-owned cars all year, so while we kept buying more cars, we sold them right away. It’s taken us until now to find more cars so we replenish supplies. And it’s not just about buying cars — you want be selective and find the right cars.”

Looking ahead … well, while people can do that, it’s difficult given how many unknowns dominate the conversation, regarding everything from pandemic spikes to vaccines to new- and used-car inventories.

“The vaccine is a positive, people not wanting to depend on public transportation or ride-sharing is a positive, and the incentives and low interest rates are positives,” Cosenzi said. “But we can’t be in denial that there is still a virus out there and people are being more cautious than ever before.”

But while question marks remain for the year ahead, the consensus is that 2020 was, overall, not as bad as it could have been, and that a sense of normal — if perhaps a new normal — has returned.

 

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

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